Since 1991, the region has become a pocket of security and stability, in absence of formal recognition, by creating a government and societal institutions that strongly suit the values and needs of its people.

A Pocket of Stability: Understanding SomalilandA Pocket of Stability: Understanding Somaliland

By Daniel R. Forti


Occasional Paper Series: Issue 2, 2011


This paper provides a comprehensive examination of Somaliland’s unusual development and current standing as a self-declared sovereign nation. Unlike Somalia, a state devastated by a perpetual twenty-year conflict, Somaliland boasts a growing civil society along with a relatively vibrant democracy and accountability to the Rule of Law. Since 1991, the region has become a pocket of security and stability, in absence of formal recognition, by creating a government and societal institutions that strongly suit the values and needs of its people.


On 18 May 2011, the self-proclaimed and unrecognized state of Somaliland celebrated its twentieth year of de facto independence from the Somali Republic. Emerging after the collapsed Siyad Barre regime in 1991, Somaliland has developed into one of the Horn of Africa’s most stable democracies. Over the past ten years, the people of Somaliland have gone to the polls on five separate occasions to affirm the country’s first constitution, and elect two presidents as well as local and national representatives. Each contest was considered peaceful, fair and free by domestic participants and international observers alike. Although its government lacks capacity and resources, Somaliland fosters an active business community, its own central bank, a functioning national army and police force, and an independent media sector capable of holding its public officials accountable. The government’s Foreign Ministry also operates liaison offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Ethiopia.1

 Somaliland’s successes are even more remarkable when juxtaposed against Somalia’s collapsed statehood. Fourteen state-building attempts have failed to produce a viable central government in Somalia; the fifteenth attempt, embodied in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), is largely dependent upon the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force (AMISOM) for survival. Radical insurgents and clan warlords oppose the TFG, foremost among them al-Shabaab2, a militant Islamist movement with affiliations to the al-Qaeda network. Al-Shabaab imposes direct control and a strict interpretation of Sharia law3 through portions of south-central Somalia and operates with impunity in the rest. The fighting in Somalia has displaced over 1.55 million Somalis since the conflict began while reducing the average life expectancy to just below 50 years (US Department of State 2011). Drought and famine have ravaged south-central Somalia since May 2011, displacing one-quarter of Somalia’s 9 million population while leaving 12 million people throughout the Horn of Africa in need of urgent life-saving assistance (IRIN 2011). In June 2011, the Transitional Federal Parliament (TFP) extended the mandates of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden until August 2012 despite the paralyzing power struggle between the two leaders (Kampala Accord, 2011).

Present-day Somalia is best understood through its three distinct geographical and socio-political regions: south-central Somalia, Puntland, and Somaliland. Despite the population’s relative homogeneity, Somalia’s five major clans are relatively clustered in and separated by these territories.4 While Puntland is a relatively independent federal unit of the central government, Somaliland maintains complete autonomy and independence from Somalia and refuses to engage the transitional government in Mogadishu. These diametrically opposed policy-positions traces back to the fundamentally distinct dimensions of Somalia’s history and political crisis. Despite the fact that the regions all endured colonial impositions, the predatory Siyad Barre regime and the subsequent collapse of the central government, each territory was shaped by and endured the conflict within their own frameworks and experiences. The territories have thus followed distinct development tracks relative to their counterparts.

Understanding the dynamics that spawned Somaliland’s internally-driven evolution provides important insights into conflict resolution practices. While Somaliland must implement a number of political reforms to continue its progress, the country’s successes should neither be understated nor lost within the political crises ensnaring south-central Somalia. This analysis will examine Somaliland’s unique state-building process and contextualize its cultural traditions and recent history into Somalia’s state crisis and subsequent collapse. It will also provide an overview of the region today and highlight key aspects of Somaliland’s current successes. In addition, the paper will address the region’s quest for diplomatic recognition; identify emerging security issues; provide recommendations for broad-based democratic reforms, and highlight lessons learned for students and practitioners of conflict management and resolution.

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