Decentralized Governance in Somaliland:

Observations from the WSP Perspective

Matt Bryden

WSP/Somaliland Centre for Peace and Development

Paper for Presentation at the

Second Reconstruction Strategies Conference

Hargeysa, Somaliland

(21-25 July 2000)

On May 18, 2000, Somaliland celebrated the 9th anniversary of its independence from Somalia and, indeed, the people of Somaliland have much to celebrate: in contrast with much of southern Somalia, Somaliland has established a stable peace, a functional administration, a reasonably representative government, and a climate for economic growth. Tens of thousands of mines and unexploded munitions have been cleared; the majority of destroyed dwellings has been rebuilt, together with much of the national infrastructure; and over a quarter of a million refugees have returned home. The burden of this effort has been borne – proudly and cheerfully – by the people of Somaliland, with only negligible amounts of international assistance.

The embryonic Somaliland government, although not without its shortcomings and difficulties, compares favourably in many respects not only with previous Somali governments, but also with arrangements for the governance of Somalis within the states of the region – namely Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. And Somaliland’s accomplishments offer important clues for the restoration of peace and government to the rest of Somalia as well.

The aim of the WSP Somali Programme, and its affiliate, the Somaliland Centre for Peace and Development (SCPD) was to study these accomplishments, understand the internal dynamics of Somaliland’s reconstruction, and share lessons learned with key actors from Somaliland, the region, and the international community.

WSP Somali Programme / Somaliland Centre for Peace and Development (SCPD)

The WSP Somali Programme was the fourth in a series of WSP country projects, which examined the dynamics of post-war rebuilding and the role of external assistance. The WSP approach involves the application of Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology to the problems of reconstruction, in a way that is intended to help identify and articulate priorities, clarify problems, and build consensus among national and international decision-makers around possible solutions and policy options.

In Somaliland, the WSP programme is implemented through a local affiliate: the Somaliland Center for Peace and Development or SCPD (Director: Dr. Hussein Abdillahi Bulhan; Research Co-ordinator: Dr. Mohamed Osman Fadal). The preliminary research phase spanned the period January-December 1999, and resulted in the production of “A Self-Portrait of Somaliland: Rebuilding from the Ruins.” The main research phase in ongoing and is expected to conclude in early 2001.

Given that the WSP/SCPD programme is still incomplete, it is not the purpose of this paper to provide conclusions or lessons learned. It is instead an opportunity to share some of our observations as we travel the road from peace and reconstruction to development in Somaliland.

The Somaliland Self Portrait

SCPD’s work began with over four months of field research that extended across Somaliland from Loyacaddo to Laas Canood and from Booraame to Badhan. The purpose was to sound out the views of a cross section of Somalilanders on various aspects of social, political and economic reconstruction. In this paper, I will concentrate primarily on aspects of governance.

Superficially, it is possible to describe Somaliland as parliamentary democracy with an executive President, an independent judiciary, etc. The reality, however, is far more complex and deserves a closer look.

Over 9 years since the SNM’s victory in the war with the Barre regime, and the declaration of Somaliland’s independence, Somaliland’s governance structure remains in transition: a hybrid of western form and traditional substance. The clan system (beelo) co-exists with imported, western-style institutions.

Some Somalilanders are content with such a system, or feel that the government has little choice but to function the way it does: it is simply a reflection of the society that has created it. Critics, however, accuse the government of manipulating kinship politics to its own advantage. Almost all, however, agree upon the need for improvement.


Issues upon which there appears to be widespread public interest include the following:

  • Representation

  • Participation

  • Decentralization

Each of these issues is further elaborated below.


The elaboration of a future electoral system is one critical element in Somalilland’s transition from “beel-based” politics towards a more formal mechanism for representation. The Deputy Speaker of the House has expressed the problem as follows: “We need to come up with a system that accommodates one man, one vote, but allows every community (beel) to be represented. So far, no one has come up with such a formula. In particular, the public is divided over whether or parties political parties might offer a solution to this problem.

Support for an early introduction of political parties appears to be greatest in main urban centres where professionals and intelligentsia are often openly scornful of the beel-system. They do, however, differ over how a party based system should be introduced, with some favouring elections at the national level, and others arguing for a more gradual process, with elections taking place first at the local level.

Outside Hargeysa, however, interest in party politics is generally low. In Berbera, community leaders are cautious about the idea, arguing that political consciousness needs more time to develop. The Governor of Saaxil has outlined a set of conditions that should be fulfilled before a party system can function, including full security, full demobilization and reintegration of militia, establishment of government institutions throughout Somaliland, and improvement of living standards through the reorganization/restructuring of the national economy

In more remote areas, a significant proportion of Somalilanders appears to favour retention of a beel-based system for the foreseeable future. A spokesman for the Warsengeli Suuldaan has argued: “If clan is indispensable, why should we not base our functional structures on it and use it for our reconstruction and development”. In Sanaag, some elders advocate a shift “from qabiilism to regionalism.” In sum, the prospect of party-based politics seems less compelling to those on Somaliland’s periphery than it does to the people at the country’s centre.

Design of the electoral system alone is not sufficient to address such complex issues. For example, in many areas, pressure exists for the revision of administrative boundaries and the creation of new districts. A new region – Saaxil – was established in 1996, but its borders are indeterminate, and the elders of some communities to the east of Berbera are uncertain to which region they belong. Officials in Ceel-Afweyne and Sallaxley also complain that their jurisdiction is unclear, while the mayor of Maydh feels that his responsibilities are too restricted: “We cannot go beyond a five-mile radius – not even as far as Sheekh Isaxaaq’s tomb, which is supposed to be administered from Maydh.”

Boundaries often have less to do with administration than with representation: many clan groups want their own “district” as a means to enhanced prestige, or greater influence upon central government. The proliferation of districts, however, has little to do with demographic realities, nor with the capacity of a district to bear some of its own costs. But as long as politicians and elders seek to extend their political influence through kinship alone, the pressure to increase the number of districts is likely to continue.

One representation issue that deserves special mention is the role of women in politics. Despite Somaliland’s pride in its tradition of “pastoral democracy”, its democratic privileges have historically been limited to men. Whether or not this should change is an issue that divides men and women alike.

Traditionally, women have enjoyed no formal role in the clan-based political process, and today women are not involved in the decision-making process of government and other public bodies - even those dealing with issues that concern women directly. Women are absent from the main branches of government (House of Elders, Representatives, Judiciary and the Executive Branch), and are also unrepresented in high administrative positions.


At the heart of the debates over the constitution, electoral systems and political parties lies the issue of participation, and the related notion of equity. In Somaliland, the perception of equity is far more than a political ideal: it is an indispensable condition for the preservation of political stability and social peace. History has demonstrated that Somalilanders are prepared to tolerate all manner of hardships and political ills – authoritarianism, corruption, conflict and poverty – but not injustice. The belief that one group is benefiting from the political system at the expense of others is among the most potent sources of instability.

Somaliland’s most fundamental contrasts are those between the centre and the periphery, and between urban and rural. Hargeysa’s status as the seat of government has encouraged the concentration of private investment, human resources, international travel connections, and international assistance within the city limits. The frenetic, sometimes self-centred preoccupations of the national capital generate a degree of unease and resentment elsewhere in the country. Many regional leaders fear that the Hargeysa-based elite has begun to equate Somaliland’s interests with those of its capital city, losing touch with the rest of the country. Some voice concerns that if present trends continue, Hargeysa may one day become as remote from the majority of Somaliland citizens as Muqdisho once was.

The degree of inclusion/alienation obviously varies between members of different clan, and thus between the east and west of the country. In the words of one Ceerigaabo market woman: “Ood kaa dheeri kuma dhaxan tirto.”[1] In Burco, public confidence has suffered acutely from two rounds of civil strife. “These conflicts have shaken our inspiration for the Somaliland state,” observes one local leader. “They were a painful experience: they took away everything we have rebuilt.”

In Sool and eastern Sanaag regions, populations have long been divided in their attitudes towards Somaliland. Many are persuaded by the combination of economic, cultural, historical and political ties that bind them to Somaliland, but feel that the government needs to ensure a more equitable distribution of benefits. A man wants to build a fence and is seeking a hangool (a naturally grown stick with a crook at one end and a fork at the other) with which to do the job. “My problem,” says the man, “is that I have found the two ends of the hangool (gadh iyo farraar), each in a separate tree.”

Resolving these multifarious, complex and overlapping problems will not be easy. Some Somalilanders believe that one more round of traditional peace-making, in the form of a shir-beleed, is a precondition to a more formal political framework. As one traditional leaders put it:

Before a final political settlement there should be a turxaan bixin… a formula acceptable to all the clans. That does not exist with the present government… [During the 1996 peace process] they wanted to undermine the unity of the Eastern regions as a political force. So we had [our leadership] elected by a few people in a room by raising their hands. Is that justice?

Others are not so sure. They argue that politics is the art of the possible and that it will never be possible to satisfy the many competing demands. AS one cabinet minister has argued: Caano jiilaal, camba can dareen [In the dry season when milk is scarce, each cheek feels it is getting less than the other].


One of the most critical issues in the constitutional debate is that of decentralization, which emerged as a priority for research within SCPD’s research programme. At the National Project Group Meeting, convened by SCPD in November 1999, and including over 80 representatives from across Somaliland, decentralization was selected as a priority for further study.

Although there exists an extraordinarily high level of consensus across the political and social spectrum that decentralization is fundamental to Somaliland’s success, there appears to be no consensus on what decentralization might mean in practice, or how to realize it. Many Somalilanders are unclear about what the devolution of administrative authority to the local level would entail. In an unpublished paper on the topic, one analyst noted that many Somalilanders tend to view the issue only in terms of “political autonomy – regional self-government – ignoring the corroborative need for fiscal autonomy”.[2] In other words, few people realize that if they want local self-government, they will have to be prepared to bear its costs.

In sum, decentralization is a complex and delicate proposition. Some Somalilanders might even describe it as an idea whose time has not yet come, but others would argue that in the interests of national unity they cannot afford to postpone it.

In the course of it’s research on the topic of decentralization, the SCPD held a first workshop in Baki district, Awdal region in early July 2000. Participants included members of parliament, the Guurti, the Ministries of Interior and Planning, regional and district governments, civic organizations, the private sector, pastoralists and farmers and village committees. During three days of discussion, the workshop examined various aspects of decentralization and developed recommendations. Two more workshops of this nature, on related aspects of decentralized governance are planned in the coming months, and a working group meets regularly in Hargeysa to advance the research.

The current situation

Participants at the Baki workshop described the development of local administration as an ongoing process, which started from scratch after the Boorame conference. To date, they have established village committees, and executive committees at the regional and district levels. There is a functioning tax collections system, and a generally high level of acceptance among the local population for the payment of taxes.

On the other hand, participants described the process as yet incomplete, and still relatively centralized. Decision-making and appointments of local officials still take place at the central level. Power is typically concentrated within the hands of the mayor, and the relationship between the local authorities and the public was described as weak. Unclear responsibilities between different levels of government, and between public officials at the same level have hindered the growth of functional administration.

In consequence, workshop participants described a situation in which there exist unacceptable levels of corruption, overstaffing of local offices, excessive turn-over of mayors and other public officials, and that services are concentrated in regional and district headquarters at the expense of the local population. There was also some concern expressed that public officials are chiefly preoccupied with satisfying their superiors to whom they are accountable, rather than to their constituents.

Constraints in advancing decentralization

Workshop participants recognized that the process of decentralization faces formidable challenges. Neither the people of Somaliland, nor their leaders have prior experience of decentralization, and instead tend to gravitate towards familiar, centralized patterns of governance. Little or no effort has been made to raise public awareness about the issue, and many Somalilanders remain distrustful of any contact with government. Many public officials are said to lack the creativity and flexibility to abandon old habits and procedures.

More concretely, participants agreed that the central government needs to invest greater effort and attention in decentralization. Furthermore, while proposals of this nature have been advanced by the executive, it was argued that the parliament has yet to pass legislation that would translate the constitutional principle of decentralization into law.

Finally, some participants emphasized the need for patience, asserting that the legacy of war and displacement is still very much alive. Confidence and trust must be restored before people are fully prepared to face such fundamental changes.


Despite these constraints, the Baki workshop identified a number of opportunities to advance the process of decentralization. Perhaps most fundamental was the realization expressed at the workshop that Somaliland society has a unique opportunity to build itself from a veritable tabula rasa, and to learn from the lessons and mistakes of the past.

This opportunity, they argued, was underpinned by the gradual consolidation of peace, government administration, and economic activity, as well as the de facto “decentralization” (or deregulation) of sectors like health, education, communications, transport and business.

The workshop also took note of the maturing of Somaliland civil society, and the justification that Somali culture and Islamic faith lend to a decentralized social and political structure.


The full recommendations of the Baki workshop are available through the SCPD, and will eventually be incorporated into a more comprehensive work. But there is room here to summarize some of the main points:

  • The central government (executive and parliament) should take the lead in fulfilling its constitutional responsibility to effect decentralization, through raising public awareness, submitting the Constitution to a referendum, and completing the required legal framework

  • Involve all levels of government in the planning and developing a framework for decentralized governance. The framework should include the rationalization of revenue collection and management at all levels, devolution of specified authority, responsibility and resources to local levels, and conformity with cultural and religious precepts

  • Responsibility should shift increasingly to communities through the election of local councils, completion of unfinished clan reconciliation issues, and encouragement of Somaliland’s growing civil society


It would of course be premature to draw any conclusions at this stage in an ongoing process. Nor would it be appropriate to describe Somaliland’s ongoing experimentation in unreservedly positive terms.

Power remains heavily concentrated in the hands of the executive, vis-à-vis the legislature and the judiciary. Support for Somaliland’s independence among various clan groups has been uneven, with some parts of the territory remaining beyond effective administrative control. Issues like corruption and human rights continue to engender public debate, and require constant attention.

What is clear, however, is that Somaliland is struggling to find answers to these difficult problems on its own terms – with a modest, but encouraging degree of success. Somaliland’s political and economic experimentation holds out the promise of a framework of governance rooted in Somali society, traditions and culture. It has made slow but steady progress in developing a framework for governance that is consensus-based, decentralized, market-driven, and grounded in self-reliance. That is an accomplishment that most of Somaliland’s neighbours can only aspire to, and that no other Somali populations enjoy.

Somaliland is struggling to find answers to those questions on its own terms – with a modest, but encouraging degree of success. Certainly no government in the region has done better at providing for its Somali citizens. The peace proposals being pushed by policy makers in the international community seem destined to reproduce a politically dysfunctional, economically feeble, aid-dependent Somali state. If this is unacceptable –as it should be – then Somaliland’s lonely journey through political and economic experimentation merits the attention and encouragement not only of the international community, but of Somalis everywhere. Politically fragile, institutionally immature, internationally isolated, the hurdles to be overcome are formidable, and Somaliland’s future is beset with uncertainty. But it is the uncertainty of choice and opportunity, not the certainty of failure.

[1] A fence that is far from you cannot protect you from the cold.

[2] Drysdale, John. Unpublished Mimeo. Hargeysa, 1995.