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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Women’s Political Participation in Somaliland

By ucfulsc, on 20 February 2017

Reflections from the ‘Women’s Political Participation in Somaliland’ event that took place on the 2nd of February 2017 and was presented by the UCL Development Planning Unit DPU, Somaliland Mission to the UK and Somaliland Focus (UK).


Picture: from left Amina-Bahja Ekman, Michael Walls, Nafisat Yusuf Mohammed, Hodan Hassan Elmi, Malou Schueller and James Firebrace

The concept of women’s exclusion from political participation is commonplace throughout the world. The principles of inclusion and equality occupies a central place in the discourse of political participation. According to the 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation, women all over the world continue to be largely marginalised from participating in politics and face a myriad of challenges and barriers in doing so. For women in many African countries, these challenges are made up of a complex set of factors and often embedded in local tradition, culture and religion. Women in Somaliland are not excluded from some of these challenges and barriers.

Somaliland is a self-declared independent republic, and politics, as it is practiced there, is deeply embedded in local history and culture.  The social and political structure is composed of clans, sub-clans, lineage and blood groups (Ahmed and Green, 1999). Somali tradition is strongly egalitarian and both men and women play active roles in their society. Women are not restricted from being vocal or following a career path. In fact, in recent years, roles have so changed that women are increasingly becoming the breadwinners. Somali women have always played significant roles, and are often involved in mediation during conflict. Going back in the history of Somaliland, especially during the period of conflict, women played important roles in peace and reconstruction, and many took on ancillary duties of running public offices. Despite Somali women’s widely acknowledged economic and social contributions, politics remains patriarchal; dominated by men at the expense and exclusion of women from crucial decision-making processes (Walls, 2013, Ingiriis and Hoehne, 2013).

Executive Director of NAGAAD, Nafisat Yusuf Mohammed, in her presentation, highlighted that Somali women face economic, social, financial and cultural challenges that hinder their political participation in Somaliland. In highlighting some of the challenges Somali women face in political participation, Nafisat mentioned that some of these barriers are embedded in socio-cultural practices and many times, is manifested in several ways which lead to political party discrimination and lack of support from family. One of the main issues highlighted in the presentation was the patriarchal system that discourages women from participating in politics. As political parties are rooted in the clan system, which is male dominated, women have limited space to run for positions.  One of the noteworthy narratives from the presentation was the significant role that the clans and lineage structures play in women’s participation. For instance, during elections, some women tend to vote for their male clan members.


Nafisat also touched on the topic of the prevalence of female genital mutilation FGM within women aged 15-49 and access to Justice. She however mentioned some positive moves as well. For the first time, there are four female ministers in Somaliland and there is also an ongoing discussion between NAGAAD and parliament over the quota agenda point. There is also a continued long-term advocacy programme that aims to address all the challenges such as establishing and implementing a quota for female representation in parliament.

Following on from Nafisat’s presentation, Hodan Hassan Elmi, Head of Governance, Advocacy and Communication at CARE International in Somalia/Somaliland provided some background information about what CARE International does in Somaliland and how they work with NAGAAD. She stated that CARE International works very closely with local organisations such as NAGAAD, and is also engaged in capacity building. She mentioned that some of the barriers that women in Somaliland face also have to do with lack of capacity and funding. She mentioned that there are challenges for young Somali women to participate in politics, which is often dominated by older women. She also encouraged the diaspora community to engage with grassroot organisations. Hodan stated that there is an opportunity for young Somali women and everyone interested in being part of the movement to get involved. Further, she mentioned that there are different avenues to engage in, such as new social media platforms, which present powerful tools in this so-called ‘information age’.

Dr Michael Walls, Malou Schueller & Amina-Bahja Ekman presented preliminary findings from their ESRC-funded project ‘Political Settlement in Somaliland: A gendered perspective’.  In their presentation, the issue of ‘clanism’ as well as how it is seen in the community was highlighted. It was apparent from the presentation that clanism and patriarchy play a major role in Somali politics. From their findings, some respondents believe that ‘clanism’ is a bad thing and is on the rise. Some respondents also believe that ‘clanism’ is getting stronger and some even suggested going back to tradition. Findings also highlighted the degree of polarization in responses. Responses also highlighted a fear of political and cultural vicissitudes. This was demonstrated in some of the responses in which some respondents felt that women’s engagement in politics is a Western phenomenon/agenda and would rather prefer women’s roles as ascribed by Islamic sharia. Some respondents believe that women should not be politically active at all. However, there were some agreement all respondents both male and female, young and old, that women cannot stand for some positions such as for the presidency, Imam and as a judge.


From the presentation, it was evident that clan and religion overlap and people’s perceptions are diverse on gender identity and roles.  It was also mentioned that culture and religion strongly influence gender identities and used as justifications to define what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. It was further mentioned that responsibilities have changed for both men and women, and although women have more responsibilities, they are not seen as capable to participate in politics. The presentation provided the context to explore and question what in the political settlement makes it difficult for progress to take place. Some positives were also highlighted especially progress in the area of some policies which looks fine on paper and constitution but never implemented. Some of the suggested ways forward included the following:

  • Counter act this idea that this is a Western agenda.
  • Donors need to think about their own agendas and how they promote their selves.
  • Strengthening women’s rights and organisations
  • Women’s needs at the local level needs to be addressed
  • Engaging men

The last segment of the presentation was from James Firebrace who gave his presentation on the drought crisis in Eastern Somaliland and shared his key findings with the audience. He stated that in 2016, Deyr rain fell throughout Eastern Somaliland and was followed by 3 years of erratic/poor rain fall. This was followed by large-scale loss of livestock, increasing malnutrition; problems related to poor and insufficient water, vulnerable groups – pregnant women, displaced people. Some areas of the east received limited rainfall during the Deyr rainy season.  James stated that some responses to this disaster have come in the way of fundraising and contributions from the diaspora community. However, he stated that there is the need for large agencies to get engaged and also bringing the stranded population back home.

The session ended with a vibrant discussion around progressive alliance for change, dealing with the drought crisis, discussant around the social, political, economic and cultural barriers that women face and ways all those interested in the region including the young and the diaspora community could get involved.




Ahmed, I.I., and Green, H. R. (1999) The heritage of war and state collapse in Somalia and Somaliland: local-level effects, external interventions and reconstruction. Third World Quarterly, 20(1), pp.113-127.

Bradbury, M.,  Abokor, A.Y. & Yusuf, H.A. (2003) Somaliland: choosing politics over violence. Review of African Political Economy. Volume 30, Issue 97

Ingiriis, M.H. and Hoehne, M.V., (2013) The impact of civil war and state collapse on the roles of Somali women: a blessing in disguise. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 7(2), pp.314-333.

UN Women – Women’s leadership and political participation http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation (Accessed 12/02/2017).

Walls, M. (2013) Women’s political participation in Somaliland. In: Journeys from exclusion to inclusion: Marginalised women’s successes in overcoming political exclusion. (164 – 197). International IDEA: Stockholm, Sweden. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1417498/ (Accessed on the 09/02/2017).


https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/jan/27/somaliland-clan-loyalty-women-political-prospects (accessed 05/02/2017)

Dr Lilian Schofield is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). She has over five years experience working in Higher Education Institutions in the UK as well as experience in the development field having worked with development consultancies and NGOs in Nigeria. Lilian Schofield has a PhD in Construction and Property Management and investigated the role of stakeholders in housing development projects in poor communities in Nigeria.

Power and Politics: A reflection on political settlement

By Michael Walls, on 11 April 2016

To many – perhaps more today than in some generations past – ‘politics’ is a dirty word. Yet the political permeates our social lives on the most personal of levels as well as more generally. And the twin sibling of politics is power; specifically it’s exercise and pursuit. Perhaps the thing that most upsets many of us about ‘politics’ is what we perceive as the naked or covert use of power for personal betterment. But there’s a complication there. As much as we tend to presume that unbalanced power is a bad thing, the reality is that the stability of human societies through history and around the globe rests on just such imbalances. And personal interest occupies an uneasy yet always central motivator in the exercise of that power. In some ways, it is hard to even conceive of power in terms other than in some unbalanced sense. After all, if one person possesses the ability to compel someone else to do something, then that represents an imbalance in itself. There’d be no compulsion if the person compelled didn’t accept the authority of the other. Which highlights the difficult balance we need to try and find as human societies if we are to balance some sense of social justice with the sort of systemic efficacy we must aspire to if our states are to be run with reasonable efficiency.

Political leaders sign an agreement on voter registration, Hargeisa

Political leaders sign an agreement on voter registration, Hargeisa

The idea of the ‘political settlement’ that lies behind this project encourages examination of the nature of those balances in the political realm.

But we can also think of power in different ways. The sense of power as an imbalance in which one person can compel another, which I’ve just described, is what Andrea Cornwall and John Gaventa called ‘power over’. But we also sometimes think of power in different terms. For example, the power to do something is usually more about the capacity we have to act, and we sometimes also talk about ‘inner’ strength; the power we gain from within ourselves. Not quite the same as the capacity to do something because it refers more to strength of character or resolve, but that can connect with capacity as well. There is also a sense of power that labour unions, amongst others, have often used: the power of unity or solidarity. The power we gain by working together with others of like mind.

Focus group meeting in Laas Aanood

Focus group meeting in Laas Aanood

The ‘Political Settlement in Somaliland‘ research project is designed to dig deeper into some of the attitudes that women and men have to each other’s political engagement, and to find out more about how those attitudes are reflected in the ‘political settlement’ that underpins what has become an enduring peace in Somaliland. In so doing, we will be thinking hard about how different kinds of power are exercised by women and men in Somaliland: both in the negotiations, debates and decisions that form the political settlement, and in the actions people take or have taken in an effort to influence those decisions.

It is axiomatic that one of the most persistently asymmetrical balances of power is where it relates to the roles of men and women in a society. A growing body of research has focused on Somali state-building, and particularly on Somaliland, and there have been a number of studies on gender roles in that context. We are aiming to explore the ideas at the intersection of those concerns by trying to understand more about the assumptions and positions that shape social relations for men and women. That links strongly to a number of specific areas, including violence against women and girls, which seems to have worsened even while stability has been consolidated.

We are still in the relatively early days of the research, and are currently collecting primary data. There’ll be numerous updates of one sort or another. Keep an eye on the research microsite for new material.

drawing water for camels from a well, Sanaag

Drawing water for camels from a well, Sanaag

Dr. Michael Walls is a Senior Lecturer at UCL’s Development Planning Unit (DPU) and Course Director for the MSc in Development Administration and Planning. He has twelve years’ experience in senior management in the private sector and lectures in ‘market-led approaches to development’. For some thirteen years he has focused on the Somali Horn of Africa, and most particularly on the evolving political settlements in Somaliland and Puntland. He is currently leading a research project focused on developing a gendered perspective on Somaliland’s political settlement. As well as undertaking research on state formation and political representation, he has been a part of the coordination team for international election observations to Somaliland elections in 2005, 2010 and 2012 and is currently observing the 2016 Voter Registration process. 

International engagement in Somalia: lessons from Somaliland?

By Michael Walls, on 29 February 2012

Alex de Waal, writing in the NY Times on 21st February, argued that instead of focusing on the negative, international policy-makers should recognise the remarkable achievements of many in Somalia, and most particularly those of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. [http://nyti.ms/zP0L4T] His comments were timed for two days before a major international conference on Somalia held in London and hosted by the UK government on 23rd February. But in the run-up to the conference, William Hague repeatedly used the phrase ‘Somalia is the world’s-worst failed state’, suggesting that the focus on the negative is here to stay. This is in spite of conference talk about ‘supporting local initiatives’ and the need for the process to be ‘Somali-led’. Taking a rather more cynical line, respected French academic Gerard Prunier described the conference as ‘Alice in Wonderland Goes Imperialist’, and ridiculed the organisers for calling for Somali-led initiatives while inviting few Somalis to the conference itself. [http://bit.ly/whCEH3] So how do we pick our way through the myriad of viewpoints?

While I agree with many of Prunier’s points and even much of his argument, I have to say that I am not as cynical about the process as he is. And while I wholeheartedly support the tenor of much of de Waal’s article, we need to take considerable care if we are to chart a constructive engagement that recognises positive achievement. The conference was welcome in many ways in that it raised many important questions and suggested a new sophistication in some of the discourse amongst the international donor, diplomatic and civil society communities. However, there is no consensus yet on what that sophistication means in policy terms.

And what of Somaliland? They have certainly achieved an immense amount. Meaningful elections, the transfer of power from a standing incumbent to his opposition challenger … these are remarkable advances, as is the durability of peace throughout most of the country. Indeed, Somaliland is seen by some as an object lesson in how Somalis will succeed if they are just left alone. But that fails to recognise the fact that Somali society has always been based on links, particularly through trade but also religion and politics, with the outside world and between different Somali clans. That model relies precisely on not being ‘left alone’. But Somaliland also clearly shows us that the nature of engagement is vitally important. Heeding that observation, many people are talking about the need to support locally-based initiatives. But there is great risk there too, because it means having to find a way of picking who to support. Somaliland has achieved a lot, and Puntland has also made some progress, but what about the burgeoning number of smaller entities who are claiming ‘local legitimacy’? Individuals were even handing out business cards at events in London during the week of the conference declaring them to be President of some hitherto unknown Somali state. Which ones are real and worth supporting?

As complicated as the situation is, there are some lessons we can learn as outsiders. There seems little doubt that there is a need for local disputes to be resolved before there is a move to form a ‘national’ government, whatever that might look like. That is the process that occurred in Somaliland. It means that there needs to be a great deal of discussion amongst Somalis and led by Somalis about how they will settle the complex web of grievances and counter-grievances that have built up over the past two decades of conflict in the south. International actors can support the process by allowing it to take place, by insisting that resolutions are agreed before the process moves on, and by providing small amounts of material support where there is a demonstrable need. But those interventions need to be proportionate. They must not dominate the process, which needs to succeed or fail on its own terms. In other words, there has to be real reward for local groups who succeed in agreeing a peace deal with their neighbouring antagonists, but they must also bear most of the cost of achieving that deal, and also the cost of failing to do so.

That also means that an early focus on elections would be counter productive. For many Somalis, representative democracy in which individuals are elected to make decisions on behalf of a populace is less democratic than the patriarchal but otherwise egalitarian (for men) system of discussion and debate that is employed under Somali custom. So elections are not a process of ‘democratisation’ but rather the opposite: a retreat from the slow and unpredictable process of consensus-building to a less egalitarian but more efficient form of decision-making. Now let’s not get this wrong: it is very likely that representative democracy will eventually be needed in some form in the Somali territories in order to facilitate the establishment of a reasonably legitimate state. That is, after all, the transition that Somaliland has gone so far towards achieving. But in the southern areas of the erstwhile Republic of Somalia, the time is not yet right for that transition. And in the meantime, external actors need to be prepared to go along with an unpredictable and probably fairly slow process of consensus-building.

The most remarkable thing about Somaliland is that, whatever the claims to the contrary, it was founded as a genuinely multi-clan polity, and no other multi-clan Somali political entity has been so successful and with such genuinely local involvement. The simmering tensions between the different clans represented within Somaliland’s colonial borders represent a significant challenge, but it is important to remember that those who are currently most dissatisfied with the Somaliland administration were intimately involved in the formation of the state between 1991 and 1997. The fact that Somaliland was founded as a multi-clan political union with broad local support should not be forgotten by anyone.

Part of the lesson is that political nationalism is not the same as cultural, linguistic or religious unity. The political nation-state is a construct that requires a great deal of compromise. Somali society is remarkably vibrant and, in many ways, successful. The measure of economic performance that would pass for GDP per capita if reliable data were available almost certainly surpasses that of neighbouring countries. The telecoms, finance and trade sectors thrive. Just about everywhere, not just in Hargeisa or Bosaso. But business unity and cultural, linguistic and religious commonalities have not formed a good base for nationhood elsewhere, so why should they here? The dream of a unitary state based on either one or other sub-clan grouping or, at the other extreme,  a Greater Somalia, just don’t make sense.

As the various actors who met in London on 23rd February move to develop a new approach to supporting stability in the Somali Horn of Africa, they would do well to build on local initiatives, and to support the successes that are already evident. But that needs to be done with caution and patience. Hurrying the process is likely to worsen security for the UK, US and Somalia’s neighbours and prolong the crisis for locals. But facilitating a process which is Somali-led requires a willingness by international actors to step back and let Somalis agree for themselves: first of all, the terms under which they’ll coexist with other clans and sub-clans; and, secondly, what their state will look like. That will test the patience and commitment of international actors, regardless of how sophisticated their dialogue. But it’s a test that they need to pass just as Somalis themselves must negotiate difficult compromises.