The July 11 bombings in Uganda carried out by the al Qaeda-linked group al Shabaab exposed the global terror threat emerging in the Horn of Africa – a region also plagued by destitution and authoritarian rule. This week, however, about 3.5 million people in the region will celebrate a remarkable victory for democracy. The government of a Muslim population just north of the territory controlled by al Shabaab will experience a peaceful transfer of power between opposing political parties one month after a free and fair presidential election. The government conducted the multi-party election by its own initiative and with limited external assistance or pressure. The feat, which has so far received little attention in the West, reaffirms the idea that democracy can take root in cultures of any religious and socio-economic background, and it occurs at a time when U.S. foreign policy has shied away from promoting democratic allies in strategic parts of the world.
This democratic success story takes place in Somaliland, which borders a country to the south that is overwhelmingly controlled by terrorists (Somalia), sits 150 miles across the Gulf of Aden from one of al Qaeda’s stronger safe-havens (Yemen), is roughly 70 miles south of one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terror (Eritrea), and is separated by only one country from the site of a recent genocide (Sudan).
Somaliland’s nascent democracy features a bicameral parliament and an independent executive branch, as stipulated by a constitution that its people approved through a national referendum in May 2001. A mere 80 votes separated the victor from the runner-up in Somaliland’s 2003 presidential election, yet the miniscule margin of victory – rare in a region where incumbents generally expect to win 99 percent of the vote (as happened in Ethiopia’s May parliamentary elections) – generated no internal violence.
This year’s presidential election witnessed an opposition candidate defeat the incumbent by 16 percentage points. Somaliland’s independent National Electoral Commission, a seven-member body that must include at least two members nominated by the opposition parties, has asked the public to support the new leadership, and the outgoing president accepted defeat without a challenge. Somaliland’s citizens have refrained from engaging in any form of political violence in the month since the election (compare that to the 1,500 people killed in Kenya following elections in 2007).
Hundreds of thousands of Somaliland’s 1.06 million registered voters (men and women age 16 and older) rejected threats of terror and defied radical Islamist ideology to cast their votes. The leader of al Shabaab described democratic elections as “the devil’s principles” and called on the people of Somaliland to oppose the election in an audio-recording released just two days prior to the vote. An internal U.N. report warned of the risk of suicide bombers targeting the election, and Somaliland’s security and intelligence forces arrested several suspected terrorists in the weeks leading up to the poll. The terrorists were kept at bay, however, allowing Somalilanders to express their will in a vote that the International Republican Institute’s robust team of observers deemed “peaceful, without major incident, and generally [in accordance with] international standards.”
The people of Somaliland, whose flag displays the same Islamic shahaada (i.e. “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah”) as the flag of Saudi Arabia, demonstrated that democracy can be welcomed and embraced by Muslim populations and in regions historically beset by terror, violence, poverty, and corruption. The example Somalilanders set by their own volition should serve as an inspiration to oppressed populations around the world and be applauded by the United States.
The U.S. government issued a cautious and inconspicuous response to the improbable story of Somaliland’s successful election shortly after official results were announced. The U.S. embassy in Kenya released a statement only to local media outlets congratulating Somaliland on its election proceedings, but it never made the statement publically available on its website. The State Department spokespeople in Washington, who have issued statements this year praising successful elections in Ukraine and Chile, have remained completely silent on the issue, as has the White House.
Perhaps this meager response should come as no surprise: not a single government in the world has officially recognized Somaliland since it declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 following the collapse of the oppressive Siad Barre regime. The contrast between Somalia and Somaliland, however, could not be more conspicuous. Somalia has gone from a failed state to a land overrun with international terrorists who have imposed a draconian form of Islamic law on the Somali people. Somaliland, on the other hand, has now held four national elections, maintained relative peace and stability, boasts a security force that has denied terrorists a safe-haven, and operates a minimally-resourced coast guard that still manages to arrest dozens of pirates off its shores.
Recognizing a self-declared state is an extremely complicated process that must consider a multitude of factors, including the effect it would have on regional actors (both allies and adversaries), the precedent it would set for recognizing other self-declared states, and the impact it would have on existing treaties and agreements. A successful election and peaceful transfer of power cannot and should not automatically result in America’s recognition of Somaliland as an independent state, but the United States should at least begin to evaluate the merits of having a democratic ally in such a strategically important region of the world. Moreover, the U.S. cannot afford to miss yet another opportunity to support a Muslim population that has rejected terror and authoritarian rule in favor of democracy. Praising the democratic developments in Somaliland would inspire and motivate democracy advocates and dissidents in Iran, Egypt, Sudan, and other oppressed Muslim populations.
Somaliland’s election and peaceful transfer of power illuminates a beacon of hope in a part of the world that poses a growing and legitimate security threat to the United States and allies such as Uganda. Democratic partners that work to uphold the rule of law and stand up to terrorists are a rarity in the greater Middle East and Africa. The time has come for the United States to start examining whether or not Somaliland may be a partner worth recognizing and embracing.
Chris Harnisch is an analyst and the Gulf of Aden team leader for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. He has briefed members of Congress and the Senate on Yemen and Somalia, and he has published articles on the Islamist threat in those countries in numerous publications. Prior to joining AEI, Chris served on the staff of Vice President Dick Cheney. Chris has lived and studied in Yemen and Egypt.