Somaliland: Losing patience in the world’s most unlikely democracy

Somaliland: Losing patience in the world’s most unlikely democracy

Somaliland should not exist. It’s anomalous in every respect: An island of stability in a sea of chaos; a democracy surrounded by authoritarian regimes; a real nation forged in spite of civil war, clan divisions, and religious tensions – all the usual rocks upon which developmental states wreck. So what makes it work? And why will no one give it the recognition it craves? In a long form feature, SIMON ALLISON reports from the would-be republic that is beginning to realise that it’s time might never come.

Since the last time I was here, four years ago, Hargeisa – the scruffy, surprisingly large capital of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland – has changed. In small ways, and in big. There are more paved roads now, and tall buildings. The currency comes in sensible denominations, so you don’t have to carry thick, dirty bricks of it around with you. There’s a shiny new airport, built with Kuwaiti money, and even a pizza delivery service for the well-heeled diaspora.

But the biggest change is intangible, and well hidden. I only catch glimpses of it in conversation: in the tone of people’s arguments, in their frustration, in the way their sentences trail off into nothing as they contemplate their increasingly uncertain future. I see it in the absences, too: where once Somalilanders would bubble over with pride and excitement as they showed off their grand nation-building project to the world, now they too are unsure.


Photo: The banner says it all. This photo is from Somaliland’s 20th anniversary celebrations, with President Silanyo on the podium. (Simon Allison)

They’ve built their state now. 24 years and counting, and it’s got everything it should have: rule of law, elections, a basic respect for human rights. But far from being impressed, the international community shows little sign of noticing, let alone caring. Somalilanders are getting the message. And although they’re not yet willing to admit it, they are beginning to lose faith.

Kill all but the crows

Somaliland’s existence, what it has achieved already, defies logic. It should never have worked. In 1991, when a group of elders got together in the ruins of a bombed-out city to declare Somaliland’s independence from Somalia, all signs pointed towards imminent failure.

For one thing, the territory was devastated, a victim of Somali dictator Siad Barre’s slash-and-burn version of collective punishment. “Kill all but the crows,” was the order issued by one of his generals. The little infrastructure that had existed was wiped out, entire communities devastated. It was also awash with weapons and militias, and riven by all the traditional fault lines: there were clan rivalries, land disputes, religious and ideological tensions. Not to mention its proximity to the death throes of the Barre regime next door, which was to degenerate into a civil war that looked certain to spread north.


Photo: The MiG memorial in downtown Hargeisa is the city’s most significant monument; it is also turning into a symbol of Somaliland’s plight. (Simon Allison)

Those elders, all of them men, were determined that Somaliland – its borders derived from the old British colony in the Horn of Africa – would not go down that path. The talks were long, they were torturous, but ultimately they were successful. The clan militias were told to disarm, and they did, mostly. A transitional government was formed. Western-style democracy, with a few traditional twists, was chosen as the new state’s ideological foundation (there wasn’t a huge amount of choice: the hated Barre was a communist, and political Islam was not yet a force to be reckoned with).

This unlikely consensus was possible because everyone involved was united by a larger aim: to get out from Somalia’s suffocating, devastating embrace; to tear up the 1960 union that had seemed like such a good idea at the time, but had turned into a nightmare.

It is a remarkable story, and Somaliland’s progress is even more so. Somehow, defying all the odds, Somaliland has turned itself into the closest thing to a model democracy that the Horn of Africa has ever seen. And it did so alone, without the benefit (or the curse) of international assistance.

But the story isn’t over yet. The final step of Somaliland’s journey is international recognition, being allowed to take its place among the pantheon of modern states. This goal has become Somaliland’s unifying force, a higher aim that has helped Somaliland overcome the usual setbacks of the developmental state. Until it is achieved, its independence is in practice alone: legally, diplomatically, it’s still just a part of Somalia that’s gone rogue.

The international community, however, is not interested. Not even a little. This, for example, is the official position of the United States on Somaliland, in its entirety. “The United States recognises a single Somalia and supports its development as a federal state in accordance with its interim constitution.” A single sentence that doesn’t even mention Somaliland by name. Even the US official who passed this on seemed slightly embarrassed, all too aware of the hypocrisy of pouring money into Somalia’s corrupt, un-elected government while ignoring the perfectly functional democracy next door.

But Somalia, for all its problems, still calls the shots. Most countries defer to the African Union on this, and the African Union defers to Mogadishu, peddling that old line about maintaining Africa’s independence-era boundaries. To which Somalilanders reply, en masse: but Somaliland was independent. It was a few months after independence, in 1960, that Somaliland – beguiled by the pan-Somali rhetoric that was the intellectual fashion of the day – chose to unify with Somalia. And what is chosen can be un-chosen, surely?

It’s not as easy as that, of course, and the technicalities are always less convincing than the realpolitik. The international community, and the African Union in particular, is hugely invested in Somalia proper – both politically and financially. The African Union, through its mission in Mogadishu, effectively keeps the Somali Federal Government in power. It needs Somalia to succeed, and losing Somaliland is not part of the definition of success. More importantly, perhaps, is that African leaders, many of whom face their own secessionist movements at home, simply cannot risk recognising this one.

Peace doesn’t pay

“Of course we are running out of patience. We have been waiting for 25 years,” said Somaliland’s foreign minister Mohamed Bihi Yonis, in a telephone interview. Yonis is direct and down-to-earth; Somaliland’s officials can’t afford airs and graces. Yonis is worried about what happens when that patience finally runs out. He’s particularly worried that it might trigger hostilities of some kind, although he’s vague on where this hostility might come from or how it will manifest.

Nonetheless, his government will keep on plugging away, on the principle that if you build it, they will come. Somaliland just hasn’t built it high enough yet. “At the same time we have to be realistic, have to keep pushing, working on our stability, our institutions,” he said. It’s the right thing to say, but it’s not convincing: there is simply no way that this highly-educated man, with his decades of experience with the World Bank and the African Development Bank, doesn’t recognise a hopeless cause when he sees one.

A less diplomatic take comes from Dr Hussein Bulhan, Somaliland’s pre-eminent public intellectual, in the lobby of the Mansoor Hotel. (A lot of my research happens in the Mansoor, which is something of a Hargeisa institution. Although tacky and run-down by most standards, it’s the place to see and be seen. More important decisions are made here than in parliament itself.)

Bulhan wears many hats. He’s an advisor to the foreign ministry; the founder of a private university; a farmer; an author; and an expert on the writings of Frantz Fanon (I studied Bulhan’s work as a post-graduate). Although he studied and taught abroad, he’s been back in Somaliland almost since its independence, and has done much to shape its success. But he too is losing patience. “Peace doesn’t pay,” he says, and the words hang in the air: is this an admission of defeat, or a threat? “Maintaining the peace for 25 years, not becoming a base for radical Islam, fighting piracy, doing the right things…this has not helped Somaliland internationally. Its sovereignty has been given to Mogadishu, to a group of people who don’t even have control of Mogadishu itself.”


Photo: With international recognition an unlikely prospect, Somaliland’s leaders are worried that its grand nationalist project may be hijacked by the kind of radical Islam which has done so much to destabilise Somalia proper. (Simon Allison)

For Bulhan, Somaliland’s dream of recognition has been the glue that binds its otherwise divided society together. Without it, then there’s nothing left to unite the fractious clans, the competing religious ideologies, or the scheming politicians. The whole carefully-constructed edifice might just come tumbling down. It will either implode, collapsing in on itself; or it will lash out, maybe at Puntland, its semi-autonomous neighbour, or at Somalia proper. Of these scenarios, implosion seems more likely.

I’m not sure how seriously to take Bulhan’s dire warnings. On the one hand, if anyone can predict the future, it’s him. On the other, it’s important to remember that Somaliland has a vested interest in exaggerating its potential collapse: if foreign powers can be convinced that failing to recognise Somaliland will lead to chaos, they may just be persuaded to change course.

Right now, though, the African Union and other interested parties are pushing Somaliland into talks with Somalia proper. There have been six meetings since 2012, brokered by Turkey, although both sides are sticking firmly to their irreconcilable positions: Somaliland wants full independence, while Somalia demands that it returns to the fold.

The last round, in Istanbul earlier this year, went badly. The Somalis inflamed tensions by including ethnic Somalilanders (from Somaliland’s dominant clan confederation, the Isaaq), among their delegation. Somaliland rose to the bait, point blank refusing to negotiate with these ‘traitors’.

But the anger didn’t run too deep. Both delegations shared the same hotel, and would meet over the buffet breakfasts and afternoon teas; they all know each other, and have long histories together. In person, they all get along just fine. The Somalilanders joked with the ‘traitors’, telling them that if they wanted a ministerial position they could get one at home. “The line is too long in Hargeisa,” the ‘traitors’ replied.

Somaliland is also losing faith in Turkey as an impartial negotiator. There are two main sticking points. Firstly, Turkey won’t acknowledge the ‘genocide’ committed against Somaliland by Siad Barre’s regime. This is, presumably, because the Turks can’t acknowledge its own genocide – the one the Ottoman Empire committed against the Armenians during World War I. Second is the Turks’ reluctance to discuss any kind of secession, for fear that it will form a dangerous precedent for Turkish Kurds who have long agitated for independence.

The talks, in other words, are going nowhere.

Two terms for the price of one

Meanwhile, cracks are beginning to appear on the home front. In late February, the National Election Commission recommended that presidential and parliamentary elections – scheduled for June – be delayed by nine months, to give it time to complete voter registration (and install a ridiculously modern voting system, incorporating ID cards and iris scans. If Somaliland ever does get round to having another election, it will be among the most sophisticated in history). Election delays are never a good look, as even foreign minister Yonis acknowledged: “It will reflect badly on us,” he said.

But Somaliland has never held an election on time. The last presidential vote, in 2010, was two years behind schedule. The last parliamentary vote was in 2005, meaning this bunch of MPs have served for a decade: two terms for the price of one. So the delay this time is entirely expected by opposition parties, who haven’t raised much of a fuss.


Photo: Street life in downtown Hargeisa. (Simon Allison)

Crucially, and what most western audiences miss, is that delaying the vote is not unconstitutional. Article 83 of Somaliland’s constitution explicitly provides for delays on technical grounds. “This clause was deliberately included because drafters knew Somaliland would not be able to have on-time elections,” said Mo Farah, Executive Director of the Academy for Peace and Development, the oldest think tank in the territory. In other words, Somaliland’s founders foresaw its institutional challenges, and accounted for them.

Still, it raises questions. The current administration, led by President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo, had five years to plan for this and failed. Is this a technical extension? Or a political extension? Can anyone tell the difference? And will nine months morph into years?

The lack of a serious outcry from the opposition tells its own story. Maybe it suits them too: they are at just as much risk of being voted out of office. But they are also failing in their most basic duty, which is to hold the government to account. It’s a weak point of Somaliland’s democracy. “Look at our political parties: they don’t have policies, ideologies, or a strong structure,” said Farah. Everyone I asked said the same thing: there are no substantive differences between the ruling party and the opposition. Political parties are not ideological movements, they are a front for grabbing and holding on to positions. The real power is found somewhere else.

They are talking, of course, about the clans. The Somali clan structure is fascinating, but complex. It is the basic organising unit of society, and forms the primary identity of most Somalis. Somaliland is dominated by the Isaaq clan confederation, but within that there are sub-clans and sub-sub-clans. If you haven’t grown up with it, chances are you won’t understand its intricacies (I don’t); but if you have, then it’s a fundamental part of how life is ordered and understood.

Somaliland, for all its pretensions of liberal democracy, was founded by traditional leaders, who embedded the clan into the fabric of the state itself. The Guurti, the upper house of parliament, is in theory analogous to the British House of Lords, but it’s actually far more influential. Government positions are carefully allocated to achieve a balance between the major clans, and sufficient representation for the smaller. Voting patterns are mostly, although not exclusively, clan-based.


Photo: Street life in Hargeisa’s central market. (Simon Allison)

This has its pros and cons. One lawyer told me that without the clans, Somaliland’s judicial system would collapse – this is because most petty cases are dealt with through clan structures rather than through the over-stretched courts. It has also been a big part of Somaliland’s stability over the years – the values of compromise, consensus-building and egalitarianism, which have been such a feature of Somaliland politics, are clan traditions.

But it has also weakened Somaliland’s government, which is stuffed with officials who are there because they have the right bloodline rather than the right qualifications. It has stunted economic development. In the port city of Berbera, for example, lies a massive abandoned cement factory built by the Barre regime. The government is desperate to get it up and running again, but simply can’t reconcile competing clan interests in the project.

“Our democracy is based on our tradition. It’s not purely a liberal democracy. It is a democracy that works in the context of a traditional political system,” said Farah. And it has worked, helping Somaliland overcome conflict and build some kind of sustainable peace. “We know our institutions are weak…Therefore the only solution we can rely on is our traditional system.” But this is only a short-term solution, he says. Long-term, Somaliland needs to make sure that power is concentrated in the government, and that that government is accountable, transparent and effective.

For now, though, Somaliland is stuck with its hybrid model, and it’s not clear if this is a help or a hindrance. There’s a strong argument to be made that the democratic and the traditional systems cannot be reconciled – and that in trying to do so, both have become corrupted and no longer fit for purpose. “Now, clan leaders are politicians. Driven by greed, not etiquette and tradition. This has led to fragmentation – clan leaders have multiplied. Clan leadership lives in city, not with the clan. The corruption of traditional leadership and the corruption of modern-style politics has interacted in a way that’s impossible to control,” said Abdirahman Ahmed Hassan, a lecturer in political philosophy at Hargeisa’s Gollis University.

The third way

Complicating things further is that there is, increasingly, another source of authority – one that sits outside the state and has very different ambitions.

Somaliland is a Muslim country, and extremely conservative with it. Loud music is frowned upon, as are other modern excesses such as dancing and watching films. All women are headscarved, and men don’t wear shorts. In this environment, political Islam has flourished.

Over the last decade or two, the nature of Islam here has changed dramatically. Where once Somaliland observed the relatively moderate Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam, with strong Sufi influences, the religious community has largely fallen under the spell of hard-line Wahhabism. In old Somali poems, the term ‘Wahhabi’ is used as an insult; now it unlocks patronage and funding. Its principles infuse religious education, and its adherents dominate commerce (one example: local telecoms company Telesom forbids its employees to smoke or chew Qat, the wildly popular narcotic. Not for employees’ health, but to maintain the piety of the company’s image).

Wahhabism – often also referred to as Salafism, although the two aren’t quite the same thing – is a particularly strict, puritan form of Islam. It demands that the Quran be interpreted as literally as possible, and that adherents work towards the creation of an Islamic state based entirely on Islamic law. As an ideology, it attracts radicals: Al Qaeda has its roots in Wahhabism, as do Al Shabaab and The Islamic State. Its most vocal proponent is Saudi Arabia, which over the last few decades has spent billions of dollars on spreading Wahhabi dogma throughout the Islamic World – including in Somaliland.

The history of Wahhabism in Somaliland can be dated almost exactly, to November 1983, when Wahhabi clerics from Mogadishu arrived in Hargeisa with a mission to co-opt the local Islamic scholars. These same clerics are considered the ideological forefathers of Al Shabaab. By and large, they succeeded, their deep pockets proving no match for either principles or centuries of history. Now it is entrenched.

“Indoctrination is beginning at a very young age. Some Islamists are entering politics, helped by the lack of a credible political opposition to President Silanyo. The nature of Islam in Somalia has changed – Sufism is dead, Salafism is now dominant, and politicians are too scared to confront it, for fear of condemnation in mosques,” said Guleid Ahmed Jama, a lawyer who also established the Human Rights Centre, the only organisation in the territory working explicitly on rights issues.

Jama warns that a day of reckoning is near. It is inevitable, he says, because the Wahhabis are ideologically opposed to the trappings of the Somaliland state – the secular constitution, the separation between mosque and state, its western democratic foundations. Most dangerously, they are not committed to the idea of Somaliland itself, and have far more in common with other conservative groups in Somalia proper than they do with any of Somaliland’s political elite. They threaten not just to upset the balance of power within Somaliland, but to topple its very foundations.

“Salafism is a very serious threat. It’s not obvious or openly organised as a political wing, as it is in most Muslim societies. Somaliland is not an immediate hotspot. But it will become one if the democratic system is not seen to work,” said Dr Bulhan. As an educator, Bulhan has seen first-hand how Wahhabis have co-opted Somaliland’s education system, simply because they can afford to. Starved of alternatives, the Gulf is the only sustainable funding for many schools, even if it comes at an ideological price.

One parent – of a more secular background – told me an anecdote that illustrates the point: one afternoon, his children returned home from school and refused to eat meat. Their teacher had told them that the meat in their home was not Halal, because it had not been slaughtered by a ‘pure Muslim’. All meat in Somaliland is Halal, or course; this just wasn’t Halal enough for the radical Wahhabis. And neither, it seems, is Somaliland.

Exacerbating these tensions is that the Salafists have no formal representation in the political system. Somaliland’s constitution only allows for three parties to contest presidential elections, which cuts down on the available political space. None of the current three are explicitly religious; certainly, none are advocating for the kind of Islamic state envisaged by Wahhabis. In other words, even if the Wahhabi movement wanted to change things democratically, they couldn’t.

The nation that can’t take off

In downtown Hargeisa, in a small public square that doubles as both a car park and a tea room, rests the city’s only monument of note: a MiG-15 fighter jet mounted on a colourful plinth. The jet is real. It was shot down during one of Siad Barre’s carpet-bomb campaigns, and it is significant on several levels. It is a physical testament to Somaliland’s defiance, of its refusal to be bullied and beaten down. It is a reminder of that terrible chapter in its history – lest we forget. It is a mark of separation from Somalia proper, an aggressive statement of independence.

But as Somaliland’s progress stalls, it’s hard not to see in this flightless plane another symbol: of dreams deferred, of a would-be nation that’s struggling to take off.

These are perilous times for Somaliland. With no one prepared to give it the recognition it craves – and no sign of this changing anytime soon – it needs to start preparing for when and how its national myth unravels. What will happen when people realise recognition is impossible? What will happen when the political classes are no longer chasing the same over-arching goal? Who is waiting in the wings, ready to take advantage of any missteps by an unsteady government that is almost certain to make them?


Photo: A bra seller in Hargeisa’s central market. (Simon Allison)

There are no easy solutions. Even the questions are hard, and it’s not obvious anyone in the territory’s political class is asking them. Even more worrying is how Somaliland has slipped off the international agenda (if it was ever on in the first place). ‘No news is good news’ is not an effective diplomatic strategy, and – if the pessimists are right – there will come a time when it’s too late.

This would be a tragedy of devastating proportions. Somaliland has already achieved so much, with so little. They deserve assistance and encouragement – and, yes, some of form of recognition. At the same time, Somaliland must start to reassess its goals, and persuade its people that some form of compromise with Somalia is inevitable. With so many pressures on the territory, both internal and external, the status quo cannot hold. Something’s got to give. DM

Simon Allison’s research in Somaliland was supported by the Institute for Security Studies, ahead of a forthcoming ISS publication on elections in Somaliland.

Main photo: Security force standing outside a polling station during presidential elections in Boroma, Western Somaliland, 26 June 2010. EPA/Philipp Hedemann.


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