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''Somaliland Moves To Close Its Borders And Is Caught In A Web Of Conflict''
Report Drafted By: Dr. Michael A. Weinstein
PINR – Report October 31, 2007
With the capture from Puntland of Los Anod, the capital of Somalia's post-independence Sool region, on October 15 by local forces allied with Somaliland, the latter has been drawn inextricably into the tangled web of conflicts in Somalia's south and central regions.
Having declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, following the fall of dictator Siyad Barre, Somaliland lays claim to the territory comprised by the former British Somaliland, which includes the Sool region. Hargeysa lost control of Sool and Los Anod in 2003, when forces from Puntland successfully occupied the region based on clan affiliations with its population. Since then, Hargeysa has been planning to regain its foothold at an opportune moment, and now it perceives that it has found one.
By taking Los Anod, Somaliland is not guaranteed permanent control; Puntland has vowed to launch a counter-offensive, elements of Sool's population favor continued union with Puntland, and Ethiopia -- Somaliland's only ally -- is also allied with Puntland.
What is nearly certain is that Hargeysa will no longer be able to maintain its distance from Somalia's turmoil that has allowed it to evolve democratic institutions and sustain its economy, both of which achievements are central to its vital interest in gaining the international recognition that has so far eluded it. A die has been cast: if Hargeysa wins its gamble, it will have made good on its territorial claim and will have fulfilled another requirement for recognition; if it becomes embroiled in extended conflict or is rolled back by Puntland, its case for recognition will be weakened and its domestic political stability will be impaired, opening the possibility that Somaliland will begin the process of fragmentation that is underway in Somalia.
A Severe Conflict Becomes Manifest
Due to its policy of standing aside from Somalia's conflicts, Somaliland -- up until now -- has not entered PINR's reports as a major player. That policy, which aimed at showing that Somaliland is not an aggressive power -- yet another element of its overriding quest for recognition -- has kept under wraps what is potentially the most severe conflict in the territory of post-independence Somalia. The capture of Los Anod has brought that conflict to the surface.
Passions run so high between Somaliland and Puntland that there is no neutral political term to describe the former. At one extreme, it is the Republic of Somaliland and, at the other, it is a secessionist sub-state of Somalia with no legal claims to sovereignty. It is immediately evident where writers stand in the conflict by how they refer to Somaliland. Efforts to mediate between the extremes are also loaded; for example, "self-declared independent republic," "breakaway state," "mini-state," and "sub-state," each of which tends toward one or the other of the polar positions.
However an analyst decides to identify the fundamental juridical status of Somaliland, there will be heated complaints from quarters that perceive bias -- and quite correctly so. That Somaliland exists in a juridical netherworld is responsible for the fact that its political class and much of its population are preoccupied with recognition. PINR declines to take sides on the juridical issue of Somaliland's status and will simply use the proper name without further elaboration; that is, PINR will acknowledge that Somaliland's very status is contested, creating an "existential" issue that makes its entry into conflicts with external actors particularly severe.
Somaliland's juridical claims to the territory of the former British mandate rest on the fact that it enjoyed five days of independence in 1960, before it united with the former Italian Somaliland to form the post-independence Republic of Somalia. According to Hargeysa’s reasoning, by declaring independence in 1991, Somaliland simply restored its previous status. Opponents of Somaliland's independence, including not only Puntland, which claims a provisional autonomous status within Somalia, but also Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) and most of its political oppositions, claim that Somaliland voided its independence when it agreed to join post-independence Somalia.
External actors have stood aside from the juridical dispute, withholding their recognition, but acknowledging Somaliland's achievements and often maintaining relations of varying degrees with it, keeping Somaliland in limbo while giving it faint hopes for eventual recognition.
Legal conflicts always conceal or express underlying interests and the confrontation between Somaliland and Puntland rests on the latter's interest in uniting with regions of the former British mandate that have a majority of their populations affiliated with the Darod clan, which is dominant in Puntland; whereas Somaliland is dominated by the Isaaq clan. Both Somaliland and Puntland contain members of other clan families as well as competing sub-clans within their respective dominant clan, complicating their blanket confrontation of clan-family interest.
Somaliland, which has partially evolved beyond clan representation through its democratic institutions, rejects Puntland's clan-based claim to the Sool region, whereas Puntland asserts that Somaliland's claim that it has transcended clan is a cover for Isaaq domination. The western regions of Somaliland -- the Isaaq heartland -- are overwhelmingly in favor of independence and "closing the borders" of the former British mandate; the eastern regions claimed by Somaliland -- Sool, Sanag, which has hived off Puntland and declared itself the autonomous Makhir state, and parts of Togdheer -- have large or majority Darod populations, and are divided on union with Somaliland, with a probable majority in Sool favoring remaining with Puntland.
The social interests at the root of the conflict are rendered more acute by the fact that both Somaliland and Puntland have evolved institutionally beyond the rest of post-independence Somalia and have been able to provide a degree of security to their populations absent in post-independence Somalia's central and southern regions. They both have much to lose from serious armed conflict, but they also have contradictory vital interests -- Somaliland is determined to "close the borders" and Puntland's political class fears that it will be discredited if it gives up the disputed regions.
The danger that both face is that their superior political organizations will draw them into more devastating warfare than the more decentralized and fluid central and southern regions of Somalia have experienced -- political evolution has kept Somaliland and Puntland relatively quiescent toward each other; now, organization is beginning to cut the other way.
At the very bottom of the present conflict is an intensity of passion at least equal to that generated by any other dispute in the Horn of Africa, where political passions run high. During its struggle for liberation from Siyad Barre's dictatorship, Somalilanders suffered under a particularly brutal counter-insurgency that many Isaaq view as an attempt at clanicide, and they are determined to prevent that from happening again. Here they are similar to Israelis and most Jews, who have adopted as their credo, "Never again," and to Eritreans who resist a return to Ethiopian hegemony. Only someone unfamiliar with Somaliland's climate of opinion will discount this passion, which is Hargeysa’s prime strategic asset.
Puntlanders are also passionate in their desire for Darod unity and fear Isaaq domination in the contested regions, but they do not have the fear of clanicide, which deprives them of the insistency of their rivals who have made the conflict what the Israelis call an "existential" issue. Nonetheless, Puntlanders do not lack their own intense fervor, which sets the stage for confrontation rather than compromise. Now that Somaliland has moved to reverse Puntland's gains, both adversaries have been placed in positions of extreme risk.
Hargeysa Makes its Move
From the outset of Puntland's occupation of the Sool and Sanag regions, Somaliland has made it clear -- with consensus of its various political forces -- that it would attempt to reclaim those lost territories at the first favorable opportunity. That Hargeysa has made its move now is conditioned on a mix of factors to which both fear and fortune are attached.
Hargeysa’s nightmare scenario is that Puntland unites with south and central Somalia under a Darod-dominated government led by the Darod president of the T.F.G., Abdillahi Yusuf Ahmed, who has his power base in Puntland, has served as its president and its strongman, and has fought against Somaliland. Yusuf, who is in the process of making a power play to eliminate his rivals in the T.F.G., seeks to set himself up as the power broker of a united Somalia after projected elections for a permanent government in 2009.
Although Yusuf's ambitions are likely to fail, Hargeysa has watched developments to the south with concern, particularly Yusuf's success in getting Puntland's president, Mohamud Adde Muse, to agree to closer ties to the T.F.G., including the merger of Puntland's security forces with the T.F.G.'s forces. As long as Yusuf remains the major player in Somalia's politics, Puntland appears to be on track to give up its autonomy if it can make a favorable deal, leaving Hargeysa with the possibility of confronting a restored Somalia, which would have irredentist aims to match its own, on its doorstep.
A united Somalia holding the Sool and Sanag regions would shift the regional balance of power to Hargeysa’s serious disadvantage, impairing its territorial claims diplomatically and foreclosing the possibility of making good on them militarily, thereby diminishing its chances for international recognition and increasing the possibility of international pressure to federate with Somalia or of an invasion from Somalia.
A united Somalia would also win the support of external actors, further isolating Somaliland. Already, the external actors, except Eritrea, back the T.F.G. and withhold recognition from Somaliland; a successful reconciliation process to the south would worsen Hargeysa’s position. Ethiopia -- Somaliland's only steady partner, due to its use of Somaliland's port of Berbera, and its policy toward Somalia of divide and rule -- is also the military supporter of the T.F.G., Yusuf's ally and Puntland's partner. Hargeysa fears, with justification, that were Addis Ababa forced to choose sides in a conflict among its allies, it would go with Somalia, leaving Somaliland isolated, vulnerable to external pressure and even more dependent on Ethiopia's good graces than it is now.
To repeat, although Hargeysa’s nightmare scenario is unlikely to come true -- given the fundamental rifts in the T.F.G. and growing skepticism toward it of donor powers -- it or bad-case scenarios short of it have to be taken into Hargeysa’s calculations, particularly in light of Somaliland's embattled national consciousness. From the angle of fear, Hargeysa has concluded that it has to gain ground now in order to ward off possible future threats.
Nonetheless, Hargeysa’s apprehensions would not have been sufficient to convince it to make its move in Los Anod; there was also a conjuncture of favorable opportunities, centered on Puntland's growing military and political weakness.
In attempting to secure a dominant position in the T.F.G., Yusuf has drawn on militias loyal to him from Puntland and financial contributions from the sub-state, leaving Puntland militarily vulnerable and financially impaired. At the same time, Muse's administration has faced unprecedented demands for accountability from dissidents in Puntland's parliament, mirrored by demonstrations in the streets of its political capital Garowe and its commercial capital Bossasso.
The first sign that Garowe was losing its grip on the disputed regions came at the end of July when the Sanag region declared autonomy from Puntland and set up as the Makhir state, which pledged that it would eventually place itself directly under the authority of the T.F.G. The leaders of the autonomy movement in Sanag explained that they had been marginalized by Garowe and that the ability of Sanag to receive foreign assistance and investment would be improved by autonomy.
At the same time, a delegation from Hargeysa visited Los Anod to discuss "development initiatives" and met with no resistance; local media reported that Puntland forces had either been redeployed to the south or had deserted due to nonpayment of wages. The Somaliland emissaries announced that henceforth they would "regularly conduct governmental affairs" in Sool. With its probe a success, Hargeysa was primed to move on the occasion of a triggering situation.
That situation arose as a consequence of Muse's attempt to consolidate his control over his administration by reshuffling his cabinet in late June. One of the casualties of the shake-up was Puntland's interior and security minister, Ahmed Abdi Habsade, whose power base is in Sool and who was unreconciled to Muse's decision. Habsade, who had been the speaker of Somaliland's parliament in the mid-1990s, before Puntland's occupation of Sool, mobilized militias loyal to him and, on September 17, they clashed with Puntland forces outside Los Anod.
Through the second half of September and first half of October, armed conflict continued sporadically with both sides claiming control of Los Anod and Somaliland forces deploying close to the town. On October 12, Habsade, who had said that he was not behind the insurgency, but had admitted that forces from his sub-clan were involved in it, formally allied himself with Hargeysa.
On October 15, Somaliland forces took control of Los Anod, as Puntland forces retreated to Garowe. With Somaliland forces pushing to 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Garowe, Somaliland's defense minister, Abdillahi Ali Ibrahim, threatened to move on Bossasso if Puntland launched a counter-attack. Garowe appealed for international help, but received no response. Hargeysa had won the first round, as Garowe attempted to mobilize forces and push back.
Beyond the personal and narrow sub-clan politics that gave Hargeysa its opening are the same sense of marginalization that actuated the autonomy movement in Sanag and persistent clan differences and tensions. Although Sool's inhabitants belong predominantly to the Darod clan family, they are concentrated in the Dhulbahante and Warsangeli sub-clans, whereas Puntland's political class is dominated by the Majerteen sub-clan, creating an added dimension of marginalization. Further, within the sub-clans in Sool there are differences over loyalties to Somaliland and Puntland, allowing a foothold for Hargeysa.
It is too early to tell whether or not Hargeysa’s victory will be permanent. Following Garowe's retreat, pro-Puntland demonstrations and riots broke out, leading Hargeysa to remain on the outskirts of Los Anod and to leave the local militias allied to it to police the town.
Mass demonstrations against Hargeysa’s occupation also took place in Puntland. On October 26, Somaliland forces made their first entry into Los Anod in order to clear road blocks and were met by a riot in which four people were wounded by response fire and a Somaliland soldier was run over by a truck in a disorderly retreat. Somaliland's rural development minister, Fuad Adan Adde, admitted that an "uprising" was underway in Los Anod and that he was unable to drive through the town. Approximately 20,000 residents were reported to have fled Los Anod and its environs for Puntland, creating a humanitarian crisis.
Although it is far from certain that Hargeysa will be able to hold on to Sool, it has not faced international opposition to its takeover of the region, and Puntland has yet to mount a counter-offensive. For the moment, Hargeysa has placed Garowe at a disadvantage, but the former has been plunged into the maelstrom of clan fragmentation that is familiar in south and central Somalia.
Conclusion: A Pyrrhic Victory?
Having won the first round of its struggle to "close" its original post-independence borders, Somaliland faces more rounds to come. It is possible that Garowe will be able to marshal sufficient Darod sentiment to mount a counter-offensive, which, if successful, would place Hargeysa in a much weaker position than before its intervention. Any hopes for international recognition would fade, Hargeysa would be thrown into even greater dependency on a fickle Addis Ababa, and Somaliland's political class might suffer a crisis of confidence.
If Hargeysa succeeds in holding on to its gains, it still faces the problem of dealing with the Makhir state in Sanag, which has pledged to join a united Somalia; PINR has found no evidence of unrest in Sanag that would provide Hargeysa with an opening there. Indeed, Sanag offers a possible model for Sool, where an autonomy movement might form.
More importantly, Hargeysa faces the chronic problem of isolation. International and regional actors continue to back the T.F.G. and, on October 29, Yusuf won his power play against the T.F.G.'s prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, when the latter resigned his post after consultations in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is now likely to move even closer to Yusuf and, in consequence, to Puntland.
Addis Ababa is currently over-strained and on the defensive as it struggles against a mounting insurgency and popular resistance against its occupation of Mogadishu and central Somalia, and a growing insurgency in its Somalia Regional State (S.R.S.) that has led to charges against it of human rights violations; and faces increasing tensions with Eritrea over their disputed border. Somaliland is low on the list of Addis Ababa's priorities. Hargeysa has reportedly tried to win Addis Ababa's favor by rendering suspected rebels from the S.R.S. to the latter, but that has occasioned internal dissent and tarnishes the democratic image that Hargeysa tries to present to the world.
A sign of Hargeysa’s worsening relations with Addis Ababa came in the second week of October, when Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, invited Muse and Somaliland's president, Dahir Rayale Kahin, to Addis Ababa in an attempt to mediate the conflict over Sool. Muse accepted the invitation with alacrity, but Rayale dragged his feet and eventually sent Somaliland's foreign minister, Abdillahi Mohamed Duale, in his place.
The mediation efforts reportedly ended in failure, with Duale walking out. Duale later told the BBC that his trip to Addis Ababa had "nothing to do with our conflict in Puntland," and that he had "never met" with Muse there. On October 16, Hargeysa announced that it would not engage in "fresh talks" with Garowe.
Isolation has been and continues to be Somaliland's preeminent problem and breaking out of isolation its vital interest. It is quite possible, in those terms, that it has won a pyrrhic victory in Sool.
Hargeysa now faces the challenge of reconciling Sool's divided population to its authority, the possibility of a counter-offensive from Puntland, dealing with the Makhir state in Sanag, enduring continued international and regional non-recognition, and an Ethiopian tilt toward Puntland through its alliance with Yusuf. In the meantime, Hargeysa’s intervention and the resistance to it have damaged its peaceful and democratic image.
More than anything else, Somaliland needs allies, but it is difficult to imagine where they would come from. In mid-October, Hargeysa sent out feelers to the Arab states, which desire to contain Ethiopia, requesting that they open diplomatic offices in Somaliland as a stepping stone to recognition by the African Union and United Nations. Thus far, the initiative has not borne fruit, but it shows a direction that Hargeysa is likely to try to take.
Were Hargeysa to succeed in realigning itself, which is currently a slim possibility, the balance of power would shift slightly against Ethiopia and deprive it of leverage over Hargeysa. Such an eventuality would further complicate the conflicts in the Horn of Africa by introducing a wild card.
At the remotest edge of possibility, a tilt by Hargeysa away from Addis Ababa and toward the Arab states would lead to its joining with Eritrea in the anti-Ethiopian bloc and increasing its chronic tensions with Djibouti that center on rivalry for trade conducted through their respective ports. That would bring Hargeysa into conflict with the Western donor powers, which support Djibouti -- Washington and Paris have military bases there -- and have chosen Ethiopia over Eritrea. PINR projects this unlikely scenario only to highlight Somaliland's growing isolation. It does not reflect Hargeysa’s present strategy; it is a limit case of what PINR sees as Hargeysa’s underlying desperation.
Somaliland is not about to lose its independence to a unified Somalia that remains a dream, nor is Ethiopia likely to abandon it entirely. Indeed, some local analysts believe that with Gedi gone, Addis Ababa will try to distance itself from Yusuf by making an alliance with Hawiye factions -- as it has done in the past -- and move closer to Hargeysa as a consequence. PINR judges that such a shift is less likely than continued support for Yusuf.
The change that has occurred through Somaliland's capture of Los Anod is that it has been drawn into Somalia's fragmented conflicts and is now vulnerable to suffering internal destabilization if its policies fail. Those policies are thoroughly intelligible in light of Hargeysa’s perceived interests and its isolation -- just as are Eritrea's and Israel's -- but they are fraught with danger. It remains to be seen whether Somalilanders have the resilience necessary to overcome the stresses of embattled isolation.
The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of email@example.com. PINR reprints do not qualify under Fair-Use Statute Section 107 of the Copyright Act. All comments should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.