By David Axe, WPR column, War is Boring, appears every Wednesday.

There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when Somali clans across East Africa imagined a “pan-Somalia” encompassing former British, Italian, and French colonies, in addition to portions of eastern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. The former British and Italian colonies — Somaliland in the north, and the southern U.N. Trust Territory of Somalia, respectively — had taken a tentative first step towards realizing this greater Somali state, when they merged in 1960 to form the Republic of Somalia.

But the greater union was not to be. The former French colony declared independence, as Djibouti, and Ethiopia and Kenya each held onto their Somali regions. The Republic of Somalia began to fracture in the late 1980s, following decades of clan favoritism and repression under dictator Siad Barre. In 1991, the Somali National Movement (SNM), founded in 1981 to resist Barre’s regime, ejected the last of Barre’s troops from northern Somalia, and Somaliland declared its independence.


Nearly two decades later, Somaliland, population 3.5 million, is a rare bright spot on the Horn of Africa’s political landscape. The country is at peace and growing economically, in stark contrast to the south, where Islamic extremists and clan factions continue to wage brutal civil warfare. Despite its successes, Somaliland has never been officially recognized by other nations or by world bodies such as the African Union and U.N. “Many Western countries are blindly parroting the A.U. dictum that Africa’s post-colonial borders are sacrosanct,” explained Ahmed Egal, a founding member of the SNM.

Egal says it’s time for the world to embrace Somaliland, and consider the country a base for addressing instability in the south. Egal, who now lives in Saudi Arabia, detailed his proposals by e-mail to World Politics Review. “It is necessary to embrace the only peaceful, functioning, Muslim, representative government in the Horn of Africa, namely Somaliland,” Egal wrote.

Egal’s proposal comes as the latest “Transitional Federal Government” in Mogadishu faces heightened pressure from an alliance of extremist Islamic groups. The TFG is recognized by the U.S., the U.N., and the A.U. as the legitimate government of Somalia, Somaliland, and the autonomous region of Puntland. But in reality, the TFG controls only a few neighborhoods in Mogadishu and depends heavily on foreign military assistance for its survival. The TFG “is being relentlessly attacked by a coalition of Islamist transnational extremists and Islamist nationalists determined to topple the government,” an anonymous East Africa correspondent wrote in the July issue of Sentinel (.pdf), a counterterrorism journal based at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

To prevent the takeover of Somalia by Islamic extremists, the world should start by shifting its backing from the TFG to Somaliland, Egal recommended. “The newly recognized country of Somaliland should be tasked by the international community with training and re-establishing the Somali national army. In addition, a new A.U. military mission for Somalia comprised principally of Somaliland forces with logistical support, special forces training and equipment provision by the U.S., Russia, and the EU should be established and dispatched urgently to Somalia with offensive mission approval and the explicit aim to secure the country and defeat the terrorists.”

Subsequently, “Somalia should be placed under U.N. trusteeship until a freely and democratically elected government is chosen by its people,” Egal advised.

Egal’s recommendations are controversial, especially in light of Washington’s sustained commitment to the TFG and to the peace process — anchored by talks in Djibouti — that underpins the TFG’s legitimacy. But Egal’s proposal for a new process, based in Somaliland, does have some historical precedent. Egal explained that Somaliland’s success is rooted in its commitment to truly democratic, grass-roots governance. “The traditional cultural, political, and social structures remained paramount and were able to trump the political and military leadership of the liberation movement.”

In the wake of the SNM’s battlefield victories in 1991, “the elders of the various clans stepped in and convened a grand conference in Borama to establish a constitutional structure and effective civilian administration that was accepted by all the communities, and to which they freely and voluntarily granted their fealty.”

“The Borama conference is an amazing example of indigenous, grass-roots, African nation-building and democratic constitutionalism that merits further academic study and research,” Egal wrote. He said its example could guide a renewed effort at establishing popular government throughout Somalia.

“Since the late 1990s, Somaliland has advised time and again that the ‘top-down’ approach chosen by the international community — establishing successive so-called governments for Somalia drawn from warlords, self-appointed ‘civil society leaders’ and their cohorts — was an exercise in futility.”

Many would agree about the futility of the world’s current approach to resolving Somalia’s 18-year conflict. But fewer would agree to Egal’s proposal to build a new approach around Somaliland. The TFG’s process is “as good as we’re going to get at this time,” a State Department source said.

David Axe is an independent correspondent, a World Politics Review contributing editor, and the author of “War Bots.” He blogs at War is Boring. His WPR column, War is Boring, appears every Wednesday.

Photo: Girls wearing the colors of the Somaliland flag before elections, December 2005 (photo by flickr user F. Omer, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License).

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