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Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership
Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Somalia: Why is Al-Shabaab Still A Potent Threat?
Somalia: Why is Al-Shabaab Still A Potent Threat?
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

Young fighters from Al-Shabab come together to count their bullets at a frontline section in Sinaya Neighborhood in Mogadishu, on 13 July 2009. AFP/Mohamed Dahir
Commentary / Africa

Somalia: Why is Al-Shabaab Still A Potent Threat?

This year, the armed Islamist extremist group Al-Shabaab has notched up a series of bloody successes against both Somali targets and the African Union peace-enforcement mission AMISOM. Meanwhile, the international community has been busy cajoling principals of the Somali federal and state governments into agreeing on the means by which to hold new elections due in August. Despite four years of “post-transitional” government and a level of international engagement and foreign military presence not seen since the early 1990s, Somali politics remain dysfunctional and prone to violent disagreement – exactly the conditions in which Al-Shabaab thrives.

Al-Shabaab’s recent string of high-profile attacks began on 15 January, when it overran an AMISOM forward operating base manned by a company-sized Kenyan contingent in El-Adde, in the Gedo region, inflicting heavy casualties (estimates upwards of 50 dead with additional hostages taken); the Kenyan military has not provided details. On 21 January, Al-Shabaab hit Mogadishu’s popular Lido beach area, a symbol of the city’s return to normalcy, killing at least twenty civilians. On 2 February, a bomb blew a hole in the side of a Somali-owned Daallo Airlines plane minutes after take-off. The attack killed only the suspected suicide bomber and the plane was able to land safely, however this was the first time Al-Shabaab – who have not yet claimed the attack – has attempted to bring down an aircraft with an on-board device. Lastly, from 5-8 February, the group temporarily re-occupied the centre of Marka, in the Lower Shabelle region, which it lost to AMISOM and Somali National Army forces in August 2012, after Somali troops withdrew due to lack of pay.

Somalis’s southern interim federal states and regions. CRISIS GROUP

In late January, following the Kenyan contingent’s losses at El-Adde, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke at the African Union’s Peace and Security Council to call for a review of AMISOM’s mandate and put forward a five-point plan for its expansion. AMISOM troop-contributing countries met in Nairobi on 8 February, and another summit is planned for late February in Djibouti to agree a new approach.

AMISOM’s vulnerabilities ultimately stem from the lack of a political settlement in Somalia.

Whatever the failings and remedies to be identified, the mission’s vulnerabilities ultimately stem from the lack of a political settlement in Somalia. AMISOM is again being forced to up the military ante, in response to Al-Shabaab’s tactical switch to guerrilla-style attacks. Its rural insurgency has exposed AMISOM’s territorial overstretch after a previous expanded mandate allowed the large-scale Operation Eagle and Operation Indian Ocean, which both began in 2014. These offensives resulted in the “liberation” of much of south central Somalia, which in certain areas has looked more like “occupation” by outsiders. In addition to the longstanding problem of Somalia’s neighbours as troop contributing countries, the interim federal administrations and the Somali National Army that followed in AMISOM’s wake are still largely clan-based, and locally identified as such. The two recent AMISOM reversals took place in Gedo and Lower Shabelle, both of which were subsumed into the new Interim Juba Administration and Interim South West State of Somalia, respectively, and are still disputed by or between local populations.

A combination of factors accounts for the success of Al-Shabaab’s El-Adde attack: blunders and conspiracy can be applied in equal measure. But most importantly, Al-Shabaab has not been defeated politically and socially in the south-western region of Gedo. To simplify a many-layered context, local communities, belonging predominantly to the Marehan-Darod clan, are caught between an Interim Juba Administration which they did not fight for and which is led by a rival clan based in distant Kismayo; Kenyan and Ethiopian AMISOM contingents who have different priorities and local clients; and a federal government that can’t project beyond its mostly Hawiye-clan heartlands. The El-Adde communities have little reason to intercept Al-Shabaab sympathisers and fighters, let alone confront them militarily.

The situation in Lower Shabelle that allowed Al-Shabaab to take control of the centre of Marka has its own specific dynamics, but again local communities are caught between various conflicting forces. The Interim South West State of Somalia was disputed from the start in Marka and environs, and did not resolve the competition between the most powerful clans, namely Habr Gedir-Hawiye and Bimal-Dir, who at different times have found it politically advantageous to fight for and with Al-Shabaab, the Somali National Army and AMISOM.

The competition of interests provides space for Al-Shabaab…

These competing interests leave the ground clear for Al-Shabaab’s overarching narrative of one Islamic system that claims to put the Somali faithful first. The group often styles itself as a mediator in local conflicts, where international, regional and Somali forces are frequently seen as partisan. The competition also provides space for Al-Shabaab to deal with its own internal rivalries and appear resilient. In the past couple of years, the group suffered and survived not only territorial losses but also a bitter internal leadership battle in July 2013, a U.S. drone strike killing its long-term emir Ahmed Abdi Godane in September 2014, and most recently a challenge from factions who wanted to transfer official allegiance from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.

As Crisis Group recommended in its June 2014 briefing, Al-Shabaab: It Will Be a Long War, more military pressure can only sustain progress within durable political settlements. To achieve this, more systematic efforts and support should be given to parallel national and local reconciliation processes at all levels of Somali society. The paramount focus should be on addressing local Somali political grievances, not on regional or international priorities. Tapping into the grievances of local communities is what enables Al-Shabaab to remain and rebuild in Somalia.

Contributors

Former Project Director, Horn of Africa
Research Assistant, Horn of Africa
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