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As Somalia was engulfed in the Civil War, the Northern part of the country declared a unilateral independent nation as the Republic of Somaliland. Our correspondent traces the origins of this secessionism – from the birth of the Somali National Movement to the declaration of independence three and a half years ago, to the present government’s fierce resolve never to give up its hard-fought prize.

By Matt Bryden

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For the men of the 11th Brigade, the Somali National Movement’s (SNM) long war of liberation is finally over. Under a blazing blue mid-morning sky, they have assembled at Hargeisa stadium s dusty mid-field with their arms – a dozen weary battle-wagons four artillery pieces, and two ancient tanks In a few moments the weapons with which they sustained their 10-year struggle against the Faqash – the forces of the deposed Somali dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre – will be handed over to the government of Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal president of the Republic of Somaliland.

An animated colorful crowd of thousands has assembled to watch and to take part clustering around the troops and their vehicles though the 11th is neither the first nor the last of the SNM’s units to demobilize and there is little pomp or ceremony to hold the people s attention The atmosphere in the stadium is festive and familiar the speakers low-key more in the spirit of a town meeting than a martial spectacle since today’s events are a celebration of normalcy and an affirmation of the hard-won prize of peace.

Far from the mayhem and surreal violence of Mogadishu beyond the reach of even the United Nations operation in Somalia, Somaliland is struggling to reconstitute itself from the ashes of a brutal civil war But each success represents more than just another notch in the painful transition from war to peace For Somaliland’s secessionist majority each success drives home another nail in the coffin of the old united Somalia.

Somaliland’s unilateral declaration of independence in May 1991 took the rest of the world – at least those bits who noticed – by surprise. Perceived against the backdrop of the south’s hideous self-destruction the north s sudden decision to break away seemed just another aberrant twist in Somalia’s dark spiral of fratricidal violence. But the origins of northern independence and the SNM’s secessionist tendencies are nothing new. They are older than most of the young fighters of the 11th and their younger comrades in arms among the SNM’s other units.

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Few of these young men are old enough to remember any other life but that of the bush fighter: long, hungry months in the semi-desert wastes of the Haud, exchanging fire with the Faqash in brief, furious skirmishes. Fewer still remember when resistance to the Barre regime began in the aftermath of the Ogaden War, or the unhappy marriage of north and south over three decades ago, which soured from the moment of its consummation. But there is no doubt among the fighters about what they were fighting for: the end to southern domination of the north and the liberation of their country under Somaliland or any other name.

Hassan Kayd
Hassan Kayd

Only a few hundred meters from where the soldiers of the 11th have assembled at the edge of a desiccated rock-strewn cemetery is the grave of Hassan Kayd the first of the fighters for northern independence. In 1961, defying the tide of popular sentiment that led to the merger of former British Somaliland and the UN Trust Territory of Somalia only one year before, Kayd – a Sandhurst graduate – and a group of young northern officers launched an abortive coup d’état against the northern apparatus of the unitary government. Brought to Mogadishu for court-martial their trial was reportedly annulled on the grounds that as northerners they could not be judged by a southern court since the parliaments of the north and south had yet to ratify a single act of union. Though the officers failed to generate popular momentum for their struggle a national referendum on a unitary constitution later the same year failed to gain majority support in the north. Carried by the numerical superiority of the more densely populated south the dream of Somali unity was already losing its sheen.

Hassan Kayd himself lived long enough to witness the SNM’s victory and to be buried in an independent country. Few of the surviving SNM cadre can match his historical record. The most senior date their opposition from the late 1970s and Somalia’s crushing defeat in the Ogaden war when Barre resorted to increasingly Draconian methods to consolidate his hold on power. In the north, especially crippling restrictions on merchants “special taxes” and preferential treatment for southerners persuaded many northerners to quit their homeland for greener pastures in the Gulf and elsewhere. Mohamed Hashi, one of the SNM s founding members was among many who read the writing on the wall early, opting for self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. In Jeddah in 1978, he and a handful of others including future SNM leaders Hassan Aden Wadadid and Ahmed Ismail Duqsi came together without any specific objectives beyond opposition to the Somali regime.

“We were reacting,” Hashi explains. “We didn’t develop a political program until later when we formed the SNM.” But Hashi’s cell in Jeddah was not alone in its basic, inarticulate anger. Similar groups in Riyadh, London, Mogadishu, and Hargeisa were developing along parallel lines: planning, fundraising, circulating anti-government tracts. As contact and communication between such cells multiplied and strengthened, the network of northern resistance that would become the SNM began to crystallize.

Abdi Yusuf Duale “Boobe,” the former secretary of information for the SNM now produces an independent Hargeisa journal from a Spartan, concrete room in the crumbling compound of Radio Hargeisa – one of the few installations in the city not completely destroyed. In 1979, he became involved with opposition cells within the ruling Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party, Barre’s superficial effort to supply his military dictatorship with civilian credentials. Somalia’s defeat in the Ogaden had dashed nationalist aspirations for a greater Somalia, a dream already soiled by Djibouti’s emergence as an independent state in 1977, and disillusionment was rife both within and without government.

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