High Stakes for Somaliland’s Presidential Election

The 2017 presidential election

Background to Somaliland’s political system
Somaliland occupies an ambiguous position on the international stage. For the past 26 years it has been a self-declared independent nation replete with effective governing structures, yet has not received recognition from any other nation.1 This lack of international recognition complicates many aspects of its political and security situation, most notably its relationship with the internationally recognised Somali Federal Government (SFG) in Mogadishu, which still lays claim to the territory.

Given that President ‘Silanyo’ is not standing for re-election, the contest will result in fresh leadership

Somaliland’s history has engendered a unique political system incorporating traditional leadership aspects with modern constructs. Parliament consists of two houses – a Lower House (House of Representatives) of 82 elected parliamentarians, and an Upper House or Guurti of 82 clan elders, originally appointed during clan conferences in 1993 and 1997.
The Guurti institutionalises traditional governance dynamics and the clan system in the Somaliland arena, giving rise to its hybrid nature. The Guurti, discussed in more detail below, has played an important role in Somaliland’s history, settling disputes on the basis of consensus and serving as a neutral arbiter.

Outgoing President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud, more popularly known as ‘Silanyo’, currently leads the executive. His Kulmiye party won the 2010 elections, defeating incumbent Dahir Rayale Kahin of the United Democratic People’s Party (UDUB). That election, combined with Silanyo’s acceptance of defeat to Rayale by a mere 80 votes during the 2003 contest, solidified Somaliland’s democratic credentials, and contributed to its tradition of peaceful transfers of power.

The Somaliland constitution, overwhelmingly approved via popular referendum in 2001, allows for only three political parties to exist. Qualified political organisations compete in local council elections, with the top three transitioning to become political parties.3 The last local council elections occurred in 2012, with the ruling Kulmiye party retaining its status alongside the Justice and Welfare Party (UCID) and newcomer Waddani. These are consequently the three parties contesting the 2017 presidential elections.
Electoral delays Somaliland’s political history is filled with missed deadlines. Nonetheless five different elections and one referendum have occurred since 2001, an impressive democratic record unparalleled in its neighbourhood.

The November 2017 presidential elections were originally scheduled for June 2015, following the end of Silanyo’s five-year mandate. In March 2015, Somaliland’s National Electoral Commission (NEC) announced a nine-month poll delay based on technical considerations, including a lack of time to complete voter registration and scarce election funding.4 The NEC submitted the delay request to the president for review, and subsequent approval by the Guurti.

The November 2017 presidential elections were originally scheduled for June 2015

At the same time, some members of the ruling party broke with Silanyo and called for the outstanding parliamentary elections to be held concurrently with the presidential contest. This was influenced by concerns that Silanyo sought to hold parliamentary elections first, delaying the presidential contest until later.5 Based on this, the Lower House issued a resolution in 2015 calling for the elections to be combined. A Guurti ruling on 14 May 2015, however, extended the mandate of the executive by nearly two years, well beyond the NEC’s nine-month proposal. Article 83 of Somaliland’s constitution gives the Guurti the power to extend the term of the executive due to security considerations, and the controversial decision was justified by invoking the situation in Somaliland’s east, among other concerns. Nonetheless, many viewed the Guurti as partial in this respect, and bending to the will of the executive.
The opposition Waddani party argued that the NEC’s original proposal should be respected, while President Silanyo requested the Constitutional Court’s intervention. On 18 August 2015, the court ruled in favour of the Guurti’s decision, extending Silanyo’s mandate until March 2017. The ruling also called for the parliamentary elections to be held concurrently. Grudgingly, the opposition accepted the decision

All of Somaliland’s elected national figures have overstayed their constitutionally mandated term limits

In January 2017, two months before the poll was scheduled, the election was delayed a further six months. This time the NEC was technically prepared to hold the elections on time. But the three political parties agreed to postpone the contest given the ongoing drought conditions in Somaliland’s east,
which had led to much displacement and would thus complicate voter card distribution.8 The Supreme Court confirmed the need for ratification by the Guurti, which determined that the election would be held after a slightly longer delay than the political parties had agreed to. But the Guurti decision also mandated a distinct process for parliamentary elections.10 This gave legal weight to a presidential decree from Silanyo in September 2016 that split the parliamentary elections to allow for more time to enact reforms that would provide under-represented regions a greater voice in Parliament.11 The decision of the Guurti did not justify why the parliamentary elections were further delayed, but the ruling extended the Guurti’s tenure in power, a decision ostensibly in the interests of its members. Additionally, others noted it was necessary to have a government in place while the parliamentary elections were held.12
In March 2017, the NEC established 13 November 2017 as the new presidential poll date. At the same time, the timeline for elections for the Lower House was set at 29 April 2019, and for the Guurti 28 April 2020. In this sense, all of Somaliland’s elected national figures have overstayed their constitutionally mandated term limits. Silanyo’s administration will end two and a half years behind schedule, while the last election for the Lower House took place in 2005, meaning that its members will have served 14 years between elections. In addition, members of the Guurti have not undergone a selection process since 1997, a span of more than 20 years


Donor Reaction

The consistent poll delays have sparked criticism externally, with international donors taking a strong stand against what had been considered a beacon of democracy in an undemocratic region. A joint statement in September 2016 urged against further delays, criticized the decision to separate the parliamentary elections and warned that international funding for the polls would not be possible given the new time frames.13 A further statement in January 2017 advocated against the drought-induced delay, and advised that the patience of the international community was wearing thin.14 Due to the delays, donors were reluctant to fund the upcoming voter card distribution. Nonetheless, Somaliland shook off the criticism, and moved forward to complete the process amid reduced external support. In past elections, donors funded 75% of costs, leaving 25% for Somaliland. The total budget for the 2017 polls was $10 617 500, with Somaliland’s share increasing to 35%.15 Nonetheless, the government transferred $2 million to the NEC in July, following two other payments for a total of $5.2 million, probably a higher share given the need to make up for reduced external support

Voter registration and card distribution

Somaliland overhauled its voter registration record and system for the upcoming polls. The 2010 presidential contest relied on a voter registration conducted in 2008- 9, which proved problematic. That process, which used fingerprint records and facial recognition as a basis for registration, was riddled with inconsistencies to the point where the registration was discarded afterwards. Full review undertaken by Electoral Reform International Services (ERIS) concluded that, ‘The biometric data collected during the registration was not good enough to allow the biometric filters to detect the duplicates, leaving a large number on the register.’ In November 2011, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to nullify the 2008 Voter Registration Law and throw out the voter list that had been used in the 2010 presidential elections. The 2012 local elections were not preceded by a new registration process, and thus similarly suffered from irregularities, especially in terms of multiple voting. The nullification of the voter registration negatively affected the credibility of those elections, and a report from the international observer mission concluded that they could not be considered free and fair due to the prevalence of irregularities. The report also recommended that a new voter registration be undertaken before the next election.
Determined to avoid similar problems, a new NEC leadership was inaugurated in December 2014.22 Their main task was to undertake a countrywide voter registration that would build the confidence of the electoral stakeholders and prevent fraud. In June 2014, the NEC conducted a field test of a new iris-
capture biometric voter registration system, to determine its suitability to the Somaliland context, a first for Africa. Passing the test, voter registration via the iris scanner began on 16 January 2016, and was concluded on 26 September 2016. Twenty-one of the 23 districts across Somaliland’s six regions were covered, with some areas of the east inaccessible.

The process seemingly worked well, eliminating the problem of multiple registration. The iris system was championed for being a stronger recognition process than relying on fingerprints, and all three political parties expressed confidence in its application.25 Abdifatah Ibrahim Warsame, a member of the NEC, noted, ‘The technical process of the voter registration was very credible, transparent and is trusted by all key political actors

Somaliland overhauled its voter registration record and system for the upcoming polls

In a survey conducted by the APD, more than 84% considered the voter registration to be credible and positive.27 This has played into favorable reviews of the NEC’s performance, considered by national and international stakeholders to be a competent, efficient and most importantly neutral actor.

Total registration came to 873 331, down from the 1 069 914 who voted in 2010, an indication that the
safeguards against multiple registration were working. Nonetheless, some youth reportedly expressed skepticism regarding the new system, centering around concerns that personal data would be captured and sent off to European countries, hindering future migration prospects. Some low voter registration among youth may be explained by this fear, but the NEC assured that this was a minor complication.
Voter card distribution followed the conclusion of the registration, occurring in shifts starting on 29 April 2017 in the Awdal and Sahil regions, and concluding in Sool and Sanaag on 3 September 2017. Registered voters had five days to visit their local polling stations to pick up their cards, or another two weeks to make it to their district headquarters; those who missed the deadline will not participate in November. Approximately 80% of registered voters picked up their cards.

Overall, the process for both voter registration and card distribution proceeded smoothly, and there is a high degree of confidence that the level of electoral manipulation or irregularity come election day will be minimal


For reasons discussed below, the 2017 presidential elections carry high stakes for Somaliland. While the three political parties are taking part, the contest essentially boils down to the ruling Kulmiye versus the opposition Waddani, with UCID probably coming a distant third. The official campaign period will begin on 21 October, and run up to two days before the election on 13 November


Muse Bihi Abdi is the candidate for the Kulmiye party, securing the nomination in 2015 amid an internal debate regarding Silanyo’s successor. Bihi served in Somalia’s air force under Siad Barre, and was a Somali National Movement (SNM) commanding officer during the armed struggle in the 1980s. He also led the post- war demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation of ex-combatants while serving as interior minister in the 1990s. Nonetheless, his selection proved problematic, with several key figures leaving the Kulmiye party in opposition to Bihi’s candidacy

The process for both voter registration and card distribution proceeded smoothly

Bihi was challenged by the former finance and foreign affairs ministers Abdiaziz Mohamed Samale and Mohamed Bihi Yonis, both of whom come from the same clan constituency as Bihi. These two ministers received political support from former presidency minister Hirsi Ali Hassan, who was at the time considered the most influential cabinet member in the Silanyo government. The three formed a political alliance to remove Bihi from the chairmanship of Kulmiye, and challenge the party’s candidacy selection. Bihi in turn negotiated with the business elite and his own clan constituency, in addition to the presidency. He won the support of Silanyo and influential family members like Silanyo’s son-in-law and Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Bashe Omar, and First Lady Amina Jirde. When Silanyo declared his support for Bihi’s candidacy, those who had challenged him resigned. Many later joined the Waddani party after months of negotiation, although only Hirsi secured a key position as party leader.
Kulmiye also retains support from some influential Somaliland businessmen who hail from Silanyo’s Habar Jeclo sub-clan, and Bihi’s Habar Awal clan


The chairman of the Waddani party, Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi, known as Irro, is the party’s contestant. Irro served as Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament for 12 years until he resigned in August 2017, in order to facilitate his presidential campaign. Irro had previously been close to the chair of the UCID party, Faysal Ali Warabe, as the two knew each other while living abroad in Finland. A dispute over leadership of the party in 2011 facilitated Irro’s departure and the creation of Waddani, leading to bad blood between the two former allies


Warabe serves as the long-time leader of the UCID party, projected to finish third. Having been an opposition leader since the early 2000s, he previously ran for president in 2003 and 2010, placing third both times. Warabe maintains tight control over the party, evidenced by the departure of Irro and other members to form Waddani. A social democrat, he differs from other candidates in advocating for a welfare state in Somaliland.41 He is also staunchly anti-tribalist and populist, a position no doubt based on the fact that his Idigale clan is one of the smaller Isaaq sub-clans compared with the Habar Awal, Habar Jeclo and Habar Yunis, and thus needs to draw outside support for any realistic chance of victory

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Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed here are those of the author/authors and do not reflect views of Somaliland Intellectuals Institute (SII) and/or its sponsors or partners. SII reserves the right to edit articles before publication. To consider publishing your opinion piece or analysis please email to webmaster@somalilandintellectualsinstitute.org November 1, 2017