Surviving Without The UN: Having broken away from Somalia and declared independence in 1991, the Republic of Somaliland bordering on the former British colony has been denied recognition and aid. Poor and isolated, it is making an effort to achieve a peaceful blend of democracy and cultural tradition which is rarely found in the African countries that do receive international aid. It is a unique experiment and an example to the rest of the continent.

By Gérard Prunier

For several years the media held Somalia up as a symbol of benevolent intervention, but now they have lost interest. It is the only country in the world with a vacant seat at the UN. When the UN’s (UNOSOM) operation ended in March 1995, the country became one of those grey areas described by the writer and essayist Jean-Christophe Rufin[1]. Somalia still exists, but its 637,000 square kilometers are not clearly defined.

The former Republic of Somalia can be divided into four zones. The Majertin region around the northeastern capital, Bossaso, has been peaceful since the war against the ex-dictator Siyad Barre came to an end in January 1991. Further south, between Galkayo and Belet Weyen, a pivotal region inhabited by Marehan and various Hawiye sub-clans is the interface between the peaceful north-east and the war in the south, which has been going on for the past six years from Benadir (Mogadishu) to the Kenyan border.


Six or seven of the chief warlords confront each other in fluctuating alliances but the main split is always between the two main Hawiye rivals, Ali Mahdi Muhammad and Hussein Farah Aidied. The latter succeeded his father, General Mohamed Farah Aidied, who brought down the American army in Mogadishu in 1993 and was killed fighting Ali Mahdi’s forces in August 1996. The warlords are parvenus who came to the fore during the war against the dictatorship (1981-91) and not traditional clan chiefs. Their supporters, recent arrivals in the towns, are young and poor. They belong to a number of different factions and fighting is the only way of life they know.

It was against this background that the fourth, most northerly, part of the former Somalia developed: the Republic of Somaliland. Its origins lay in the different form of colonization practiced in the former British Somaliland in the north from that of Italian Somalia in the south.

In occupying the country, the British had only one aim: to control the strategic strait of Bab Al Mandeb and at the same time to find a source of cheap food supplies for their desolate rocky garrison in Aden. They took very little interest in Somalia, leaving the people free to follow their own customs and the traditional Somali nomad law known as xeer.

With the Italians the situation was quite different. After Italy had been humiliated by the cavalier treatment of the Great Powers prior to 1914, the disastrous collapse of the Italian front in the Austro-German offensive of October 1917 (the Caporetto syndrome), and the 1919-20 peace treaties, the colonies made up for the blow to its self-esteem[2].

Italy’s treatment of Somalia was brutal. The colony had to submit to the will of the victors and adopt their laws, customs, and economic preferences. An artificial Roman law was imposed, nomad social customs (in particular the resolution of conflicts) were abolished and Somali xeer became synonymous with rebelliousness. Military confrontations between the Somali rebels and Italian troops continued until the late 1920s.

The British, rather than promoting mass education which was too uncertain in a nomad society, set up a few schools offering a high standard of education. The best pupils were sent to British universities. From the 1940s onwards this produced a small and well-trained elite. The Italians in the south introduced mass education but of a low standard, creating a large group of proletarianized and strongly nationalistic semi-intellectuals. Independence was welcomed but the two sides united in June 1960 had nothing in common[3].

This difference in structure and methods gradually undermined the unification process. All or most of the technical posts were filled by people from the north whereas the key political jobs went to the southerners, increasing the tension. They did not even have a common administrative language. One group spoke English, the other Italian. Everyone knew Somali but it was not at that stage a written language[4].

After 1978 the disillusionment of the northerners turned to anger. Defeated in his war against Ethiopia, President Siyad Barre[5] made the people of former Somaliland bear the economic brunt of the defeat. Three years later, in 1981, the northerners set up the Somali National Movement (SNM) in London. This was the first Somali guerrilla movement. The violence reached its height when the capital, Hargeisa, was totally destroyed in 1988 with 50,000 deaths. It gradually spread throughout the country and other movements opposing the dictatorship were set up in 1989, leading to the fall of the government in 1991. But, whereas in the south the feuding groups (all clans or clan factions) vied with each other for power, until secession the SNM in the north followed a radically different path, that of national reconciliation.

Surviving Without The UN Somaliland, A Forgotten Country
View from Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland (Yusuf Dahir’s Somaliland Photos)


At the shir (council) in Berbera in February 1991, the Isaaq clans (to which 80% of the 1.8 million inhabitants of the former British colony belong) reached an amnesty with the other clans (the Gaddaboursi, the Dolbahante, the Warsangeli), even though they had fought with the southern army during the war. Prisoners of war were exchanged and there were no reprisals. Four months later a second shir was held in Burao and the people put pressure on the SNM leaders to repeal the act of union of June 1960 and declare independence. Some SNM officials, including the president, Abd Al Rahman Tour (later the first president of independent Somaliland), were former members of the Mogadishu government and did not believe that secession was viable[6].

Independence came about purely as a result of the Southerners’ deep feelings of rejection and Somali policies since 1960 in general. Peacetime injustices and the violence of war had amplified the feeling of rejection since 1991 as the anarchy in the South continued. A politician from Somaliland commented that the international community wanted them to unite with the Southerners, but which Southerners? They were absolutely incapable of reaching any lasting agreement[7].

Despite its admirable efforts at the beginning of 1991, Somaliland was not without its clan warfare. The Isaaqs, who were more or less the dominant group, split and argued over the meager remains of the monetarized economy, consisting mainly of revenue from the ports, roads, and airports[8]. After two clan wars (in 1992 and 1994-95), the situation developed differently from that in the south. Because the xeer conflict resolution system had survived, it was possible to hold Somali-style peace conferences and reach settlements which fitted in with the national culture. Large regional assemblies managed to impose the payment of the blood price (mag), a combination of material compensation and the symbolic restoration of honor which is the only way to stop clan warfare.

This long drawn out process (it takes between two and six months) might seem fairly laborious to a foreign observer, but it is in harmony with the country’s society and culture—something that certainly cannot be said of the Western-style peace conferences that the UN periodically tried to set up in Addis Ababa in 1993 and 1994, which never achieved anything.

The very idea of the state is totally alien to Somali culture and was unknown before the colonial period. A settled population is needed before any form of state can be established[9] and there had never been enough of an economic surplus for that to happen. Nomad society is essentially anarchic. The people of Somaliland call the shir in Burao (1991), Borama (1993), and Hargeisa (1996-97) national conferences, to distinguish them from the local shir used to settle clan conflicts. Each of the three national conferences went beyond political issues and focused on the actual form and basic structures of the state.

Since the third national conference from October 1996 to March 1997), the principle of the state is no longer in question (although the way it operates is still hotly disputed). There are two elected assemblies, one of the members of parliament, and the other of elders chosen not by the electorate but by the clan councils. This second chamber, unlike the first, cannot be dissolved by the president and anyone who can no longer represent the clan or sub-clan due to death, incapacity or recall must be replaced by a representative of the same clan or sub-clan. The system was ratified in a constitution approved by two-thirds of the representatives in February 1997.

The Somalis are certainly anarchical but this also makes them ultra-democratic. In the ten years of war, the SNM has had five presidents. All were democratically elected by congresses, all were genuine leaders of the movement whilst in office and all were still alive and free at the end of their term of office—no mean achievement in an African guerrilla movement.

The hybrid western-nomad state that is taking shape is gradually becoming more democratic, not, as elsewhere in Africa, to satisfy foreign donors (the country does not have any) but to meet a real practical need. The choice is between true democratization and civil war. The paradox is that a state that certainly has more legitimacy and roots in society than most other African states, operating with very limited financial resources and no outside aid[10], is managing to survive and sustain a fragile peace despite the almost total indifference of the international community. Last May a Somaliland businessman voiced the opinion that the country was better off without the international community which had had nothing to offer apart from the civil war it supported in the south.

In the middle of 1993 Leonard Kapungu, deputy UN representative in Mogadishu, arrived in Somaliland (which had not been involved in the armed UNOSOM intervention) with an astonishing plan. Just as in the good old days of the Berlin Conference, the foreign powers had decided to divide up the country. The UN was offering the newly elected president, Muhammad Ibrahim Egal, control of the Isaaq region, assigning the regions occupied by other clans to various clan militias outside the country which their exiled representatives in Nairobi or London had managed to persuade the international community represented the local population. This astonishing scheme would inevitably lead to a renewal of clan conflict. Mr Kapungu was politely sent away to exercise his diplomatic skills elsewhere. Even so the episode has left behind a strong distrust of international good intentions.

Somaliland is poor and isolated. But with the old tyrants falling from power and Africa feeling its way towards democracy, it is a unique example of democratization blending with old cultural traditions dating back centuries, a painstaking attempt to preserve what is worthwhile and reduce the risks. According to a radical opponent of President Egal, re-elected in 1997, it is an expression of political maturity.

After explaining at length why the president did not deserve his position and had only achieved it by buying the votes of important constituents, this politician said his corruption was public knowledge and he would be easy to overthrow. But to do so would be madness and we will not do it. Our institutions were much too new and fragile to stand up to a coup or insurrection. In four years there will be more elections. In the meantime, we’ll have plenty of shir. Elsewhere known as election meetings.

The original article was first published in the October 1997 issue of the Le Monde Diplomatique

Translated to English by Lorna Dale

Other Translations


[1] Jean-Christophe Rufin, L’Empire et les Nouveaux Barbares, J.C. Lattès, Paris, 1991. See also Philippe Leymarie, La Somalie, nation éclatée, Le Monde diplomatique, January 1993, and Gérard Prunier, L’inconcevable aveuglement de l’ONU en Somalie, Le Monde diplomatique, November 1993.

[2] In 1926 the Italians even asked the British to cede back Jubaland (at the time part of Kenya). This redrawing of colonial borders was reminiscent of the far-off era when the European powers divided Africa up between them. The Italians then invaded Ethiopia in 1935.

[3] After occupying Italian Somalia in 1941, in 1948 the British handed it over to a UN-delegated Italian administration, l’Amministrazione Fiduciaria Italiana in Somalia (AFIS), which ran the country until 1960, usually through old colonial officials from the Mussolini period. The North voluntarily united with the South four days after the British had granted it independence.

[4] It only became this in 1971, eleven years after the two ex-colonies were united.

[5] Siyad Barre belonged to the southern Marehana clan and hated the northern Isaaq clans.

[6] At the end of his term of office Abd Al Rahman Tour joined Hussein Farah Aidied’s southern militia and declared support for hypothetical reunification.

[7] Five or six peace agreements have been signed between the southern factions since 1992, under the auspices of Djibouti, the UN, Kenya and Ethiopia. None lasted more than a few weeks.

[8] Livestock (sheep and camels, mainly exported to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States) is the sole trade resource, bringing in over $150m in 1996. The only way in which state bodies can tap into the profit is through customs and at roadblocks, legal if the government is under control, illegal when control is lost.

[9] Except of course on the coast, where cosmopolitan, Arabized trading city-states in the form of mini-sultanates had been set up from the 14th to the 19th centuries. However, these were oriented towards the sea and never controlled the hinterland.

[10] After a year of development, there is no evidence of the scheme to redevelop the port of Berbera which was announced with such a fanfare by the European Union.

Surviving Without The UN: Somaliland, A Forgotten CountryABOUT THE AUTHOR

Prof: Gerard Prunier One of the foremost Africanists in the world today, Prunier is the author of more than 200 scholarly articles and a dozen books in four languages, including in English The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (Columbia University Press, 1995), Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide (Cornell University Press, 2005)—which was hailed by Foreign Affairs as “the best available account of the Darfur crisis”—and Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of Continental Catastrophe (Oxford University Press, 2008), which was awarded a special honorable mention in the Council on Foreign Relations’ 2010 Arthur Ross Book Award competition for the best book published in international relations, the first Africa-focused book ever so honored.

Prunier served as a senior researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France’s largest government research organization, and as a professor at the University of Paris. From 2001 to 2006, he was seconded to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as the Director of the Centre Français des Études Éthiopiennes in Addis Ababa. Throughout his career, Prunier has served as an adviser to the French government and also consulted for the US Departments of State and Defense, various European and African governments, as well as private companies.

Prunier holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Institut d’Études Politiques (Sciences Po), a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Nanterre, and a doctorate in African studies from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

Prunier serves on the Academic Council of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) and on the Editorial Board of the Journal of the Middle East and Africa.

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