A year after its inception, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia remains in disarray. The interim president, Abdullahi Yusuf, lingers north of Mogadishu, amassing weapons and recruiting troops for his return to the capital. His 91-member cabinet and 42 ministries, forged in exile, are scattered across the globe. Meanwhile, on September 29, 2005, the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland in the northwest of the country will hold its third multi-party elections since 2000. Often disparaged as a “rogue enclave” or a “breakaway region,” Somaliland has asserted a largely unrecognized right to self-determination since 1991.

Before the October 2004 “National Reconciliation Conference” in Mbagathi, Kenya, which ended in the formation of the Transitional Federal Government, the Somaliland government was adamant on two issues: the Republic of Somaliland would remain independent, whatever the outcome of the conference, and the government of Somaliland would negotiate with a government of Somalia only as one sovereign state talking to another. In a July 2004 press release, President Dahir Riyale Kahin confirmed: “Somaliland will only have dialogue with Somalia when they put in place a president and a government elected by the people of Somalia.”

The upcoming elections, originally slated for March 29 but delayed by the government, are another signpost in Somaliland’s thus far frustrated quest for international recognition. They should also complete the transition from a clan-based government selected by elders to a system of multi-party representation elected by and accountable to the public. Additionally, they will present the first major challenge to the otherwise growing entrenchment of government party rule in Somaliland.

Second “Independence”

In the colonial era, northwest Somalia—what is now Somaliland—was known as the “British Somaliland Protectorate.” This northern “State of Somaliland” was granted independence on June 26, 1960 and recognized by 35 governments, including the United States, even though plans for unification with the south were imminent and the dream of a “Greater Somalia”—comprising Italian Somalia, British Somaliland, Djibouti (French Somaliland), and the Somali regions of Ethiopia and Kenya—was widespread. Five days later, Italian Somalia received its independence and the two legislatures met in Mogadishu to announce their unification as the Somali Republic.

The unification was imbalanced from the outset, with the seat of government having moved to Mogadishu. Additionally, the merger was encumbered by incongruent colonial administrations, legal systems and languages. By June 1961, the “northerners” demonstrated their discontent by boycotting the referendum on the constitution and in December 1961, northern lieutenants staged an unsuccessful coup. But it was not just the south-north divide that troubled these early years. Somalia was also marked by the proliferation of nepotism, corruption and “clanism”—the division of political and economic spoils to favored clans.

In October 1969, the military staged a successful coup d’état, established the Supreme Revolutionary Council with Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre as its president, and renamed the state the “Somali Democratic Republic.” Under Barre, the country embarked on a course of “scientific socialism” aiming to modernize the nation and eradicate “tribalism.” Nevertheless, Barre began to depend on clan affiliations for his support, as did his mounting opposition. After a disastrous defeat by the Ethiopians in the 1977-1978 Ogaden War, officers from the northeast (now Puntland) led a failed coup against Barre and formed the first clan-based opposition group, the Somali Salvation Democratic Front, with Abdullahi Yusuf as one of its leaders.

In 1981, exiles from the northwest (now Somaliland), belonging to the Isaaq clan, formed the Somali National Movement (SNM), another Ethiopia-based guerrilla movement aimed at overthrowing the regime. The government responded with heavy reprisals against the northern population and fighting between the SNM and the national army developed into full-scale civil war in the northwest. In May 1988, the government ordered aerial bombardment of two northern cities, Hargeisa and Burco, and by early 1989 an estimated 50,000 had died and a half million people were displaced. The SNM continued fighting in the north while supplying southern opposition groups with weapons. In January 1991, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid advanced on Mogadishu, forcing Barre and his troops to flee.

With the collapse of the Somali Democratic Republic in 1991 and the spectacular debacle of the UN peacekeeping mission that followed, Somalia became the textbook example of a “failed state.” The war-torn country has lacked an operating central government ever since. On May 18 of the same year that Somalia “failed” as a state, “the Republic of Somaliland” declared its independence, and a two-year transitional government was formed with the SNM chairman as interim president.

Weathering Volatility

As not all northern clans had supported the SNM insurgency, its Isaaq leadership sought reconciliation with other clan elders. By January 1992, however, tensions among the Isaaq had surfaced and the SNM “army” was at war with SNM opposition factions. In October 1992, Somaliland elders called for peace talks and reached a ceasefire agreement.

In 1993, the “Grand National Reconciliation Conference” succeeded in replacing SNM rule with a civilian administration headed by President Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, the major Isaaq politician to emerge from the Protectorate era. With little to no foreign assistance, a National Charter was drafted and a beel (clan) system of government—institutionalized multi-clan representation in a bicameral parliament—was established. Inter-Isaaq fighting broke out again between 1994 and 1996 and a Second National Conference convened in Hargeisa in 1996-1997. President Egal was reelected for another five years and a constitution was drafted to lock in the power sharing agreement outlined in the National Charter. Finally, on May 31, 2001, a referendum was held on the constitution that was simultaneously a plebiscite on Somaliland’s independence. Nearly 66 percent of the eligible voters voted yes, though low turnout in the Sool and eastern Sanaag regions suggested a local boycott.

With the constitution ratified, elections were held in December 2002, when nearly half a million citizens elected 332 district councillors from six political parties. To avoid clan-based party affiliation, the electoral law required each party to obtain 20 percent of the vote in each of Somaliland’s six regions while restricting the number of parties in future elections to the three with the largest base. With allowances for the lack of census data and limited resources for voter registration in a largely nomadic and illiterate society, the elections were judged free and fair by local and international observers, although irregularities were noted. The three parties to win the permanent right to run were Egal’s Democratic United Peoples’ Movement (UDUB), the Somaliland Unity and Development Party (Kulmiye) headed by former SNM chairman Ahmed Mohamed Mahmoud Silanyo, and the Party for Justice and Democracy, chaired by Faysal Ali Warabe.

Seven months before the 2002 elections, Egal had died during surgery in South Africa and Dahir Riyale Kahin was appointed interim president. Although Riyale was a silent figurehead under Egal, his first moves as president were bold, if somewhat unpopular. His first official visit was to Djibouti—still a firm supporter of a “greater Somalia”—where he mended bilateral relations even though the Somaliland population was weary of what many consider Djibouti’s anti-Somaliland rhetoric. Riyale also attempted a visit to Las Canod in the region of Sool, which, along with adjacent eastern Sanaag, is inhabited by Harti clans who remain ambivalent about Somaliland’s claim of sovereignty and the “Hargeisa” government. Although the Harti clans were party to the 1993 reconciliation conference, they have felt progressively marginalized in the emergent Somaliland, and many Harti in Sool and eastern Sanaag shifted their allegiance to the Puntland “administration” established under the presidency of Abdullahi Yusuf in 1998. Whereas Somaliland demarcates itself by its colonial borders, Puntland defines its area as that inhabited by the Harti clans. Puntland’s Bossaso port is closer to Sool and eastern Sanaag than Somaliland’s Berbera port, and Somali shillings, not Somaliland shillings, remain the operative currency in the regions. Reflecting the struggle for the regions’ loyalties, Riyale was chased out of Las Canod by Puntland militias.

Half a million voters turned out in April 2003 when Riyale ran in a presidential election. A number of irregularities marred a contest that was otherwise more or less “free and fair.” The ruling UDUB was castigated for using public funds for its campaign and for monopolizing time on state-owned radio; Kulmiye was charged with encouraging double voting; and, as in the 2002 election, a number of polling stations were closed in Sool and eastern Sanaag because of “security” concerns. The true challenge to the election’s integrity came from the surprisingly close result. On April 19, the National Electoral Commission announced an 80-vote margin of victory for the UDUB, a tabulation contested by both the UDUB and Kulmiye. The decision went to the Supreme Court, which adjusted the margin of victory upward to 217 votes. On May 16, 2003, Riyale was sworn in as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of Somaliland.

In a period of only two years, Somalilanders had weathered two potentially volatile changes of leadership and voted on three different occasions. The fact that this war-ravaged society was able to navigate these challenges without real foreign assistance and without succumbing to the cycles of violence that continued in the south speaks volumes for Somalilanders’ commitment to peace—however fragile its foundations.

“Inside the Somali Stomach”

Somalilanders are frustrated by the lack of international recognition of the “peace and stability” in their country—not to mention their claim of sovereignty. In 2000, I heard expressions of hope that Western governments or the UN would recognize Somaliland’s right to self-determination based on its functioning government, the consent of the governed, defined borders and relations with neighbors. While the African Union refuses to acknowledge Somaliland’s “secession” from the former Somali Republic, Somalilanders have long argued that their current territory is nothing if not consistent with the colonial borders recognized for those five fateful days of post-colonial independence.

Later, in 2002, I witnessed the increasing disappointment of those hopes, with one common feeling being that Somaliland’s bid for recognition had been sidelined by the US preoccupation with the “war on terror.” At a public forum attended by the former US ambassador to Ethiopia, the speaker of the parliament quipped: “Can we have someone in the audience volunteer to be a member of al-Qaeda? We will turn him in and this will change our fate!” Indeed, since 2001, the Somaliland government has counted less on the West and turned increasingly to African states for support, notably South Africa and Senegal. In January 2005, however, I found that many Somalilanders presumed that recognition will not come soon in any case. That is because it depends less on the West or the African Union than on Somalia—still a non-functioning state.

According to Somaliland’s minister of information, Somalilanders have moved beyond the need for recognition: “We are not going to say recognize us or else. It’s the business of a nation to recognize or not recognize. But as far as we are concerned, we recognize ourselves. We haven’t been doing all these good things—democratization, nation building, decency, civility—just to appease others! We’ve got a vested interest in that matter and, if in my generation, this country is not recognized, then the following generation will carry the flag.” Similarly, during a qat chew with Somaliland elders one prominent sultan asserted, “We don’t need to be recognized. We have to recognize ourselves first and make peace. Then the whole world will come to us and recognize us!”  In a private setting, he sounded less convinced, lamenting that no country would recognize Somaliland’s independence until the new Somalia does. “Since we united with Somalia,” he said, “we were swallowed by the Somali people. We cry inside the Somali stomach, ‘Oh, we are Somalilanders!’ But we are still inside their stomach.”

The government accuses outside elements of trying to derail the September 29 parliamentary contests. On September 23 and 24, seven alleged al-Qaeda militants were arrested in Hargeisa on charges of plotting to disrupt the upcoming elections. “The terrorists who planned to wage attacks in Somaliland are trained and facilitated from Mogadishu,” Riyale declared.

At Stake

The September 29 elections may bring little change in the attitudes of outsiders, but they should have momentous domestic consequences. It is clear that what is at stake is not just parliamentary democracy, but the very glue that could keep the country together.

Somaliland faces immense social and economic challenges. In the past years, over 500,000 Somaliland refugees have been repatriated from Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen, and the towns already swell with nomads moving in from the countryside. Money transfer services, called hawalat, funnel roughly $400 million into Somaliland each year from Somalilanders living abroad, many in the West. These remittances are sorely needed. The livestock trade, Somaliland’s major economic resource, has suffered from a seven-year Saudi ban, supposedly the result of an outbreak of Rift Valley fever, but interpreted by Somalilanders as a political boycott targeting their claim of independence. Unemployment is estimated at 70 percent. Unemployed men and youth spend their remittances on qat imported from Ethiopia. People chew, they say, either to forget or to remember; the war has left many scars.

A deep-seated distrust of the government and its intentions vis-à-vis a future “Somalia” is perhaps symptomatic of the people’s political, economic and social frustration. Rumors abound that there is a secret deal between Riyale and the president of Djibouti and that Somaliland will come apart at the seams.

Distrust also persists because each step toward parliamentary democracy is accompanied by a step backward in the name of security. Between October 2003 and March 2004, four foreign aid workers were killed by southern Somali militants aiming to destabilize Somaliland. Immediately, the government ordered the removal of up to 77,000 “illegal foreigners” (mainly from Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia), though this measure was never enforced. The tragic deaths held some promise at least of rallying the nation behind peace, security and good governance. However, on May 18, 2004, the celebration of Somaliland’s independence day, 150 students demonstrating against corruption were sentenced to one-year imprisonment. One month later, the interior minister released an edict prohibiting Somalilanders from speaking in groups about political issues, “because of the delicate circumstances the nation is going through and because there are conspiracies being hatched to destroy the peace.” Poignantly, his decree fell on the same date as the infamous Jezira Beach massacre 15 years earlier, when Barre’s forces rounded up 46 Isaaq students and executed them on a beach south of Mogadishu. The significance of this coincidence was not lost on the public.

Despite Riyale’s public commitment to holding elections in March come what may, he postponed the contests at the eleventh hour, citing a lack of preparedness dictated by a lack of sufficient funds. The government was seeking financial assistance from EU donors, but it was slow in coming—whether because the donors were reluctant to antagonize the Transitional Federal Government or because the government was slow in asking. Riyale accused the parliament of wishing to retain their seats. Others accused the president and the UDUB of delaying the elections out of fear that the governing party would lose seats to the opposition. Throughout 2005, there were spirited debates in the parliament about gender quotas and media access for opposition parties. Since August 30, 246 candidates—only seven of whom are women—have been campaigning for the 82 parliamentary seats.

Another specter hanging over the elections is continued tension in Sool and eastern Sanaag. Having gravitated toward Puntland in recent years, the Harti clans of these regions found themselves without the expected representation among the Puntland leadership. Today, they may be more willing to place their stake in Somaliland—if they can vote. The people of Sool and eastern Sanaag were partially disenfranchised during the elections of 2002 and 2003 for reasons of “security.” In December 2003, Puntland militias entered the vicinity of Las Canod in Sool, where they have been in a standoff with Somaliland troops ever since. Sool and eastern Sanaag are areas effectively administered by no one.

Yesterday, Tomorrow

Somaliland is a nation of displaced people, now returnees, and each person has experienced loss. In 1981, a group of prominent professionals in Hargeisa started a self-help scheme to improve the hospital and schools. Eventually, the group—named ufo or “wind”—started an underground newspaper and the Barre government arrested them and sentenced many to death. The severity of the verdict provoked student riots in Hargeisa, which the government quashed with tanks. When the prisoners were suddenly released from solitary confinement in 1989, they had no idea of what had befallen their country. It was Barre himself who “briefed” the freed prisoners on the bombing of Hargeisa, the deaths of 50,000 civilians and the refugee camps—and then blamed them for all of it. One doctor related how he could not even comprehend what he heard until he met family who informed him of his father and brother’s deaths. Hearing this, he said, “was shocking, but perhaps the best therapy one could get…[realizing that] what happened to you is minor compared to what your people went through.”

Today, one of the planes that bombed Hargeisa is mounted on a pedestal next to the public “square” that is currently off limits to demonstrations. A War Crimes Investigation Committee operating out of a back office and with minimal funding continues to collect evidence of mass graves around Hargeisa. They aim to have the known perpetrators brought before an international war crimes tribunal, but they require UN assistance. At this time, however, explained the chairman, “the world is involved in the peace process”—meaning that its attention is focused southward where many of those involved in this process have blood on their hands.

The Republic of Somaliland has indeed accomplished a remarkable feat and without international assistance. The success or failure of the September 29 elections will determine which road Somalilanders adhere to: a continuing compromise or a frustrated abandonment of their ideals. The African Union and the West may wish to believe that a pan-Somalian “peace” has finally been drafted in Mbagathi, irrespective of the transitional government’s failure to function and irrespective of events inside Somaliland, but this is unwise. The ufo—the wind before the storm—is quite likely to return, yet now there is no telling which way it will blow.

How to cite this article:

Nathalie Peutz "Signpost in Somaliland’s Quest for Sovereignty," Middle East Report Online, September 28, 2005.

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