|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives | Search|
Somaliland: What Somalia Could Be
Peter Pham, Ph.D.
Published 16 Jul 09
It came as no surprise when Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace released their "Failed States Index 2009" three weeks ago that, once again, Somalia topped the rankings. What I reported two weeks ago about the country's "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) continuing to lose what little ground it has left in the face of an onslaught from Islamist insurgents is even truer as the forces of al-Shabaab ("the youth"), the al-Qaeda-linked group formally designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. Department of State last year, and its allies, including the Hisbul al-Islamiyya ("Islamic party") group of Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, a figure who appears personally on both United States and United Nations antiterrorism sanctions lists, seize control of more and more neighborhoods in Mogadishu.
At the beginning of last week, Shabaab leader Ahmad Abdi Godane, a.k.a. "Abu Zubeyr," went so far as to issue an ultimatum to government soldiers to surrender their weapons and leave the front lines within five days or face being tried before an Islamic court alongside TFG leaders after the final collapse of the interim regime. Over the weekend, peacekeepers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) apparently exceeded their United Nations mandate to limit their activities to self-defense and undertook to do what the TFG forces have been wholly incapable of doing: battling insurgents in northern Mogadishu. Dozens were killed and hundreds injured in some of the heaviest street fighting to date as the AU troops first recaptured districts in the name of the TFG only to lose them again as the insurgency deployed additional forces to the capital.
Meanwhile the TFG continued to wheel about like a drunk, its capacity for self-destructive behavior apparently unabated by the mortal peril it finds itself in. On Tuesday, two French security advisers on assignment to train the interim regime's presidential guard were kidnapped at gunpoint from their Mogadishu hotel and marched away in their boxer briefs. According to a report by Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, the assailants were Saleebaab lineage Habar Gidir sub-clansmen of TFG interior minister Abdiqadir Ali Omar who had been absorbed into the government's forces but were "upset about not getting paid for risking their lives in recent battles." The two kidnapped men have subsequently been handed over to Islamist insurgents. The congenital dysfunctional nature of the TFG (see my report earlier this year on the farcical selection process for its current president), however, did not stop the United Nations, the African Union, and the subregional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) from convening in Nairobi, Kenya, this week yet another international conference aim at shoring up Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and his remnant.
All of this simply underscores what I asserted in my Congressional testimony at the end of June: "If the failure so far of no fewer than fourteen internationally-sponsored attempts at establishing a national government indicates anything, it is the futility of the notion that outsiders can impose a regime on Somalia."
A number of correspondents have since challenged me about what would happen absent foreign intervention, as if Somalis are somehow inherently incapable of self-governance. Fortunately, an example already exists of the emergence of a stable and peaceful Somali state: the Republic of Somaliland. While certainly far from perfect, Somaliland shows what is possible when a "bottom-up" or "building-block" approach is allowed to take place instead of imposing the hitherto favored "top-down" strategy for resolving conflicts, consolidating peace, and state-building within a political space. It also illustrates how a process that is viewed as legitimate and supported by the populace can also address the international community's interests about issues ranging from humanitarian concerns to maritime piracy to transnational terrorism (see the report in last Sunday's New York Times by Andrea Elliottabout young Somali-Americans as fighters for al-Shabaab, "A Call to Jihad, Answered in America," as well as the indictment this week by a federal grand jury of two men, Salah Osman Ahmed and Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, for recruiting them).
The British Protectorate of Somaliland gained its independence as the State of Somaliland on June 26, 1960. Less than a week later, it merged with the former Italian colony of Somalia in the south and east in a union which Somalilanders regretted almost from the beginning—the just one year after, the northerners overwhelming rejected by referendum the unification constitution—as they faced increasing marginalization within both government and civil society at the hands of their numerically superior ethnic kinsmen. Such was the oppression, especially after a 1969 military coup brought General Mohamed Siad Barre to power, that by the 1980s a full-fledged civil war was underway with the dictatorship taking ever harsher measures to suppress the Somali National Movement (SNM), the primary opposition group in Somaliland. Things had gotten so far out of hand that, in 1988, Siad Barre's air force actually perpetrated one of the most bizarre war crimes in the annals of armed conflict: taking off from the airport in Hargeysa, the principal northern city, the aircraft bombed some 80 percent of that very same city.
Somalilanders will tell those who inquire that the only reason they were willing to make the sacrifice of entering into a union with the former Italian colony of Somalia was that it was part of a movement to bring all the Somali-speaking areas of East Africa under one polity. However, with Ethiopia and Kenya both long ruling out any secession of their Somali-populated regions and Djibouti voting overwhelming in a 1967 referendum to reject any unification with the Somali state, the grand nationalist dream essentially died. The rump union was hence held together by brute force.
After the dictator fled from Mogadishu in January 1991 with the remnants of the last effective government of the Somali Democratic Republic collapsing around him, elders representing the various clans in Somaliland met in the bombed out city of Burao and, on May 18, 1991, agreed to a resolution that annulled the northern territory's merger with the former Italian colony (a number of international law scholars had long questioned the legal validity of the act of union) and declared that it would revert to the sovereign status it had enjoyed upon the achievement of independence from Great Britain. The chairman of the SNM, Abdirahman Ahmed Ali "Tuur," was appointed by consensus to be interim president of Somaliland for a period of two years.
In 1993, the Somaliland clans sent representatives to Borama, a town in the territory of one of the smaller clans, the Gadabuursi, for a national guurti, or council of elders. The numerically predominant ‘Isaq were allocated 90 delegates, while the Harti were given 30 delegates, and the Gadabuursi and ‘Ise split another thirty delegates. Interestingly, while the apportionment of seats on the guurti a rough attempt to reflect the demographics of the territory, the actually decision making was by consensus over the course of the four months which the assembly met. Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, who had briefly been prime minister of independent Somaliland in 1960 as well as democratically-elected prime minister of Somalia between 1967 and the military coup in 1969, was chosen as president of Somaliland.
President Egal's tenure saw, among other things, the drafting of a permanent constitution for Somaliland, which was approved by 97 percent of the voters in a referendum in May 2001. The constitution provides for an executive branch of government, consisting of a directly elected president and vice president and appointed ministers; a bicameral legislature consisting of an elected House of Representatives and an upper chamber of elders, the guurti; and an independent judiciary. After Egal's death while undergoing surgery in Pretoria, South Africa, in May 2002, he was succeeded by his vice president, Dahir Riyale Kahin, who subsequently was elected in his own right in a closely fought election in April 2003—the margin of victory for the incumbent was just 80 votes out of nearly half a million cast and, amazingly, the dispute was settled peaceably through the courts. Multiparty elections for the House of Representatives were held in September 2005 which gave the president's party just 33 of the 82 seats, with the balance split between two other parties. As a report from the International Crisis Group noted at the time: "The elections were impressive: under the auspices of Somaliland's National Electoral Commission (NEC), 246 candidates contested 82 seats in an endeavor involving 982 polling stations; 1,500 ballot boxes (bags); 1.3 million ballot papers; 4,000 polling station staff; 6,000 party agents; 3,000 police; 700 domestic observers and 76 international observers…their peaceful, orderly and transparent conduct was no small achievement."
Both elections were widely acknowledged by both domestic and international observers as free and fair. One might add that the achievement of having staged democratic polls for both the executive and legislative branches of government is even more impressive when one considers the failure to even set up a functioning government in central and southern Somalia and the generally questionable nature of elections elsewhere in the region—when they are even held at all. If all goes well, the progress will be consolidated when, on September 27, 2009, Somalilanders go to the polls for combined presidential and legislative elections, both of which have been delayed for a number of reasons, most having to do with technical competence and capacity, although one cannot help but note a certain lack of enthusiasm on the part of the incumbent president at the prospect of facing the electorate. Progress was made over the weekend as the three political parties in Somaliland—the United Peoples' Democratic Party (UDUB), the Peace, Unity and Development Party (Kulmiye), and For Justice and Development (UCID)—signed an electoral code of conduct.
Meanwhile, civil society, so devastated in the rest of the Somali lands, has made tremendous strides in Somaliland, carving out a space for private civic and charitable engagement. To cite just one example, the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeysa, founded in 2002 by Edna Adan Ismail, the former foreign minister of Somaliland (2003-2006) who donated her pension from the World Health Organization as well as other personal assets to it, provides a higher standard of care than available anywhere else in the Somali lands for maternity and infant conditions as well as diagnosis and treatment for HIV/AIDS and sexually-transmitted diseases and general medical treatments. In addition, the hospital serves as a teaching hospital, training an entire generation of nurses and midwives qualified to provide reproductive healthcare throughout the country and serving as a medical research center, with a special attention paid to the health problems associated with female genital mutilation.
In an op-ed piece after a visit to Somaliland's capital of Hargeysa two years ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof summarized all of this rather nicely:
Here in the north of the carcass of Somalia is the breakaway would-be nation of Somaliland, and it is a remarkable success—for a country that doesn't exist.
The U.S. and other governments don't recognize Somaliland, so the people here get next to zero foreign aid. And when the "country" was formed in 1991, it had been mostly obliterated in a civil war and was a collection of ruins and land mines.
Yet the clans and elders here formed their own government, held free elections and even established an international airline. Relying on free markets and a general exhaustion with violence, the people of Somaliland embraced tranquility and democracy and searched for ways to make a buck.
Walk down the streets of Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, and instead of gunmen you come across the thriving jewelry and financial market: scores of vendors, most of them women, are hawking millions of dollars worth of gold, precious stones and foreign currency out in the open air. (Don't try that at home!) Continue down the street, and you see that Hargeysa has police cars, DHL service, cable television, orthodontists, a multitude of Internet cafes and traffic jams (including the horses and camels). There are public schools and hospitals—even a public library.
This is a conservative Muslim country, yet it is generally pro-American and tolerant. In the last election, more women voted than men. Women's groups are fighting the traditional practice of genital mutilation, administered to 97 percent of girls here.
The lesson of Somaliland is simple: the most important single determinant of a poor country's success is not how much aid it receives but how well it is run. If a country adheres to free markets and good political and economic governance, it will generate domestic and foreign investments that dwarf any amount of aid.
Interestingly, even the African Union (AU), notoriously reluctant to do anything that might suggest that the map of African could be redrawn, has, as I reported here more than eighteen months ago, acknowledged the unique circumstances surrounding Somaliland's quest for international recognition as well as its tremendous achievements to date despite the lack of that sought-for acceptance. The official report of an AU fact-finding mission to the republic in 2005 led by AU Deputy Chairperson Patrick Mazimhaka concluded: "The fact that the union between Somaliland and Somalia was never ratified and also malfunctioned when it went into action from 1960 to 1990, makes Somaliland's search for recognition historically unique and self-justified in African political history. Objectively viewed, the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a Pandora's Box'. As such, the AU should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case."
Last year, the AU's special representative for Somalia, Nicolas Bwakira, likewise reported positively on Somaliland to the organization:
Somaliland has a Constitution that emanated from grassroots consultations…the constitution serves as a fundamental law in Somaliland and does enjoy respect and wider acceptance in the wider political spectrum. It provides for the relevant branches of government (legislative, Judiciary and executive) and the effective separation of powers that go along with it. The House of the Elders (known as "Guurti") is an additional arm of the system intended to safeguard and ensure the accountability and sustainability in Somaliland. Additionally, there is an Independent Electoral Commission which is responsible for the planning, preparing and conducting of Municipal, Presidential and Parliamentarian elections. This nascent democracy in Somaliland provides a sense of pride and needs to be learned by the rest of Somalia. It is a very encouraging and rewarding socio-political development prevailing in Somaliland compared to the rest of the country whereby insecurity, piracy and insurgent activities are rampant.
The Burundian diplomat, who has been involved in liberation struggles in Angola, Namibia, and South Africa, astutely noted the reason for this success lay in the indigenous nature of the effort: "Somaliland has achieved peace and stability, using the traditional way of solving problems (known locally as ‘Xeer') and through a home-grown disarmament, demobilization and re-integration process and internally driven democratization." Although he did not say so, this local origin and buy-in is precisely what I and other observers have repeatedly argued has been missing from efforts in central and southern Somalia where, as I noted earlier this year, "even by the opera buffa standards set by the fourteen attempts at a national framework for governance since the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fled from the presidential palace seventeen years ago, the selection of the latest pretender to the leadership of the nonexistent Somali state [TFG "president" Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed] was farcical."
Special envoy Bwakira concluded his report with some sensible suggestions for both the international community in general and the AU in particular:
As a peace dividend, the international community should provide institutional capacity building support to Somaliland infrastructure and facilitate its access to the international and regional financial institutions and banking systems.
The African Union Commission and [the subregional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development] should explore channels of communication and dialogue with the Somaliland authorities, and establish the best way they could be integrated into the regional socio-economic and political discourses including issues such as migration, illegal smuggling of arms, the fight against piracy and displacement of populations
Likewise, the authors of a just-released Human Rights Watch report—which was not without its criticisms of Somaliland's authorities—noted:
Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether Somaliland should be recognized or which country or multilateral institution should take the lead on resolving the issue. But donors, the AU, and other key international actors should develop concrete and pragmatic policies that are tailored specifically to Somaliland's complex realities instead of continuing to shoehorn their engagement with Somaliland into the same framework as their policies on south/central Somalia. Somaliland's needs, achievements, and problems bear little resemblance to those of Somalia and Puntland. Recognition or no, Somaliland should not be saddled with donor policies that are primarily geared to the context of looming famine and endless conflict in the south.
In particular, donors and key foreign governments should move immediately to deepen their engagement with Somaliland's government, civil society, and other institutions…Somaliland is at a crossroads and the territory's impressive human rights and security-related gains could be jeopardized.
In his speech to the parliament of Ghana last Saturday, President Barack Obama outlined four areas as "critical to the future of Africa": democracy, opportunity, health, and the peaceful resolution of conflict. While highlighting increases in foreign assistance his administration has sought, the president noted that "the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of perpetual aid that helps people scrape by—it's whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change." If these are the standards by which Africa policy is to be determined, then Somaliland surely has both moral and strategic claims on the attentions of the United States and its partners. Whatever their shortcomings, the people of Somaliland have demonstrated over the course of nearly two decades a dogged commitment to peacefully resolving their internal conflicts, rebuilding their society, and forging a democratic constitutional order. Their achievements to date are nothing short of remarkable in subregion as challenging as the Horn of Africa, especially when one considers the lack of international recognition under which they labor. It is not only prejudicial to our interests, but also antithetical to our ideals, to keep this oasis of stability hostage to the vicissitudes of the conflict which the rest of the Somali territories are embroiled rather than to hold it up as an example of what the others might aspire to—and could readily achieve if they weren't so busy fighting over the decayed carcass of a dead state and the resources which the international community stubbornly continues to throw at it in hopes of reanimating the corpse.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2009 J. Peter Pham