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Tensions Rising in Somaliland Ahead of Vote

Escalating tensions ahead of a presidential vote in the self-declared republic of Somaliland are raising fears that a prolonged political crisis may give the al-Qaida-linked Somali militant group, al-Shabab, the opportunity to spread its extremist ideology.

The associate professor of religious studies and Arabic at the University of South Africa, Iqbal Jhazbhay, says political bickering between the government and opposition parties in Somaliland is threatening to derail much-delayed elections there, scheduled for September 27.

Jhazbhay says the feud must be resolved quickly before it inflicts irreparable damage on the breakaway territory's democratic system.

"There is no doubt that this is a defining moment," he said. "This polarization could pose a threat to peace and security in the sense that it would polarize the populace, lead to possibly things spilling out of control, the possibility of extreme Islamic elements like al-Shabab seeing this as an opportunity to advance their agenda."

At the center of Somaliland's brewing crisis is the question of whether the territory can hold an election without a voter registration list.

A U.N.-partnered organization called Interpeace had been helping the government of incumbent President Dahir Riyale with the voter registration process, and was planning to monitor the election.

But last week, the government expelled the head of Interpeace from Somaliland, accusing the organization of, among other things, illegally sharing voter information with officials of Somaliland's two main opposition groups, Kulmiye and UCID.

Interpeace has denied any wrongdoing. But it acknowledged that the voter registration system was, in its words, seriously abused while being implemented. Some government supporters have charged that multiple registrations in favor of opposition parties had taken place in several districts.

Somaliland's National Election Commission ruled that the presidential election could proceed without the voter registration list, and the president quickly endorsed the ruling. Kulmiye and UCID said the decision to abandon the list is tantamount to high treason. Opposition members of parliament are now said to be preparing a motion to impeach President Riyale.

Professor Jhazbhay says he fears if a compromise cannot be reached soon, the feud may cause some Somalilanders to become disillusioned with democracy, and he fears that could strengthen the hand of al-Shabab extremists. Al-Shabab, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, is currently battling to overthrow a U.N.-backed government in the Somali capital Mogadishu, and has vowed to fight until all of Somalia is united under an ultra-conservative Islamic caliphate.

"In the case of Somaliland, they have tried to shape an agenda and a discourse saying that advancing democracy is a Western exercise, where countries like Somaliland end up being led and following an American agenda," he said. "It is an attempt to mobilize people and alienate them from what is clearly a home-grown democracy of Somali customary laws and Islamic law."

Top al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane hails from the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa. Godane is suspected of ordering the deadly suicide attacks in Hargeisa last October at a U.N. compound, the Ethiopian consulate, and the presidential palace.

Somaliland's current president, Dahir Riyale, was peacefully elected to his first five-year term in 2003, and, until recently, the territory was held up as an example of what the rest of Somalia could achieve through democratic reforms and good governance.

But the presidential vote that should have taken place in August 2008 has been postponed several times. The delay has raised concern from key allies, such as the United States and the European Union, about Somaliland's commitment to democracy.

In recent years, Somaliland has been closely cooperating with the West in combating terrorism and piracy, in exchange for the international diplomatic recognition it has sought since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991.