Somaliland: The Other Somalia with No War
Somaliland: The Other Somalia with No War
Time for Somaliland and the Dhulbahante to Talk
Time for Somaliland and the Dhulbahante to Talk
Op-Ed / Africa 9 minutes

Somaliland: The Other Somalia with No War

The lightning capture of Mogadishu by militia loyal to the Islamic courts movement at the beginning of June has sent shock waves throughout the Horn of Africa region and as far away as New York, where an anxious American government has hastily convened an international "Contact Group" to plan and co-ordinate the world's response to events in Somalia.

Leaders of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), led by President Abdillahi Yusuf Ahmed, temporarily based in the town of Baidoa and hamstrung by internal divisions and violent anarchic conditions, are keen to position themselves as Washington's primary counterterrorism partners in Somalia, hoping that the international community will now invest decisively in their floundering administration.

But the TFG is not the only Somali authority with a stake in the Contact Group's deliberations. The government of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, which announced its independence from Somalia in 1991, will also be watching closely, concerned that enhanced international engagement will strengthen the TFG's claim to sovereignty and jurisdiction over Somaliland, and damaging Somaliland's prospects for international recognition.

There is a strong potential for confrontation between unionists and separatists over Somaliland's status, and analysts say the African Union needs to get involved now to prevent another conflict in the Horn.

Somaliland's claim to statehood

Somaliland's 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 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.

President Dahir Rayale Kahin submitted Somaliland's application for membership of the African Union in December 2005.

The present day Republic of Somaliland constitutes slightly over one fifth of the territory of the Somali Republic and is home to between one quarter and one third of its population. As much as half of the population practises some form of pastoralism, herding camels, sheep and goats; only a few areas receive sufficient precipitation to permit rain-fed cultivation. Consequently, livestock are Somaliland's principal export, although the largest market, Saudi Arabia, has been closed to it since 2000 because of a health-related ban. Somaliland's other natural resources include fish, frankincense, minerals, semi-precious stones and uncertain reserves of oil and natural gas.

Somaliland's achievements with respect to peace and stability have attracted a proportionately larger share of international assistance than other parts of Somalia. Since donors will not provide direct assistance to its unrecognised government, most of the money is funnelled through UN agencies and NGOs who have played a central role in provision of social services. There can be little doubt that the quality of life for many Somalilanders — if not most — is far better today than it had been under the remote and increasingly hostile government in Mogadishu, which channeled less than 10 per cent of its development resources to the north. Like neighbouring Djibouti, most government revenue derives from transit trade with Ethiopia along the Berbera-Dire Dawa transport corridor.

Berbera's proximity to central Ethiopia means that it is the most advantageously positioned of Somali ports for cross-border trade. Many unionists believe Somaliland is too small and poor to survive independently of Somalia, not least because the government's revenues currently amount to a paltry $35 million per year. But Somaliland has consistently managed to stretch that figure to support a small but functional administration: with greater access to foreign investment and international financial support, there seems to be no obvious reason why Somaliland could not successfully build on this remarkable track record of self-reliance.

Growing Pains

On May 18, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland marked 15 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 aspirations.

While the rest of Somalia dissolved into anarchy and bloodshed following the collapse of General Mohamed Siad Barre's dictatorial regime in January 1991, Somaliland opted for a very different trajectory. A grand conference of the northern Somali clans restored peace to the region and announced that Somaliland had withdrawn from its 1960 union with Italian Somalia.

Much of Somaliland had been destroyed by the regime's scorched earth campaign against the insurgents of the Somali National Movement (SNM), a guerilla force rooted largely in the Isaaq clan — the largest single clan in Somaliland: more than 50,000 people had been killed and roughly one million driven from their homes — many of them across the border into Ethiopian refugee camps.

Clan-based reconciliation in Somaliland succeeded where the UN's nation building efforts in southern Somalia, backed by over 30,000 peacekeepers, failed. As southern Somalia remained under the rule of warlords and hemorrhage refugees, hundreds of thousands of Somalilanders began returning home to rebuild their shattered lives.

The path to stability was not smooth. Somaliland's first government, headed by a former diplomat and SNM chairman Abdirahman Ahmed Ali "Tuur", plunged the territory into civil strife when it attempted to wrest control of the lucrative Red Sea port of Berbera from local clan and militia leaders. Traditional elders intervened to end the conflict, paving the way for a new transitional charter and the formation of Somaliland's first civilian administration, headed by Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal.

Egal was a veteran politician who had helped steer Somaliland from independence to unity with the south. In 1969 he had been serving as Somalia's last democratically elected Prime Minister when President Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard and Siad Barre subsequently seized power in a nearly bloodless coup. Egal spent 12 of the next 21 years in prison.

Egal's government made rapid strides towards disarmament and demobilisation of clan militias, and breathed new life into government institutions. But in 1994, his attempts to impose government control over Hargeysa airport triggered a rebellion by clan militias, nominally under the leadership of his predecessor, Abdirahman "Tuur", who now espoused federalism. Once again, Somaliland was plunged into conflict.

The end of Somaliland's second "civil war" was resolved in part by awarding a greater share of parliamentary seats to members of "opposition" clans and in part through the development of an "interim constitution" which, after much negotiation and modification, served as the prototype for the current version.

In May 2000, Somalilanders voted overwhelmingly in favour of the new constitution, which established a multiparty electoral system, but retained an upper chamber of parliament whose 82 seats are distributed by traditional elders on the basis of clan. The incumbent president and principal architect of the new political system, Egal, died soon afterwards while visiting South Africa, and power passed peacefully and constitutionally to Vice President Dahir Rayale Kahin.

Democracy's discontents

District councils were elected in 2002, and in 2003, Rayale was re-elected as president by a razor-thin margin of just 80 votes out of nearly half a million ballots cast. After losing a challenge before the Supreme Court, the opposition accepted the result.

The result was extraordinary not only because the vote was so close, but also because Rayale —  a former regime security officer and member of the Gadabursi clan, which had largely sided with the Barre government during the civil war, had run against Ahmed Siilaanyo, a respected Issaq politician who had served two consecutive terms as chairman of the SNM.

Somaliland's first parliamentary elections, in September 2005, further entrenched political pluralism by awarding a majority to the two opposition parties.

Somaliland's democratisation process has not been without difficulties.

The government's finances lack transparency, fuelling allegations of misuse and prompting parliament to establish an anti-corruption committee. The courts are weak, and their independence is questionable.

In May 2006, the Minister of Interior and Police Commissioner were both fired amidst allegations that they had pocketed funds meant for the police.

The electoral system has tended to reward larger clans and has disenfranchised some smaller ones — particularly minority groups like the Gabooye, who had historically been treated as second class citizens.

The retention of the House of Elders is intended to ensure that clans who lose in the electoral process are nevertheless represented in the national legislature, but it remains to be seen how successful this strategy will be.

The unionist lobby, a small but vocal minority in Somaliland, has spurned the electoral process in order to deny it legitimacy. This has repeatedly prevented polls being held in the troubled eastern districts that are also claimed by the neighbouring Puntland State of Somalia — a region that seeks a united Somali state based on a model of clan-based federalism.

Somaliland's democratic process has also attracted the ire of a network of jihadi Islamists with links to Mogadishu's Islamic courts — now headed by hardliner Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys — which oppose Western-style democracy (especially the involvement of women in the political process) and seek to establish a united Islamic Somali state. Having managed to murder four foreign aid workers in 2003-4, militants hatched an unsuccessful plot to derail last year's parliamentary elections by bombing polling stations and killing international observers. Fourteen members of the group have been convicted before the Somaliland courts while a number of other suspects are currently in custody, awaiting trial.

One state or two?

The greatest hurdle to Somaliland's ambitions for independence, however, is that Somalia refuses to grant a divorce. Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, which is still struggling to overcome internal divisions and establish its authority in southern Somalia, also claims sovereignty over the territory of Somaliland. The issue is becoming an increasing source of tension.

Resolving Somaliland's status is by no means a straightforward proposition. For both sides, the issue of recognition is not merely political or legal; it is existential. Most southern Somalis are very 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 youths, who have no memories of the united Somalia to which young Southerners attach such importance, Somaliland's sovereignty is a matter of identity.

Somaliland's application for membership gives the African Union an opportunity to prevent a deeply rooted dispute from evolving into an   open conflict. Analysts say the African Union's intervention should be designed to create an environment favourable to dialogue, understanding, and peaceful settlement of differences without prejudice to the final outcome. The framework for dialogue between Somaliland and Somalia should address four central and practical 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.

The other three questions are no less critical. What are the prospects for peaceful preservation of a unified Somali Republic? Would rewarding Somaliland with either independence or significant autonomy adversely impact the prospects for peace in Somalia or lead to territorial clashes? What would be the implications of recognition of Somaliland for separatist conflicts elsewhere on the continent? These questions need to examined and debated under the firm leadership of the African Union and not ignored, hoping they go away.

One way of moving things forward is for the African Union to appoint a Special Envoy to consult with all relevant parties and report on the legal, security and political dimensions of the dispute and offer options for solutions within, say, six months. During the period that the dispute is under review, the African Union should assign Somaliland an interim status analogous to the observer status it has granted 31 non-African states. This would ensure that the AU's engagement is genuinely "without prejudice", permitting both parties opportunities to interact with member states prior to a final determination.

Since Somalia is already a full member of the AU, awarding interim observer status to Somaliland would help to ensure that both sides to the dispute received a fair hearing.

Meanwhile, the United States and its partners in the Somali Contact Group must ensure that enhanced engagement with the TFG does not inadvertently bolster its claims to sovereignty over Somaliland. The Contact Group should also engage with Somaliland in a manner intended to demonstrate support for its democratic achievements and its proven commitment to combat terrorism in the region, while encouraging the AU to become actively involved in resolving the sovereignty dispute.

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 option imaginable by both parties.

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