The Quest for Somali Self-Governance

Will the London Conference Take on Somalia’s Oldest and Toughest Region?


Current Disputed boundaries

On the morning of Tuesday, February 7, 2012 Local sources and witnesses report that Somaliland forces launched an attack on Buhpodle. By noon the fighting increases as Somaliland forces were bolstered by reinforcement from nearby military camps and the shooting was over by early afternoon hours.

The clash left at least 18 wounded, mostly fighters from local clan militia and 3 bodies were brought to Buhoodle medical treatment centers. The Buhoodle clan militia captured 3 technicals from the Somaliland troops after the Somaliland Army retreated.

It was Somaliland’s second attack on Buhoodle since January 2012, when over 80 Somaliland soldiers were killed in day-long battles.

Welcome to Sool, Sanaag and Cayn (pronounced Ayn) Somalia’s next major hot spot. Currently all eyes are on Mogadishu, al-Shabaab and foreign armies, but if and when that problem is solved the territorial and sovereignty claims and counterclaims in this northern region will quickly take center stage.

Fighters from a disturbing array of factions are drifting into Buhoodle, a border town on the Ethiopian and Somalia border in the Cayn region. This city of 150,000 is inside the contested region known as SSC for Sool, Sanaag and Cayn. Las Anod, a town of 70,000, is under the unwelcome control of Somaliland forces. In Baraan, the capital of Sanaag, protesters chant and yell at visiting Somaliland politicians that they will never submit to their control. They seek to be part of HBM-SSC (Hoggaanka Badbaadada iyo Mideynta SSC), the state of “Khatuumo” or Puntland, depending on their view of their region.

Somaliland sent troops into Buhoodle this January as a show of force to dissuade a political meeting. They pulled out. But when Somaliland tries to take physical control over many of these regions protests often turn violent. Depending on who is drawing the map the three districts of SSC could remove a major chunk from Somaliland’s unfounded claim to colonial borders or be viewed as a natural administrative region with Puntland (and therefore Somalia) based on clan dynamics.

The players in the current battle over SSC are: Somaliland, who claim that the 1884 colonial defined borders define their sharp north south border with Puntland; Puntland, who sees the region as part of it’s historic ethnic mix; and finally the SSC movement, which sees good historical reason for a separate political entity. To add more confusion, there is the former Makhir movement based on the former Warsengeli sultanate that laid claim to yet again different invisible borders. Add to that the non-colonial ethnic borders created by clan and subclan and you have a Gordian Knot of competing claims.

Dervish Beginnings, Disturbing Futures

As the seat of the Dervish movement, Buhoodle has a symbolic importance. Somalis are proud of the international impact of opposing and defeating larger outside forces.

With this heritage of fierce independence (and of defeating colonial masters as well as the much larger Somaliland military units by SSC militias), it is not surprising that new players have entered the town to exploit and manipulate this history for their own gains. The players reported to have moved inside Buhoodle include fighters from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), former fighters from Al-Etihad Al-Islamiya the now defunct Islamic group once led by Sheikh Aweys, the terrorist group al-Shabaab with their families and with militiamen loyal to U.S. citizens Mr. Ali Khalif Galayd and Ali Esse Abdi. It is not clear if these forces seek safe haven or will actively support a cause, but it is a troubling development. Starting a fight against outsiders in the birth place of Somali independence is an attractive meme.

Buhoodle area and the region known as SSC have their origins in the legacy of the Dervish movement led by Muhammad Abdullah Hassan who fought back the British and others in four campaigns. Somalia’s affirmed position as a proud independent Muslim nation in Africa ended in 1921 when the region was bombed, attacked and subsumed into British Somaliland. That surrender has not quenched local Somalis desire for self-determination.

©Somalia Report

Las Anod, Sool has been occupied since October 2007

A Case for Closer Examination

With the advent of the London Conference and the earnest attempt to integrate as many stakeholders as possible it might be productive to look into the divisions that exist in this little-discussed region. In the two-decades of failed state, Somalia has spawned over a dozen breakaway regions. It is easy to dismiss the claims of SSC as being a local clan-based dispute that does not merit international attention. This would be wrong.

SSC remains the most critical fault line and the possible key to see whether Somalia’s future is either as a unified nation or a cluster of clan-centric states. If internal and external forces can accurately resolve this problem then it may lead to a template to reunite many of the other players under an equitable national banner with federal rights. Most of these breakaway states were faced with accepting the status quo anarchy or forging their own imperfect, but far more stable structure.

This open sore is perfect for those who seek to inflame and shift the indigenous democratic issues to insert their own agenda. Al Qaeda has exploded ethnic and religious splits the southern Philippines to Afghanistan to London. Whoever infects the SSC governance gap between Somaliland’s eastern fantasy of colonial division and Puntland’s pragmatic Western flank will sow the seeds of Somalia’s next battle ground.

There are new players filtering in from the south by land pushed out by the entrance of reinvigorated foreign forces and another influx from the sea and Yemen by boat. Some are al-Shabaab fighters traveling by ship to join Atom in Galgala and others fighters returning to regroup make their next move.

Sool, Sanaag, Cayn

Unlike the Warsengeli and other sultanates, the Dhulbahante clan never signed a protectorate agreement with Britain. The clans maintained their own governments and evolved into political parties. The reunification and independence of Somalia followed these natural structures until the central government collapsed. This is not to be confused with the SSC Regional Administration or HBM-SSC (Hoggaanka Badbaadada iyo Mideynta SSC) is also known as Darwiishia (the Dervishes) which is based on a 1905 vote of independence but is not a clan based concept where the majority were Dhulbahante

The fault lines in SSC run east to west with one group seeing their future with Puntland due to ethnic bonds, another seeing Somaliland as the logical state to align with. There are independent minded residents who see Sool Sanaag and Cayn as its own nation sate in the model of either a federal district envisioned by Puntland but none see SSC as an independent nation like Somaliland but rather part of Puntland which is recognized along with the TFG as the official structure for governance.

Linking SSC with Somaliland would simply recast the people of SSC as a minority Dhulbahante clan inside an unrecognized Isaaq nation something that the proto state of Awdal chafes at. SSC finds itself more of a chess piece moved back and forth by the efforts (or lack of efforts) by Somaliland and Puntland to establish their own differing agendas.


No matter how positive and peaceful Somaliland is, the region has still not been recognized by similar breakaway regions like Eritrea who much like Somaliland fought a war and chose independence. The region’s pride in its stability was always by comparison to the chaotic south of Somalia. As stability in Mogadishu begins to increase and reconstruction begins and as the SSC conflict inflames that comparison may look less and less sterling. In reality Somaliland’s legal status is no different than any other breakaway region of Somalia.

After 13 years of going it alone, Somaliland still does meet the legal definition of statehood which is other states formally stating their recognition. Somaliland and it’s residents have every right to self determination. But exactly who is and who isn’t a resident of Somaliland is the key. Claiming both historic precedence for its eastern border, but not truly governing or benefitting the region of SSC. Somaliland believes that the nations of Africa, like it or not, were defined by European powers at the turn of the 19th century. They build upon OAU acceptance of their current state borders. The Hargeisa government maintains its own districts, government and elections for the eastern border but in reality has little to no beneficial impact on the remote region. It makes even less sense to residents of SSC to join Somaliland who see Puntland as a natural trade and government partner. Within this power vacuum and questionable statehood, Somaliland made their military move for SSC on October 14th, 2004 occupying Adhi-Caddeeye, 30km away from Buhoodle. In the spring and summer of 2005 Puntland began to sign oil exploration for two oil blocks that spread across the contested region into Puntland.

In October 2007, the Somaliland military occupied Las Anod by force and Las Anod considers itself an occupied town. Residents protest their illegal rulers and numerous Somalis have been gunned down and brutalized by Somaliland forces. . In November of that year some Dulbahante elders (or garaad) met and made it very clear that they would not join Somaliland. Other elder’s were supportive of Somaliland’s overtures.

The residents who oppose Somaliland’s argument is that an unrecognized entity with contested borders does have the right to use military force to control a population of a legitimate democratic state. Puntland has come to the rescue of some regions but the truth neither claimant provides adequate state presence. Puntland has been criticized by the UN for having aggressive attentions towards Somaliland but Puntland as a region of Somalia responding to aggression and preventing loss of Somali territory puts them in the legal right. The UN can also be held responsible for much of the confusion on Somalia’s state of disarray. UN maps blindly portray the region as a unified country but its local program directors know the divisions only too well.

Further violent actions by Somaliland against residents in Sool occurred in February and May of 2011 and the constant seesaw of clan-based discussion further inflamed the problem. The popular view is that Puntland and Somaliland are fighting over their shared border.

The truth is that SSC has its own ethnic, legal and historical right to not be fought over and to be a stakeholder in any discussion much like Galmadug is treated as a functioning region inside Somalia . If they chose they could use the same route taken by Somaliland to go its own way in 1991. For now SSC remains mostly unheard and partly occupied. If there was a reason to involve larger outside actors to defend self determination within a democratic legal framework, SSC would be it.

This legacy of good intentions but destructive actions by neighbors and hostile environment has continued to push the development goals of SSC into the background. In 2008 Africa Oil decided to suspend oil exploration due to the deteriorating security situation. Periodical statements beginning in 2008 and recently as April and June 2011 by the locals and diaspora of the Dulbahante to agree to governing principals that would put their regional aspirations back on the table. For every peace treaty there seems to be a conflicting claim that the signatories are not authorized to speak for the stakeholders.

Each split divides the conflict and minimizes SSC’s chance to determine their own destiny. The most recent clash came in late January as Somaliland soldiers attacked Khatumo militias in the Sool area. SSC is tired of being fought over by outsiders and would like a voice in its own affairs.


Puntland does not recognize Somaliland and is not terribly thrilled about the TFG. The recent Garowe meeting and Kenya’s incursion has shown that the old rules are off the table. Logic rather than maintaining the 20 year old status quo is slowly entering the decision process. This means Somaliland’s claims to remove territory from a greater Somalia are at extreme threat. Somaliland has transitioned from the abused to the abuser. There is no war with Siad Barré, no threat to life and limb that supports aggression to fellow Somalis. Puntland’s rationale for including SSC is based on democratic and social reality not 125 year old European colonial thinking. By being inside Puntland, SSC is part of greater Somalia and at some point the beneficiary of recent promises to push regional development.

The TFG is about to transition to an actual government and President Farole has entered the national arena now that donors are actually listening to regional players. Puntland has defied the Nairobi/Mogadishu-centric culture and directly addressed their piracy problem. South and North have shown an interest in rapprochement, openly defying the bloated TFG. No longer a backwater region and with oil revenue looming on the horizon, Puntland is a player in the international mix. SSC is only waiting for the extension of security and governance to join this new dynamic.


Competing political claims are just one problem facing SSC. Puntland and Somaliland are not viewed as centers of terrorism, but Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr” and his commanders are from the Isaak clan and see the region as ripe for destabilization. Working with al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, the October 2007 car bombs bore the tell tale tradecraft of al-Qaeda. Three coordinated attacks against the UN, the presidential palace, the Ethiopian intelligence office were a clear signal that the war against outsiders had begun in earnest.

Puntland has suffered from a growing epidemic of assassinations, IEDs and attacks on high profile members. Piracy is yet another unrelated problem, but the assumption by the UN that Puntland’s new marine force was created to secure SSC has heightened tensions. Puntland’s Galgala mountains are also home to Sheikh Atom’s forces and an ever-growing al-Shabaab contingent. Insurgent groups seek out remote and lawless places typically gaining entry by offering to support agendas in exchange for safe harbor. SSC which its ease of access from Yemen and proximity to major cities are ideal places for this infiltration.

Geography and Oil

Sanaag was the seat of the Warsengil sultanate which began in the 13th century. Sool the birth of the Dervish movement and part of the Dhulbahante Sultanate. The acceptance of this region as separate federal state comprised of three regions would halve Somalilands 51,738 sq mi. If ethnic dissension on Somaliland’s western border in Awdal also continues to take hold, Somaliland may just be a convenient and wealthy Ethiopian shipping lane. The resolution of SSC’s claims may be the tipping point to restoring a sense of state in Somalia. The engine for that rethink may be driven by petroleum. Somewhere between the geographic fantasy of a greater Somalia nation that would include all Somalis regardless of colonial lines, to the even greater fantasy of a dozen or more micro clan states there exists a solution. That solution may be wealth.

A local dispute based on historical and ethnic provenance is one thing, but when the promise of natural resources enters the discussion, the conflict is guaranteed to get white hot. The promise of riches extracted by Africa Oil is going looks to make Puntland far more affluent than Somaliland. If the central government of Somali wants to protect that resource force may be used to liberate SSC. SSC may not choose to be liberated if they can make a legal claim for the resource under their soil.

The surveyed oil fields in Somalia lay across two east-west bands. The Dhahoor field begins offshore in the Sanaag region and heads offshore past the pirate port of Hafun. The Nugal field starts in Sool and travels out to Eyl and beyond. There is speculation that oil may also exist around Awdal. These exploration areas are a potential source of wealth whose successful extraction is challenged by the full spectrum of instability that range from westerly-rooted border disputes to eastern-based maritime piracy. Not surprisingly military action and the spread of governance has become a top priority in both Somaliland and Puntland as players position themselves for the expected windfall. The TFG is also promised a even cut of oil revenues putting any claim by Somaliland to SSC into jeopardy. Logically and ideally the expected income from these and other natural resources should be belong to all Somalis and benefit all regions equally, but the inability of the TFG to provide any security or governance has left it to Puntland to take the lead on the drilling. Somaliland’s attempts to exploit this resource without a legal mandate has pushed them into forcing their will militarily. It is unlikely that any oil found in Somaliland will share oil income with SSC, let alone Mogadishu. Enriching hostile partners would further undermine Somaliland’s claim to dominance.

SSC groups have sprung up to demand a number of concessions within this oil exploration area. The legitimacy of the diaspora group like the Northern Somali Unionist Movement (NSUM) and others is based on self stated mandate creating mini Somaliland type legal arguments. Violent attacks, including the tell tale IED tactics of al Shabaab, have occurred on Africa Oil convoy’s and executives. Terrorism, regional factionalism and even plain extortion are tactics being used against Puntland and TFG’s efforts to bring wealth to the country.

For the UK to deliver on its focus on regional Somali partners they will have to sort out through the various claims of legitimacy claimed by Somaliland, Awdal, Maakhirists, Warsengil, SSC, Khatuumo and understand their historical, geographical and political relevance for positive results. Or not. The region has survived just fine with little attention paid to the history and future. Making it an ideal area for islamic terrorism to take root.

UK Ambassador Matt Baugh started a firestorm on his well-intentioned blog by igniting the usual Somaliland vs Puntland vs SSC rhetoric:

“The London Conference is about making the most of the opportunities in front of us:

• The opportunity to support a more inclusive and representative political process when the Transitional Period ends in August 2012;

• The opportunity to help people return to Mogadishu and rebuild their lives in that city;

• The opportunity to take further action against Al Shabaab and piracy;

• The opportunity to reinforce the relative stability in areas of Somalia, such as Somaliland and Puntland and in the south.

To realise these opportunities the region need more effective international and Somali leadership and a more coordinated approach focused on actions. The UK aims to act as a catalyst for this new approach.”

The first pop quizz for the new ambassador should be, “name every breakaway, autonomous and territorial claim in Somalia”.

All of this confusion and clamor makes for an ugly mess when well-intentioned (albeit historically burdened) nations like the UK sit down to benefit regional stakeholders than throw money down the hungry maw of the TFG. It is hard for Somalis to accept that the UK will not favor Somaliland or Puntland over the upstart region of SSC. The UK say their major motivation is to defend the human rights of all Somalis. Making a real stand on SSC claims of occupation and clarifying Somaliland’s claim to statehood would be an ideal place to start.

Originally published on the website – Somalia Report


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