By Rick Palsgrove
A helping hand is being offered to fledgling nations that are working to become democracies.
Twice this year, Groveport resident Nathan Slonaker has traveled to Africa as part of an International Republican Institute training team (funded by the U.S. AID program of the State Department) to share his knowledge with legislative staff members in South Sudan and in Somaliland, which is a breakaway territory of Somalia. The goal is to help those countries master the processes of a functioning democracy.
“We want to help them understand how the legislative branch of government should look and operate,” said Slonaker. “This includes things such as how to run a committee hearing, how a bill becomes a law and how to create a strong institution.”
A 2003 graduate of Groveport Madison High School and a 2007 graduate of Capital University majoring in political science and economics, Slonaker worked at the Ohio House of Representatives for six years with his last job being director of the House Speaker’s office. Currently he serves on the Groveport Madison Board of Education and works as the director of political affairs for the media consulting firm, Strategy Group Company.
Slonaker said he leapt at the chance to be part of the IRI program.
“I enjoy studying other governments and politics around the world and learning about other cultures,” said Slonaker.
His first trip early this year was with the IRI to South Sudan.
“It was amazing how little experience they had with the concept of a democracy,” said Slonaker. “They had always been ruled by a dictator or colonial power before. With that history, how would they know how a democracy should look?”
Slonaker participated in sessions training the South Sudanese government staff members about how a legislature represents the people and that the legislature is an equal branch of government with the executive and judicial branches.
After success in South Sudan, Slonaker and the IRI team traveled to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, in early November.
“It’s a strict Muslim country and the capital is a city of about a million people,” said Slonaker. “Because the political situation in the country is unsettled and dangerous, we couldn’t really get out and explore. We mostly stayed in a secure compound.”
However, he was able to try some of the local foods.
“I ate camel, which tasted like dry steak,” said Slonaker. “I also ate goat, which was greasy.”
Slonaker said Somaliland has been a democracy for about 20 years, but has only held a few elections in that time. The country has three political parties, which is all the Somaliland constitution allows.
“It’s ingenious that they put that in their constitution,” said Slonaker. “It prevents one clan from taking control. The parties are forced to reach out across clans.”
He said Somaliland has little democratic tradition to build on.
“It’s up to them to shape their country and figure out ways to get the public involved in the democratic process and create a strong root for democracy,” said Slonaker.
He said about half of the Somaliland government staff in the training program were actively interested in learning how a democracy functions. He said the other half seemed to embrace an aspect of the Somaliland culture that follows a more “just let things happen” approach.
“But some of the brightest leaders were fully engaged and wanted to improve their country. It was rewarding to see them take it all in,” said Slonaker.
He said part of the training included holding a mock committee hearing regarding restricting the use of charcoal. He said the charcoal trade was resulting in the cutting of too many trees to be burned to make the charcoal, which then contributes to soil erosion. Somaliland staff played different roles in the mock hearing.
“Committee hearings are where things happen in government,” said Slonaker. “They really got into it. We had citizens interrupt the hearing and charcoal dealers stating their case. Through this exercise the staff learned how to control a meeting, bring out debate and have productive conversations.”
Slonaker said the Somaliland head archivist told him, “We feel we now have the tools to make our institutions better.”
When asked if he would like to make more overseas IRI training trips, Slonaker said, “I would love to do it again.”