Somaliland’s Growing Crisis Threatens Stability Across the Horn of Africa

Somaliland’s Growing Crisis Threatens Stability Across the Horn of Africa
A woman and child relax next to a mural of Somaliland’s flag, in Hargeisa, Somaliland, Feb. 9, 2022 (AP photo by Brian Inganga).

Over the last few months, there’s been a dramatic flare-up of fighting in Somaliland. Long regarded as one of the most stable and peaceful parts of the Horn of Africa, the conflict has left hundreds dead and seen over 200,000 flee. So, what exactly lies behind the violence? And how does it affect Somaliland’s attempts to gain International acceptance?

Around the world, there are numerous groups seeking independence. But while we often think of these as efforts by one nation or religious group to break away from another group and form a separate state of their own, things aren’t always as simple as that. In some—admittedly unusual—cases, the group trying to separate comes from the same community as the broader population of the country it wants to break away from. At other times, the territory claimed by a separatist group includes another community that doesn’t want to be part of the new country; either because they want their own homeland, or because they want to stay in the original state.

A fascinating case combining these two different elements is Somaliland. Over 30 years, it’s carved out a place as a de facto state in the international system. Although wholly unrecognized, it’s nevertheless gained widespread acceptance, including building ties to Britain and the United States. But is it now facing a new internal challenge?

A Brief History of the Somali People

The Somali people are spread across the Horn of Africa. Making up the majority in Somalia, as well as Somaliland and Djibouti, there are significant communities in eastern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. On top of this, there are also extensive Somali diaspora communities across the  Middle East, Europe, and North America. Although they make up a single ethnic groups—sharing a joint language, religion, and culture—they’re divided by a highly complex clan system. This is centered on five main groups. The largest of these is the Darod, who form an arc from Kenya in the south through Ethiopia, Somaliland, and up to the northern Somali region of Puntland. Then there are the Hawiye in eastern Somalia, northern Kenya, and southern Ethiopia; the Rahanweyn in central Somalia; and the Dir in northern Somaliland and Djibouti. Finally, the Isaaq make up the majority in Somaliland. However, within these main clans, there are also many sub-clans and even sub-clans of sub-clans. For example, in the north, these include the Majeerteen, the Dhulbahante, and the Wasangeli. As part of the Harti clan, a sub-clan of the Darod, these are the largest groups in northern Somalia and eastern Somaliland. And this helps to explain the current tensions.

While the history of the Somali people stretches back into antiquity, they became one of the first non-Arab people to embrace Islam. As a result, even today, Somalis are almost wholly Sunni Muslims. But our story really starts in the 19th century with the arrival of European colonialism. This would see the areas inhabited by Somalis come under three imperial powers. In the north, France took control of what is today Djibouti. Britain ruled Somaliland and Kenya. Meanwhile, much of today’s Somalia fell under Italian rule. This lasted until the start of decolonization after the Second World War. On June 26, 1960, the British Somaliland  Protectorate became independent. Just days later, on July 1, 1960, the Italian-administered trust territory of Somaliland also gained independence. And at this point, the two parts merged to form the Somali Republic. 

Somalia’s Collapse and the Emergence of Somaliland

Although the joint state was welcomed as a step towards the unification of  the Somali people, problems quickly emerged. Aside from broader clan tensions, in 1961 Somaliland, which saw itself as an equal partner in the republic, was downgraded—thus feeding Isaaq discontent. Then, in October 1969, the country’s president was assassinated, leading to a military coup that installed the commander of the army, General Mohamed Siad Barre, as head of state. Aligning Somalia with the Soviet Union, the new military regime abolished the constitution, banned political parties, and began  trying to break the power of the clans. At the same time, it pursued a nationalist agenda.

Calling for the unification of all Somali people within Somalia, in July 1977 Somali forces invaded eastern Ethiopia. However, the Ogadan War, as it was known, was a disaster. Somalia was heavily defeated when Moscow supported Ethiopia, which was also under a Marxist military government. While Siad Barre now switched allegiance to the United States, the war undermined his power. Over the next decade, opposition to his regime grew, especially in the Isaaq-dominated north, which bore the brunt of what became exceedingly brutal government reprisals. Despite this, in January 1991 Siad Barre was finally overthrown and fled the country. While many hoped this would bring peace to Somalia, factionalism now grew and very quickly the state disintegrated. And it was at this point that Somaliland seized the opportunity to reclaim its statehood. On May 18, 1991, it unilaterally declared independence within the borders of British-controlled Somaliland. However, it has never been recognized by any UN members.

The Emergence of Puntland States

In 1998, a new factor emerged. Following efforts to form a new national government in Mogadishu, the north of Somalia, which had also managed to avoid much of the violence elsewhere in the country, set up its own separate administration: the Puntland States of Somalia. Unlike Somaliland, which set out to be an independent sovereign country, Puntland rejected secession. Largely inhabited by the Majeerteen, a part of the Harti-Darod clan, they explicitly called for autonomy within Somalia. Under usual circumstances, this wouldn’t have been a problem. However, rather than stick to the existing Somali administrative lines, it now claimed authority over all areas inhabited by the wider Hart-Darod clan members. In addition to the regions of Bari, Nugaal, and the northern part of Mudug in Somalia, this also included Sool, most of Sanaag, and the south of Toghder, an area known as Cayn. Altogether, this meant Puntland now claimed significant parts of Somaliland’s three eastern provinces. This would eventually lead to a complex series of events that saw parts of the disputed territory repeatedly change  hands and lead to the current crisis.

Somaliland, Puntland and Khatumo

In December 2002, the then-president of Somaliland, a member of the Dir clan, visited the city of Las Anod, the administrative capital of Sool. This sparked anger among the local Dulbahante inhabitants, and Puntland forces attacked the president’s convoy. Bolstered by its success, Puntland seized the area in 2003.

However, just four years later Somaliland forces retook control, forcing Puntland’s troops to withdraw to the small town of Tukaraq, halfway between Lasanod and Puntland. Despite this, many in Sool refused to accept Somaliland’s renewed control. At the same time, they now rejected Puntland as well, arguing that it had left them when they needed it. Setting up a militia—the Unity and Salvation Authority of Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn—in 2012, they proclaimed an autonomous administration: the Khatumo State of Somalia. Like Puntland, they sought self-rule within a federal Somalia, rather than outright independence. But the Khatumo State soon ran into difficulties and, following peace talks with the Somaliland authorities, it eventually agreed to remain within Somaliland in return for government posts. However, parts of the local Sool leadership rejected the deal and appealed to Puntland for support. As a result, fighting erupted at the start of 2018. Following several serious bouts of fighting, tensions have remained high and even extended to Sanaag, which has seen a growing military presence by both Somaliland and Puntland.

The Fighting in Las Anod

The immediate cause of the latest fighting came in December 2022, when a prominent political figure in Seool was assassinated, sparking  anti-government rioting in Las Anod. This led to a crackdown by Somaliland security forces, which left around 20 dead—thus feeding further violence. In the face of growing opposition in the city, which has a population of around 150,000, Somaliland troops withdrew at the start of January 2023. Then, on Feb. 6, local leaders announced  that they no longer recognized Somaliland’s authority and again formed a separate  Somali federal state: SSC Khatumo. Rejecting what they called Somaliland’s “occupation,” they now appealed to the Somali federal government in Mogadishu for support. Since then, fighting has intensified as the Somaliland government has stepped up its efforts to stop the secession. There are reports that Somaliland forces have been shelling the city. The fighting has seen huge numbers flee the area and hundreds dead. Indeed, the UN now estimates that besides the 185,000 internally displaced, over 60,000 have crossed the border into neighboring Ethiopia. 

A Somaliland-Puntland-Khatumo Conflict?

By now, it’s becoming clear to many observers that this is a growing crisis. As the European Union noted during a closed meeting at the UN Security Council to discuss the situation in the region, while International attention is focused on the Somali government’s battle against Al-Shabaab, the escalating fighting around Las Anod represents a real danger to peace and stability across the Horn of Africa. Apart from growing violence between Somaliland and the inhabitants in Sool, it also risks a full war  between Somaliland and Puntland. On top of this, there’s the danger that it will further undermine the broader situation between Somaliland and Somalia, and could even ignite a wider clan confrontation.

The EU has noted that the instability also arises from the inability to secure a long-term solution to the political status of Somaliland. And, in many ways, this lies at the heart of the problem. As long as the broader questions of Somaliland’s status remain unresolved, the current conflict will be even more challenging to address.

While Somaliland argues that the territory is unlawfully trying to secede and that the 1960 boundaries should be respected, the clans would claim that they’re not bound to respect what they see as Somaliland’s unlawful secession from Somalia. Likewise, while some would argue that if the people of these areas wish to leave Somaliland, and either join Puntland or form a separate autonomous unit within Somalia, they should be allowed to, this is also difficult for Somaliland to accept. Given their size, the loss of these territories would be a major blow to Somaliland. More to the point, the Somaliland  government has no reason to discuss the issue for as long as Mogadishu continues to contest its status. In this sense, the fighting we’re now seeing is intimately wrapped up in a much bigger problem that many, including the EU, now recognize needs to be addressed.

No matter how the situation develops, it demonstrates how secessionist movements can be far more complex than one ethno-national or religious group fighting another. Sometimes, communities otherwise united by a single language, culture and religion still wish to be apart.

James Ker-Lindsay is a research associate at the European Institute, London School of Economics, and a visiting professor at the University of Kent. His YouTube channel can be found here.

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