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Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership
Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Galkayo and Somalia’s Dangerous Faultlines
Galkayo and Somalia’s Dangerous Faultlines
Report 110 / Africa

Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership

On 18 May 2006, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland marked fifteen years since it proclaimed independence from Somalia. Although its sovereignty is still unrecognised by any country, the fact that it is a functioning constitutional democracy distinguishes it from the majority of entities with secessionist claims, and a small but growing number of governments in Africa and the West have shown sympathy for its cause.

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Executive Summary

On 18 May 2006, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland marked fifteen years since it proclaimed independence from Somalia. Although its sovereignty is still unrecognised by any country, the fact that it is a functioning constitutional democracy distinguishes it from the majority of entities with secessionist claims, and a small but growing number of governments in Africa and the West have shown sympathy for its cause. The territory’s peace and stability stands in stark contrast to much of southern Somalia, especially the anarchic capital, Mogadishu, where clashes between rival militias have recently claimed scores of lives. But Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which is still struggling to overcome internal divisions and establish its authority in southern Somalia, also claims sovereignty over the territory, and the issue is becoming an increasing source of tension. The African Union (AU) needs to engage in preventive diplomacy now, laying the groundwork for resolution of the dispute before it becomes a confrontation from which either side views violence as the only exit.

In December 2005 President Dahir Rayale Kahin submitted Somaliland’s application for membership in the AU. The claim to statehood hinges on the territory’s separate status during the colonial era from the rest of what became Somalia and its existence as a sovereign state for a brief period following independence from Great Britain in June 1960. Having voluntarily entered a union with Somalia in pursuit of the irredentist dream of Greater Somalia (including parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti), it now seeks recognition within the borders received at that moment of independence. Despite fears that recognition would lead to the fragmentation of Somalia or other AU member states, an AU fact-finding mission in 2005 concluded the situation was sufficiently “unique and self-justified in African political history” that “the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a pandora’s box’”. It recommended that the AU “should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case” at the earliest possible date. On 16 May 2006, Rayale met with the AU Commission Chairperson, Alpha Oumar Konare, to discuss Somaliland’s application for membership.

Somaliland has made notable progress in building peace, security and constitutional democracy within its de facto borders. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people have returned home, tens of thousands of landmines have been removed and destroyed, and clan militias have been integrated into unified police and military forces.  A multi-party political system and successive competitive elections have established Somaliland as a rarity in the Horn of Africa and the Muslim world. However, the TFG continues strongly to oppose Somaliland independence.

Peacemakers have so far opted to tackle the issues sequentially: first trying to establish a government for Somalia and only then addressing the Somaliland question. European diplomats warn Crisis Group that even raising the Somaliland issue at this time could destabilise the peace process in the South. This approach risks both sides becoming more entrenched and the dispute over Somali unity more intractable. If the TFG’s authority expands, the dispute over Somaliland’s status is likely to become an ever-increasing source of friction, involving serious danger of violent conflict. Somaliland has reacted angrily to the TFG’s calls for the UN arms embargo on Somalia to be lifted so it could arm itself and has threatened to increase its own military strength if this happens. The prospect of a return to the major violence of the late 1980s is neither imminent nor inevitable but it is genuine enough to merit urgent AU attention. 

For both sides, the issue of recognition is not merely political or legal – it is existential. Most southern Somalis are viscerally attached to the notion of a united Somali Republic, while many Somalilanders – scarred by the experience of civil war, flight and exile – refer to unity only in the past tense. For a generation of Somaliland’s youth, which has no memories of the united Somalia to which young Southerners attach such importance, Somaliland’s sovereignty is a matter of identity. 

Resolving Somaliland’s status is by no means a straightforward proposition. A vocal minority of Somalilanders, including some communities along the troubled border with neighbouring Puntland (North East Somalia) and a violent network of jihadi Islamists favour unity. Some observers fear that, in the absence of a negotiated separation, the relationship between the two neighbours could potentially become as ill-defined and volatile as that which prevailed between Ethiopia and Eritrea prior to their 1998-2000 border war.

There are four central and practical questions:

  • should Somaliland be rewarded for creating stability and democratic governance out of a part of the chaos that is the failed state of Somalia?;
  • would rewarding Somaliland with either independence or significant autonomy adversely impact the prospects for peace in Somalia or lead to territorial clashes?;
  • what are the prospects for peaceful preservation of a unified Somali Republic?; and
  • what would be the implications of recognition of Somaliland for separatist conflicts elsewhere on the continent?

These questions need to be addressed through firm leadership, open debate and dispassionate analysis of the issues and options – not ignored, ostrich-like, in the hope that they will disappear. “The AU cannot pretend that there is not such an issue”, a diplomat from the region told Crisis Group. “The issue cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely. It must be addressed”. Somaliland’s application to the AU offers an entry point for preventive diplomacy. The AU should respond to Somaliland’s request for recognition by seizing the opportunity to engage as a neutral third party, without prejudice to the final determination of Somaliland’s sovereign status.

Hargeysa/Addis Ababa/Brussels, 23 May 2006

The silhouettes of armed men, some pirates and some homegrown security forces, appear on the horizon in the early morning in the semi-desertic plains near the central Somalia town of Galkayo on 18 August 2010. AFP/Roberto Schmidt
Commentary / Africa

Galkayo and Somalia’s Dangerous Faultlines

Clashes between clan militias in Somalia’s historically divided city of Galkayo that broke out on 22 November have killed at least 40 people, injured hundreds and displaced thousands. The fighting raises fears that the Galkayo dispute could escalate into a national conflict, and shows how fragile Somalia remains during its incomplete transition to a new constitutional order and peace.

The Galkayo clashes symbolise the folly of the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and its international backers – an extraordinarily wide range of actors including the UN, the African Union, the European Union, the U.S., UK, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – who are pushing for the top-down establishment of Interim Federal Administrations without parallel reconciliation processes between clans at a local and national level.

As long as these multiple administrations are not fully constituted and without their specific local political compacts in place, there will be fierce clan competition over their control and undecided borders. Galkayo is a clear example of what happens when peace is neglected over a desire to show progress. To complete Somalia’s transition, a greater focus on bottom-up peace processes rather than driving through top-down short-term political fixes is needed.

A History of Clan Conflict

Galkayo (population 137,000) is divided between two federal states, the Galmudug Interim Administration (GIA), just established in 2015, and Puntland, formed in 1998. Its local divisions also mirror the larger divide between two dominant and historically rival clan families, the Darod and the Hawiye. The Darod (specifically Majerteen-Omar Mahmood sub-clan) dominate Galkayo’s Puntland-administered north, the Hawiye (specifically Habar Gidir-Sa’ad sub-clan) dominate the GIA-ruled south.

The divided city of Galkayo at the border between Puntland and the the Galmudug Interim Administration. CRISIS GROUP

Italian colonial administrators divided Galkayo and its environs into clearly demarcated clan-based zones – via the “Tomaselli” line – as a solution to inter-clan conflict over land. Even the nationalist and declared enemy of clannism President Siad Barre could not overcome this divide during his 22 years in power. After Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991, Galkayo became a deadly flashpoint between mainly Darod and Hawiye militia. In 1993, clan warlords signed the Mudug Peace Agreement to divide the city and its key revenue sources – including the airport and main market – between the two main clans. This brought relative peace for the next two decades.

Now neighbouring Puntland feels that the new GIA threatens its authority over populations (especially clans) and the territory (the former Mudug region) it claims to control. It therefore rejected the formation of the GIA, claiming that it was unconstitutional, since it is based on just one-and-a-half states (Galgadud and the southern half of Mudug), while the Somalia Federal Government’s provisional constitution stipulates that two or more regions are needed to form a federal state. When Puntland declared itself a regional state in 1998 prior to any federal constitution it was based on two-and-a-half regions (Bari, Nugal and the northern half of Mudug). Both GIA and Puntland, however, are mostly an expression of the territorial claims of their respective dominant clans, the Hawiye-Habr Gedir and Darod-Majerteen.

Tensions between Puntland and GIA flared up again in September during consultative meetings on the 2016 national elections. Puntland’s President Abdiweli Gaas walked out in protest, claiming the GIA was not a legitimate federal entity. In October, arguments escalated over disputed landing rights when an aircraft landed in GIA-controlled south Galkayo instead of the north Galkayo airport under Puntland’s control – as per the Mudug agreement. But it was Puntland’s construction of a new road, which encroached upon the agreed lines of clan control between north and south Galkayo, that sparked the latest and most serious conflict.

Federal Intervention Generates a Truce – But Not Stability

A week after the clashes in November, SFG Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmake travelled to Galkayo with a delegation including traditional elders, representatives of the international community and presidents of other interim administrations – Ahmed Mohamed “Madobe” of the Juba Interim Administration and Sharif Hassan Adan of the Interim South West Administration.

By 2 December they had negotiated a fragile truce. The agreement stipulated an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of militia from the front lines, return of displaced persons, and, optimistically, a solution to the “Galkayo question”. This first ceasefire collapsed after just one day amid heavy fighting.

Another truce agreed on 5 December is holding, but the situation remains tense. It has national ramifications. Puntland President Abdiweli Gaas accuses federal forces of providing military support to the GIA, whose president, Abdikarim Guled, was a former federal minister and remains close to the SFG president.

Galkayo and Somalia’s Future

In the short term, the SFG must continue to prioritise mediation in cooperation with their international and regional backers to ensure the parties respect the most recent ceasefire. Further violations could undercut its ability to mediate conflict in the future – a critically useful role fulfilled by the otherwise weak Mogadishu government.

In the long term, the SFG – with support from the international community – must work to clarify the status of Galkayo and the numerous other locations nationwide that are disputed between federal entities and their clan constituents. These are issues that the authors of the provisional federal constitution – including Puntland President Abdiweli Gaas, when he was still the federal prime minister – had left deliberately vague.

If the ceasefire is violated for a second time, this clan dispute could escalate into a wider national conflict between related Darod and Hawiye clans, especially because the two clan families remain political rivals on the national stage and are competitors for control of the presidency in 2016.

Even though the SFG’s mandate theoretically ends in August 2016, such targets time-tabled by national politicians and international diplomats are not worth the lives recently lost and potentially others elsewhere. The violence in Galkayo should serve as a reminder that any rush to finalise the federalisation process – without pause over particularly conflict-prone regions, or at the very least planning for deeper reconciliation processes where old disputes still fester – risks undermining the limited progress made in Somalia since 2012.


Analyst, Somalia
Research Assistant, Horn of Africa