On May 31st, the people of Somaliland went to the polls to participate in long-delayed parliamentary and municipal elections. The largely autonomous region in the north of Somalia, which had a different colonial history from the rest of the country and declared its independence in 1991, is building an impressive history of credible elections and peaceful transfers of power. While Somalilanders were peacefully making their will clear at the ballot box, giving opposition parties control of Somaliland’s parliament, citizens in the rest of Somalia continued coping with a government that provides little in the way of security or services, depends on African Union peacekeepers and international aid, and too often cannot seem to agree on even the most basic parameters of its political system.
It’s not as if Somaliland was destined to be a regional democratic champion. While it is true that British colonizers’ indirect rule left local leadership more intact than Italians did in Somalia, plenty of factors work against Somaliland’s success. It is extremely poor, but has made some hard-won development gains. It carries a legacy of trauma from the brutality of the Siad Barre regime, yet historical grievance is not at the heart of its national vision. Its clan and sub-clan dynamics are not as complex as those to the south, but they are by no means uncomplicated. It has less capacity to engage other states or international financial institutions than its neighbors because the world does not recognize its independence, yet it forges ahead with plans to improve infrastructure, provide jobs to its youthful population, and hold its leaders accountable at the ballot box.
Somaliland is not perfect; no place on earth is. But in the midst of regional crisis and global democratic backsliding, Somaliland’s achievements and dogged commitment to its principles deserve more notice. Somaliland stands as a rebuke to those who claim that authoritarianism is simply the required price of stability in the region, or that democratic principles are a fetish of foreigners with no real traction on the ground. Its successes should also prompt policymakers abroad, currently fixated on the Horn of Africa’s multiple crises, to rethink what is possible in the region. Somaliland’s example suggests that the answer may be vastly more ambitious, and far less sensitive to external influence, than conventional wisdom might suggest.