Sustainable Peace: Why Somaliland Matters

Like in wars between states and other organized groups, civil wars and other protracted domestic conflicts are seldom caused by a single factor. Over time, even those that prove to be the exception to the rule eventually evolve into a much more complex conflict- hence the entity known as Somaliland.

A Brief History

Only five days after gaining its independence from the colonial power on June 26, 1960, British Somaliland joined in a union with their brethren in Italian Somaliland which gained its independence on July 1, 1960. The union was widely supported by the public and the political leadership of both sides. Immediately, upon the latter’s independence, the legislative councils of both newly independent states met in a joint session in Mogadishu to form the new republic’s national assembly in which they elected Aden Abdulle Osman as the first president of the new democratic nation.

Though historians and other reasonable minds might differ on this, the North–”as today’s Somaliland was domestically known–”is generally believed that it got the short end of the union deal. However, one thing that is not in dispute is the fact that in 1988 the military government led by Mohamed Siad Bare carried out a devastating and brutal military campaign to crush the resistance movement known as the Somali Northern Movement (SNM) which was gaining a popular support in the North. Though the said campaign was against the SNM whose main agenda was to recall the Act of the Union signed shortly after the founding of the new nation, in the process, it greatly affected various communities in that region.

While the SNM was generally the target and it operated out of the North, it was no secret that the tyrannical military system which was made up of all sorts of clans targeted the one particular clan considered to be the central pillar of the movement- the Isaqs. Never mind that there has never been a single clan which was entirely secessionist let alone an entire region holding that view. That is why members of that clan were part of the military government, the first post-civil war administration known as the Transitional National Government (TNG), and are now part of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and all the transitional institutions.  

Fast forward to 1991 and the subsequent two decades when the state imploded, the military by and large disbanded into clan militias, and anarchy, insecurity, famine, piracy and helplessness consumed the mind and blurred the vision. It was in that period when the two entities currently known as Somalia and Somaliland would drift apart. Somalia would be mired by protracted wars, anarchy and their byproducts while Somaliland would establish a semblance of peace and stability and indeed good governance. The latter declared its secession and the former has ever since been chasing the political mirage of first solving the Southern problem before attempting to engage the Northern one.

Two decades later the quixotic task of ritualistically attempting to search and find the solution elements only in the South have proven futile and in many ways detrimental.

Changing Conditions

Today, there are new dynamics that have been altering realities on the ground. Though these dynamics have both positive and negative components, in the whole they have begun pushing Somalis from North and South into a realm of unclenched fists and extended hands. And that is profound progress. Contrary to the nineties and the first decade of the Twenty First Century, there is now more interface and interaction, cross-marriage, and cross-migration.

Perhaps because of time’s capacity to heal the hurt, the attitude of hostility that rendered all forms of reasoned discourse dead on arrival has gradually been tamed and by and large neutralized. The result has been a political maturity of both sides that cannot be denied. In various pockets across the Somali diaspora communities, there are unofficial dialogue groups who discuss how to end the status quo and settle our differences.    

The ever-evolving contentious struggle to reshape the North region of Somalia along clan identities carves out clan minefields with the potential to blow at up any time. The geographical area initially declared as Somaliland is now divided into four different territories: the Somaliland, Khaatumo, Awdal, and Maakhir states. The latter three–”all populated mainly by non Isaqs–”oppose secession. Recent tensions in Buhoodle area that caused many deaths is simply in hibernation. 

Clan wars have shifted away from its seemingly perpetual habitat in Mogadishu and its surroundings into places such as Somaliland and Puntland. What is more worrisome than that might be that, unless derailed, threats emanating from religious extremism could also shift into these two regions. And that probability is increased by the fact that some of the highest ranking al-Shabaab members hail from Somaliland and Puntland. 

The post-civil war generation made up of the youth who grew up in the age of cynicism and distrust while the wounds of the 1988 campaign were still fresh and collective guilt of those who hailed from the south was not only justified but a popular norm still make up the only remaining block whose majority still uphold secessionist ideals.

There is a growing trend of the revered cultural elders or clan leaders breaking ranks with the official secessionist position after realizing the infeasibility of that political enterprise. Some have even gone public with their new views.  

The business community on both sides, mindful of the economic interdependency of Hargaisa and Mogadishu, are openly eager to see an alternative to the status quo. Furthermore, many well to do Northern families who had properties in the South are also eager to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.

International Support to the Secession Movement

As it was underlined in the London and Istanbul Conferences, foreign support for secession has reached a dead-end primarily because of two factors. Internally, it is the non-sustainability of Somaliland’s claimed boarder and the potential for perpetual clan contentions. Externally, it is Ethiopia’s long standing policy toward Somalia which is based on supporting one Somali political entity against another while diplomatically or otherwise bulwarking against any serious momentum toward secession.

Due to its desire for unlimited sea access, landlocked Ethiopia finds Somaliland a convenient arrangement and an entity that it would’ve invented had it not existed. By the same token, it sees the option to recognize Somaliland as a political Pandora’s Box that could embolden the secession aspirations of the ethnically Somali Ogaden region in Ethiopia. Perhaps beyond the economic consequence of losing an oil-rich region or any threat that al-Shabaab might present, Ethiopia finds a bigger strategic threat in the possibility of ethnic Somalis securing four seats in the powerful regional authority IGAD not to mention AU and UN. Meanwhile, Ethiopia which operates Somaliland’s security apparatus continues an unbearably intrusive policy that systematically disillusions many of the locals and the visitors from the diaspora alike.

Then came the US’ Dual-Track Policy which inadvertently unveiled the dangers ahead as it inspired over 30 (a number that’s still growing) clan-based states; each with its declared president, parliament, defense and foreign minister.

Peace Gestures

Though Article 1(a) of the 1960 Act of Union clearly stated “The State of Somaliland and the State of Somalia do hereby unite and shall forever remain united in a new, independent, democratic, unitary republic the name whereof shall be the Somali Republic,” neither the TFG nor TNG before attempted to enforce the “forever” part.

Furthermore, with all their shortcomings as they were by no means perfect, both the TFG and the TNG have honored Article 3(i) which states “All persons who upon the date of this Union possess the citizenship of Somaliland and Somalia respectively shall by this Union now become citizens of the Somali Republic”. They both refrained from putting pressure on the secessionists by using the Somali passport as political leverage. The Somali passport is still unconditionally available and indeed used by the Somaliland secessionists and non-secessionists alike. Likewise, Somaliland is still allowed to use the 252 Gateway for its telephone connections and the .SO for the internet, all owned by Somalia the state.

Recently, the TFG unilaterally negotiated with Somaliland to share the revenues generated from usage of the Somali air space. Even so, the Ghost-lords in Nairobi (that chronically corrupt network of institutions, governmental and non-governmental agencies who operate under the auspices of the international community) still continue to slow down the process to free these revenues.

Perhaps more importantly, on June 26, 2011, President Sharif Ahmed became the first leader from the South to formally and publically acknowledge the wrongs that was done onto our brethren in North. He has affirmed their long ignored grievance and extended an apology and invited them for dialogue and reconciliation. 

Then came the London Conference on Somalia held on February 23, 2012 in which, at last, the international community decided to add Article 6 which calls for Somalia and Somaliland to engage in a direct dialogue in order to achieve a holistic approach to peace.  

Since then Somaliland has appointed a high level committee to start dialogue with Somalia. The latter on its part has appointed its own committee. Unfortunately, upon their nomination, Somaliland felt that the committee was not up to par and withdrew its committee. In retrospect and in fairness to Somaliland, the initial stage of the dialogue is the most crucial. Both parties must have confidence in the appointees’ moral character, ability for empathic engagement, and the capacity to build confidence for the process to continue.

Within the 1st week of June 2012, after the Istanbul II Conference, President Sharif met with Somalia’s traditional elders who represent all clans to take the lead by engaging their counterparts in the North to rekindle the negotiation process. Counting on their collective wisdom, he offered them a carte blanche of accepting their collective decision “We need you to take constructive role in jump-starting a dialogue between the transitional federal government (TFG) and Somaliland. We will welcome all your recommendations,” he said. This looks like a wise first step.

Behind the scenes, some pragmatic political elites, traditional leaders, and intellectuals are already expressing grave concerns about the strategic clan-based threats encircling the Isaqs that could have a long-term bloody ramification. And this indeed requires a sober thinking and sound compromise.

The political landscape of that region is painted with clan sensitivities that can only be neutralized by a sense of unity…that only an effectively functioning and a just state could guarantee. The nature of that future state could and should be negotiated.

We still have the potential to rise from the ashes and become a competently functioning if not a greater, more just nation. Used wisely, we have a number of the elements that national powers are built on, strategic location, natural resources and a resilient and resourceful population. Through the latter, we can reconcile our differences, confluence our collective interests, craft our national vision, negotiate the right social contract, build the right institutions, recruit the right technocrats, and cultivate the right leadership to sustain our progress and holistically reform our society. It is entirely up to us.

Throughout history, it was men and women of vision coupled with some courage who changed the course of history. The leadership of Somaliland has the opportunity to change the course of history and spearhead a better future for all Somalis.