Sarah Phillips explores Somaliland’s approach to peace-building and asks if donors have overlooked the importance of secondary education in development.

When Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991, violence engulfed much of the country for over two decades. But in Somaliland – a self-proclaimed republic in Somalia’s north-west – the story has been quite different. Its leaders managed, in fits and starts, to negotiate an end to large-scale violence within six years. Traveling through Somaliland now – something still impossible in most of Somalia – one is struck by the strength of popular pride in the achievement of peace and relative security.

So how has Somaliland managed to establish and maintain its greater stability? My research on this question for DLP highlights three particularly important factors: a domestically-funded peace process that motivated cooperation among elites; Somalilanders’ conscious desire for an enclave of peace within the surrounding turmoil; and quality secondary education.

SDF Jobs at SaxafiElite cooperation

At the launch of the new $60 million Somaliland Development Fund (SDF), the Danish Ambassador noted the “leadership and ownership” demonstrated by Somaliland. Yet this ownership was partly fostered by an initial lack of international support: the Government of Somaliland’s unrecognized status made it largely ineligible for official international grants and loans, or political or military assistance.


The lack of external funding motivated strong – though arguably collusive – cooperation between Somaliland’s politicians and business leaders to secure the money needed to disarm militias and bring greater stability to the country. This stood in obvious contrast to Somalia, where successive governments and peace processes have been substantially underwritten by external political and financial support.

In Somaliland, President Mohamed Ibrahim Egal used loans from private businesses to demobilize the clan militias. In exchange for loans towards his state-building project, Egal gave business leaders not just a more stable environment in which to operate, but generous tax exemptions and opportunities for extraordinary profits. For example, in 1994 Egal used such loans to print a Somaliland Shilling, to underline Somaliland’s proclaimed independence.

He then declared the old Somali Shillings illegal in Somaliland, selling them to his creditors at fire-sale prices in exchange for hard currency. His creditors then resold them very profitably across the ‘border’ in Somalia. While such arrangements didn’t conform to ideals of inclusivity, they did foster ownership of Somaliland’s peacebuilding process among the business elite – who literally bought into it.

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see how the Somaliland Development Fund affects Somaliland’s future, and whether it succeeds in its aim of giving the Somaliland Government “ownership over how and where the funds are spent”.

Peace above all else

The loans that Egal received from the business elites were (and remain) widely accepted within Somaliland as legitimate. Part of the reason for this seems to be a powerful idea that continues to permeate society and shape political change in Somaliland: the value of peace above all else, something almost certainly underwritten by the trauma of war. 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.

Despite their pride in Somaliland’s achievements, Somalilanders fear its internal combustion. Somaliland’s dominant political narratives revolve consistently around the notion that peace is fragile, that its maintenance requires a continual effort from everyone, and that its maintenance is a reflection of the Somalilanders’ exceptional nature. During my research, I often heard people comment that Somaliland “works because Somalilanders want it to work” and that it “runs on trust”. Rituals of trust are an important component of peace and security in Somaliland: if people don’t trust that others are as invested in maintaining peace as they are, it can quickly collapse.

I watched one such ritual unfold when I asked to enter the grounds of Sheekh School to do some interviews. Behind the school fence sat a couple of guards who would not allow us to enter until we could demonstrate that there was a personal connection linking us, on one side of the fence, to them on the other. My Somalilander friends began calling person after person, moving through a chain of acquaintances and then strangers, until they found someone who knew one of the guards personally, at which time the gate was opened.

It was a theatrical display, revealing a very constructed idea of security. The people on the other end of the phone clearly did not know me (or my friends) and so could vouch for neither my integrity nor my purpose. Presumably, they could not actually be held accountable for my actions once inside either.

In fact, what seemed to be happening was that my friends and the guards were acting out the ‘discovery’ of a previously unknown personal connection between me (the outsider) and the local community. However obviously strained this discovery was to all observing, it was nevertheless vital to perform it in exchange for entry.

The role of secondary education

The reason for my visit to Sheekh Secondary School was the striking influence of its graduates – as highlighted in my research – on Somaliland. I found that a disproportionate number of the politicians, activists, and technocrats who helped establish Somaliland’s stability had attended it. Among Sheekh alumni are all but one of its four presidents and all three of its vice-presidents.

When I asked why Somaliland had leaders who were relatively effective at negotiating and maintaining peace, the answers often included Sheekh School. My findings suggest the significant role of quality secondary education in forming leaders who promote development.

Sheekh School was a privately funded boarding school that gave free tuition to the top students in Somaliland. On the basis of merit, it offered students from different backgrounds training in critical thought and leadership, networks of trust outside the clan, and pathways to higher education abroad.

One of its graduates lamented that foreign development practitioners overlook its importance: “We used to say to the international community [that] all we need is three Sheekh Schools… The international community is fixated on primary education and on literacy, which is obviously important but there is no focus on educating the elite… We all know what they think is important, and that that is short-term training programs, and these are not futile but they also are lacking in many areas.”

Somaliland’s Minister of Planning noted that while donors have funded some buildings for secondary schools in the territory, investment in the quality of the education provided has been lacking: “We have quantity but not quality.”

These comments are timely in the light of what seems to be growing interest among donors in expanding the current, MDG-oriented, focus on primary education – to include higher education, for example. Findings from both Somaliland and from forthcoming DLP research in Ghana suggest the value of the investment in quality secondary education and tertiary scholarships.

Secondary education didn’t make the list of initial priorities for the Somaliland Development Fund – unsurprising, perhaps, given the pressing needs elsewhere. But in the long-term, investment in secondary education would play a significant role in increasing government capacity to achieve development objectives: it could be more relevant than at first appears to the SDF’s aim of enhancing core state functions.

See also: Duncan Green’s review of Sarah’s research paper on Somaliland.

Sarah Phillips

Sarah_PhilipsSarah Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Sydney’s Department of Government and International Relations. She has a particular focus on the politics of state-building. She spent several years living and working in Yemen and has advised numerous Western governments and aid agencies on matters relating to Yemen and the Middle East. Her most recent book, ‘Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis’ analyses the nature of the country’s informal institutions amid rapid political and social change.

Her broad research interests include the securitization of development, the politics of contemporary state-building, the management of violence beyond the state, and informal institutions. The primary geographic scope of her work in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, with a specific focus on Yemen and Somalia/Somaliland.


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