Matt Bryden. Annales d’Éthiopie  Année 2003  19  pp. 341-364

The ‘Banana Test’ 

Logic dictates that if something looks like a banana, smells like a banana and tastes like a banana, then the chances are good that it really is a banana. Likewise, if something looks like a state, smells like a state and tastes like a state, then it should be pretty safe to assume that it really is a state, right? Wrong. On empirical grounds, the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland should have no trouble passing the ‘banana test’: it fulfils the principal criteria for statehood as defined in the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: boundaries well-defined in international law, a permanent population, and a functioning government that routinely engages in relations with other states and international organizations. But in the world of politics and statecraft, things are not always what they seem; as far as the international community is concerned, Somaliland is not – at least legally speaking – a state.

On the face of it, at least, there appear to be firm grounds for Somaliland’s international recognition. There is no longer any reasonable doubt that the desire for independence represents the will of Somaliland’s majority. Somaliland’s political system has moved steadily in the direction of a constitutional democracy, highlighted by a constitutional referendum in May 2001, local elections in December 2002 and the first presidential poll scheduled for April 2003. And the durability of the Somaliland state has confounded the many sceptics who have delighted, over the years, in predicting its imminent collapse.

Within Somaliland, the pursuit of international recognition has become a sort of national obsession. The government has addressed little else in its foreign policy efforts over the years, and several non-governmental lobby groups among Somalilanders at home and abroad have dedicated themselves to the cause. Hardly a week goes by without the topic appearing the local media. Somaliland’s three registered political parties have each promised to deliver the elusive prize,

Nevertheless, for more than a decade since the collapse of the Somali Democratic Republic, the international community has steadfastly preferred what political scientist Jeffrey Herbst has termed “the continuing fiction that


Somalia was still a sovereign nation-state”1. But Somaliland’s democratic trajectory is making it increasingly difficult for donors and diplomats to view Somaliland through the same lens with which they view the rest of Somalia, where a seemingly boundless supply of irascible warlords continues to frustrate international efforts to form some kind of transitional government. Presidential elections in April 2003 will install Somaliland’s first elected government in more than three decades. Many Somalilanders hope that recognition will follow soon after.

If so, then Somalilanders will soon discover that statehood, for all its advantages, provides no panacea for social and political ills. On the contrary, Somaliland’s ruling elite and their followers would be presented with tempting opportunities to entrench their own power and privilege rather than to uplift the welfare of their people. In the absence of wise and disciplined leadership, Somaliland could easily drift towards the kind of centralized rule, complacency, and corruption that once characterized rule from Mogadishu.

The purpose of this article is to provide a candid assessment, based on more than twelve years of close observation by the author, not only of how Somaliland might score on the ‘banana test’, but also – and more importantly – of what kind of banana the fledgling “republic” is shaping up to be.

Somali unity: two solitudes 

Any discussion of Somaliland’s case for independence inevitably turns at some point to the five days between the 26th of June and the 1st of July 1960 when Somaliland was indeed a sovereign and independent state. According to Somalilanders, that period of self-rule – brief though it was – is what sets Somaliland from the type of “secessionists” abhorred by the African Union and from the various clan-based “lands” that have mushroomed in southern Somalia since the collapse of the central government. Somaliland’s independence from colonial rule was recognized by some 35 nations2, including some permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Critics tend to dismiss Somaliland’s momentary encounter with statehood in June 1960 as a pit stop on to road to Somali unity. After all, Somalilanders embraced the prospect of unification with enthusiasm: “Northerners can in no way claim that the 1960 merger with the south was a shotgun wedding – by all accounts unification was widely popular3.” But in retrospect, that five-day hiatus has become central to Somaliland’s contemporary claims to statehood. First, it supports Somaliland’s assertion that the 1991 declaration of independence

1 Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 258. 2 David H. Shinn, The Horn of Africa: How Does Somaliland Fit? Discussion paper presented to the Seminar “Introducing Somaliland” in Umea, Sweden, March 8, 2003 3 Ronald K. McMullen, “Somaliland: The Next Eritrea?” in Low Intensity Conflict and Law Enforcement, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Winter 1993), p.427. 


represented the dissolution of an unsuccessful union between sovereign states and not an act of secession. Second, it underscores the voluntary nature of the original Somali union and thus Somaliland’s ‘right’ to voluntary withdraw from it. And third, it establishes Somaliland’s boundaries under international law, thus responding to the African Union’s insistence on “the respect of borders existing on achievement of independence”.

To buttress its case, Somaliland’s government argues that no single Act of Union was ever signed between the two states, rendering the de facto union legally invalid. Instead, two separate acts of union were approved by the Northern and Southern assemblies, neither of which was ratified by the other.

In sum, the de facto union between Somaliland and Somalia fell short of the legal requirements mandated by domestic and international law. Only the recognition of other states testified to the existence of the Somali Republic as a unified state. From a legal perspective, the unity of the Somali Republic was an illusion4.

Such legal niceties notwithstanding, perceived inequalities in the union meant that Northern support for the merger began to evaporate within months of unification. In July 1961, Northerners boycotted a referendum on the new unitary Constitution; of those who did turn out, a majority voted against. Later the same year a group of British-trained military officers mounted an. unsuccessful “coup” in Hargeysa with a view to secession. Thus while Somalilanders may have entered their union with the South willingly and in full possession of their senses, they could legitimately argue “that they asked for an annulment of the union prior to the honeymoon, and that their request was unjustly denied5.” By the mid-1960s, northern discontent was palpable enough for the British academic I.M. Lewis to note

The north had sacrificed more than the south. The south, with the capital and National Assembly at Muqdisho, was still the hub of affairs; but from its former position as the capital of a small state Hargeysa had declined to a mere provincial headquarters remote from the centre of things. Even though many northern officials now held key positions in the government, northern pride found it hard to stomach this reduction in prestige.

The 1969 “bloodless revolution” that brought General Mohamed Siyad Barre to power gave Somali nationalism a short-lived boost, but Northerners soon came to identify a pattern of discrimination in military and civil appointments. Barre’s disastrous roll of the ‘iron dice’ by invading Ethiopia in 1977 set in motion the events that would lead to Somalia’s disintegration. With the army

4 The Case for Somaliland’s International Recognition as an Independent State, a Briefing Paper prepared by the Somaliland Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hargeysa, August 2002, p.3 5 McMullen, op cit, p.427 


in shreds and the economy in ruins, opposition to the regime began to mobilize. In 1978, a coup attempt by mainly Majerteen military officers was suppressed by the government with brutal force, leading to the formation of Somalia’s first armed opposition group: the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). Almost simultaneously, cells of Isaaq opposition activists began to form inside Somalia and within the diaspora, notably in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Great Britain. In 1978, Isaaq party and military officers attached to the Western Somali Liberation Front (a state-sponsored vehicle for challenging Ethiopian sovereignty in the Ogaden) quietly evolved their own fighting unit – the Fourth Brigade or Afaraad – as a means of obtaining weapons and resources from the Barre regime6. The formation of the Somali National Movement (SNM) in London in 1981 served both to bind together the various threads of Isaaq resistance and to stir the Somali government into action. Later the same year, a group of Isaaq intellectuals and activists were arrested for subversion and several were sentenced to death. The protests that followed in Hargeysa were brutally suppressed, but the SNM leadership was galvanized into action, shifting its seat from London to Ethiopia where it began preparations for a guerrilla campaign against the Barre regime. Isaaq officers from the Afaraad were among the first to join its ranks. From these modest beginnings, the stage was being set for nearly a decade of civil war.

The SNM’s War of Liberation (or was it independence?) 

The SNM’s declaration of Somaliland’s independence in May 1991, after nine years of armed struggle, came as something of a surprise. The Movement, which had routed government forces in northwest Somalia just a few months earlier, had never counted secession among its war aims. Indeed, only months prior to victory, the SNM leadership had issued a joint declaration together with its southern allies, calling for a united, federal Somali state.

For close observers, however, the SNM’s abrupt change of direction was not entirely unexpected. Despite the SNM’s official commitment to national unity, many of its members recall a different, hidden agenda. Veterans of the movement claim that only the political leadership of the SNM maintained a commitment to a united Somalia, while the rank and file resisted the notion of continuing unity with the south7. “We had a vision even then,” remembered an Isaaq political activist, who spent six years in solitary confinement in the regime’s cells. Whether or not such memories are accurate or have been reshaped by subsequent events, the indiscriminate bombardment of northern towns and systematic massacre of civilians by government forces in the late 1980s acted as a crucible for Isaaq anger and solidarity. Overnight, the SNM was transformed from a hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned guerrilla band into a mass

6 Matt Bryden, Fiercely Independent, Africa Report , November-December, 1994, p35(5). 7 Ibid,p.35. 


movement of “the Isaaq people up in arms8.” SNM leaders were well aware that secession figured among their options, but favoured instead a new, federal arrangement for a united Somalia. Their reasons, according to an observer who travelled with the Movement in the last year of the war, were all external:

…the unity of the Somali people is not the reason they bring up. But they fear international consequences; it might not be the voice of ideological commitment, but it is definitely the voice of reason9.

Others claim that the Movement’s leaders espoused Somali unity since they could not afford to alienate their patron, Ethiopian strong man Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose war against the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front precluded any support from his government for foreign secessionist causes. In addition, a minority among the SNM remained ideologically committed to Somali unity, cleaving to their principles even after the 1991 declaration of independence.

Whatever the reasons, the schism between the SNM leaders and their rank and file lent the declaration of independence an aura of sublime confusion. On May 15 1991, as SNM leaders sat in conference with elders from Somaliland’s major clans in order to cement a peace deal and agree on a common political programme, an announcement over Radio Mogadishu stated that the SNM was planning to attend a conference in Cairo together with southern political movements. The news triggered widespread protests, with demonstrators rallying to the cry of “dooni mayno Muqdisho!” (“We don’t want Mogadishu!”) Tanks and armoured vehicles manned by disgruntled SNM fighters “took up menacing positions10” outside the meeting venue. The declaration of independence followed in short order, giving rise to wild outbursts of celebratory gunfire throughout SNM controlled territory as the news spread.

Within a matter of months, the SNM was at war with itself. Upon the orders of SNM Chairman and first President of Somaliland, Abdirahman Ahmed AH “Tuur”, fighters aligned with the government embarked upon a cross-country sweep to gather clan militias into a “National Army” – a move calculated to set simmering clan and factional rivalries aflame. Tuur then left the country, entrusting the operation, like a hand grenade with the pin already removed, to his Vice President, Hassan Issa Jama. In January 1992, fighting broke out in the eastern town of Bur’o, then several months later in Berbera. Hargeysa, though spared the fighting, was reduced to a state of near anarchy as lawless bands of fighters riding ‘technical’ vehicles mounted with machine-guns and anti-aircraft canons vied for influence within the city. The government’s utter impotence (the Presidency, Ministers’ homes and aid agency compounds were equally at the

8 Gerard Prunier, “A Candid View of the Somali National Movement” in Horn of Africa, vol 14, nos. 1-2 (January-June, 1992): p.118 9 Ibid, p.118 10 John Drysdale, Whatever Happened to Somalia? London: Haan, 1994, p.140. 


mercy of armed marauders) would have been farcical had the level of violence not been so alarming.

By the time traditional elders were able to broker a ceasefire in October 1992, the SNM had done irreparable damage to its own legacy. The Movement’s descent into fratricide had forfeited the people’s trust and its former achievements were in danger of being forgotten. In nine years of struggle the Movement had changed leadership through peaceful, democratic methods no less than five times, setting an important precedent for Somaliland’s future leaders. At the moment of victory in 1991, SNM commanders had opted not to enter the territories of pro-government clans in pursuit of vengeance (with one notable exception – an overnight incursion to the town of Borama), paving the way for a general and enduring peace between the Isaaq and their neighbours. Within two years of taking power, the Movement’s leaders stepped down and handed over power to a new civil administration; most of the rank and file fighters demobilized themselves spontaneously and returned to civil life. And the SNM’s 1982 political programme, which envisioned government based on a kind of national ‘xeer’ (customary law), foreshadowed the 1993 National Charter that would serve as the cornerstone of Somaliland’s political stability for nearly a decade. But in the public eye, the memory of such admittedly impressive achievements would henceforth be tainted by the SNM’s responsibility for a senseless and brutal civil war.

When Somaliland’s elders gathered at Borama in early 1993, they decided it was time for a change: the interim SNM government was replaced by a civil administration under the leadership of a veteran politician with no ties to the SNM, Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal.

Egal: the man Somaliland loved to hate 

The man who became President of Somaliland in May 1993 was no mere politician: he was an institution, whose imprint on Somaliland’s history would eventually span more than five decades and four terms of office as head of government. A mercurial and enigmatic personality, Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal loomed so large in Somaliland politics that for years the first order of government business each day was to ask: “Odaygii miyuu soo degay?” (i.e. to determine whether or not the “Old Man” had descended to his office from his private apartments on the second floor). Egal’s imprint on Somaliland was so profound that for many observers it seemed inconceivable that the fledgling state would survive his death in May 2002. True to form, in death as in life, Egal proved his pundits wrong.

Egal could hardly have presented a greater contrast to the SNM leadership he succeeded at Somaliland’s helm. As a youthful Prime Minister of Somaliland at the moment of independence in 1960 he was one of the architects of Somali unification; he was also one of its principal beneficiaries, rising in 1967 to the post of Prime Minister. On 15 October 1969, when Somali President Abdirashid


Ali Sharmarke was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard, Egal hastened back to Mogadishu from a trip overseas in order to arrange for election of a new President by the National Assembly. Instead, a group of army officers took power six days later in an efficient coup d’etat and Egal was arrested together with other leading members of the democratic regime.

Egal would eventually spend nearly twelve years incarcerated in Barre’s prisons, half of them in solitary confinement. Unlike many other Isaaq intellectuals and activists who joined the SNM upon their release, Egal chose to align himself with the Barre regime and was rewarded with posts as Ambassador to India and President of the Chamber of Commerce. He made no secret of his antipathy toward the SNM and is alleged by his detractors of having authored a bizarre series of sycophantic letters to Siyad Barre, denouncing the rebel movement and supporting the government’s repressive policies in the Northwest11.

When the SNM declared Somaliland’s independence in May 1991, Egal made known his opposition to the scheme. In July of the same year, he accepted an invitation from the Djibouti government to take part as an elder statesman in peace talks intended to restore national government to Somalia – talks the new Somaliland government had declined to attend. The conference reaffirmed the unity and territorial integrity of Somalia and declared the formation of an administration in Mogadishu.

Less than two years later, when Egal swore upon the Qur’an his inaugural oath as President of Somaliland, few observers believed he had truly changed his views on the question of Somali unity. His efforts to refute such allegations in later years would prove largely futile, and doubts about the sincerity of his commitment to Somaliland would haunt him until his death. Still, Egal never shrank from a challenge, and upon taking office he set to work burnishing his credentials as a Somalilander.

He got his first high profile opportunity soon after taking office in 1993. When the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM), an international nation-building mission with over 30,000 troops deployed in the south, began courting opposition figures from Somaliland as part of its efforts to form a new national government, Egal took the top UN official in Somalia to task for undermining Somaliland’s peace and stability. His protest earned a contrite reply from the UN Secretary General via his Special Envoy, Admiral Jonathan Howe. But within a matter of months UNOSOM was back at its political intrigues, and Egal ordered the expulsion of the UNOSOM representative in Hargeysa. It was a tactic he would employ often in later years, declaring numerous international staff personae non grata in Somaliland, including a Special

11 Basha Y. Abdirahman, A Political Profile of Mohamed Ibrahim Egal. Unpublished draft, London, 1995. 


Envoy of the European Commission and a Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Program.

Taking Egal’s rhetoric as a unit of measure, no stauncher defender of Somaliland’s independence ever lived. A colourful orator in both Somali and English, Egal’s campaign for international recognition took the form of a kind of literary stream of consciousness: a flow of idiosyncratic letters and faxes (often under his own signature) to foreign diplomats, UN officials and heads of state. In a signed May 1994 statement he declared Somaliland’s secession “irreversible” and warned (with characteristic bombast) that the readiness of Somalilanders to “fight bitterly with unshakeable resolve for their independence” was an “absolute truth which can only be ignored at the peril of the peace of the Horn of Africa12.” Later the same year he threatened in a press interview that that if pro-unity forces tried to force Somaliland back under Mogadishu’s fiat, “We will bury them here13.”

During the mid-1990s, Egal instructed his administration to develop stronger arguments in favour of Somaliland’s recognition. A lengthy government dossier – the first of its kind – setting out Somaliland’s history and its right to self-determination was circulated to delegations at the July 1996 summit of the Organization of African Unity in Cameroun. A year later, when floods in Hargeysa unearthed mass graves in which victims of the Barre regime had been buried, Egal seized upon the “discovery” to publicize Somaliland’s ■ cause (neglecting to mention that the existence and locations of several burial grounds had in fact been known since 1991). By so doing, he also managed to claim some of the political territory previously dominated by the SNM and thus to broaden his credibility with the Somaliland public.

Egal’s efforts to secure for Somaliland a place on the world stage continued through the late 1990s. In late 1999 he called upon the UN to upgrade Somaliland’s security status arguing that its treatment on par with the rest of Somalia was unfairly scaring away foreign investment, hampering oil exploration and precluding commercial air links with the rest of the world. Early the following year, Egal offered a brigade of Somaliland troops for service with UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone. Their militia background, he asserted, would give them “psychological insight” into the minds of Sierra Leone’s fighters and an “edge” over other contingents among the Blue Helmets14. The UN, apparently unconvinced, declined his offer.

By the time Somaliland faced the first serious challenge to its de facto sovereignty – the formation of a transitional Somali government at Arta, Djibouti in August 2000 – the government’s case for recognition was well devel-

12 Official Statement of the Government ofRSL. Hargeysa: The President, 5 May 1994, p.4 13 Interview with the author for Africa Report, November-December, 1994. 14 Letter from Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal to Kieran Prendergast, 8 May 2000. 


oped. Egal stressed his support for the Arta peace initiative but advised Sir Kieran Prendergast, UN Undersecretary General for Political Affairs, that “no knowledgeable or honest observer of the conference can claim that Somaliland was represented credibly in the conference” and warned that Djibouti’s “high handed” management of the peace process “could rekindle the smothering embers of war and civil strife15.” When it became apparent that his advice would go unheeded and that the Arta conference would indeed produce a “government” that claimed jurisdiction over Somaliland, a follow-up letter to the President of the UN Security Council announced:

We shall not surrender our sovereignty. We shall not tolerate the cult of political superiority towards Somaliland which is prevalent in Mogadishu, nor the preposterous claim, evidently shared by the United Nations, that Somaliland and all its assets are by some mystical right legitimately vested in an authority in Mogadishu16.

Egal knew that the vast majority of Somalilanders didn’t read his letters to the UN so he made his pitch to his domestic audience through numerous public appearances and Presidential press statements. His preferred pulpit was the Khayriya, the open square in central Hargeysa, from which he had been addressing crowds since the 1950s. In one memorable harangue, inspired by his indignation at the Arta conference, Egal claimed that if the rest of his countrymen chose to throw in their lot with Mogadishu, he would be the last to aban^ , don the Somaliland cause. But both his domestic and international audiences only seemed to have one ear listening to such pronouncements. The other ear was attuned to Egal’s sotto voce hints that Somaliland would be prepared to enter into dialogue with a future southern Somali government on some form of association:

If something acceptable emerges in the South, we are prepared to talk about it, to see whether we can revive the Union, but not on the same terms as in 1960. We are prepared to talk about anything, and if we cannot revive the Union we will talk about what ties will bind us17.

Leaving the door ajar to some kind of association with Somalia might have made sound tactical sense for a leader under intense international pressure to moderate his government’s commitment to independence. But it made many of Egal’s countrymen uneasy, and left him vulnerable to charges from his domestic opposition that he was preparing to sell out Somaliland.

Like Egal’s domestic critics, the international community was more interested in the ambiguities of his position than his obligatory posturing as

15 Letter from Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal to Kieran Prendergast, 2 July 2000. 16 Somaliland: Demand for International Recognition. Hargeysa: Ministry of Information, 2001, p.43 17 Interview with the author, Hargeysa, 15 June 2000. 


Somaliland’s cheerleader-in-chief. In 1999, Egal put forward the notion that Somaliland should be granted special status as an autonomous territory akin to Kosovo or East Timor. Such an arrangement, he contended, would at least permit Somaliland access to World Bank and International Monetary Fund resources, pending full recognition. The August 1999 Report of the United Nations Secretary General on the situation in Somalia cited Egal’s proposal as evidence that his “previous hard-line position” had “softened”, and parts of the international media described the scheme as a “significant climbdown from his previous determination to secure international recognition for Somaliland as an independent state18.”

Egal’s conduct in face-to-face meetings with foreign dignitaries was equally ambiguous, and several generations of diplomats left his presence with the distinct impression that Somaliland’s President was prepared to compromise on the issue of independence. During the April 2000 visit of a high level American mission, the head of the US delegation confided to the President over dinner that he felt his own government had erred in its denial of recognition to Somaliland. Egal, never known to be at a loss for words, for once seemed thunderstruck and managed only to stammer (while senior members of his cabinet shifted awkwardly in their chairs) that his government would be prepared to settle for some kind of interim status for the time being. Later the same year a British Foreign Office diplomat reported that during a long meeting in Hargeysa, at which Egal did most of the talking, the President never once raised the issue of recognition. Somaliland’s opposition press had a field day taking the president to task.

In his final years, Egal’s attitude towards reunification with the south shifted perceptibly. His demands for Somaliland’s recognition became unequivocal and he grew uncompromising in his encounters with foreign diplomats. In 2001, the Somaliland government issued its most belligerent call for recognition to date. This slim red and white booklet, entitled “Somaliland: Demand for International Recognition”, carried on the front cover the image of several “looped, blood encrusted nooses” recovered from one of Hargeysa’s mass graves. The cords had been employed to bind victims of the Barre regime to one another at the moment of execution. The text of the document, which retains in places the unmistakeable flavour of Egal’s colourful prose, refers to “acts of genocide” perpetrated by the military regime19, which accuses the United Nations of campaigning for the denial of Somaliland’s recognition and of applying “persistent pressure on [the people of Somaliland] … to bend the knee in supplication to their tormentors.” “Any effort to deny or delay [Somaliland’s recognition]”, the booklet concludes, “would put the international community at risk of ignoring the most stable region of in the Horn.” In both content and tone, the booklet seems intended as a figurative gauntlet, thrown down as a challenge to any who might still believe unity with the south to be either desir- able or possible.

18 Somaliland calls for ‘special status’, BBC, 15 August, 2000 19 Ibid., p.24 


The following year, after Egal’s last official visit to Addis Ababa in March 2002, his Ethiopian hosts – who had long found his commitment lukewarm – remarked upon his apparent determination and single-mindedness on the question of independence. The same month, infuriated by the UN’s suggestion that his position on independence had softened, Egal kept the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative waiting for hours at a Hargeysa hotel before declining his request for a meeting and ordering him escorted back to the airport for the return flight to Nairobi.

The reasons behind the stiffening of Egal’s resolve may never fully be understood. Close associates have surmised that as his health began to fail him, intimations of his own mortality may have preyed on his thoughts: to be remembered as the man who brought peace, stability and perhaps even recognition to Somaliland appeared to be within Egal’s grasp, but he no longer believed that he would live to see Somalia’s second unification.

The Arta conference of May- August 2000 was undoubtedly another important factor in his thinking. Although initially supportive of the Djibouti-led peace initiative, Egal soon encountered sharp differences of opinion with1 Djibouti’s young President, Ismail Omar Guelleh, and the relationship between the two men quickly soured. As Guelleh steered the conference towards the declaration of a Somali Transitional National Government (TNG) led by Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, Egal refused an invitation to take part and raged to, the foreign press that Arta’s attempts to impose unity on Somalia and Somaliland would allow “the seeds of civil war to be sown in Somalia forever20”. In private, he admitted that whatever hope he might have once held out for a dialogue with southern political leaders had collapsed:

I’ve met most of them – except for the young ‘Aydiid and a couple of others, I’ve received them here. I don’t think these are people we can do business with […] Extracting the problem of Somaliland will help us to find a solution for the south. All Abdiqasim, Aydiid and the rest have done is to concern themselves with Somaliland, not resolving their own problems. This conceit needs to be driven from their minds21.

The May 2001 referendum is described by some of Egal’s close associates as the late President’s Rubicon. The scale of voter turnout and the overwhelming “yes” vote far exceeded his expectations. “Whatever he may have believed previously,” one of his Ministers confided, ” from May 31st onwards he was a Somalilander22.”

The true measure of Egal’s eleventh hour embrace of the Somaliland cause, however, was not the vigour of his diplomacy or the tone of his correspondence

20 Nhita Bhalla, Somaliland leader warns against union, BBC, 13 November, 2000. 21 Interview with the author, Hargeysa, 15 June 2000. 22 Interview with a Cabinet Minister, 5 April 2003. 


with world leaders. It was rather the energy with which he suddenly threw himself into the task at which he had long procrastinated and which would prove to be one of the most remarkable features of his legacy: the transformation of Somaliland’s clan-based political system into a constitutional democracy.

That Egal should be remembered chiefly for his contribution to Somaliland’s democratic development is not without irony: his qualifications as a democrat were only slightly more plausible than his credentials as a secessionist. As leader of the Somali Youth League and last Prime Minister of the democratic Somali Republic, Egal had presided over the decline of his country’s parliamentary electoral system into de facto one-party rule. The National Assembly, in which Egal’s ruling coalition held 120 of 123 seats, “had been turned into a sordid marketplace where deputies traded their votes for personal rewards with scant regard for the interests of their constituents23.” Under his leadership, “official corruption and nepotism seemed to be flourishing on a scale hitherto unknown in the Republic, …but there was little sign that either the [Prime Minister] or the President were unduly disturbed by their persistence24.” Public disaffection with Egal’s government was so profound that when President Sharmarke was assassinated in October 1969, an editorial in the English-language newspaper Dalka asked Allah to forgive him the “sin of foisting Egal on the Somali people25”, and the army’s seizure of power less than a week later was greeted with general relief and optimism.

When Egal returned from self-imposed exile to serve his ‘new’ country in 1993, his style of leadership had changed little. Behind the scenes at the Borama conference he strove to establish a Presidency with strong executive powers26. Once in power he put those powers to work, ruling mainly by decree and treating the law with roughly the measure of respect Somaliland’s qaad drivers reserve for speed bumps: the parliament and judiciary were inconveniences to be alternately bullied and ignored; he manipulated the constitution to suit his needs and ignored it when he couldn’t; and he managed the national treasury with wanton disregard for legislative or administrative controls.

Egal’s methods may not have earned him any awards for good governance, but the achievements of his administration were nevertheless remarkable. Having secured access to the revenues of Berbera port, Egal embarked on a course of institutional development and consolidation. Well aware that the SNM continued to wield significant military potential, he named a number of the Movement’s leaders (mainly from the ‘Alan ‘As faction that helped to depose Abdirahman Tuur) to his cabinet and other posts in his administration.

23 Ibid,pA5. 24 I.M. Lewis, cited in Harold D. Nelson (éd.), Somalia: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: The American University, 1982, p.45. 25 “The End of an Era?” in Dalka, Ser.2, VoLI, No.2, 15 October 1969. 26 Alternatives under discussion included a Presidential Council and a semi-presidential system in which executive powers would lie chiefly with a Prime Minister. 


With the co-operation of clan elders, clan militia from western and central Somaliland were integrated into a new national army. Roadblocks were removed from major highways and the various informal “taxes” on commercial goods were integrated into a standard, unified revenue structure. Civil administration was expanded and the number of former civil servants on the payroll increased dramatically. Former police officers were put back in uniform and deployed on the streets of the major towns. Even the United Nations, whose leadership was at best indifferent to developments in Somaliland, acknowledged “the peaceful reconciliation process has moved forward impressively” and “noted the formation of a functioning administration under the leadership of Mr. Egal27.” For the first time since the early 1980s, the people of Somaliland began to experience a measure of normalcy.

Politically, the situation in the aftermath of the Borama conference was less than settled. Leaders of the large and influential Garhajis clan, still smarting from the 1992 war and the unceremonious ejection of their kinsman, Abdirahman Tuur, from the Presidency, withdrew their support from the government and sought the backing of southern faction leaders in mounting a challenge to Egal. Throughout 1994 tensions between the government and the Garhajis political leadership continued to escalate and in November 1994 a military showdown at Hargeysa airport erupted into full-scale civil war.

The 1994-6 civil war remains an open sore in Somaliland’s collective psyche, and Egal’s role in that episode is one of some controversy. Many Garhajis continue to hold Egal, together with the leaders of his Habar Awal clan, responsible for starting and sustaining the conflict. Egal’s supporters, however, argue that he offered every possible concession to the opposition before resorting to force. Whatever the case, once battle was joined, Egal turned out to be an implacable foe. When the Garhajis elders sought peace talks with their counterparts from the Habar Awal clan, claiming that they no longer accepted the legitimacy of the Somaliland government, Egal insisted that they negotiate directly with his administration, and not with individual camps within his coalition. The failure of the two sides to agree on a modality for negotiation prolonged the war by many months. In 1996, with neither side able to win a decisive advantage, hostilities eventually fizzled out and displaced families returned to their homes in Hargeysa and Bur’o. No comprehensive peace deal was ever signed, leaving many grievances on both sides unresolved.

Remarkably, Egal emerged from the war with his grip on power strengthened. At the height of the civil war, the government had declared a state of emergency and won approval from the Guurti (the upper House of Parliament) for an 18-month extension of the President’s term, which had been set to expire in May 1995. It was to be the first of several successful bids by Egal to circum-

27 Letter to Mr. Egal from Jonathan T. Howe, Special Representative of the Secretary General, 1 October 1993. 


vent the National Charter and prolong his term of office, while shaping the future Constitution of Somaliland on his own terms.

Since 1994, Egal and the Parliament had been locked in a stalemate over the drafting of a permanent Constitution for Somaliland. The National Charter agreed to at Borama stipulated only that the Parliament would approve a new constitution: a guideline that most parliamentarians understood to mean that the House would actually draft the document. Egal’s reading of the Charter, however, left the drafting of the Constitution to the executive branch, which would subsequently submit it to the Parliament for endorsement only. Thus while a parliamentary commission got down to work on a draft text, Egal hired a Sudanese constitutional lawyer to prepare a version more to his own liking. In November 1996, with Egal’s mandate set to expire, negotiations between the executive and legislative branches over the draft constitution were still deadlocked. It would be six more years before the impasse was resolved.

Egal approached the 1996 National Conference that marked both the end of the civil war and the end of his first term. with characteristic determination. Armed with the advantages of incumbency, including an impressive off-budget political war chest, Egal managed to rewrite the conference ground rules, arranging for the two House of Parliament, an institution with a vested interest in continuity, to furnish half of the delegates. In early 1997 he was re-elected easily to a second, five-year, term – in large part thanks to the support of his wartime adversaries, the Garhajis. With characteristic pragmatism, Egal appointed a number of opposition leaders to his cabinet while quietly purging his ‘Alan ‘As allies from positions of power and influence.

Somaliland’s progress during Egal’s second term of office was even more impressive than the first. The economy surged as towns and villages experienced a construction boom. Migrant workers from Ethiopia and southern Somalia (including several thousand refugees from the latter) flooded into Somaliland to take up jobs in the informal sector. Telecommunications, air travel and light industry entered a period of unprecedented growth, partly fuelled by investment from business concerns in southern Somalia. Private investors also contributed to a dramatic expansion of social services like health care, education and water, albeit in a chaotic and often irresponsible way; meanwhile, foreign aid agencies helped the government to improve public service provision, repair economic infrastructure and improve the management of Berbera port and major airports.

In May 2001 with less than a year remaining in Egal’s second term of office, the provisional Constitution was finally submitted for popular approval via referendum. The version put to a vote was an awkward compromise between Egal and the Parliament, in which much of the democratic intent of the document was diluted by ambiguities and omissions that tend to favour the role of the executive branch. In any event, most Somalilanders took little interest in the contents of their new constitution beyond Article One, which states:


The country which gained its independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on 26th June 1960 and was known as the Somaliland Protectorate and which joined Somalia on 1st July 1960 so as to form the Somali Republic and then regained its independence by the Declaration of the Conference of the Somaliland communities held in Burao between 27th April 1991 and 15th May 1991 shall hereby and in accordance with this Constitution become a sovereign and independent country known as “The Republic of Somaliland”.

For all intents and purposes, the constitutional referendum served primarily as a plebiscite on Somaliland’s independence. Supporters turned out in the hundreds of thousands while refuseniks – especially in the regions of Sool and eastern Sanaag – generally chose to stay home, producing the somewhat unbelievable result of a 97 per cent “yes” vote. The international community generally stayed away during the poll, but the report of a team of international observers fielded by the Initiatives and Référendums Institute (IRI), an American organization dedicated to the promotion of democracy, concluded that the referendum had been “conducted fairly, freely, and openly […] and in accordance with internationally accepted standards28.” According to the IRI team’s report, assuming that all those who did not turn out to vote would have marked their ballots “No”, the proportion of Somalilanders in favour of the constitution and, by extension independence, would still be about 66 per cent – a persuasive majority under any circumstances. ” ‘ “

With the referendum safely behind him and a new constitution firmly in place, Egal turned his attention to the next phase in the démocratisation process: multiparty elections. In December 2001, with local elections clearly past due, the Parliament awarded Egal one last extension of his mandate in order to complete the political transition. Tension grew across the country in anticipation of a poll that few people expected to be free and fair. One group even lobbied for another national conference in place of elections (apparently having forgotten how easily Egal had engineered his own victory in 1997 through just such a process). The opposition’s fears were not without foundation: a constitutional ceiling of three political parties, combined with electoral legislation requiring parties to win at least 20 per cent of the vote in four of Somaliland’s six regions, seemed designed to eliminate potential contenders and produce a de facto one party state. And the dedication of government personnel and resources to the campaign effort of UDUB, Egal’s unelected “ruling” party, assured a less than level playing field. But the opposition’s allegations that Egal would cling to power by hook or by crook were never tested: in May 2001, Somaliland’s second President died while undergoing medical treatment in South Africa. As the public reeled in shock, Vice President Dahir Rayale Kahin was sworn in by Parliament as Somaliland’s third Head of State.

28 Final Report of the Initiative & Referendum Institute’s (IRI) Election Monitoring Team, Somaliland National Referendum – May 31 2001. Washington, D.C.: Citizen Lawmaker Press, July 27, 2001, p. 58. 


Egal’s funeral, at a wind-blown, sun-baked burial ground among the dunes to the west of Berbera evoked unprecedented scenes of public mourning. Thousands of ordinary people turned out to witness the event, many of them setting out on foot hundreds of kilometres from Berbera in the hope that a passing vehicle would give them a lift. Admirers and detractors alike gathered together beside his grave to pay their respects. From his grave, Somaliland’s enigmatic late President posed them all one last conundrum: what to make of his legacy?

There is no question that Egal left Somaliland a better place than he found it, but public opinion is bitterly divided as to whether Somaliland improved because of his leadership or in spite of it. Politically, Egal’s critics accused him of dictatorial instincts and an autocratic style of leadership. But one long-serving minister described him posthumously as “the only democrat in the cabinet”:

When he had an idea he would bring it before the cabinet for discussion. If enough ministers rejected it, he would take it back, or ask a committee to work on the issue and propose a solution. The only issues he refused to take advice on were anything concerning the Habar Yunis [his mother’s clan] or Berbera. He felt he knew them better than anybody. But on any other subject he would listen29.

Egal’s peculiar combination of authoritarianism and finely tuned political intuition produced a schoolmasterly approach to democratic reform, as deliberate and inflexible as if he were reading from the pages of a textbook. Criticism of his methods – often justified – was largely reactive: none of his rivals ever managed to seize the initiative by putting forward a more democratic Constitution, a better crafted electoral law, or practical solutions to such problems as voter registration. Egal made the rules and he set the pace.

Egal’s ruthlessness served Somaliland in other ways as well. The whirlwind cabinet reshuffles of his first term wore down the residual factionalism of the SNM and slowly eroded clan claims to ownership of certain cabinet posts. His Machiavellian intrigues were intended, among other things, to so preoccupy Somalilanders with their own struggles for power that they were to busy to even contemplate involvement in the conflict in the South. In so doing, he believed he was protecting his people from the spread of contagion. As one of his Ministers put it, “Egal refused to support the different groups fighting in the south. He used to say: ‘If we support them we will become part of them30.’ “

Egal’s apparently effortless leadership on such issues led many to underestimate both the enormity of the task and the depth of his political genius. Somalilanders are only just beginning to understand the burden of responsibil-

29 Interview with the author, 16 March 2003. 30 Interview by the author with a Cabinet Minister, 16 March 2003. 


ity that he carried for nearly a decade: leadership of a fractious people and their impoverished government under conditions of political uncertainty, international isolation, and virtual economic embargo. As their new leaders struggle to surmount this formidable challenge through trial and error, Somalilanders are likely to remember ‘Ina Egal’, the man they once loved to hate, with growing nostalgia.

In Egal’s shadow: Somaliland’s interim President

Egal’s sudden death in May 2002 and the transition to his successor, Dahir Rayale Kahin, marked a watershed in Somaliland politics: first, it was a critical test of the capacity of Somaliland’s fledgling political institutions; second, the passing of the torch from an Isaaq President to a member of the Gadabursi clan was something that would have seemed inconceivable just months earlier. Six months later, the unexpectedly smooth conduct of Somaliland’s first local elections for more than thirty years seemed to confirm that a new political era was dawning.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving, and the “constitutional transition” was no exception. As soon as the news of Egal’s death reached Hargeysa, leaders of the Guurti and House of Representatives met to decide on a course of action. Fearing that any delay might create the impression of a political vacuum, they agreed to swear in Rayale as the new President without delay under Article 86 of the Constitution. But Article 86 of the Constitution applies only after a party system with direct elections comes into effect. Until then, Article 130 the Constitution stipulates that the Speaker of the House of Elders shall fill the vacant office for a period of up to 45 days, within which the two House of Parliament should jointly elect a new President. In sum, Rayale found himself President of Somaliland not because the Constitution said so, but by historical accident.

After so many years in Egal’s shadow, Rayale was an unknown quantity. While outsiders generally expected him to fall immediately under the sway of more influential and ambitious Isaaq politicians, many Somalilanders expected (or hoped) that he would come into his own as a leader and move rapidly to seize the reins of government. As a Gadabursi and a political outsider, they reasoned, he would be able to embark upon a programme of reform unencumbered by the web of largely intra-Isaaq rivalries that held government hostage to clan interest, cronyism and corruption. Some even speculated that Rayale might declare himself a caretaker President, unaffiliated with any of the main political parties, and thus assume the role of referee in the imminent elections instead of presenting himself as a candidate.

Rayale seemed disinclined to rock the boat with radical reform. He chose instead to follow in Egal’s footsteps, keeping the cabinet largely intact and win-


ning his party’s endorsement as presidential candidate for the April 2003 elections. His boldest move in the early days of his term was to dismiss more than a dozen senior judges in a short-lived campaign against judicial corruption. Only in the immediate run-up to elections did he begin to make significant changes in government, cementing political alliances by dispensing political and administrative appointments.

Where Rayale did venture to depart with precedent, he typically found himself mired in controversy. His first major foreign policy initiative was to mend fences with the Djiboutian President, whose relations with Egal had remained poisonous since the Arta conference. In the course of a three-day visit to Djibouti in June 2002, Rayale managed to reach agreement with Guelleh on the reopening of an important border post near Seyla’ and the establishment of an inter-ministerial standing committee to address issues of common concern. Public opinion among the Isaaq was sceptical of the deal, which the Hargeysa press suggested ran counter to Somaliland’s interests. At the time of writing, Rayale’s gamble had yet to pay off: the border post remained open, but the inter-ministerial standing committee had yet to meet and Djibouti’s diplomatic posture towards Somaliland remained patently hostile.

In December 2002, Rayale broke new ground on the domestic front by becoming the first Somaliland President to visit Las Anod, capital of Sool Region. The timing, just prior to local elections, made the visit appear more like a campaign stunt than a genuine political initiative. The trip degenerated into a fiasco when militia loyal to Puntland leader Colonel Abdillahi Yusuf attempted to assassinate the Somaliland President, and Rayale’s delegation withdrew from the town in disarray. Although public opinion in Somaliland generally pointed the finger at Abdillahi Yusuf for having responded to a peaceful political initiative with unjustified violence, opposition leaders charged that the visit had been recklessly planned and poorly prepared. The political fallout was aggravated by leaks from within the administration that the government had doled out roughly US$ 800,000 to local leaders ahead of Rayale’s visit, abandoning fiscal discipline to the winds and draining the treasury ahead of elections.

Soon afterwards, Puntland’s military ruler won a decisive victory against militia opposed to his leadership, driving several hundred of them in disarray across the border into Somaliland. Abandoning Somaliland’s longstanding, unwritten rule of non-interference in Somali affairs, Rayale allowed them to remain, reorganize and re-arm. Opposition leaders contributed to the confusion, alternately calling for expulsion of the Puntland opposition and demanding that the government take a tougher line with Abdillahi Yusuf. But as the presidential contest heated up in early 2003, debate on the issue was given over to electioneering, with little genuine consideration of the longer-term, strategic ramifications of having played favourites in one theatre of Somalia’s protracted conflict.

Somaliland’s next President will inevitably have to choose between continu-


ity and change on a broad range of issues, both foreign and domestic. Such choices should be informed to some degree by the successes and failures of the past. But the challenges confronting the next government call for fresh ideas and original, visionary leadership. It remains to be seen whether or not the multiparty system will produce the kind of leaders that Somaliland really needs.

Multiparty Politics: Forward into the Past

With Somaliland’s democratic transition well advanced and its international credibility on the rise, it may be tempting to believe that the aspiring state is drawing inexorably nearer to its own Fukayamesque “End of History”: constitutional democracy, free market capitalism and (presumably) international recognition. Reality, as always, is more complex. Somaliland’s progress is still fragile, and there remain significant hurdles to be cleared. Somaliland’s history is just beginning, not ending.

First and foremost, the shift from a familiar, consensus-based political system to one in which there will inevitably be winners and losers is a proposition fraught with risk. The results of the December 2002 local elections suggest that the April 2003 Presidential round will be closely fought, making it more likely that the outcome will be hotly disputed. The feebleness of Somaliland’s judiciary means that it is ill-equipped to play the role of referee if disputes arise and it is unclear whether the parties would accept the intervention of the Guurti. The onus for maintaining peace and order in the wake of elections will therefore fall chiefly upon the party leaders themselves.

The hazards of the post-election period will increase if parliamentary elections are postponed by another two or three years, as they seem likely to be. Parliamentary elections could provide some consolation to the also-rans by allowing them to play the part of “loyal opposition” in a multiparty parliament. If parliamentary elections are delayed, the losers in the presidential poll will effectively be locked out of national politics for years – a situation akin to a political pressure cooker. The fact that alternative political parties are proscribed by law eliminates another potentially valuable safety valve.

Even if the election and its aftermath go smoothly, the new government will still find itself with a full plate of governance problems on its hands. Corruption is rife in all branches of the administration, largely because the government cannot afford to pay a living wage. The current constitution, riddled with contradictions and omissions, is a worryingly weak document upon which to build an aspiring constitutional democracy. Electoral laws and procedures would benefit from urgent reform ahead of parliamentary elections. No census or voter register exists. The judiciary is too weak to enforce the rule of law, and is anyway structurally subordinate to the executive branch. An extra-legal security service (nicknamed the Mukhabaraat, after the Egyptian intelligence arm), accountable


only to the President, has survived unchallenged by either parliament or the existing political parties. Government revenue collection and distribution remain tightly centralized, leaving little real power to newly elected district and municipal councils. And the proliferation in recent years of new administrative districts (not to mention the coastal region of Saaxil), which lack both juridical status and boundaries, has already proven a divisive issue – and perhaps even an explosive one.

The question of independence also continues to divide Somaliland’s people. Those who favour unity with Somalia represent a significant minority, mainly drawn from among the non-Isaaq clans. Their opposition to the independence platform is in part a reflection of Somaliland’s origins as a vehicle for the expression of specifically Isaaq grievances and aspirations. But it also reflects the legitimate interests that many of them maintain in southern Somalia. Successive Somaliland governments have invested little real effort in coming to terms with this problem, preferring to co-opt individual politicians from among these clans and to dispense patronage as a substitute for genuine political engagement. In addition, they have resorted to a combination of polemic and patronage politics intended to convince themselves and their supporters that their problems are external (e.g. the result of interference from Puntland or Mogadishu) rather than domestic. In consequence, administration in some eastern districts remains weak or non-existent, elections are still not possible in all parts of the territory and a segment of the population remains opposed to the very notion of Somaliland’s independence..

Somaliland’s evolution to date has favoured the western part of the territory, while the east remains poorly integrated in both political and economic terms. Geography accounts for only part of the problem: the ambivalence of the eastern Harti clans towards the question of independence is also a product of history, economics, and clan ties with the South. The advent of electoral politics threatens to further exacerbate the Harti sense of alienation: all three political parties put forward Isaaq-Gadabursi leadership combinations (i.e. candidates for President and Vice President) in the April 2003 poll.

The existence of a minority opposed to the independence agenda is not likely to prove decisive in whether or not Somaliland eventually obtains recognition. Most newly independent states in the modern era have faced similar domestic challenges. But Somaliland’s long-term viability would require of its leaders that they redress these inequalities, be they real or perceived, and establish a social and political order incorporating all clans and social groups on an equal footing. To do otherwise would not only amount to betrayal of the liberation ideology upon which Somaliland claims to be based, but also threaten Somaliland’s long-term stability.

However deeply Somalilanders may feel about the questions of independence and recognition, the new government must grapple with a range of far more immediate and practical issues. Somaliland’s economy has been in the


doldrums since the Saudi authorities introduced a ban on Somali livestock in 1998. Little effort has been expended in identifying alternative export markets or developing a framework for economic diversification. Cross border commerce with Ethiopia has been hampered by customs disputes and the absence of a realistic body of regulation to govern trade between the two countries. And over the long term, the massive expansion of port and dry port facilities in neighbouring Djibouti threatens to leave Berbera high and dry within a few short years – unless Somaliland can make its own trade corridor with Ethiopia far more efficient and competitive.

Admittedly, the government’s ability to influence the economy is subject to severe constraints: it has no credit rating, is ineligible to borrow from international financial institutions, and receives no external budgetary support. There are no international banks operating on Somaliland territory and foreign investors are wary of investing in an unrecognised entity that is juridically still part of a failed state. Previous administrations in Somaliland, for their part, have done little to improve economic performance. The Somaliland Shilling is still subject to a wildly impractical dual exchange rate and parliamentary oversight of the budget is, by and large, a fiction. The investment law remains incomplete and, given the current state of the judiciary, is unlikely to be enforced. Potential investors are therefore at the mercy of their local business partners and any major investor inevitably finds himself having to deal directly with the President or his Ministers. Not surprisingly, there are few significant foreign investors in Somaliland.

Somaliland’s social capital has been severely depleted by years of war, neglect and emigration. Social services are underdeveloped and of generally poor quality: health care and education are almost entirely unregulated, either by government or by effective professional associations. The legal, accounting and engineering professions are in a similarly chaotic state. The number of professionals inside the country is inadequate for reconstruction needs, and the educational system is turning our too few graduates of too low a standard to compensate for the brain drain. Returnees from the diaspora have made significant contributions to Somaliland’s development to date, but many more are discouraged from returning home by the prospect of uncertain livelihoods, substandard health care, and limited educational opportunities for children.

“Civil society” in Somaliland is only marginally more assertive than government in tackling such issues, often preferring self-censorship to political or social activism. Many local organizations seem wedded to the notion of the “workshop” as a vehicle for social change, unaccompanied by active lobbying, direct action or legislative reform. Pressure groups concerned with issues like human rights, press freedom, gender equity and HIV/ AIDS have rarely translated their public statements and demands into concrete political action. Political leaders across the spectrum seem to have calculated, probably correctly, that they can therefore ignore civil society agendas with impunity.


In the lead-up to the 2003 elections, Somaliland’s political parties showed little stomach for reform, gravitating instead towards the politics of personality, clan and peer groups. Although all three parties (UDUB, KULMIYE and UCID) prepared political programmes, they generally amounted to little more than imprecise and often implausible election promises. This is not entirely their fault: the Somaliland electorate is much more interested in the ‘who’s who’ of politics than the ‘what’ or ‘how’. And decades of centralized and autocratic rule have accustomed many Somalis to be what one commentator has called “placid ‘takers’ of government policy rather than creators of it31.” Either way, the campaign has offered little real insight into which of the parties (if any) is best equipped to tackle the multiple challenges facing Somaliland, and there is little to suggest that any of the parties really represents the kind of fresh blood or new thinking that Somalilanders had hoped would emerge through the multiparty system.

In sum, as Somaliland’s political system enters a period of acute uncertainty, its future leaders seem inclined to offer their people continuity rather than change. It is a luxury they can ill afford. Somaliland’s incomplete reconciliation, weak governance structures, and critical economic condition all call for courageous and visionary leadership. Somaliland’s people are still waiting to find out whether or not their new leaders have what it takes to rise to the challenge.

What Kind of State?

The challenge for Somaliland’s next government is no longer to demonstrate whether nor not Somaliland is a state. Its predecessors have already achieved much in that regard, and countless visitors to the territory can attest that the unrecognized Republic looks, smells, and tastes more like a state that many other countries on the continent: Montevideo rules aside, few other governments in the neighbourhood can boast of such vigorous political pluralism, press freedom, or market freedom. Somaliland’s human rights record, though far from perfect, is one of the best in a bad neighbourhood. Imagine the denial of major export markets and the cessation of virtually all foreign aid – the conditions under which Somaliland survives – and the number of states that could match Somaliland’s achievements with respect to peace, security and governance dwindles even lower. In sum, Somaliland passes the “banana test” with flying colours. The question remains, however: what kind of state does Somaliland want to be?

In the past, Somaliland’s leaders have been content to measure their progress against a negative standard: the blind ambition of Somalia’s warlords and their criminal disregard for the welfare of both the people the claim to lead and the nation they claim to represent. Given such a point of reference, perhaps it is not

31 Carolyn Logan, Overcoming the State-Society Disconnect in the Former Somalia: Putting Somali Political and Economic Resources at the Root of Reconstruction. Washington/Nairobi: Paper prepared for USAID/REDSO, September 2000. 


surprising that Somaliland’s leaders sometimes give the impression that they deserve to be congratulated merely for having avoided self-destruction.

Ordinary Somalilanders today seem to want more, referring to themselves as “hostages to peace” – desirous of change but fearful that any tinkering with their political system might trigger its sudden implosion. But what exactly should they be afraid of? Not one another: no unresolved blood feuds or “ancient hatreds” currently threaten the general peace. Somalilanders – like the broader Somali community – intermingle, intermarry and do business together in complete freedom from fear. But stir politics into the mix and the temperature rises. Tempers flare and accusations fly: one group allegedly dominates both government and business; another believes that it was born to rule; yet a third claims that it has not yet had its “turn” at the helm of state. The “three old ladies” (a reference to the term Habar in the names of three of the largest Isaaq sub-clans) want to monopolize their grip on power to the exclusion of everyone else. And so the story goes.

The real threat to peace in Somaliland is the degree to which political leaders may be prepared to indulge such clan mythologizing by either word or deed: to surround themselves with political cronies and clan relatives, distribute favours to kinsmen and partisans, or activate the collective grievances of kinship groups for political purposes. Somalilanders are not “hostages to peace” so much as they are hostages to the many ruthless and ambitious clan opportunists (popularly known as af-minshaaro or “saw mouths”) among their putative leaders.

In theory at least, the transition to a constitutional democracy and multiparty electoral system is intended to eliminate political af-minshaarism, redirecting political energies in new and productive ways. But in reality, the foundations of democracy and the rule of law in Somaliland are still fragile and the transition has far to go. Power remains overwhelmingly centralized, concentrated in the hands of a largely unaccountable elite. Corruption is endemic and the competing demands of clan-based interest groups for financial and political payoffs continue to provide opportunities for venal or complacent leaders to maintain power and influence. Fortunately, the government’s relative poverty and its lack of coercive authority render it somewhat accountable to the public, and thus prevent political intrigues and patronage games from becoming serious enough to threaten the general peace.

But if Somaliland receives international recognition, all that could change. The internal balance of power will shift dramatically. Somalilanders don’t need to look far beyond their borders to see how the combination of ambitious leaders, weak institutions and foreign aid can breed corrupt and sclerotic government, crony capitalism, and popular apathy. Nor should their future leaders need reminding that if they succumb to such temptations, they will be treading the well-worn path that has already led to the collapse of Somalia and other states around Africa.

Somaliland’s leadership have challenged the existence of the Somali


Democratic Republic on the grounds that states do not simply exist, but that they exist for a reason: to promote the welfare of their citizens. If a state fails in that primordial duty, then its legitimacy – and possibility it’s very existence – should be forfeit. That an unpopular argument in a part of the world where the rights of states have historically taken precedence over the rights of their citizens. But Somaliland’s declaration of independence defied international opinion, affirming that the new state would exist to serve the people and not the reverse. As Somaliland edges ever closer to recognized statehood, its leaders would do well to reflect upon that initial promise, and to remember that they will ultimately be judged not merely on whether Somaliland becomes a state, but on the kind of state that Somaliland becomes.
April 2003.


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