One evening in October, the three presidential candidates in Somaliland’s elections sat backstage in one of Hargeisa’s best hotels, listening to a briefing about the televised debate they were about to take part in.
No talk of clan or personality, they were admonished, and no personal attacks. Instead, the candidates were to focus strictly on foreign policy, domestic policy and socioeconomic plans.
This landmark event was organised not by top-tier politicians, but by a group of very young Somalis, who, dissatisfied with the level of political discourse, came together to draw attention to some of the issues affecting the country’s youngest citizens.
An estimated 70 percent of the population is under 30.
“There are lots of national issues of significant importance that are not discussed,” says Adnan Hagoog, one of the founders of Inspire Group, the think-tank that organised the debate.
Young people don't want to be associated with clan politics anymore and the apathy shows their discontent.
“The perception here is that youth cannot deliver,” agrees his colleague, Abdirashid Ibrahim, “but when we organised the debate we rose to the challenge, and we were able [to make the candidates] focus on the bigger picture and forget about the clan.”
Although Somaliland’s political system incorporates both traditional elements and modern, political structures, it is mostly divided and fought over clan lines, and the two, main political parties represent a specific clan, or a coalition of clans and sub-clans.
“One of the reasons youth are excluded from politics is the clan system,” explains Mohamed Farah, director of the Academy for Peace and Development. “The traditional system was led by old men, so youth and women are still excluded.”
Many young people have not registered to vote in presidential elections on Monday, and many feel like they are not being properly represented in the political system.
“Young people don’t want to be associated with clan politics anymore,” says Guleid Ahmed Jama, chairperson of Somaliland’s Rights Centre, “and the apathy shows their discontent.”
Yet, several young activists who connect largely via social media are fighting to increase young people’s political participation in Somaliland, in a bid to have their voices heard and improve their life prospects in the country.
Some reports say the formal unemployment rate for youth under 35 is 75 percent, and the rate of literacy is low, at around 44 percent, and even lower for women, at 20 percent.
“The last generation has failed us,” agrees Khadar Mariano, himself a youth activist and founder of YEEL Volunteers, an organisation working to improve Somaliland’s education system. “But not voting is not an option here.”
“Young people need to have serious discussions, we need to network and increase our [political] activity so that we don’t have to face this problem again in the next elections,” says Mariano.
“Whoever gets elected will become the constitutional president of this country, whether we like it or not. The question is what do we do in those five years to change things.”
Young people are not completely absent from politics.
“There was a lot of hope for the youth joining the political system, but those running in the past have not been the right candidates,” explains Hagoog. “The clan system does not give a chance to smart, educated youth to get elected and actually improve things.”
But Hagoog, Mariano and Ibrahim do all agree that the clan system and its elders have had a seminal role in Somaliland’s development, and the self-declared republic would not be where it is today without it.
Clan elders are widely credited for making – and maintaining – the peace in the critical post-war years, following the civil war to overthrow Siad Barre in the 1980s, and their traditional conflict resolution mechanisms are what enabled the country to reconcile.
“It is elders who bring Somaliland together and keep the peace, but one point here needs to be very clear: clan leaders should not be involved in decision making,” argues Hagoog.
“Involving clan and elders in the mainstream politics is corrupt, it’s rotten, and it’s the old way of doing things. Somaliland as at a crossroads now, we want the political interest to be directed and led by political ambition, by political objectives, not by clan affiliation.”
Confronted with the pressure put on them by organisations like Inspire Group and activists like Mariano, political officials have had to take notice, and the issues of education, youth unemployment and political participation have been central to the discourse in the run-up to the presidential election.
“The country cannot progress if young people don’t participate in the decision-making process,” agrees Hussein Badhani, a representative of the ruling Kulmiye party, which vows to empower young people and increase their political participation.
“We intend to reform our curriculum to focus on technical skills and increase employment, and many positions in our government will be for youth,” Badhani told Al Jazeera
Abdirashid Jeeni, a representative of the main opposition party, Waddani, told Al Jazeera that, in case of victory next week, the party would reserve 40 percent of jobs in public institutions for young people, adding that theirs is the first party in Somaliland to create a youth wing.
Whether the political parties will act on their promises after election remains to be seen, but Somaliland’s youth are already taking the necessary steps to ensure they won’t be bystanders in the future, or the present, of their country.
“These old men tell us we are the leaders of the future,” laughs Mariano. “But we have to say: ‘No, we are the leaders of now. Now is the time.'”