The Role Of Violent Conflict In Somaliland’s March To Statehood

Dominik Balthasar


Civil Wars, Volume 19, 2017 – Issue 1

Published Online: 26 Jul 2017


The role of war in processes of state-making has long been hotly disputed. Although generally considered an African ‘success story’, the case of Somaliland, whose unilateral declaration of independence was embedded in violent conflict, may be instructive. Applying the conceptual prism of ‘rule standardization’, this article argues that episodes of large-scale violence were constitutive of Somaliland’s state-making trajectory. Based on theoretical reasoning and empirical findings, the article concludes that, while collective political violence is neither an angel of order nor a daemon of decay, war can be constitutive of state-making under the condition that it advances institutional and identity standardization.

Panel: ‘Civil Wars and State Formation’ (P046)

Chair: Didier Péclard, University of Geneva

Discussant: Dominik Balthasar, University of Basel

Proposing that ‘war makes states and vice versa’, Tilly (1992) has revived an age‐old debate of historical sociology and political science around the role violent conflict may play in processes of state-making. Scholars have generally acknowledged that “the experience of warfare has played a central and indeed essential role in the process of state and nation formation in Europe” (Clapham 2001:1; Huntington 1968) and that “violence […] is an integral part of the processes of accumulation of power by the national state” (Cohen et al. 1981:901; Mann 1986). Yet, there is great hesitation among academics and policymakers to extend this proposition to contemporary developing states. At a time in which the neo‐liberal paradigm with its emphasis on individual human rights, celebration of plural societies, and the international community’s responsibility to protect (R2P) reign supreme, war has been considered constituting a “political retrovirus […] about nothing at all” (Enzensberger 1994; as in Cramer 2006:77). Such assessment is bolstered by scholars such as Kaldor (1999) and Leander (2004) who cast doubt on Tilly’s dictum.

Although the view of the ‘war makes states’ critics prevail, some accounts do suggest that violent conflict has not only played a crucial role in historical state formation in historical Europe, but that war may also play a constitutive role in more contemporary state‐making projects in the Global South. Deflem (1999:379), for example, argues that the data on the evolution of the Zulu Kingdom “leave no doubt on the significance of warfare in aggregating formerly dispersed tribes into one nation.” Similarly, Niemann (2007) shows how the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had, at heart, been about state‐making. Meanwhile, Taylor and Botea (2008:42) suggest that “[w]ar‐making clearly contributed to state‐making in Vietnam” in the context of the Cold War. More generally, a number of scholars accept Tilly’s basic logic, contending that “civil war is not a stupid thing” (Cramer 2006), and that violence in developing states did not indicate state breakdown but rather processes of “primitive accumulation of power” (Cohen et al. 1981). Conversely, Centeno (2002:167‐215) and Herbst (2000:12630) stress how the absence of war has hindered nation‐building in Latin America and Africa respectively.

Based on the insight that “[not] all types of violent conflict are equivalent in their historical significance” (Cramer 2006:48), the debate has come to an impasse at which the inconclusive argument is made that “[t]he effects of contemporary wars on statehood are ambivalent” and that there is “no single unambiguous causal relation between states and wars” (Schlichte 2003:38). Thus, further research is needed to shed additional light on this ambiguous relationship. The case of Somaliland may be instructive in this regard. Not only has the polity been widely celebrated for its alleged state‐making success (Jhazbhay 2007; Henwood 2007)—but it also experienced recurrent episodes of large‐scale violent conflict both prior and subsequent to its unilateral declaration of independence from Somalia in 1991. Consequently, this article sets out to investigate how some of the major episodes of violent conflict Somaliland experienced might have been constitutive of its state-making endeavor. The article is based on secondary data as well as nine months of primary field research in Somaliland, during the course of which some 158 interviews were conducted.

Download the full article here 

Dominik_BalthasarDominik Balthasar 

University of Basel | UNIBAS · Abteilung Wirtschaft und Politik

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