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Somaliland is clamping down on opposition and wrecking democracy




Somaliland, a break-away region in northwest Somalia, once described as a beacon of democracy in the Horn of Africa region, holding six presidential elections since it declared independent from Somalia, is slowly killing its democracy.

Authorities started undermining democracy, clamping down on opposition parties, arresting journalists and closing down media outlets, a move that is likely to escalate political tensions and create barriers in its pursuit of international recognition.

Khadar Abdi, the secretary-general of Waddani, Somaliland’s main opposition party, and Barkhad Jama, the party’s spokesman, were arrested on Sunday (November 17) after announcing intention to hold demonstrations against the government in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, over delayed parliamentary elections. Saleban Said Ali, the party’s chairperson in Sahil region was also detained on Monday.

Abdirahman Irro, the Waddani party chairman, called for more demonstrations, and asked his supporters to turn up in large numbers. And on Monday, party supporters poured into the streets, demanding the release of their officials. Some protesters were injured, reports claiming police used live bullets. On Tuesday, the government withdrew security details for Irro.

The police termed the demonstrations ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ and sealed off Waddani headquarters and barricaded roads to prevent supporters from accessing it.

Wadani is protesting against a delay in parliamentary elections and the composition of the electoral commission. Irro accuses President Muse Bihi of appointing his cronies to the commission. Last week, Parliament approved six of the seven members, Waddani withdrawing its candidate. Irro and his party are also opposed to a deal the administration made with the United Arab Emirates to construct a military base in the port city of Berbera.

The electoral commission said it is unable to hold a parliamentary election which was schedule in November of this year, after several years of delay, citing technical, political and legal challenges.

Despite holding regular presidential elections, Somaliland, with a population of around 3.5m people, had its last parliamentary polls in 2005. Political parties disagree over the membership of the electoral commission, one of the reasons that led to one of the main political parties to go to the streets. Irro’s party is threatening to suspend cooperation with the electoral body.

The electoral commission now postponed the election to 2020 without giving an exact date.

Somaliland’s parliament has two chambers; the House of Representative which has 82 elected members and the House of Elders (Gurit) which is not elected, comprising of clan elders.

The House of Representatives has to approve a draft electoral law before the next election. Members may be delaying to do that to remain in office for long.

Political parties must reach consensus and the concerns of Waddani must be heard and addressed. Opposition parties have the right to protest, and the government and the National Electoral Commission must prioritise holding the parliamentary polls and the Gurti should not extend the term of the Lower House any longer.

Somaliland’s democratic process should not be put on hold. Further extension will cause constitutional crisis and can lead to violence and deepen political competition among the three dominant Isaaq clans.

Elections alone do not make a democracy. Governments anywhere must respect the freedom of press and the free flow of cameras. In Somaliland, illegal arrests, detention of journalists and closing down of media outlets are common. The government has shut down a number of media houses and detained journalists for what the government called ‘national security’ and is clamping down on dissenting voices.

This week, the ministry of information closed down Horn Cable TV, and police arrested a senior editor.

This year, authorities there blocked Hadhwanaag news website and jailed two of its journalists, shut down two TV stations, and arrested five TV journalists. In July, a TV journalist was detained for covering a corruption story. In September and October, many journalists were arrested.

As it seeks to get international recognition it desperately needs, Somaliland must stop intimidating, harassing journalists.

Oppressing opposition parties and depriving the media of its rights will be a barrier to its goal of becoming a recognised country.

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