Somaliland has demonstrated empirical sovereignty for 32 years; how long will the international community ignore Somaliland’s claims to de jure sovereignty? More importantly, is it reasonable and responsible to continue doing so?
By Jamal Abdi
The root causes of the conflict in Las Anod are best understood through the intersection of lack of economic development in eastern Somaliland and limited state capacity, eroding the legitimacy of the state. Consequently, the so-called international community should acknowledge that it, indirectly, bears a part of the responsibility for the current conflict in Las Anod. The way Somaliland is treated by the international community is disgraceful and questions whether the West is genuine when promoting so-called liberal values in the developing world.
Somaliland has built on its own what the West is ostensibly willing to wage long, costly, and deadly wars for, e.g., democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The international community is seemingly not willing to grant Somaliland de jure recognition, denying Somaliland access to global financial bodies. At the same time, Somaliland does not receive sufficient financial aid to allow it to cement its legitimacy by increasing the provision of public goods and services.
It is my informed contention that the ongoing conflict in Las Anod could have been avoided if Somaliland had been granted de jure recognition or had access to international funding bodies. The international community should take the recent developments in Somaliland to reconsider its engagement with Somaliland. It is evident that more, rather than less, engagement is needed.
However inconvenient, the so-called international community must seriously address the political future of Somaliland, including the question of de jure recognition. The alternative, i.e., ignoring that most people in Somaliland want independent statehood, is not sustainable. Anyone who has visited and traveled to Somaliland will know that voluntary reunification with Somalia is considered beyond the realm of plausibility by most Somalilanders. Somaliland has demonstrated empirical sovereignty for 32 years; how long will the international community ignore Somaliland’s claims to de jure sovereignty? More importantly, is it reasonable and responsible to continue doing so?
External investment and intensifying internal competition?
Applying the ‘resource curse thesis’ to Somaliland, commentators have suggested that ‘accelerating international engagement’ has led to internal clan competition over control of the state, that has come to a head under the current administration. We are, according to this line of reasoning, asked to believe that alleged increased influx of foreign money has had a destabilizing effect on Somaliland. The logic underpinning this argument is that the influx of foreign money is turning the state into a lucrative source of income, rendering it worth fighting for. The evidence marshaled in defense of this assertion is postponement of a general election, which was initially scheduled for November 2022.
Upon closer inspection, however, it appears evident that this line of reasoning does not stand logical scrutiny. Anyone who has seriously studied Somaliland would know that all presidents to date have had their term in office extended (Phillips 2020; Walls 2014). The postponement of the elections in 2022 is, therefore, the rule rather than the exemption. It is, thus, hard to accept the contention that ‘accelerating international engagement’ is causing internal competition for control of the state.
To say that the latest postponement of general elections is an expression of internal competition for the control of the state appears untenable as it does not sit comfortably with the historical record. There is nothing indicating that the extension of the current president’s term in power is a hidden attempt to exploit public resources. The current president, Muse Bihi, has indeed earned the nickname of ‘Muse handaraab’, reportedly because of the current administration’s crackdown on embezzlement of public funds. Moreover, if the current delays of elections are attributable to the recent influx of foreign money, what then explains the extensions of previous presidents’ term in office?
Somaliland consolidated peace and built a viable state without external aid
Somaliland’s peace and state-building trajectory is characterized by a lack of external intervention in the political process. This does not mean, however, that Somaliland was ever isolated against its will and/or rejected by the so-called international community. Rather, social, and political leaders in Somaliland deliberately and freely rejected external involvement in their peace and state-building efforts.
The political and security framework of Somaliland was agreed upon during the Borama conference in 1993 (Walls 2014; Bradbury 2008; Phillips 2020). It was also at this conference that a united Somaliland issued a communique to the secretary-general of the United Nations, telling the UN and its forces to stay out of Somaliland. The representatives of the different communities in Somaliland further stressed to the UN that they needed no UN-led facilitation in terms of peace-making. They also stressed that there was no need for the UN to offer food aid protection convoys as Somaliland was not receiving aid.
Rather than respecting Somaliland’s desire to be left out of the UN’s framework for peace and state rebuilding in Somalia, the international community, under the guise of the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM), did virtually everything possible to disrupt and sabotage Somaliland’s self-led peace and state building efforts (Renders 2012).
The tensions between Somaliland and UNOSOM culminated in 1994 where the leader of UNOSOM visited Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland. He let President Egal know that UNOSOM had the competence to deploy troops in Somaliland even without Egal’s consent. To this, Egal replied that if they did so ‘Hargeysa would become the United Nations’ Dien Bien Phu’ (as quoted in Renders 2012: 122), giving him 24 hours to leave Somaliland.
Rather than relying on foreign aid, assistance, and expertise, Somaliland chose to rely on its own business communities and diaspora to finance the formation of a state from scratch. Recall that it has recently been suggested that external investments have caused internal competition over control for the state. Yet, it is an empirically verifiable fact that Somaliland, at its darkest hour, rejected international involvement in its peace and state-building project, thereby also rejecting foreign aid. Are we supposed to believe that Somaliland rejected foreign aid when it was on its knees, recovering from a devastating civil war but that so-called ‘clans’ are now competing internally because of an external influx of money? If so, what has changed?
Bear in mind, that Somaliland receives little direct foreign aid. The bulk of the funds that Somaliland receives, on paper, are often allocated to the salary of foreigners who do little more than occasionally deliver workshops on gender equality and good governance, etc. (see Phillips 2020). It is indeed questionable whether the bulk of the 38 million USD promised by Western states will ever be directly managed by the Somaliland state.
Commentators rightly observe pervasive perceptions of marginalization in eastern Somaliland but do not grasp that such perceptions are not caused by internal ‘clan’ competition for control of the state. Inaccurate assumptions often obfuscate conclusions, making it paramount to stress that, if we are to avoid eruption of more conflicts rooted in the limitation of state capacity that eventually lead to the questioning or even rejection of state legitimacy, the so-called international community needs to increase its engagement with Somaliland rather than limiting it.
We have already seen tensions in Ceel Afweyn and other conflicts may erupt elsewhere. Effectively remedying the developmental disparity between east and west, giving rise to perceptions of marginalization, is therefore one of the most significant long-term challenges facing Somaliland. While it is extreme to suggest that kin-based loyalties have no utility ever in terms of making sense of socio-political relations in Somaliland, it appears rather reductionist and simplistic to excessively focus on the ‘clan’.
Other factors do matter and there is indeed some evidence suggesting that kin-based identifications and political behavior are not always aligned. Dahir Riyaale Kaahin, Somaliland’s third president, hails from the Samaroon group, which makes up circa 10 percent of the population in Somaliland. In 2002 he defeated Ahmed Sillanyo, an Issaq, in a free and fair election.
Following the logic of clannism, this should have never happened. Barkhad Batuun is currently one of the most well-known and popular politicians in Somaliland. He hails from the Gabooye community, which makes up circa 1–3 percent of the population. Yet, at the latest parliamentary elections, he was elected with the highest number of personal votes. Again, this would not have been possible if clannism was as important as some Western commentators, media and academics make it out to be.
It is hard to see how a new and viable state, claiming the regions of Sool, Sanaag, and southern Togdheer, can be forged. As soon as such a state would attempt to exert control over these regions, it would face the same challenge as Somaliland is currently facing in Las Anod, i.e., lack of legitimacy. There are towns and cities throughout these regions where the local population is overwhelmingly pro-Somaliland, e.g., Ceerigaabo, Gar-adag, Caynaba.
Consequently, setting up an independent state with Las Anod as the capital is indeed a political project doomed to fail. With this in mind, Somaliland should pull the national army 30–40 kilometers out of Las Anod to allow for a viable ceasefire. It is almost certain that Somaliland will not, in the foreseeable future, be able to govern Las Anod, and any attempt to subdue it, through sheer force, is political suicide. The more people that die in this conflict, the more difficult it will be for Somaliland to reinstate its legitimacy. The optimal and perhaps only reasonable course for Somaliland is to develop a long-term strategy aiming to reincorporate Las Anod into Somaliland through soft power.
The discovery of oil in Somaliland can constitute a new reliable source of income for the state and may usher in a period of prosperity. If managed properly, the revenues of oil can be instrumentalized to bring development to the eastern regions, thereby remedying the pervasive perceptions of marginalization. By doing so, the legitimacy of the state may crystalize throughout the entire country.
The so-called international community must rethink its engagement with Somaliland and face the fact that Somaliland’s claims to independence must be taken seriously. It is neither prudent nor provident to continue with business as usual. Challenges relating to the borders of an independent Somaliland and the like can be pragmatically solved as happened in, for instance, South Sudan. It is rather naïve not to assume that the Mogadishu-based federal Somali state will not attempt to retake Somaliland by force when it is economically and militarily capable of doing so.
The political, economic, and social ramifications of such a course of action will prove disastrous for the whole region. A military confrontation between Somaliland and Somalia that could easily escalate into an all-out war is inevitable if the West does not seriously reconsider its engagement with Somaliland, including the issue of formal recognition.
 Handaraab means to close/shut/seal something. In the present context, it refers to public funds.
 The Borama Conference began in January 1993 and ended in May 1993. It was attended by representatives from all communities in Somaliland. It produced a security framework for Somaliland together with a governance framework. It was at this conference that Somaliland’s hybrid state was created.
 The Issaq make up 70 percent of the population in Somaliland.
Bradbury, Mark. Becoming Somaliland. Suffolk: James Currey, 2008.
Renders, Marleen. Consider Somaliland: State building with Traditional Leaders and Institutions. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
Phillips, G. Sarah. When There Was No Aid: War and Peace in Somaliland. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Walls, Michael. A Somali Nation-State: History, Culture, and Somaliland’s Political Transition. Pisa: Ponte Invisible, 2014.
About Jamal Abdi
Jamal Abdi holds an MSc in European and International Relations from Linkoping University. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Politics and International Relations at Keele University. His research focuses on peace and state-building in Somaliland. He can be reached at J.firstname.lastname@example.org
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