Somaliland: An Historical Background

Before looking at contemporary challenges facing Somaliland we outline briefly its recent history. The Republic of Somaliland, comprising the former regions of northwest Somalia, was created in May 1991 when the leadership of the Somali National Movement (SNM) declared that they were dissolving the union between the former colonial territories of the British Somaliland Protectorate and Italian Somalia established in 1960. The Somaliland authorities assert that rather than being a secessionist state, the sovereign independence of Somaliland has been restored, a status it held for five days between 26 June and 1 July 1960 when it united with Italian Somalia to form the Somali Republic (Somaliland Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2002).

So far no country has recognized Somaliland’s sovereignty, although a number of countries have shown sympathy with its cause. South Africa has formally declared that Somaliland fulfills the Montevideo criteria for statehood and it also accepts the Somaliland passport.3 Furthermore, the African Union (AU) is considering Somaliland’s application for membership and has indicated a willingness to deal with it as an ‘outstanding case’ (ICG, 2006:3).


The first political election in Somaliland territory dates back to February 1960, when the Legislative Council of Somaliland was formed under the British colonial administration. The decision by the elected council to unite with Italian administered Somalia was popularly supported, although discontent with the union began to surface as northerners felt increasingly marginalized by the concentration of socio-economic and political developments in the south. Somaliland’s political elite nevertheless played a prominent role in Somalia’s post-independence politics and all the leaders of Somaliland’s present-day political parties were previously high-ranking civil servants or prominent politicians in Somalia.4

Alienation from the Somali state grew among northerners in the latter years of Siyad Barre’s military dictatorship (1969-1991). The centralization of political power by the regime and its policies of economic expropriation estranged the predominant Isaaq clan in northwest Somalia. A large influx of Somali refugees from Ethiopia into Somaliland following Somalia’s defeat in the 1987-88 war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden, further strained the economy and the environment of the region. The humanitarian assistance and preferential treatment accorded to the refugees by the government, most of who were from different clans to those residents in Somaliland, exacerbated social tensions. In 1981 mounting grievances with the regime led to the creation of the Somali National Movement (SNM) which fought a ten-year insurgency against the Barre regime.

With its base in neighboring Ethiopia, the SNM recruited its fighters mostly from the Isaaq clan. In 1988 a peace agreement between Somalia and Ethiopia forced the SNM to take desperate measures to attack and briefly capture the northern cities of Hargeisa and Burao. In response, the government bombed Hargeisa and carried out harsh reprisals against the Isaaq civilian population. Africa Watch (1990) estimated that between 1988 and 1989 up to 60,000 civilians were killed and half a million people fled to Ethiopia. The ranks of the SNM were swollen by those who fled and most non-Isaaq’s were purged from the SNM. Many members of the SNM who had previously supported a united Somalia now argued for independence. The declaration of Somaliland’s independence in May 1991 followed the overthrow of Siyad Barre in January 1991 and was precipitated by the hurried installation of Ali Mahdi as President of Somalia by one faction of the United Somali Congress (USC) without prior consultation with the SNM.

The declaration of Somaliland’s independence was announced at a gathering of the SNM and northern clans in the city of Burao. With a hastily written Charter, the SNM was granted a mandate by the gathering to govern for two years and to prepare the country for elections. This proved to be an impossible task given the government’s lack of resources and the destruction wreaked upon the territory by ten years of war. Within a year splits inside the SNM and a failure to disarm clan militias threatened to drag the country into civil war. This was averted through a series of clan peace conferences (shiir beeleed) brokered by clan elders and backed by civil activists and business people.

The conference held in the town of Borama over several months in 1993 proved to be decisive. At Borama, a Charter for government and mechanisms for controlling and disarming the militia were agreed upon, and the SNM relinquished power to a civilian government whose President Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal was nominated by an assembly of elders. The structure of government agreed at Borama fused indigenous forms of social and political organization with western-style institutions of government, in what became known as the ‘beel system’ of government. This consisted of an executive president and a bicameral parliament, comprising an Upper House of Elders and Lower House of Representatives, whose members were nominated on a clan basis by an electoral college of elders (Bradbury et al. 2003).

This clan-based power-sharing system provided the basis of government for eight years. Despite two years of civil war between 1994 and 1996, it brought a high degree of stability to Somaliland. The last country-wide shir beeleed was held in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, from October 1996 to February 1997.

In addition to reelecting Egal as president, the attendant elders approved a draft constitution and a schedule for a transition from the clan system of governance to a democratic, multiparty system. At first, it appears perverse that the elders would support a move, which ostensibly sought to weaken their status, but there were a number of other pressures – those from the diaspora to democratize. Another was a wish to get funds from donors as well as international recognition, which even the elders were eagerly awaiting. The Hargeisa conference marked the beginning of five years of stability in Somaliland.

The transition from a system of selected representation to elected representation in Somaliland’s political institutions has occurred in four stages. In May 2001 a plebiscite approved a constitution, which provides the framework for a democratic political system. This was followed by elections to 23 district councils in December 2002, the formation of three national parties, presidential elections in April 2003, and, finally, elections to the Lower House of Parliament in September 2005. All of these elections have been deemed relatively free and fair by foreign observers (Abokor, et al. 2005; Hansen & Linderman, 2003; Abokor, et al. 2002).

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