Editor’s Pick: Pulling The Somali North Back From The Abyss

Two days of heavy fighting in Las Anod between Somaliland forces and a motley collection of armed groups, mostly Dhulbahante militiamen, has claimed dozens of lives and triggered massive displacement. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Adam Abdelmoula, tweeted that over 80,000 people have fled the town, compounding an already bleak humanitarian situation in the northern Somali territories.

Who started the latest round of clashes is a matter for debate. The Dhulbahante claim Somaliland forces began shelling the town on 5 February to disrupt a ceremony at which clan elders were planning to declare a new state and renounce Somaliland. The authorities in Hargeisa say militiamen had been attacking static Somaliland troop positions on the outskirts of town then melting back into more urban areas.


Hargeisa argues that its actions are limited and defensive in nature, but adds it will not remain passive in the face of increased provocations by those it labels `terrorists.’ While this categorization is hotly disputed, Sahan analysts have received credible reports that Al-Shabaab has established a presence in the border town of Buhoodle, has sympathy with the unionist cause, and may already be engaged in combat in Las Anod, probably re-hatted as clan militia or volunteers.

The rapid escalation of conflict in Las Anod was foreseeable. For weeks the message from a conclave of Dhulbahante elders meeting them was consistently uncompromising and belligerent. The elders demonized Somaliland and openly called for ‘jihad.’ Orders were given to militias to take charge of security in the town and “defend” it.

Some posted selfies onboard pickup trucks, gleefully baying for blood. One recited an old Somali war poem attributed to Sayid Abdulle Hassan aka the ‘Mad Mullah,’ relishing the beheading of a white colonial officer on the battlefield. Sayid Abdulle Hassan hated the Isaaq; he viewed them as lackeys of the colonial administration. His poem is a sacred text for unionists and ultra-nationalists.

A divisive historical narrative is now being used to radicalize, groom, and mobilize unionists in what is being touted as a decisive battle to forcibly reunify Somalia and Somaliland. This new violent ferment in the north marks a frightening break from convention and the stated policy of negotiated settlement to determine the final status of Somaliland.

The Dhulbahante revolt may have been founded on legitimate grievances. Now it’s appropriated and weaponized by an array of forces espousing a strain of militant unionism, seemingly intent to capitalize on the unrest to weaken and destabilize Somaliland.

Five years of Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo and his Nabad iyo Nolol incubated an aggressive form of Somali nationalism that is Irredentist in tone, if not always in character. The inflamed rhetoric in recent weeks in the north, and the posturing by clan elders, demonstrate the influence of this movement.

Pulling The Somali North Back From The AbyssIn addition, the call for use of force to settle the dispute in Somaliland resonates with a large cross-section of Somali society, not just hardline nationalists. This is an unfortunate and worrisome development. Antipathy towards Somaliland and the Isaaq is deepening. This ought to serve as a warning of possible atrocities driven by hate in the north.

Still, Somaliland has not done itself any favors. It opted to deploy lethal force in response to the December 2022 riots when a more circumspect response would have included humane policing to control mobs, and tactful diplomacy to defuse tensions with the Dhulbahante.

Hargeisa should have been more sensitive to local grievances rather than wait until the pressure cooker was about to explode. Its conduct has not endeared it to many Somalis. But to the government’s credit, it has since walked back its earlier hard security approach, and now insists on its readiness to engage and even to accept mediation.

In fact, the Dhulbahante and the Isaaq share more in common than what divides them. They have lived peacefully together for hundreds of years, intermarried, and shared scarce pasture and water during hard times. Dhulbahante elders endorsed the creation of Somaliland in 1991.

It is true that unionist sentiments are more prevalent now than in the past. The Dhulbahante seek to exercise self-determination, but that needs to be approached in a responsible way, through broad negotiations and consultations, and within a clearly articulated legal framework.

The unilateral carving up of territory located in a volatile contested borderland is simply a recipe for disaster. Earlier this week, the clan resolved to create a 45-member interim administration to govern ‘Sool, Sanaag, and Ayn’. What is the precise geography of the new administration? Have other clans there been consulted?

While Somaliland is imperfect, few can dispute its established structures, and its aptitude and ingenuity in addressing clan disputes. Few can deny its unique brand of peaceful, inclusive, and consensual state-building. The Dhulbahante has not yet made good use of what Somaliland has to offer.

The crisis in Las Anod is serious and could further escalate. International efforts to mediate may be needed. Djibouti, IGAD, and key international actors, like the UN, US, UK, and EU, must bring their collective influence to bear to halt hostilities and bring all parties back to dialogue.

The Federal Government of Somalia on Tuesday reiterated the principle of a negotiated settlement with Somaliland, and openly disavowed violence and escalation in the north. This is good news. Now is the time to extract similar declarations from all the stakeholders — Somaliland, Puntland, and the Dhulbahante clan chiefs.

Issue No. 504, The Somali Wire,

February 08, 2023

Sahan Research

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