This study employs a political analysis methodology grounded in a structure-agency framework (Hudson and Leftwich, 2013) to explore the development of Somaliland’s political settlements. In this context, ‘political settlements’ refer to the formal and informal agreements between contending groups over the organization of power in society and the rules of political engagement.

By Sarah Phillips, University Of Sydney


December 2013


This paper asks why large scale violence was resolved in the internationally unrecognized ‘Republic of Somaliland’ but not in the rest of Somalia. The case of Somaliland offers insights into why some domestic power struggles – including violent ones – build the foundations for relative political order while others perpetuate cycles of economic malaise and political violence. The paper highlights that legitimate institutions are those born through local political and social processes and that these are largely shaped through the leadership process. Among its findings are the importance in Somaliland of a domestically-funded peace process that motivated strategic symbiosis among elites; a lack of predetermined institutional endpoints; Somalilanders’ conscious desire for an enclave of peace within the surrounding turmoil; and quality secondary education.

The paper finds that:

  • It was not simply the lack of direct external assistance that mattered in restoring and maintaining peace, but the fact that Somalilanders were not pressured to accept ‘template’ political institutions from outside and could negotiate their own locally devised, and locally legitimate, institutional arrangements. There were sufficient time and political space for solutions to evolve, rather than an attempt to impose pre-determined institutional endpoints. The emergence from civil conflict was out of kilter with conventional conflict prevention programs that emphasize grassroots consensus and inclusion; it was also colored by struggles to control the means of legitimate coercion, and a high degree of collusion between the political and economic elites. Finally, the lack of external assistance meant that the incentives for elites to cooperate with one another were primarily local. This was at odds with the way that peace was being pursued in the rest of Somalia at the same time, where vast sums of money were being spent by external actors to bring political competitors to the negotiating table in the hope of forging a durable peace.
  • For Somaliland, the maintenance of peace is the gravitational center around which all other political and economic considerations orbit. On this basis, peace is exchanged for relatively exclusive access to the key drivers of economic growth. Somaliland’s political settlements drew on existing institutions and established new ones in order to overcome civil conflict, and in so doing created a hybrid political order consisting of locally appropriate (though imperfect) norms and rules of political engagement. The ‘rules of the game’ that were consolidated during this process established that the building and maintenance of peace should be highly inclusive, e.g. use widely understood (though not strictly ‘traditional’) mediation techniques; maintain a relative balance of power between clans and sub-clans, and not rely on outsiders to solve Somaliland’s problems.
  • This political settlement has become increasingly exclusive since the last national conference ended in 1997, but it nevertheless underlines the ‘rules of the game’ that regulate competition over power and resources, and the handling of differences in non-violent ways. This was not an inevitable outcome. When resources are viewed as scarce, it is common for actors to assume a zero-sum game in which opponents’ gains will be viewed as losses. Incentives to act are politically and socially constructed.
  • In Somaliland, there are several powerful ideas that help to reinforce a common reference point for political actors to draw from when framing processes of political change. These include beliefs about Somaliland being exceptional from the rest of Somalia (and of Somalilanders from other Somalis), their inherent self-reliance, beliefs about Somaliland’s rightful sovereign independence, and that peace is tenuous and its maintenance is a priority that outweighs all other political and economic matters. These ideas do not just reflect common beliefs about, or imaginings of, a shared past; they also influence people’s behavior and shape their perceptions of what is politically desirable and possible.
  • In the context of Somaliland, where the ‘state’ is technically absent, the narratives constructed around the idea of Somaliland as an exceptional and inherently legitimate sovereign entity feed directly into the ongoing negotiations and power struggles that give shape to its political settlement. The shared beliefs and narratives (accurate or idealized, valid, or distorted) over Somaliland’s exceptionalism and inherent peacefulness help to reinforce a status-quo whereby the absence of civil war is offered in exchange for acquiescence to elite capture of the economy.
  • Much of the ‘failed states’ literature suggests that when the state does not hold the monopoly on violence, violence will embroil its competitors as they struggle to claim the monopoly for themselves. This is a very structural explanation that takes no account of the agency of those supposed competitors who can both perceive, and act to alter, their circumstances. In Somaliland, those potential competitors were scarred by years of violence and deeply cognizant of the consequences of defecting from a settlement that promised peace, even if it did not promise a great deal else.


Phillips, S. (2013). Political Settlements and State Formation: The Case of Somaliland. Research Paper 23. Developmental Leadership Program.

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