What it takes to Build a State: Lessons from Somaliland

The self-declared autonomous state of Somaliland in the Horn of Africa is a practical demonstration of building a state from the bottom-up. It is also a demonstration of the benefits and limitations of outsider influence in domestic economies. Over the past thirty years, Somaliland has transformed itself from a war-ravaged state to one of Africa's bastion of democracy, even if unrecognised.
Published 12 July 2022


After 90 minutes of swaying and swirling across the mountainous terrain of Berbera, the car comes to a screeching stop. The village of Tuuluda Bixin-duule is finally within sight. The town looks small — a cluster of tin-roofed concrete block houses and several colourful Buuls (traditional nomadic houses) sprawled over the land. The polling station is swarming with women, men, and children. The commune's 900-plus registered voters are out to cast their vote, and many have makeshift tarps, cardboard, and pieces of cloth over their heads because it's at least 38 degrees celsius (and feels like 44 degrees celsius).

Grunts and groans about the heat and the slow movement of the queue ricochet in the air. (This could be Accra, I thought.) But the people persist. The occasion demands it. This is the thing about Somalilanders; they will make their voice and preference known, come what may.

The scene described above played itself out in May 2020, the 30th anniversary of Somaliland's independence and the 20th anniversary of the state that broke away from Somalia in 1991 being a multiparty democracy. They were there to select their parliamentary and local district candidates of choice.

In a village so disconnected from well-functioning amenities, roads, and bustling economic activity, the vibrancy around casting a ballot was intriguing. There were many questions including, "On what basis did candidates' campaign?" and "what could the residents of Bixin- duule expect to receive?"

There are many answers; it turns out. Of the lot, one loomed large — the devastating memories of the not-so-distant past political turmoil and destruction that led Somaliland to declare itself independent from Somalia. It was only three decades ago that the military government of

Mohamed Siad Barre in Mogadishu used warplanes to bomb the capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa, into the ground. After the war ended in 1991, Somaliland's leaders got together and declared their independence from Somalia.

This sour past has created a contested present that many have not forgotten. But, for Somalilanders, that decision to dissolve the union was an active demonstration of what type of governance they wanted and deserved for themselves and will stand by, even today. This is, in part, a key reason why people started queuing at 04h00 on election day.

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