Somaliland: 3 Decades of De Facto Statehood

May 2021

Thirty years ago, on May 18th, 1991, the Republic of Somaliland declared independence. This separation from Somalia, which had not been legally prepared and was not politically supported by any other state, certainly was a bold move back then. For over a decade it was impossible to predict what would really come out of …

Thirty years ago, on May 18th, 1991, the Republic of Somaliland declared independence. This separation from Somalia, which had not been legally prepared and was not politically supported by any other state, certainly was a bold move back then. For over a decade it was impossible to predict what would really come out of the secession. But today it is clear: Somaliland is one of the most stable de facto states in the world: it has a clearly demarcated territory (at least on paper), a permanent population, and a legitimate government. Nonetheless, Somaliland is still not internationally recognized.

The breakaway from collapsing Somalia in 1991 followed a decade of state repression and civil war in the region. However, the roots of secession go back well into colonial times. Between the 1880s and 1960, northwest Somalia, now Somaliland, was a British protectorate. The area from the northeast to the south was under Italian administration. The British installed an indirect rule that incorporated local customary law, which was in the hands of elders. The Italians, especially during fascism, however, introduced a more direct colonial administration. This undermined Somali traditions and weakened local elders.

Somaliland gained independence on June 26th and the rest of Somalia on July 1st, 1960. On July 1, they united to form the Republic of Somalia. The new state had to overcome considerable challenges to harmonize the different administrative traditions and to balance power between various clans. As early as 1961 there was an attempted coup in northwest Somalia because military officers from the region felt they were disadvantaged. In terms of foreign policy, Somalia was immediately in conflict with Kenya and Ethiopia. Large Somali minorities reside in both countries. The Republic of Somalia insisted on uniting all Somali territories in the Horn of Africa under one rule.

In 1969 a group of Somali officers led by General Mohamed Siyad Barre launched a coup against the corrupt and nepotistic democratic government. The officers allied with Moscow and created a strong army and a security apparatus that could crack down on opponents. The Somali-Ethiopian dispute reached its climax in the 1978-79 war over the Ethiopian Ogaden province. Somalia lost this war, which severely weakened General Barre’s domestic position. Somalia also lost its Soviet patron over the war, but soon managed to align with the USA. Renegade military officers formed the first clan-based armed resistance groups. They set up their bases in Ethiopia under the protection of Somalia’s arch-enemy. The government in Mogadishu retaliated with punitive measures against civilians in the northeast (now Puntland) and in the northwest (now Somaliland), who were clan relatives of the rebels. The violence escalated when the Somali army bombed the northwestern towns of Hargeysa and Bur’o in 1988, after guerrillas had partly occupied them. Thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled to camps in Ethiopia.

With the end of the Cold War, the Barre regime lost its external support. More and more guerrilla movements were founded. They finally drove the government out of Mogadishu in January 1991. However, the fall of President Barre did not mean the end of the civil war. Rather, clan militias began to fight among themselves for power. Mogadishu became the epicenter of the fighting. While southern Somalia sank into violence, the people in the north sought to resolve their conflicts. Elders, who thanks to the lighter touch of the British colonial administration, still enjoyed local respect, cooperated with militia leaders and local intellectuals. A series of smaller agreements resulted in a major clan conference in Bur’o, where Somaliland was declared independent on May 18th, 1991 – within the boundaries of the former British protectorate.

The most important guerrilla group in the area, the Somali National Movement (SNM) supported by members of the Isaaq clan-family, controlled only about 60 percent of the country. The west and east of the secessionist republic were under the control of local militias from different clans. A transitional government led by the SNM was established in the new capital, Hargeysa. But inability, the massive destruction of infrastructure, and lack of resources, as well as the fact that many people were armed — the arsenals of the fleeing military had been plundered — made effective governance impossible. In addition, SNM commanders from various Isaaq clans competed for the region’s few valuable resources; fighting broke out among them 1992.

To settle these issues, another clan conference was held in the city of Borama in 1993. After months of negotiations, clan elders and other representatives of various patrilineal descent groups adopted a peace and a national charter. The peace charter dealt with demobilization, security, and the development of local and national police forces. The national charter served as the provisional constitution of Somaliland. It separated the executive, legislative, and judicial branches from each other and introduced a bicameral parliament consisting of a house of elders (Golaha Guurtida, generally abbreviated as Guurti) and a house of representatives (Golaha Wakiilada). This was the basis for the hybrid political order, which integrated traditional Somali and Western elements of politics whilst guaranteeing the political stability of Somaliland for the years to come.

The conference delegates elected Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal as new President. He was an experienced politician, a member of the Isaaq clan family, but he had not supported the guerrillas. The SNM was demobilized by his government; he also introduced the Somaliland Shilling as new currency. At the same time, reconstruction work began, especially in Hargeysa and Bur’o. Diaspora Somalis invested in shops, hotels, and schools, while some international aid organizations reluctantly started their first small programs in the country. The international community, on the other hand, was focused entirely on the civil war in southern Somalia. Somaliland was ignored by the United Nations. In retrospect, this proved to be a blessing in disguise. It allowed the local actors to experiment with peace and state building and to develop a formula that worked – undisturbed by external interferences.

In order to strengthen the position of his country, President Egal’s government held a constitutional referendum in 2001. At the heart of the new constitution were the reaffirmation of independence and the introduction of a multi-party system. A very large majority agreed. Democratization began with the establishment of political parties and the holding of the first elections in 2002. The unexpected death of President Egal in May of the same year did not stop the momentum. Since then, several presidential and parliamentary elections have taken place in Somaliland, leading to peaceful transfers of power. The next parliamentary elections are planned for end of May 2021.

Somaliland’s success story rests heavily on the will of the members of the Isaaq clan-family to break away from the rest of Somalia. However, the territory of the secessionist republic is also inhabited by members of other clans who have different political orientations. Members of the Darood clan-family in eastern Somaliland, in the regions Sool and Sanaag, early on took a stand against secession. Most of them did not participate in the constitutional referendum and in the subsequent elections. As a result, Somaliland has largely become a “mono-clan state” today: all important offices in the country are held by members of the most populous Isaaq clan-family. A smaller group from the west of the country participates as well, but its elites are confined to the deputy positions. From the early 2000s onward, armed resistance formed in the east. The more Somaliland troops tried to take control of the area, the more bitterly local clan militias fought against them. The locals received support from Puntland, an autonomous state in northeast Somalia.

Today, the overwhelming majority of people in the center and the west of Somaliland are in favor of independence. Here, the country has developed impressively regarding infrastructure, private businesses and in the educational sector over the last 15 years. Consequently, international aid organizations and state agencies for development cooperation increasingly engaged – short of international recognition. Hargeysa developed into a real capital, at eye-level with major east African cities.  The eastern parts of the country, however, are not yet at peace; Somaliland only exercises limited control there and occasionally, its troops meet with armed resistance. This is also where part of the former colonial border runs. From an international legal perspective, it would be important that Hargeysa controls this border effectively. However, local militias in cooperation with Puntland are preventing this. Their goal is to strengthen Somali unity.

Globally, the majority of states are against recognizing Somaliland for various reasons. In the EU, Italy is clearly against secession, motivated by economic interests in southern Somalia and ex-colonial ties. Members of the older Somali elite still often have close relations to Italy. Egypt supports Somali unity to keep Ethiopia under control, with whom it is competing for the use of the Nile water. The Arab states prefer a united, strong Sunni Somalia in the Horn. The USA and most other EU countries are trying to stabilize Somalia. Recognizing Somaliland would not help.

Perhaps the most important factor preventing all African countries from recognizing Somaliland is the determination by the African Union (AU) that the continent’s colonial borders should not be changed. Otherwise, it is feared, it could lead to unpredictable dynamics of secession in the rest of the continent. Eritrea and South Sudan are absolute exceptions. In both cases, the legal situation was less relevant for the recognition than special political arrangements (in Eritrea the new government in Addis Ababa agreed to secession in 1991; regarding South Sudan, there was a lot of international pressure).

The usual rhetorical position of those who take a benevolent or at least neutral stance towards Somaliland’s independence is that Mogadishu and Hargeysa should negotiate. Some discussions have taken place so far, albeit to no avail. Mogadishu does not want to let Somaliland go, while Hargeysa does not want to return to the status quo ante.

Thirty years after its declaration of independence, Somaliland is still at the margins of the international political system, despite considerable successes in terms of peace and state building and its huge and very effective diaspora investments. Non-recognition in itself would be less of a problem, as Somaliland shows that political order, democratic process, and a certain degree of development can be achieved without much international assistance. What is worrying, however, is the prospect that a future Somali government might attempt to subjugate Somaliland as an unrecognized polity to its suzerainty. This would probably lead to another military confrontation


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