Somaliland Public To Riyale: “We Own, Maintain the Peace”

14 September 2009 | Africa,Op-Ed,Somaliland
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Every time that the president faced a political crisis of his own making in the past, he conveniently ordered the army and the police into the streets imposing a curfew throughout Hargeisa city.

Uncharacteristically, however, the night following the morning of the massive demonstration that led to the deaths and injuries of  several civilians, not a single police or military personnel was visible in the streets of Hargeisa.

Undoubtedly Riyale would not hesitate to order the armed forces into the streets, but several factors may have prevented this. The event also debunked the argument Riyale used to justify imposition of curfews and the use of armed forces every time his party faced a political challenge from the opposition, i.e. to “maintain peace and order”.

Why weren’t there any forces on the streets on the night of 12th April and early hours of the next day. Some sources believe the administration was caught unprepared by the size of the demonstration and the anger that followed the deaths of two civilians. It seemed to be paralyzed and unable to coordinate its acts, that at least two key ministers in the Riyale administration were said to have moved their families from their residences for fear of hostility.

Others believe, due to the depth of public anger, it was unthinkable for police or military personnel to risk their lives by going into the streets exposing themselves to sniper fire. Civilians have never targeted police for revenge since the civil war ended in Somaliland more than 10 years ago and no statistics exist of the number of guns, specially AK47 assault rifles in the public hands, but the generally accepted view is that nearly 20 years after the downfall of Siad Barre’s regime, a huge number of weapons remain in the civilian hands and there is nothing stopping the public using these weapons to defend themselves if Riyale administration used the army to violently quell peaceful demonstrations. Even though the administration will try stay in power through show of force by imposing curfews, a violent suppression of dissent is unlikely to be supported by the military.

Another view says Riyale government had only a handful of armed personnel at its disposal at the time, it was not willing to stretch them thin into city. It instead opted to concentrate them to defend the residence of the president. One event that my have reinforced this view is Saturday’s clash in which a combined forces of police and presidential guards tried to chase thousands of demonstrators but found themselves stretched too thin and exhausted that within hours they were pushed several miles back into the vicinity of the parliament by angry stone throwing crowds.

In any case the calm that fell on the city proved what the people have known for many years, that they, not the government, are the guarantors of peace in Somaliland. This fact was underscored by the peaceful demonstration held in the central city of Burao the next day attended by thousands of people in support of the parliament’s right to sit without interference from the government. Despite the total absence of police in the Burao demonstration, people dispersed peacefully without a single incident.

The Burao elders personally asked the regional officials not to send police to confront or provoke the demonstrators. The governor of Togdheer Mr Jama Abdillahi Warsame (Biin), an overzealous and confrontational personality, perhaps unsure about how much power he had to prevent the planned demonstration backed down uncharacteristically allowing the demonstration to go ahead. Ironically just over a year and half ago his predecessor Abdi Hussein Dhere was sucked by Riyale after he failed (even though he tried) to stop a massive demonstration against term extension for Riyale by the Guurti.

During Riyale’s 7 year reign, no gathering of any kind occurred in Somaliland without the officials trying everything they can to stop it including a heavily armed police shadowing it.

Sunday’s peaceful demonstration in Burao, and the calm that descended on Hargeisa streets the night before, prove what has been known in Somaliland for many years, that it is the public, rather than the government, that owns the peace. Several facts support this:

  1. The number of police in service per capita in Somaliland is far fewer than in most developing countries. Since Somaliland remains unrecognized it naturally can not afford to employ, train or equip enough number of police officers. The number of police officers in other cities is even much smaller, that in some cities it is hard to see a police officer on the beat for days. The communities across the country returned to a ruined country, they learned to police themselves and maintain the law and order. This is remarkable for an unrecognized country that is considered awash with weapons.
  2. Except for intermittent incidents in a few tribal hot-spots in the country, namely Ceelbardale-Dila in the west and some areas in eastern region of Sool, the country remains largely peaceful despite the shortage of police. Still most controversial confrontations involve politically motivated arrests by the regional officials against the members of the opposition or the independent media who dare expose corruption at the government levels.
  3. The tensions in the country go up during the times when administration wants to seek unlawful extension of term or is announcing postponement of elections.  The government has even been accused of staging few incidents to coincide with these announcements to create atmosphere of fear specially if it is anticipating strong challenges from the opposition or the parliament. On April 9, 2008, just days before the end of the 5-year elected term of Riyale, and a day before the Guurti was about to vote to controversially and unconstitutionally extend his term in office, a small bomb was “exploded” in one of the empty offices in the Upper House of parliament at around noon. The government was fully in control of the security of the building and its surrounding areas. Furthermore,  there was a visible presence in the city of heavily armed forces brought in from Eastern and Western regions of the country to enforce a dust-to-down curfew. This explosion occurred at a time when it was virtually impossible for anyone to enter the building or its neighborhood. Following that explosion, the interior minister ordered the swift arrests of several imporant members of the opposition KULMIYE party. He then told the BBC Somali, that he had solid evidence linking them to the explosion which he promised to share with the public “very soon”. However, about two weeks later he released them from jail claiming “not enough evidence existed linking them to the crime” in effect reinforcing the widely held view that his people staged “the small explosion”.

Yesterday, amid a widespread chorus of condemnation for the way the police handled the peaceful demonstration, Riyale reemerged accusing the opposition of “threatening” the unity of the country by holding demonstrations and “jeopardizing” the peace that “took us years to achieve”. He once again used the word “peace”, failing to realize that the peace in Somaliland predated his presidency and that the public is so painfully aware that he is the one who threatens it whenever they dare to question his continued stay in office unelected a year and half after his term officially ended.

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