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In Somaliland, there has been neither a military intervention to end a conflict nor substantial political, military or economic engagement with the international community, focused as it has been on the mayhem in Somalia.

By Rakiya Omaar And Saeed Mohamoud

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Visiting Colombia on June 2014, as part of the Africa-Colombia Dialogue of the Brenthurst Foundation, was an opportunity to reflect on the power of misconceptions. Even among conflict veterans, which the people of Somaliland have become, the prospect of a journey to Colombia provoked concern about safety and security. Talking to people in Colombia about Somaliland elicited expressions of sympathy for a far off place they knew very little about. This is unsurprising, given the fact that what they thought they knew was based on the recurrent headlines about war and violence, bombings by al-Shabaab militants, famine and displacement in Somalia.

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The distinction between Somalia and Somaliland is lost on most outsiders, but for the people of Somaliland, who made the decision to separate from Somalia in May 1991, it is both very real and immensely significant. It has meant living in peace for two decades – a peace brokered, implemented and sustained by local people. There has been neither a military intervention to end a conflict nor substantial political, military or economic engagement with the international community, focused as it has been on the mayhem in Somalia.

There is a bloody backdrop to the decision to “go it alone.” Somaliland was a British Protectorate until it elected to unite in June 1960, with the Italian colony of Somalia, to form the Northwest region of an independent Republic of Somalia. Unhappy with the union, and frustrated with what appeared to be a policy of neglect, an anti-government rebel movement called the Somali National Movement (SNM) was established abroad to challenge the hardline military regime of Mohamed Siyad Barre. The SNM established a rear base in neighboring Ethiopia from which it made incursions into the Northwest and fought a guerrilla war.

The government’s response was swift and unforgiving: civilians suspected of having ties to the SNM faced harsh interrogations, were imprisoned and, in some cases, disappeared. Much of the Northwest became occupied territory. SNM’s entry into Somalia in May 1988, led to an outright declaration of war against the civilian population in an effort to deprive the SNM of its support and intelligence networks. An intense campaign of aerial bombings in many of the main cities demolished homes, businesses, and infrastructure and drove the population out of the country into nearby Ethiopia and further afield. Three years of living in Ethiopia as displaced people, in difficult terrain, took a heavy toll on lives. Many people died of malaria and other health-related causes, and children succumbed because of the lack of clean water.

Exile also politicized people to a point of no return as far as a political future with Somalia was concerned. When Siyad Barre was forced out of power in January 1991, the refugees returned home. On 18 May, at a congress in Burao, it was declared that Somaliland had reclaimed the sovereignty it had ceded in June 1960 and was no longer an integral part of Somalia.

For two decades, the pain and struggles of Somalia – the spiral of violence, the absence of an effective central government, the failure of successive interventions and peace negotiations and the grip of extremism – have been the subject of international concern and debate. Somaliland, on the other hand, has remained largely invisible to the outside world. Left to its own devices, it crafted a painstaking, locally-driven peace-building process to resolve a series of internal conflicts and lay the foundation for a system of governance and administration.

It is difficult to pinpoint the political watershed where Somalia crossed the line so as to render a home-grown solution to war and conflict impossible. Although at the time there did not appear to be a choice, Somaliland successfully ended the internal fighting in the early 1990s, nurturing the trust necessary for healing and reconciliation. A collective effort by traditional elders, leading political and civic figures, as well as senior military officers forged, with patience and sensitivity, a meticulous, systematic and comprehensive peace plan responsive to local needs. Political organization, social cohesion and a person’s sense of security and belonging have historically, in the Somali context, come from clan affiliation. When the fault lines in a conflict are defined along clan lines, often among neighbors and even relatives, the violence is personal and deep. “Intimate” violence is much more difficult to resolve than a war between strangers. Making peace between people who had previously enjoyed the ties of kinship, marriage and friendship must encompass strategies for overcoming hurt, rekindling trust and creating a sense of common purpose. In a largely pastoral society, moreover, where the prospects for avoiding harm and doing well economically are dependent on gaining intelligence from other communities, the notion of peace is shaped by social harmony. The internationally-led search for peace in Somalia has focused on a formula for power-sharing; in Somaliland, the emphasis was on the achievement of peace and sharing its benefits.

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