Dennis Polhill was a member of the Washington DC-based Initiative & Referendum Institute’s Election Monitoring Team, which gave freely of their time in order to participate in this historic Somaliland National Referendum election.
The Initiative and Referendum Institute (the Institute), an international non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., observed the May 31, 2001 referendum in Somaliland, which unilaterally declared independence from Somalia in 1991. The borders of the country are the same as those of the British Protectorate of Somaliland that gained independence in 1960, when it united with the previously Italian Somalia later that same year. The referendum was called by the Parliament of Somaliland to ratify the constitution that was initially adopted in February 1997. At the invitation of the Somaliland government – with assistance from members of the Somaliland Diaspora organization known as the Somaliland Forum – the Institute observed the pre-polling, polling, ballot counting, and related political activities from May 28th to June 7th 2001.
The ten-person Institute delegation consisted of eight delegates from the United States, one from Britain and one from Switzerland. The delegation leader in Washington was Dane Waters, president and founder of the Institute, and the delegation leader in Somaliland was Dennis Polhill, chairman of the board. The Somaliland National Referendum Committee and the Somaliland Forum briefed the Institute delegation about election procedures, the constitution, and the background and history of the referendum. Upon arriving in Somaliland, the Institute delegation met and coordinated observation activities with a group of observers from South Africa. The Institute delegation observed 57 different polling stations in five of Somaliland’s six regions.
It is important to note the limitations of this report. With 600 polling stations in Somaliland, the Institute delegation made their best effort to get a truly representative sampling with only ten observers. In addition, the Somaliland government provided all transportation and translators. Although the observers generally agreed that genuine and sincere efforts were made to give us access to the polling stations the Institute wished to observe, and that our guides seemed to be giving us honest and accurate translations and explanations of events, our observations were nonetheless restricted by the circumstances. The Institute chose not to send any observers to the Sool region, which borders the breakaway Puntland region that is attempting to achieve an autonomous status within Somalia (Puntland claims some areas of Sool and Sanaag as part of its territory). The Sool region was considered to be the most volatile region of Somaliland with opposition to the referendum, and the most isolated and farthest away from the safety of the capital of Hargeisa. Similarly, in the Sanaag region where there was also some opposition, the Institute sent only one observer. Because of poor or non-existent transportation options, observers could not be sent to the more remote polling stations, which served many of the country’s nomadic and rural people. This report takes no position on Somaliland’s constitution, its independence, or its desire for international recognition. The job was simply to witness and view the referendum, and report on the conduct of the referendum, and whether and how it adhered to the legal procedures established for the referendum.
To develop a fuller understanding of the country and people, the Institute delegation met together and individually with scores of government officials, including President Egal, members of the Somaliland National Referendum Committee, the Speaker of the Somaliland House of Representatives, representatives from the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of the Interior, the Foreign Minister, various cabinet officials, the regional governors, and mayors. The delegation also met with business leaders, health community members, representatives of the local and international press, and members of non-governmental organizations providing international aid to Somaliland. The Institute delegation received an English translation of the constitution as well as primers on the history and economy of Somaliland.
Most people in the central and western districts, which are dominated by the majority Isaaq clan, were passionately in favor of the referendum. A “Yes” vote to the constitution was widely perceived as an endorsement of Somaliland’s independence and a rejection of rule from Mogadishu and Somalia. There was also widespread common sentiment that a “Yes” vote would send a message to the world that Somaliland deserved to be recognized. There was, however, political opposition to the referendum in some areas. This limited opposition appeared to be based more on a rejection of the current administration than on a rejection of the notion of an independent Somaliland. In the Sool and Sanaag regions in the east, which are heavily populated by clans other than Isaaq, some do not recognize the independence of Somaliland from Somalia and continue to consider themselves part of a larger Somalia.
While all members of the Institute delegation volunteered and donated their time for this two-week endeavor without compensation – many using their own vacation time – the Somaliland Forum paid for coach-class airfare from the United States and Europe, and paid for all food and lodging expenses while the delegation was in Somaliland.
Again, it is important to reiterate that this report seeks to give an objective, analytical and critical commentary on the referendum and how it was administered, without supporting or opposing Somaliland’s move for independence, its quest for international recognition, or the content of its proposed constitution.