Protests in breakaway Somaliland call for reunification with Somalia

Even as the US and UK are increasingly legitimizing secessionist rule in Somaliland, whose sovereignty has no international recognition, a unionist movement seeking a united Somalia threatens to unravel the self-declared republic

January 17, 2023 by Pavan Kulkarni
A protest in Taleex on January 15. Photo: Khaatumo Media Office

Protests against secessionist rule are spreading across the Sool region of Somaliland, the breakaway region of northern Somalia. Unionist protesters are calling for reunification with Somalia and Somali activists and observers opine that the protests might soon spread across Somaliland, questioning the legitimacy of its unrecognized claim to sovereignty, which the US and UK have been seeking to strengthen with recent overtures.

On Sunday, January 15, protests were reported from the Taleex city, where Somaliland’s tricolor flags were removed and replaced with the blue flags of Somalia. Taleex is about 160 kilometers northeast of the epicenter of the protests, Las Anod, Sool region’s capital city. Las Anod was captured by Somaliland from Somalia’s autonomous region of Puntland in 2007.

The protests began in the city on December 28. In an attempt to put them down, security forces killed at least 20 civilians over the following five days, before reportedly retreating to the city’s outskirts on January 5.

Somaliland’s commander of Armed Forces, Brigadier General Mahad Ambashe, has, however, indicated his intention to take back the city, saying that his troops “shall continue staying in Las Anod and Sool region to ensure law and order has been followed by residents.”

Defiant, the clan leaders of the region held a meeting in Las Anod on January 12, calling on Somaliland’s forces to withdraw from Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn (SSC), where a majority of the people have been historically opposed to secession from Somalia.

Pro-unionist troops under the command of the head of the Dhulbanate clan have taken over the city and sworn to defend it from Somaliland. “Everybody is waiting for the tribesmen in Las Anod to fully announce a war against Somaliland. And you will hear this very soon as they have formed a committee of 33 heads to come up with a roadmap to remove Somaliland from SSC,” Elham Garaad, a UK-based Somali activist whose unionist parents migrated out of Somaliland, told Peoples Dispatch.

The protests had spread to the city of Kalabaydh, 70 kilometers to the southwest of Las Anod, by January 12. Two days later, unionist demonstrations broke out in Xudun, 100 kilometers to the north of Las Anod, and in Boocame, 80 kilometers to its east. Protesters also took to the streets of Boocame’s neighboring Tukarak on January 15, and blocked a minister from visiting the city.

Badhaan, a city in Sanaag region, and Buuhoodle city in Cayn region, have also witnessed protests. The three regions together had formed the Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn (SSC) state of Somalia, before being forced into Somaliland by the secessionist Somali National Movement (SNM).

Waving the blue flag of Somalia, the protesters have been demanding the “right to self-determination” on the question of reuniting with Somalia, which was fractured after the civil war that ended with the collapse of its federal government in 1991.

“Most regions in Somaliland oppose secession”

“Until 1991, there was no such thing as Somaliland, except when the area was a British Protectorate,” Mohamed Olad, a Somali activist studying law in the US, told Peoples Dispatch. “The idea of forming a country on the basis of this border of the British protectorate,” separating itself from the part of Somalia under Italian occupation, was opposed by two of the three original states of Somalia that came to be part of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland after 1991, he said.

Support for secession was largely limited to the North West state, a stronghold of the SNM, which fought in the war against Somalia’s federal government led by Mohamed Siad Barre. SSC and Awdal “have historically opposed” the notion of Somaliland, Olad explained, adding that Awdal was captured by the SNM with the help of Ethiopia during the civil war.

The SSC leaders, on the other hand, were tricked into signing an agreement on the guarantee that Somaliland would form itself into a single state within Somalia. “That agreement never included secession,” he said, adding that discontent against Somaliland’s rule has since been intensifying, and protests might also soon spread to Awdal.

Three of the four major clans—namely the Dhulbahante, Warsangeli and Gadabursi—along with the smaller Issa clan, had opposed the secession from Somalia, added Elham Garaad. Only the Isak clan, which dominated the SNM and had a strong presence in the North West state, supported the secession and formation of Somaliland. Other clans have since felt marginalized by the Isak, which wields disproportionate power in the government of Somaliland.

But currently, the “Isak themselves are divided,” Garaad said. “Gaarhajis, one of the largest tribes (under the Isak clan), has been vocal about the atrocities in the SSC region.” Defending the right of the people in SSC to be unionist, they have called on the Somaliland government to stop the killings. Garaad maintains that the current spate of protests may soon reach even Somaliland’s capital city Hargeisa, which has been a historic stronghold of the SNM’s secessionist politics, dominated by the Isak.

“SNM was led by the elite and petty bourgeoisie of the Isak clan. They have neither dealt with the class contradictions within the clan, nor succeeded in integrating other clans into the secessionist movement,” historian Mohamed Hassan told Peoples Dispatch. “While the Isak is supposed to be the ruling clan, in effect, what you have in Somaliland is a one-man rule by former army Colonel Musa Bihi Abdi, whose term had already expired in October 2022. [An] increasing number of people within the Isak clan are also supporting unionist politics.”

Somalia is among the most homogeneous countries in Africa, in terms of language and religion, explained Hassan, who is also an advisor to the head of Ethiopia’s Somali state. The clan system from feudal times, preserved under colonial administration as an essential tool for divide-and-rule, remains the key fissure exploited by imperialism to ensure Somalia remains a fractured nation, he argued.

Rising tide of Somali nationalism

“But hundreds of thousands from Somaliland are working and staying in Somalia,” he added. Youngsters from Somaliland make up a significant portion of Somalia’s national army. The large Somali diaspora is getting increasingly politicized and organized by international exposure. All this has contributed to a surge in Somali nationalism, he said, adding that even businessmen in Somaliland, who want a larger and integrated market, seek a unified Somalia.

The tensions between clans—whose leaders choose the MPs in most of Somalia, including in Somaliland—is only a surface manifestation of the tide of Somali nationalism churning from underneath, Hassan argued. In the face of this nationalist sentiment, Somaliland’s existence as an independent entity is facing a “crisis of legitimacy” internally, he maintains.

This crisis is accentuated by the fact that Musa Bihi Abdi’s presidential term expired last October, despite which he has continued to rule without having conducted elections yet. In September, the Somaliland Electoral Commission announced that elections cannot be held for at least nine more months due to financial and technical problems.

Opposition parties, which have 52 of the 82 seats in Somaliland’s parliament, had led protests in August demanding timely elections. At least seven people were killed and several more wounded in the crackdown on these protests. It was the assassination of a popular opposition politician, in the backdrop of a spate of killings of prominent people in the SSC region over the last decade, that triggered the protests on December 28 in Las Anod, which have snowballed into a unionist movement.

While Somaliland is thus unraveling, with internal rifts between ruling and opposition parties, mounting tensions between the clans, and sa urging unionist sentiment contesting its legitimacy, the US and the UK have been increasingly legitimizing the secessionist state.

US military base in Somaliland? 

The then Commander of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) General Stephen Townsend met with President Abdi in Somaliland in May, becoming the highest ranking official to visit the breakaway state, whose claims to sovereignty have no international recognition.

While not recognizing Somaliland as a sovereign state, and officially adhering to ‘One Somalia policy,’ the US has lately made several gestures seen as a dilution of this policy. Prior to Townsend’s visit, in March 2022, the Somaliland Partnership Act was introduced in the US Senate by Republicans Jim Risch and Mike Rounds, and Democrat Chris Van Hollen.

The “Biden Administration has limited itself to the confines of a ‘single Somalia’ policy at the detriment of other democratic actors in the country. In this complex time in global affairs and for the Horn of Africa, the United States should explore all possible mutually-beneficial relationships with stable and democratic partners, like Somaliland, and not limit ourselves with outdated policy approaches and diplomatic frameworks that don’t meet today’s challenges,” Jim Risch had said.

The act was signed into law by US President Joe Biden on December 23, 2022, under the Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which was the first time a separate reference to Somaliland was made in US law.

The Act commissions a feasibility study by the “Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense,” to determine “whether opportunities exist for greater collaboration in the pursuit of United States national security interests… with… Somaliland.”

It further seeks to identify “the practicability and advisability of improving the professionalization and capacity of security sector actors within the Federal Member States (FMS) and Somaliland.” While adding that “Nothing in this Act… may be construed to convey United States recognition of Somalia’s FMS or Somaliland as an independent entity,” it stops just short of doing that.

Somaliland’s port city of Berbera will also be one of the sites for the US-led multinational 10-day military exercise scheduled to take place in February. On January 13, personnel from AFRICOM’s Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa [CJTF-HOA] visited Somaliland and surveyed the Berbera port.

“Berbera is now an American military base without settling the secession issue,” former Somali Special Envoy to the United States, Abukar Arman, wrote in the Eurasia review. “Stakes have never been higher for all actors. Against that backdrop, President Muse Bihi was given the nod and wink to march on ahead to secure total control over his claimed territory by any means necessary. He was also granted the reassurance that neither the central government of Somalia nor Puntland will interfere militarily or otherwise.”

“Oil companies want a weak and divided Somalia”

In the meantime, Genel Energy, listed in London Stock Exchange, claimed the right to explore and exploit the oil fields in Somaliland last month. The oil ministry of the federal government of Somalia has said it “categorically rejects Genel Energy plc’s claim to own petroleum rights in Somalia’s northern regions and calls upon Genel Energy plc to cease its illegal claim to own petroleum rights.”

Insisting that it is the only body authorized to grant such rights, it warned: “Any authorization granted in violation of Somalia’s laws and regulations is unlawful and would be considered null and void.”

Refuting Somalia’s Federal government, Somaliland’s secessionist government has claimed “the authority to engage foreign investors in order to explore and exploit the Republic of Somaliland’s potential hydrocarbons and mineral resources. No one other than the Somaliland government has the authority to claim or award an exploration license within Somaliland,” a statement issued on December 29 said, amid the crackdown on the protests in Las Anod.

Las Anod is also claimed by Somaliland’s neighboring Puntland, which has been an autonomous region within Somalia in dispute with Somaliland over the SSC region. On January 9, Puntland declared that it will be independent of Somalia until the Federal Constitution is finalized.

Disputes over the rights to enter into partnerships with foreign companies over oil and other natural resources are reported to be among the key reasons behind tensions between the Federal government of Somalia and Puntland.

“Oil and gas has been found across Somalia, including in Somaliland and Puntland. British capital is heavily invested. These oil companies want a weak and divided Somalia, because a strong and united country will be more difficult to exploit,” Hassan said.

Puntland’s state government maintains that the provisional federal constitution and the constitution of Puntland state allows it to act as an independent entity until the federal constitution is finalized, and all the states’ constitutions are harmonized with it.

Pointing out that Puntland has a constitutional right to be independent until the finalization of the federal constitution, Olad said it is Somaliland that has been blocking the finalization of the constitution. The federal government of Somalia, he said, should ensure that Somaliland will no longer hold the process of finalizing the constitution hostage.

However, a lack of confidence in the federal government led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who is seen as inept and pliable by western powers, is perceptible, despite the surging unionist politics and nationalist sentiment.

The federal government can truly reflect the widespread sentiment of Somali nationalism only when it is elected on the basis of one-person-one-vote, argues Olad. Former President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, aka Farmajo, who had become a popular representative of Somali nationalism, had promised to break the stranglehold of the clans by implementing universal adult suffrage, but failed to do so. He lost the clan-controlled election last year, and the current government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has failed to materialize the aspirations of Somali nationalism.

Mohamed Hassan sums the situation up by citing Gramsci: “The old is dying and the new is struggling to be born,” he says, adding that “the winds of change are most definitely blowing over all of Somalia.”