That the conflict in Las Anod is driven by external engagement and foreign aid remains an untenable contention, devoid of evidence. Read Jamal Abdi’s latest piece ‘Debating Somaliland – lack of Recognition and Conflict’

Continuing our discussion of Somaliland, Jamal Abdi argues that the country is an unrecognized state, operating in the shadows of international relations. The country has never been eligible for direct foreign aid.  Abdi argues that the recent conflict is caused, in part, by lack of economic development in eastern Somaliland. As a result, the so-called international community bears considerable responsibility for the conflict.

By Jamal Abdi

Having unilaterally declared independence in 1991, Somaliland has functioned as a de-facto sovereign state for the past three decades. What makes Somaliland particularly interesting is that its post-war peace and state-building trajectory is characterized by a lack of external intervention in the political process. Differently put, groups that fought on opposing sides of a lengthy, bloody, and bitter civil war voluntary negotiated and, in this way, created peace, stability, democracy and forged an inclusive state from scratch with virtually no external assistance.

On 6 February 2023, an armed conflict broke out in the city of Las Anod, the administrative capital of Somaliland’s eastern Sool region. According to the government, Somaliland’s security forces are facing a mixture of misguided local residents, elements of Al-Shabaab terrorists, and militias from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland.  Not surprisingly, the competing narrative is that Las Anod is being defended by local residents who have taken arms up against a state whose legitimacy they now reject.


The precipitating cause of the conflict is that Cabdiftaax Cabdillahi Cabdi, a young and popular member of Somaliland’s main opposition party was gunned down on 26 December 2022. While the perpetrators are still at large, it appears sound to suggest that Somaliland was most likely not behind the assassination of Cabdi. The logic underpinning this assertion is straightforward: both Cabdi and many of those who have been assassinated before him in Las Anod were pro-Somaliland. Therefore, it appears unlikely that Somaliland has systematically targeted those who were promoting the legitimacy of the state in a region where the imagining of Somaliland is limited.

Debating Somaliland – Lack Of Recognition And Conflict
An aerial photograph of Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital (8 April 2020).

Foreign aid fostering the conflict?

Commentators have suggested that the international community, through increasing engagement with Somaliland, has fostered the conflict in Las Anod. We are, according to this line of reasoning, asked to believe that accelerating external engagement is turning the state into a lucrative source of income, causing internal competition for control of the state. As will be seen shortly, this line of reasoning is problematic for a multitude of reasons.

First, the postponement of a general election, which was initially scheduled for November 2022, constitutes the sole evidence marshaled in defense of the contention that accelerating external engagement and foreign aid has led to internal competition for control of the state. It should be readily evident to anyone who has studied Somaliland seriously that all presidents since 1993 have had their term in office extended.

Before we can accept that postponement of the latest general election is indicative of internal competition for control of the state, caused by external engagement and foreign aid, one must explain what caused the postponement of previous elections. It is worth noting that the postponement of the latest general election was, as in previous cases, sanctioned by both Somaliland’s upper house of parliament and the Supreme Court, challenging the idea that it can be construed as an example of increasing authoritarian tendencies.

Second, as an unrecognized state, operating in the shadows of international relations, Somaliland has never been eligible for direct foreign aid. Furthermore, it is paramount to stress that the bulk of the funds that Somaliland receives, on paper, are often allocated to the salary of foreigners who do little more than occasionally deliver workshops on gender equality, good governance and the like.

According to the World Bank, Somaliland’s national budget increased threefold to about $130 million in the period between 2009 to 2012. The question must therefore be raised of why the significant increase of the national budget in the past did not raise the stakes, leading to internal competition for control of the state?

A united Somaliland issued a communique to the United Nations in 1993, stressing that the organization should keep it forces out of Somaliland and that Somaliland did not stand in need of external assistance in terms of reconciliation and peacebuilding. Representatives of all communities in Somaliland also stressed that they did not need the UN to offer food aid protection convoys as Somaliland was not receiving aid. By rejecting UN-led peace and reconciliation, social and political leaders in Somaliland also rejected foreign aid. It is indeed an empirically verifiable fact that Somaliland, at its darkest hour, recovering from a devastating civil war, rejected international assistance, including foreign aid.

Yet we are asked to believe that the influx of external money is currently destabilizing Somaliland by turning the state into a lucrative source of income. The suggestion that international engagement, intended to stabilize Somaliland, has had destabilizing consequences is an untenable contention, devoid of evidence.

The deep cause of the conflict

The deep cause of the conflict in Las Anod is best grasped through the intersection of limited state capacity and lack of economic development in eastern Somaliland, eroding the legitimacy of the state. As a result, the so-called international community should recognize that it, indirectly, bears a part of the responsibility for the conflict in Las Anod.

The treatment of Somaliland by the international community is deeply disappointing and raises doubts about the sincerity of the West in promoting so-called liberal values in the developing world. Somaliland has on its own achieved what the West claims to champion and is allegedly willing to wage wars for, e.g., democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

Yet, the so-called international community appears unwilling to grant Somaliland de jure recognition, thereby denying Somaliland access to global financial institutions. At the same time, Somaliland does not receive sufficient financial aid. In my opinion, the ongoing conflict in Las Anod could have been avoided if Somaliland had been granted de jure recognition or had access to international funding bodies. A legally recognized Somaliland would be able to enhance the provision of public goods and services, thereby remedying the perceptions of marginalization in eastern Somaliland that have led to the questioning of the legitimacy of the state.

The recent developments in Somaliland should prompt the so-called international community to seriously reconsider its engagement with Somaliland and it is evident that more rather than less engagement is needed. The question of Somaliland’s political future must also be seriously considered. Disregarding the aspirations of most Somalilanders for independent statehood is simply unsustainable. Anyone who is intimately familiar with Somaliland will know that voluntary reunification with Somalia is considered beyond the realm of plausibility by most Somalilanders.

Jamal Abdi holds an MSc in European and International Relations from Linkoping University. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Politics and International Relations at Keele University. Abdi’s research focuses on peace and state-building in Somaliland. 

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