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Dealing with Somaliland
Dealing with Somaliland
Somaliland: The Strains of Success
Somaliland: The Strains of Success
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Op-Ed / Africa

Dealing with Somaliland

Originally published in D+C - Development and Cooperation

Soon after the state had collapsed in Somalia 1991, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland proclaimed independence from the rest of the country. Whereas the southern part of Somalia slid into anarchy, Somalilanders restored peace and built up effective government structures. On its summit at the end of June, when this comment was already written, the African Union discussed the sovereign status of the territory. Somaliland’s application for AU membership provides an opportunity to settle the issue peacefully.

On 18 May 2006, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland marked fifteen years since it proclaimed independence from Somalia. Its sovereignty is still unrecognised by any country, but its president, Dahir Rayale Kahin, submitted Somaliland’s application for membership to the African Union in December 2005. The claim to statehood hinges on the territory’s separate status during the colonial era from the rest of Somalia and its existence as a sovereign state for a brief period following independence from Great Britain in June 1960.

However, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, which is still struggling to establish its authority in southern Somalia, also claims sovereignty over the territory of Somaliland. The issue is becoming an increasing source of tension. Somaliland’s application for membership gives the African Union an opportunity to prevent a deeply rooted dispute from evolving into an open conflict. The African Union’s intervention should be designed to create an environment favourable to the peaceful settlement of differences without prejudice to the final outcome. The framework for determination of Somaliland’s sovereign status should address four central questions.

First, should Somaliland be rewarded for creating stability and democratic governance out of a part of the chaos that is the failed state of Somalia? 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.

Secondly, what are the prospects for peaceful preservation of a unified Somali Republic? The issue is more than political; it is a matter of personal identity for millions. Most southern Somalis are very attached to the notion of a united Somali Republic, but many Somalilanders – scarred by the experience of civil war, flight and exile – refer to unity only in the past tense. An entire generation of Somaliland’s youth has no memories of the united Somalia to which young southerners attach such importance. Squaring that circle will not be easy.

Thirdly, would granting Somaliland either independence or significant autonomy adversely impact the prospects for peace in Somalia or lead to territorial clashes? Somalia has been fractured by war and lawlessness for so many years – the prospect of at least a part of it becoming stable is tempting. However, some people argue that the rest of the country will only continue in chaos if separatist aspirations are rewarded.

Finally, what would the African Union’s recognition of Somaliland imply for separatist conflicts elsewhere on the continent? Membership in the African Union includes a commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of fellow states. Since Somalia is an AU member and its seat is no longer vacant, the admission of Somaliland would arguably violate this fundamental principle.

The African Union should appoint a Special Envoy to examine these questions, consult with all relevant parties and report on the legal, security and political dimensions of the dispute and offer options for solutions. Ultimately, there are only two possible outcomes: some form of united Somali state (whether in the form of a federation, confederation or a unitary arrangement involving considerable autonomy), or independent neighbours. The African Union’s challenge is to provide timely, neutral leadership in order to ensure a just, peaceful and enduring settlement, before confrontation and violence become the only options imaginable by both parties.

Residents of Hargeisa wear the colors of the flag of the Somalia breakaway territory of Somaliland during day celebrations in Hargeisa on 18 May 2011. AFP/Pete Chonka
Briefing 113 / Africa

Somaliland: The Strains of Success

Somaliland’s clan-based democracy has consolidated a state-like authority, kept the peace and attracted donors. But the territory now needs to reform its political bodies, judicial institutions and international engagements to protect itself from continued fragility in neighbouring Somalia – which rejects Somaliland’s independence claims – and civil war in nearby Yemen.

I. Overview

Somaliland’s hybrid system of tri-party democracy and traditional clan-based governance has enabled the consolidation of state-like authority, social and economic recovery and, above all, relative peace and security but now needs reform. Success has brought greater resources, including a special funding status with donors – especially the UK, Denmark and the European Union (EU) – as well as investment from and diplomatic ties with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), though not international recognition. It is increasingly part of the regional system; ties are especially strong with Ethiopia and Djibouti. Given the continued fragility of the Somalia Federal Government (SFG), which still rejects its former northern region’s independence claims, and civil war across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen, Somaliland’s continued stability is vital. This in turn requires political reforms aimed at greater inclusion, respect for mediating institutions (especially the professional judiciary and parliament) and a regional and wider internationally backed framework for external cooperation and engagement.

Successful state building has, nevertheless, raised the stakes of holding – and losing – power. While Somaliland has remained largely committed to democratic government, elections are increasingly fraught. Fear of a return to bitter internal conflict is pushing more conservative politics: repression of the media and opposition, as well as resistance to reforming the increasingly unsustainable status quo. Recurrent political crises and delayed elections (now set for March 2017) risk postponing much needed internal debate. The political elites have a limited window to decide on steps necessary to rebuild the decaying consensus, reduce social tensions and set an agenda for political and institutional reform.

Stronger executive government has driven a shift from government through clan-based consensus to ostensible democratisation, but it has not widened participation of individuals (distinct from their clan-base), or developed strong institutional checks and balances. There is a growing perception that the Isaaq clan dominates, while its sub-clans jockey for primacy through control of particular political parties, government institutions and big businesses. The government’s inclination to rely on a close-knit group of advisers identified with particular clans and regions rather than non-partisan state institutions, feeds a growing sense of marginalisation among certain constituencies both in the centre and the peripheries. Poor public services and high unemployment (the few available jobs are obtained through patronage) leave the overwhelmingly young population, many of whom emigrate, vulnerable to religious extremism and criminality.

Militarised rule in the restive and previously lightly “occupied” eastern borderlands with Puntland (a “semi-autonomous” federal state of Somalia) – specifically the regions of Sool, Sanaag and southern Toghdeer – is not new but has become the default setting. The presence and degree of popular acceptance of more conservative Islamist government and society has grown. The government’s soft approach to extremists in its midst is more evident following terrorist attacks with alleged links back to Somaliland in neighbouring Djibouti and Puntland and the existence of a discreet Al-Shabaab presence across the country.

In the short term, especially now that elections are postponed, the government and its international supporters must find ways to support greater dialogue between political parties and key interest groups, particularly parliament’s upper House of Elders (the Guurti) and the business community, or risk further fragmentation of authority. This requires national consultation over the election (or reselection) of the Guurti, the parliament’s upper house; the 2001 constitution calls for its election every six years, but it remains largely unchanged since 1997. The over-used constitutional contingency clause that allows the Guurti to rule on election postponement in the interests of “stability” should be urgently reviewed.

The newly reformed judiciary needs public backing from the government, opposition and the Guurti, especially respecting its constitutionally-defined responsibilities to support the institutions charged with delivering free and fair elections and to resolve disputes. Greater transparency is also needed, to prevent further politicisation of the small, fragile economy and increase government accountability. The House of Representatives should be free to exercise constitutional oversight of public-private development contracts and potential conflicts of interest.

Somaliland also needs to renew commitment to talks with the SFG, despite political risks, not least in recognition of the intimate clan and familial ties that still bind its elites and population in multiple ways to Puntland and the SFG as a whole. These include marriage, religious networks, clan treaties that manage peace and war, politics, business and even extremist groups. Progress on security and economic cooperation and electoral preparations (2016, Somalia; 2017, Somaliland) require a better framework, including appropriate representation from Puntland, the region (potentially the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD) and wider international community (potentially the African Union and Gulf Cooperation Council).

Nairobi/Brussels, 5 October 2015