In one corner of a country that has never known democracy, people are for the first time getting a taste of Western campaigns: the televised debate.
Called the Forum for Civic Dialogue, the monthly events bring political leaders together to discuss issues facing Somaliland, the self-declared republic in northwestern Somalia that has been largely peaceful for the past six years. Copies of the forums have made their way outside Hargeysa, the would-be capital, to a smattering of VCRs around the rural areas and to Somalilanders living overseas.
The debates come as Somaliland reaches a turning point. Its first full elections are scheduled to be held within the next eight months, but the favorite is no longer clear after the governing Udub party suffered a major setback in early May: the unexpected death of President Mohammed Ibrahim Egal. The party and the rest of Somaliland now has to figure out where to go without the man most strongly identified with the push for independence.
The results of Somaliland's experiment in democracy not only matter to the 3.5 million people in the northwestern republic but also have implications for the rest of the Horn of Africa nation. A fair election would advance Somaliland's vision of Somalia's future: dividing it into separate nations like the former Yugoslavia. Others want the country reunified under one central government.
And because of its strategic location and the absence of a central government, Somalia has become the venue of a proxy struggle for power and influence between the Arab countries and Ethiopia. Each supports rival factions throughout Somalia, and each has its own views on the two competing visions, according to analysts, with the Arabs pushing for unity and Ethiopia encouraging division.
"The Saudis and the Arabs think that [Somalia] is their zone," says Dahir Riyale Kahin, the man who acceded to the presidency following Mr. Egal's death, and whose administration has good relations with Ethiopia. He says Egypt is leading the push to recreate a strong Somalia as a counterbalance to Ethiopia, partly because of its long-running dispute with Ethiopia over Nile water.
Somaliland has yet to be recognized by a single country, 11 years after it first announced its secession from Somalia. Even its ally, Ethiopia, has refused to do so, although the two governments have forged an agreement on cross-border security.
With a hint of a sigh in his voice, Kahin says: "We have done all that we can for recognition. We have governance and an administration and peace."
With no success on the lobbying front, Somaliland's leaders hope that a free election will provide persuasive evidence that their republic is different from the rest of Somalia.
But much needs to be accomplished before a legitimate election could be held, warns Hussein Bulhan of the Academy for Peace and Development, the independent civil society group organizing the videotaped forums.. "It's a real shift for the country to go from clan elders negotiating over who should be leader, to a one person, one vote system," he says. "My fear is that maybe it would be nipped in the bud by the lack of capacity to carry it out."
He says Egal's death "has created the environment for a change without violence and disruption" and gives Somaliland's two-chamber parliament appointed by elders from Somaliland's regions and clans a chance to assert its power.
Opposition political parties are already taking up the challenge. When Egal was alive, they refused to register on the grounds that might endorse elections they expected to be unfair. Since his death on May 3, two major parties have registered. One of them is headed by Ahmed Mohammed Silanyo, a former cabinet minister and past chairman of the organization that helped give birth to Somaliland, the Somaliland National Movement.
Mr. Kahin thinks he knows why the political parties are now coming forward. "For the last 50 years, Egal was the politician of Somaliland, and those people who disliked him ... were afraid they could not compete with him. But now they think they can compete," he says.
Kahin was a diplomat and high-ranking military official in the government of longtime dictator Siad Barre, the man loathed by most in Somaliland for carpet-bombing Hargeysa in 1988 to suppress the budding independence movement. Kahin is coy about whether he will run for president, saying only: "I have the right to run."