The Remarkable Story Of Somaliland By Seth Kaplan: Emerging from one of the world’s most notorious failed states, Somaliland has become an oasis of relative democratic stability in the troubled Horn of Africa. What does its story teach us about democratic state-building?

By Seth Kaplan

Seth Kaplan is a business consultant to companies in developing countries as well as a foreign-policy analyst. His book Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (2008) critiques Western policies in places such as Congo (Kinshasa), West Africa, Syria, and Pakistan, and lays out a new approach to overcoming the problems they face. For more information, see This essay originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of the Journal of Democracy.


The sorry state of Somalia has been regularly in the headlines in recent years. Reports have chronicled the rise to power in Mogadishu of a group of Muslim extremists calling themselves the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), their subsequent ejection by Ethiopian troops, and the repeated failures of peace conferences to reconcile the country’s many factions. As media across the world also reported, the fighting and chaos in late 2006 and early 2007 even prompted U.S. military intervention.

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The attention paid to the violent drama in the south of Somalia is perfectly understandable, but both the media and the international community are missing an equally important—and more peaceful—story in the north, where a remarkable political transformation is underway. Inattention to this northern success story is ironic given that it offers important lessons for the governments, scholars, and analysts who have made democratization the centerpiece of efforts to combat extremism in the Muslim world and to promote better governance in developing countries.

The Republic of Somaliland, the secessionist northwestern slice of Somalia that declared independence in 1991, has a far better democratic track record than any of its neighbors despite—or, perhaps, because of—a dearth of assistance from the international community. Abutting the Gulf of Aden just south of the Red Sea, across the water from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and bordered by Ethiopia and the rest of Somalia, this strategically important territory is not even recognized by the international community but undoubtedly has the most democratic political system in the entire Horn of Africa. In contrast to the chaos and extremist threats that continue to plague much of the rest of Somalia—and unlike the authoritarian regimes that throng its neighborhood—Somaliland has held three consecutive competitive elections since its constitutional referendum in 2001, has a parliament controlled by opposition parties, and boasts a vibrant economy dominated by the private sector.

Somaliland has achieved these successes by constructing a set of governing bodies rooted in traditional Somali concepts of governance by consultation and consent. In contrast to most postcolonial states in Africa and the Middle East, Somaliland has had a chance to administer itself using customary norms, values, and relationships. In fact, its integration of traditional ways of governance within a modern state apparatus has helped it to achieve greater cohesion and legitimacy and—not coincidentally—create greater room for competitive elections and public criticism than exists in most similarly endowed territories. Far too many poor states are held back by administrative and political systems built separately from the societies that they are meant to serve, thus rendering those systems illegitimate, ripe for exploitation, and a major hindrance to democratization and development. Although Somaliland’s fledgling state institutions are still fragile and have many weaknesses, if properly nourished they can become robust champions of a democratic system that is actually reflective of and integrated into the society that it is meant to represent—giving the country a far better chance to develop toward greater freedom and prosperity in the years ahead.

Somaliland thus offers important lessons, both for its neighbors and for other postcolonial states in the Middle East and Africa. The success of its society-led, bottom-up process of democratization stands in sharp contrast to the repeated failure of international attempts to construct a Western-style state in the rest of Somalia—and calls into question the fundamental assumptions underlying the top-down, unitary state-building exercises so commonly attempted in fragile states.

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