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Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership
Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Regional Risks to Somalia’s Moment of Hope
The Regional Risks to Somalia’s Moment of Hope
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

Somalia's newly-elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo addresses lawmakers after winning the vote at the airport in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on 8 February 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Commentary / Africa

The Regional Risks to Somalia’s Moment of Hope

Eruptions of joy across the Somali-speaking Horn of Africa greeted the election of President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo, but to deliver a cure for Somalia’s chronic ills he will need to counter distrust in neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya and win support from the African Union.

The election of Somalia’s new President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo offers the country’s international partners a new opportunity to step up efforts in advancing peace and stability in Somalia as well as the wider Horn of Africa. Yet the hopes of a stable future for war-torn Somalia may be short lived if the fraught regional dynamic, in particular the mistrust felt by regional powers Ethiopia and Kenya, are not effectively addressed. 

Farmajo’s near-landslide election victory on 8 February is without parallel. Although the eruptions of joy across the Somali-speaking Horn and the shared jubilation of citizens and soldiers in Mogadishu is rightly giving way to more sober assessments, the view that a seismic shift has occurred will be difficult to ignore.

Ensuring that this election ushers in a new dawn, and that Farmajo’s new-found political capital is well invested, a renewed diplomatic engagement by partners on numerous fronts will be required to support national-level reform and ease regional anxieties. The upcoming London Conference on Somalia, now expected in early May, represents an opportunity to do just that.

A Popular Mandate

Many hope that Farmajo’s credibility and popular support can be channelled productively. The national reconciliation talks, aimed at healing deep wounds from the civil war that broke out in 1991, have stalled and Farmajo’s strong mandate may be what is necessary to resuscitate them.

Although the entire indirect election process was extremely corrupt, Somalis have completed a relatively credible presidential election that has resulted in a peaceful transfer of power. Farmajo’s cross-clan support – the strongest platform for any Somali president – is a rare demonstration of unity in the ethnically homogenous but clan-fractured country. The mandate is indispensable for making critical progress on multiple fronts, particularly on reconciliation, addressing corruption and finalising the constitution. 

Many hope that Farmajo’s credibility and popular support can be channelled productively.

A number of factors worked in Farmajo’s favour and helped seal his remarkable victory. First, Farmajo tapped into a growing antipathy to the dominance of the Abgal, a Hawiye sub-clan that gave the country its last two presidents. Frustration among other clans was also directed at the implicit agreement between the Abgal/Hawiye and Majerteen/Darod clans that allowed them to control and share both the presidential and prime ministerial seats. 
Farmajo’s victory was also helped by former President Hassan Sheikh’s decision to support the re-election of Mohamed Osman Jawari of the Digil/Mirifle clan as parliamentary speaker cost him the Digil/Mirifle vote. This tactical support was intended to scupper Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan’s presidential campaign, since it is an unwritten rule that the president and speaker cannot hail from the same clan. This fuelled Digil/Mirifle resentment, who ended up coming together during the presidential election rounds to vote against Hassan Sheikh. 

Second, Farmajo is also well liked among diaspora and youth. More than 125 of Somalia’s 283 MPs and senators are from the diaspora and 165 MPs and senators are under 35 years of age. In addition, approximately 30 per cent of the newly elected MPs are also affiliated with Islamist-leaning groups, including Salafi movements and the Muslim Brotherhood (excluding Hasan Sheikh’s Damal Jadid). These have been, for some time, against the previous president’s perceived closeness with Ethiopia and its meddling in Somali political affairs.

Third, Farmajo benefitted from a huge wave of nationalistic fervour and a widely-shared perception he could be the right person to build a robust Somali National Army (SNA), speed up the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)’s exit, stabilise security, curb interventions by neighbouring countries, and protect Somalia’s dignity and sovereignty. 

High Expectations

Farmajo’s immediate task will be to manage the inordinately high expectations. Unless he takes some early steps toward fulfilling his pledges of rebuilding security forces and state institutions, tackling corruption and unifying the country, dissatisfaction could trigger a serious public backlash.

A further immediate impediment to Farmajo’s proposed domestic agenda stems from the entrenched elites. Clan leaderships comprise a form of a very corrupt “deep state” that often operate against the interests of the people. Some believe this network cut short Farmajo’s tenure as prime minister in 2011. Meaningful progress will be unlikely unless these factions are controlled through a mixture of co-option and coercion.

The elections also highlighted the extent to which covert foreign funding of politicians fuelled allegations of clientalism and has impeded Somalia’s democratic transformation. Regional countries, and the Arab states of the Gulf in particular, were widely alleged to be giving cash to the top five presidential candidates. Managing competing foreign interests in future presidential elections and reducing the corrupting influence of illicit foreign funding must be a priority for the Farmajo government. One potential institutional solution would be to formalise the Integrity Commission, set up just days before the presidential elections with the aim of curbing bribery.

Regional Mistrust

On a regional and international level, Farmajo’s stated intent to reshape his country’s foreign policy could prove a daunting challenge, not least because his victory stemmed in part from his campaign image as a staunch nationalist opposed to foreign meddling – especially by Ethiopia and Kenya. As head of state, he will need to move with extra caution to navigate regional politics and ease the anxieties of these powerful neighbours who are suspicious of his brand of politics.

Unless he takes some early steps toward fulfilling his pledges of rebuilding security forces and state institutions, tackling corruption and unifying the country, dissatisfaction could trigger a serious public backlash.

Growing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia (over Nile waters, the Grand Renaissance Dam and South Sudan) could potentially spill over into Somalia and complicate matters for Farmajo. The speed with which Cairo has moved to embrace the new Somali president is bound to increase Ethiopia’s anxieties at the growing Arab influence in the country.

The resurgent Somali nationalism that Farmajo is said to embody is causing particular concern in Ethiopia, which could become an equal, if not greater, challenge to the new president. Ethiopia and Somalia are historical rivals and Addis Ababa has intervened repeatedly in its eastern neighbour since the central government collapsed in the early 1990s. In 2006, Ethiopia moved swiftly to dislodge the popular Union of Islamic Court (UIC) Islamist government that had managed to restore peace in Somalia during its brief six-month reign. Addis saw the UIC's anti-Ethiopian posturing and Somali nationalist rhetoric in support of a “greater Somalia” that incorporates Somali inhabited areas in neighbouring countries as a threat and acted accordingly.

If Farmajo adopts a similarly antagonistic posture – as his popular “nationalist” constituency demands – then Addis will quickly act to undermine the new regime in Mogadishu, regardless of the progress made in Somalia’s domestic struggles. He will need to move slowly in relation to Ethiopia and Kenya – which shares many of Ethiopia’s concerns about Somali nationalism, given the large Somali population there – and reaching out to emphasise the shared interest between the new president and these countries in stabilising Somalia.

The new president seems to be sensitive to these concerns and has sent emissaries to Nairobi and Addis Ababa with messages of goodwill and reassurances. This is hugely positive and ought to be sustained and supported by the international community.

Still, there are signs that regional tensions may worsen. Pro-Farmajo social media activists posted a picture of an Ethiopian senior official at the election venue captioned “Ethiopia shattered by the poll outcome”. Such taunts were disseminated widely across the Somali-speaking Horn and diaspora. Farmajo’s broad domestic popularity is unlikely to protect him from Somalia’s fragile relationships with its neighbours, and an Ethiopia that senses its interests and influence to be in jeopardy will almost certainly be a spoiler for Farmajo’s agenda of reform.

The African Union’s Role

Somalia’s recent election marks another important milestone in the country: the tenth anniversary of the regional peacekeeping force AMISOM. In this time, the internationally supported mission has helped state forces in their fight against Al-Shabaab militants, provided and delivered humanitarian aid, and trained the Somali security forces.

Yet the mission’s resource and management challenges remain unaddressed, which hamper AMISOM’s peacekeeping capabilities. The African Union (AU) must tackle the dysfunction, national rivalries and frictions among the troop-contributing countries: Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Such tensions hinder AMISOM’s military effectiveness in fighting Al-Shabaab and add to the incoherence surrounding the planned exit from Somalia envisioned to begin in 2018. A hasty pullout would be catastrophic for Somalia and the region.

Al-Shabaab has been significantly degraded but remains a lethal force.

Since AMISOM’s deployment, Al-Shabaab has been significantly degraded but remains a lethal force with the capacity to continue destabilising the country for years to come. While Farmajo served as prime minister, Al-Shabaab lost significant territory and was ultimately forced to withdraw from the capital. With a stable government in place and Farmajo at the helm, greater effort can be made to coordinate between regional peacekeepers and national security forces to step up the campaign against Al-Shabaab and other militants, especially since a local group declaring affiliation to Islamic State briefly seized a patch of Somalia’s coastland late last year.

Since the election, there has been cause for cautious optimism as reports were circulated by several Somali news sources this week that a significant dissident faction of Al-Shabaab led by Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur was considering surrendering to the new Somali government, in recognition of Farmajo’s huge popularity. This would be a great boost for the new administration, and all efforts must be made to help the new government peel away elements of the militants amenable to a peaceful settlement. No less important, the AU and other international partners must encourage the new government to focus on national reconciliation.


Analyst, Somalia
Former Research Assistant, Horn of Africa