Mention the Horn of Africa and people inevitably think of Somalia, a failed state, crippled by a protracted civil war, instability, and Al Shabaab. But there is Somaliland, which has been a peaceful, stable, and democratic de facto state for the last 25 years. In this article, the author examines what Somaliland can teach the rest of Africa about peace and stability.

By Nima Elmi

Head of Government Affairs, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum

People often look at me with a bewildered expression on their face when I mention the Republic of Somaliland. Many assume that I meant to say Somalia. Mention the Horn of Africa and people inevitably think of Somalia, a failed state, crippled by a protracted civil war, instability, and Al Shabaab.

Yet, when I explain the existence of Somaliland, a territory larger in size than England and Wales located in northern Somalia, which has been a peaceful, stable, and democratic de facto state for the last 25 years, the bewildered expressions turn to surprise and then intrigue.


Some people lament that Somaliland’s successes should be more widely known given its achievements. Educating dignitaries, business people, international civil servants, and the media about the wonders of Somaliland is one of my many responsibilities as a Senior Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Somaliland.

Somaliland was a British Protectorate from 1884 until 26 June 1960 when it became an independent state. Five days after receiving independence from Her Majesty’s Government, Somaliland chose to unite with Italian-trusteeship Somalia as the first step towards creating a “Greater Somalia” to unite all peoples of ethnic Somali origin across the Horn of Africa.

Sadly, the union between British Somaliland and Italian Somalia proved to be disastrous from the outset. Shortly after the creation of the Somali Republic, the people of Somaliland were excluded from decision-making and representative governance. In turn, the people of Somaliland rejected the Somali Republic’s constitution by referendum, and their disenchantment continued throughout the early years of the union as political and economic isolation grew. In December 1961, Somaliland army cadets staged an aborted coup, which highlights that within a matter of months, many Somalilanders were already disgruntled by the union with Italian Somalia.

After assuming power in a military coup in October 1969, Mohamed Siad Barre led a brutal military dictatorship that in the 1980s embarked on a violent campaign against the people of Somaliland, killing between 50,000 to 100,000 civilians and displacing ten times more. Following the collapse of the Somali Republic in 1991, the people of Somaliland decided to withdraw from their voluntary union and re-assert Somaliland’s sovereignty and independence.

Elders from Somaliland clans held a series of grassroots consultations with their communities, which led to Somaliland’s unilateral declaration of independence on 18 May 1991. Since then, Somalilanders have worked hard to build peace in their country through a bottom-up process drawing on traditional conflict resolution methods. The process was purely indigenous and involved some 37 reconciliation conferences.

A referendum was held on 31 May 2001 which confirmed Somalilanders’ desire to maintain their independence and led to the endorsement of a new constitution. Somaliland held multi-party municipal elections in 2002; parliamentary elections were held in 2005; and presidential elections were held in 2003 and 2010, the most recent of which involved a peaceful transfer of power between political parties. International monitors have witnessed all of Somaliland’s elections since 2003 and pronounced them free and fair.

By all accounts, Somaliland has one of the best democratic records in Africa. Yet, it remains an unrecognized state, its passports are classed as a fantasy, and despite spending almost half the Government’s budget on security, acting as a buffer zone for Ethiopia and Djibouti against Al Shabaab and other extremist organizations, little credit is given by the international community to Somaliland’s achievements.

What Somaliland Can Teach The Rest Of Africa About Peace And Stability
A girl sporting a sticker on her face with the colors of the national flag participates in a street parade to celebrate the 24th Independence Day for the Republic of Somaliland in capital Hargeysa, May 18, 2015. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Sharing lessons in peacebuilding

Somaliland provides an interesting example of how to create lasting peace and stability through bottom-up grassroots community engagement. First, the violence perpetrated during the Somali civil war between civilians and the military had to be addressed through a series of peace and reconciliation conferences led by Somaliland clan elders. Although Somalilanders are mainly from one large ethnic clan, clan dynamics remain diverse and can be divisive.

Nonetheless, the people of Somaliland were given the opportunity to address their grievances and then consulted in the formation of the Somaliland state, its governance structure and division of power. Most importantly, through a series of elections at local and national levels, Somalilanders have been given the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights as enshrined by an indigenously developed constitution.

All these factors have instilled a national identity into Somalilanders and entrenched their desire to maintain peace and stability in their territory. The devastation and senseless loss of life caused during the civil war remains in the memories of most Somalilanders. None want to relive those horrors and instead having experienced peace and democracy, the people of Somaliland have chosen to maintain the latter as their future trajectory.

They provide the best and most recent example of successful peacebuilding and state-building in the Horn of Africa. Important lessons can be learned from Somaliland’s experience of curbing extremism, developing a governance structure that transcends clan divisions, and fostering an environment where political discourse does not result in violence.

By choosing peace and stability, the people of Somaliland have been able to encourage private sector development through technological innovations such as Zaad, one of the first mobile money facilities in the Horn of Africa, and foreign direct investment such as Somaliland Beverage Industries, a Somaliland-based franchise of Coca-Cola. All of this provides useful lessons that could be applied to Somalia, which remains politically fragile and suffers from instability and constant attacks by Al Shabaab.

The reason why Somaliland works as a state is because it has built its own internal peace from the bottom up, and has inclusive, democratic institutions based on universal suffrage. Somaliland has made tremendous progress over the last 25 years as an independent state. Unfortunately, its ability to continue on its upward development trajectory is limited by the lack of international recognition.

The emergence of a recognized Federal Somalia has further marginalized Somaliland’s achievements within the international community. Once again, all eyes are on the Government in Mogadishu, which has had limited success in the last four years in stabilizing the former Italian Somalia territory and curbing the activities of Al Shabaab.

The way forward

My time in Somaliland has shown me that the key to stabilizing Somalia involves Somaliland and allowing the former British Protectorate to share its peacebuilding and state-building experiences with its former partner state. Politics aside, Somaliland and Somalia will forever remain neighbors and therefore, it is in Somaliland’s interests that Somalia succeeds in its quest for peace and stability.

When envisioning the way forward, Somaliland will forever encounter a glass ceiling as an unrecognized state. However, if it were to receive international recognition, Somaliland would be able to attract more foreign direct investment and receive loans from international financial institutions, from which it is currently barred.

Such increased financial flows would create jobs and lead to increased government revenue, allowing it to deliver better services to the Somaliland people. Reduced unemployment, especially among young people, would diminish the attractiveness of terrorism and human trafficking. Overall, greater prosperity would also reinforce Somaliland’s democracy, and continue to be a positive example for Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Somaliland’s impressive track record should be acknowledged, encouraged, and supported; it demonstrates that grassroots, bottom-up peacebuilding, and state formation in sub-Saharan Africa can work. Most importantly, the people of Somaliland provide a good example that “where there is a will, there is a way.”

About Nima Elmi

Head of Government Affairs, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum

Nima ElmiBachelor of Laws (Hons), King’s College, London; Postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice, Oxford; Master of Laws (Hons), Harvard Law School, UK Fulbright Scholar. Admitted to the Supreme Court of England and Wales as a Solicitor. Public international law and policy development expert focused on international relations from peacebuilding initiatives to the governance of emerging technologies.
Nima has previously worked in investment banking, at the United Nations, for international law firms in London and the Middle East, and as an adviser and strategist to senior officials in Government in East Africa and at the African Union. She is a faculty member of Africa International Legal Awareness, supports grassroots programs in East Africa, and is an Advisory Board member of the Forum’s Young Global Leaders community.
Nima has been recognized for her achievements by the UK Powerlist as a Rising Star in 2012 and selected to join the Forum of Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum in 2016.

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