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Sunday 14 July 2024


Somaliland at the crossroads as it turns 33

20 May, 2024
A soldier of Somalia's breakaway territory of Somaliland stands guard during an Independence day celebration parade in the capital, Hargeisa on 18 May 2016. MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB / AFP

On 18th May every year, Somaliland commemorates its declaration of independence from Somalia. The event is marked globally by communities who gather, waving the crimson, emerald, and white flag, recalling the conclusion of a brutal war against Siad Barre’s military dictatorship, which reached its apotheosis with large parts of the Woqooyi region coming under local control. 

This year, the self-styled republic turns 33 amid a complex domestic and international environment unlike anything it has previously encountered. In an interview with Geeska in March, Matthew Gordon, an expert on the region, laid out the stakes, saying the project faces “dark times” as it grapples with issues outside its control such as “climate change, civil war within neighbouring countries, and increasing geopolitical interference in the Horn of Africa’s affairs,” and others within its control, including increasingly fractious ties among its elites and challenges to its rule in the north. “The Somaliland state has increasingly undermined the intimate, interconnected relations between clan communities that have safeguarded Somaliland’s peace,” Gordon said. 

The occasion serves as an opportunity to revisit the long-standing question that has occupied the minds of many of the republic’s citizens: when will the international community consider its achievements and give it a place among the family of independent nations?


“Restoration of independence” 

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Somaliland’s ambassador to Taiwan didn’t describe the anniversary as an independence celebration but characterised it as a “restoration of independence” from “from an authoritarian regime, which occurred on this day in 1991.” His careful wording was echoed by foreign minister Essa Kayd who posted: “It took us 33 years to restore what we lost, we are still progressing and we will continue to fight for our sovereignty.”

This is a common refrain by Somaliland’s political elites who refer, of course, to the short lived independence the region enjoyed when Britain relinquished its protectorate status in June 1960. For five days it became the first country in east Africa to enjoy freedom from the colonial yoke and the blue and white flag would be raised in Hargeisa for the first time on independent Somali soil. The number of countries which recognised Somaliland then remains a matter of dispute, and though that list didn’t include the US, then Secretary of state Christian Herter would have been one among many foreign officials which sent a congratulatory message. 

The next day, its freshly minted legislature passed a law approving union with the neighbouring Italian ruled region which became independent on 1st July merging the two territories into a new republic. The New York Times covered the event headlining with “Somalia is Born as a Free Republic”: “Cannons thundered in salute, fireworks burst and crowds danced and sang in the be-flagged streets as the population of 2,000,000 began celebrating,” the paper reported. Aden Abdulle Osman, the would-be president, who was then the provisional head of state said the new country would maintain good relations with all and would cherish “the sacred values of democracy.” 

The new republic’s commitment to those “sacred values,” however, would quickly become a bone of contention for people from the former British protectorate. Controversially, the act of union signed in Somaliland never had its legal counterpart in Somalia, and the two states were just bungled together in a fit of enthusiastic nationalism. Legislation was later passed in Mogadishu which retroactively formalised the pact. But more crucially, members of the Isaaq clan, who formed the majority of the population in the northern regions, began to feel excluded from power as the years went by. Mohammed Ibrahim Egal, a two-time Somali prime minister and later the second president of Somaliland after independence, captured the transmutation of initial joy at the union into dismay during a 1998 trip to Paris when he said he was initially “happy and enthusiastic” with the decision to unite the two territories but later thought of it as the “biggest mistake of my life.” “At the time I was confident that this was the best and most progressive decision. Later, I had many years to regret it.”

In 1961 a constitution was drafted and ratified forming a centralised state without adequate input from power brokers in Somaliland. A referendum held to formalise it was rejected by the majority of inhabitants of the former British protectorate. It was also boycotted by the Somali National League, a major regional party with strong support among the Isaaq clan. Shortly after the constitutional referendum a group of young British trained officers in the region attempted an abortive coup in December 1961 to register their discontent with less experienced soldiers from the former Italian protectorate obtaining more senior positions on their patch. The coup collapsed in a day. Somali historian Mohamed Trunji described it as the most “dramatic event which almost undermined the union”. “Expressions of disillusionment over Somali unification were in the air,” wrote the Samatar brothers – both prominent scholars and politicians – in an essay for Bildhaan. Pleas for clemency were heeded and after legal irregularities the case was dropped. In italics the Samatars write: “This was the first time (and maybe the last) in Africa’s post independence that a sitting regime released coup makers without any retribution.”

Somalia’s democracy during that first decade, though badly flawed, won its plaudits. Two elections took place in the 1960s, and after defeat in 1967, Somalia’s first president, Aden Abdulle Osman, stepped down. Those flaws, however, grew into problems that threatened the viability of the young state. President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke’s assassination in Las Anod in late October 1969 was a harbinger of worse to come. “It seemed a pointless killing,” wrote Time magazine in its obituary, but they couldn’t have predicted what would follow. Corruption and clannism had totally “hijacked the system” by the late 1960s, said Trunji in an interview, providing another group of officers in Mogadishu with an opportunity to overthrow the government in a military takeover. Somalia would also begin its dalliance with socialism and the Soviet Union.

In his first speech following the coup, its leader, Siad Barre, said: “It was no longer possible to ignore evil things like corruption, bribery, nepotism, theft of public funds, injustice and disrespect to our religion and the laws of the country.” The military regime was welcomed with enthusiasm across the country, and early gains in literacy, infrastructure, and improved public services were eventually overshadowed by a failed attempt to annex the Ogaden region in 1977. A Kenyan official was reported in the New York Times describing Somalia as the “black sheep of Africa” for its rejection of its borders. Mandarins in Mogadishu didn’t appear perturbed by the defeat. “We beat the Ethiopians,” a Ministry of Information official said. “We lost ground to the Russians and Cubans. After all, we’re just a poor nation of nomads. How can we take on a superpower?”

As the country’s economy tanked, Barre’s regime began to rely on a smaller circle of kin to run the state and grew more repressive through the 1980s. Ahmed Ismail Samatar described it as falling into a state of “internal militarism and external supplication.” Somalia’s biggest challenge, building a state that fits its decentralised and clan-based social structure, wasn’t addressed in the democratic or socialist era. Reflecting on the ideas of Edmund Burke in an essay for the London Review of Books, English philosopher and critic Terry Eagleton warned: “If the political doesn’t find a home in the cultural, its sovereignty won’t take hold.” It didn’t, and in 1982, the Somali National Movement (SNM) in the north became one among a collection of clan-based armed groups that emerged to challenge the socialist regime.

When the movement began attacking Somali army bases, the military responded by bombing the cities of Hargeisa and Burao in 1988. The bombing left an estimated 50,000-100,000 dead. In his testimony about the bombing, Aryeh Neier, the founding partner of Human Rights Watch, said: “In an attempt to expel the Somali National Movement, the government used artillery and air bombardment, especially in Hargeisa and Burao, on a daily basis, and specifically targeted civilians.” “For ten years, Somalia’s central government had subjected the Isaaq to sporadic looting, rape, and killing,” wrote anthropologist Markus Virgil Hoehne in his study on the region. This fuelled grievances, but the SNM remained divided over whether secession was the best path forward.

In the early 1990s the Barre regime was eventually ousted from Mogadishu by armed groups in its environs. A faction in one of the dominant armed groups (the United Somali Congress – USC) led by Ali Mahdi, announced a new government in January 1991 and once again leaders in the north were left out of the process. The USC split in a battle for hegemony in Mogadishu, leaving the SNM to more seriously consider withdrawing from whatever was left of the state. On 18th May the decision was made. Yusuf Ali Madar, an SNM veteran and Somaliland’s first foreign minister said it was “the answer to unheeding arrogance and domination.” 

In 1993, Mohammed Ibrahim Egal, a former Somali prime minister and a safe pair of hands, was elected president following a conference in Borama. The process of building the state’s institutions was also agreed upon in Borama, establishing a bicameral parliament with a House of Elders and a House of Representatives, each with 82 seats. Progress continued through the '90s with the adoption of a provisional constitution in 1997. A referendum was held across the central regions of the north in 2001 on a new constitution which emphasised independence and set the stage for a multiparty system, securing a staggering 97.9%  of public support.


Quest for Recognition

Somaliland succeeded in remaining stable despite the sudden death of President Egal in May 2002. Vice President Dahir Riyale Kahin assumed the presidency until the 2003 presidential elections, followed by the parliamentary elections in 2005. Since then, general elections have been held regularly in the country, despite repeated postponements from their scheduled dates. Somaliland has emerged as the most robust and effective indigenously-developed political entity across all Somali territories, operating as a type of blueprint for the rest of the country. 

This stability hasn’t been without challenges. These include political disagreements between the opposition and the government, which in 2022 resulted in seven deaths and dozens of injuries during the dispersal of a demonstration demanding that the presidential election be held on time. However, what distinguishes Somaliland is its ability to manage disagreements through a hybrid system that blends modern state institutions with Somali clan-based power brokerage systems. 

None of this has so far delivered international recognition. Part of the problem is that Hargeisa already views itself as a sovereign entity and wants to be treated as a peer in its dialogues with Somalia, which the federal government refuses, making constructive dialogue between the parties nigh-on impossible. The second related challenge is that Hargeisa’s strategy to gain recognition through direct appeals to the international community, bypassing Mogadishu, aims to encourage other countries to break with the general conventions of statecraft in the post-World War II era. Mogadishu’s approach has generally been obstinate and unconstructive, but most paths to independence need a settlement with Villa Somalia. Kosovo and Bangladesh, which broke away from their parent states without permission, remain rare exceptions.

In the East African region, South Sudan and Eritrea are two more important case studies. South Sudan, a culturally and religiously distinct region from the rest of the country, was granted a referendum on independence which the capital Khartoum abided by. Eritrean fighters imposed themselves on the post-war settlement to drive home their demands by marching on the capital Addis Ababa with other rebels in the early 90s. Neither provides encouraging examples today: South Sudan is falling apart at the seams, and Eritrea is one of Africa’s harshest dictatorships. This likely influences the great caution with which the international community has managed Hargeisa’s overtures.

Hargeisa’s latest gambit to break the diplomatic siege would see it give Ethiopia a slice of its coastline in exchange for Ethiopia’s unilateral recognition of its independence from Somalia. This strategy has driven a wedge between Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopia, desperate for sea access for its growing economy, and Mogadishu, which has stomped its feet, threatened war and has raised a diplomatic storm against its neighbour. Though Somaliland officials have repeatedly said the agreement, still in its preliminary stage, is going according to plan, Ethiopia has sent more mixed signals on its willingness to deliver on its end of the bargain. Somaliland’s foreign minister Essa Kayd fired a warning shot to Abiy earlier this year in an interview with the Guardian in which he presented recognition as Hargeisa’s holy grail, and that “without that, nothing is going to happen.”

Additional challenges surround questions of what a prospective republic’s borders would be. Somaliland’s borders with Ethiopia and Djibouti are stable, but its border with Somalia is a much more complicated challenge, as well as the loyalties of communities in its eastern regions. Somaliland has long claimed the borders of the former British protectorate but has had difficulty in pitching its project to communities across the Sool region and parts of Sanaag. This situation erupted into violence in 2023 when armed groups in the SSC movement captured Las Anod, prompting Somaliland to shell much of the city. Attitudes in the east have since hardened in their opposition to secession. Speaking to Geeska about the development and its implications, Matthew Gordon said: “We face a situation where the mutual dependence of Isaaq and non-Isaaq clans on each other is completely eroding and that the Isaaq elites are seeking to use cooperation with countries like the UAE and Ethiopia to build a narrow, rump state concentrated on its pro-independence heartland.”

This is the context in which this year’s crunch elections take place. 

Hargeisa’s aspirations have merit, which the African Union acknowledged in a fact finding mission in 2005. A generation of young Somalilanders now also cherish their symbols and strongly identify with the republic’s story. But without a return to more pragmatic, transparent and ultimately an honest attempt to grapple with the question in Mogadishu and Hargeisa, 18th May will continue to come and go without a resolution acceptable to its varied stakeholders.