- A FURNITURE maker from Allithwaite had a unique hand in democracy when he volunteered to help oversee an election in the Horn of Africa. Robin Le Mare of The Square spent two weeks in Somaliland as an international observer, incorporating his experience from 20 years of working for the charity Action Aid.
With the voting system in the country only in its infancy, and with just a handful of presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections under their belt, the electorate are still finding their feet when it comes to polling day.
“It was very different from what you would see here, mostly because it is something we do so regularly, and something we have been brought up with,” Mr Le Mare said.
“But it is quite a new way of doing things there.
“Traditionally in their clans they would not use a balloting system as we know it to elect someone; it would be done through debate.”
In his former career as a desk officer for Action Aid, his speciality was Somaliland and Ethiopia. He visited Somaliland several times between 1994 and 2006 and said it was a great experience to return to a land and people he knows well.
“I have never done any election observation before but when I heard they were looking for volunteers I jumped at the chance.
“There were 55 volunteers from 15 different countries, including native Somalis who have left the county, so it really was an international operation in that sense.”
After flying out to Somaliland a week prior to voting, Mr Le Mare and the other volunteers spent a week in briefings on the history of the country and its elections.
Somaliland declared its independence 20 years ago but is not recognised internationally. In the municipal elections, 2,368 candidates contested 379 positions across the country’s six regions. For his part, Mr Le Mare travelled to the town of Boroma where his team would observe voting at four polling stations.
“At the end of the day we oversaw the sealing of boxes and the vote count,” he said.
“It all went very well; I was impressed with the skill and professionalism of the leader of the particular polling station we were at for the count, a young man who was a student at a nearby university.
“He was assisted by an older man who was a teacher in a local school. It was conducted very, very well.”
After voting, each man and woman dipped a finger in indelible ink to prevent them returning to vote again.
“The electorate there are hugely engaged in the political process, which is great,” he said, “But it is almost to the point of spoiling the process.”
Progressio, a charity which helped assemble the observer mission, also reported great advances in the participation of women in the election.
While in 2002 only five women contested the local elections, but approximately 140 did so this time round.
Mr Le Mare said: “In some ways it is opening up for females, though society is still very much dominated by men and the clan system.
“For the election the men and women lined up in separate queues, and there were roughly equal numbers in each.
“But there is more of a problem with low representation at the higher political level, like in the House of Representatives.”
A spokesman from Progressio paid tribute to the team of international volunteers who gave up their time for the election.
“Because they have got these international observers, in a young democracy like this they have got some external verification about how free and fair their process is.
“This helps in a very difficult part of the world to make the country more stable. The observers really do make a difference to people’s lives.”
Hannah Upton/The westmorland