A recent remark by a British lawmaker promoting Somalia’s breakaway region of Somaliland has been sharply criticized by Somali Planning Minister Gamal Hassan. The minister, from the Sanaag region claimed by Somaliland, blasted the MP’s “complete ignorance of the situation on the ground”.
The minister’s comment came at a time when British government and other American lobbyists are testing Somalia’s resolve over its unity and sovereignty. The minister from the Sanaag region, a region claimed by both Somaliland and Puntland, knows better than anyone what is at stake when a foreign official lightly handles the issue of secession in Somalia.
Somaliland which claims to cover five regions in northern Somalia (Awdal, North West, Togdheer, Sool and Sanaag) declared secession in 1993 and has since been ruled by the former rebel Somali National Movement (SNM), an organization rebel who recruited exclusively from the Isaq clan of the Northwest and Togdheer regions.
This heated exchange between the British MP and the Somali minister was born out of the active lobbying by Somaliland secessionist leaders with the United States and the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, many foreign lobbyists campaigning for Somaliland base their arguments on carefully selected clichés or guided tours in Hargeisa, the regional capital.
But the reality on the ground is much more complex and any outside intervention risks igniting another Somali civil war that would eclipse any other war in the Horn of Africa. Indeed, there is a serious source of conflict whose epicenter would be in the regions of Sool and Sanaag and which deserves the particular attention of political decision-makers.
Those two regions are both claimed by Somaliland and Puntland. Somaliland which lay claim to the former British Somaliland boundaries believes these areas are part of its territory. But the Dhulbahante is the only clan in that region that did not sign any agreement with the British colonial empire and, led by Sayyid Abdille Hassan, waged a twenty years liberation war against the colonizers.
The Warsangeli and Dhulbahante, two northern Darod sub-clans from Sool, Sanaag and Cayn, are currently marginalized in Somaliland politics where Somaliland’s dominant Isaq clan controls all institutions unchallenged.
What is more, in 1960, these Darod sub-clans overwhelmingly voted, with other Somali nationalist parties, for the former British Somaliland to join unconditionally their southern brethren and unite all former colonies inhabited by Somalis.
In 1991, after the collapse of the central government, to end the hostilities Sool and Sanaag elders accepted to secede, some say at gunpoint, others say they have been deceived by the SNM. Be that as it may, they were forced to cohabit with a self-centered and revengeful clan which associated them with the collapsed military regime and which took advantage of the secession to develop Hargeisa and the surrounding area.
As the Warsangeli and Dhulbahante identify with the Majerteen clan of Bari and Nugaal regions as part of the larger Harti Darod, they decided to form the autonomous state of Puntland in 1998 in order to unite all the northern sub-clans of Darod, or Harti. This came at a time when all the other Somali clans were carving out their own clan enclaves all over Somalia.
However, there they found themselves marginalized by the more dominant Majerteen who came to control Puntland’s presidency, economy and security forces. Dhulbahante and Warsangeli clans now denounce the Majerteen deep state, also called Aramjaan locally, of flouting that original plan and is content with the status quo where Sool and Sanaag is stuck between two jurisdictions and are virtually a no man’s land.
In late 2011, forces, elders and intellectuals from Sool, Sanaag and Cayn, dissatisfied with both Somaliland and Puntland, met after the Kalshaale Massacre in 2011 by Somaliland forces and agreed to work towards their own autonomous regional state. In early 2012, they formed the Khatumo State of Somalia, a regional state similar to Puntland or Galmudug, where their communities have their own government which manage their internal affairs, protect its people and control their own resources.
Somaliland, seeing that these communities have hit rock bottom with Puntland and unable to reclaim the now liberated Buhoodle town by force, rushed to offer them greater concessions like real power sharing and resource sharing between Hargeisa and the Sool and Sanaag communities.
An agreement was signed in 2017 after two years of negotiation between the then Khatumo president Mr. Ali Khalif Galaydh and the previous Somaliland president Ahmed Silanyo. Musa Bihi, the current Somaliland president, however, vowed to not let that agreement materialized and left Khatumo State no other choice but to stop cooperating with Somaliland. Galaydh died unexpectedly on October 2020 waiting for the Somaliland leadership to fulfill their part of the signed deal.
However, since the initial agreement with Galaydh, the transfer of people from the North West and Togdheer regions to Sool and Sanaag has accelerated, the police and military presence has more than tripled and, in last November, authorities in Hargeisa shamefully evicted thousands of families from communities in southwestern Somalia living in those areas.
Now, alienated in both Somaliland and Puntland, it goes without saying they found solace in the federal administration and they staunchly opposed Somaliland secession and previously torpedoed any Mogadishu plans to give Hargeisa more credibility about their secessionist inspiration.
On the other hand, Somaliland has adamantly refused to discuss its secession with the federal government if its negotiating team includes members from the northern regions. This position, however, also appeals to the officials of Dhulbahante and Warsangeli, who oppose any arrangement that would put their fate in the hands of people from the south who have no idea of their particular situation.
In fact, Turkish-sponsored talks on the issue held in Istanbul in January 2015 failed because Hargeisa sent a single-clan team while Mogadishu sent a team made up of individuals from Awdal, Sool and Sanaag. The make-up of these negotiating team is a clear evidence that a Somaliland dominated by one clan would never be viable.
Their ideals were translated into action by President Mohamed Farmajo, who hails from a southern Darod sub-clan, the Marehan. Since taking office, he has identified with and supported their undying unionist inspiration. Farmajo, who has publicly shunned Somaliland secessionism and turned his back on any talks with the Hargeisa elite, also has their full support for his re-election.
Currently, Dhulbahante and Warsangeli have high profile ministers, like Mr. Gamal Hassan, and high ranking police and military officers and the will to keep Somalia united by any cost. A Somali breakup means their communities and their regions being fragmented in different jurisdictions. They will fight tooth and nail not to let their communities fragment.
Somaliland is aware of that but current president Muse Bihi, once a senior officer in the Somali National Army who deserted to join the rebel Somali National Movement (SNM) formed by members of the Isaq opposition, feels compelled to finish what he has started with his secessionist militia.
Bihi’s push to accelerate Somaliland’s lobbying for a recognition with the help of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country hostile to Somalia unity, is only precipitating a serious armed confrontation that is sure to erupt from the Sool and Sanaag regions. Because the communities of these regions are the center of federalism, unity and the link between north and south.
If Washington and London want to consider any recognition of Somaliland, they should convince Hargeisa to not lay claim on Sool and Sanaag as part of a deal and limit their territory to Togdheer and Northwest regions. This is the only way another war can be averted in the region.
Even better, they could pressure Hargeisa to peacefully settle this secessionism push once for all, avoid putting conditions on the negotiating team members from the central government and accept a free, fair and transparent referendum. In such a case, the democratic choice, currently denied to many in Somaliland, would be the only way to decide between those who want to continue with the union and the secessionists.
Finally, any conflict that breaks out in these northern regions would involve Awdal, Djibouti and Western Somalis in Ethiopia. So, politicians in the US and UK who are advocating for recognition of Somaliland as an independent state from Somalia should take responsibility for dragging the region and their own countries into an upheaval they cannot control, or should refrain from any inflammatory comments on Somali internal issues.