January 23, 2006
For Italy, colonies were a question of national pride and status, its colonial policy aimed at the total assimilation of the colonial territories. British Somaliland, on the other hand, was only of marginal importance to the British Empire and was used as a logistical supply outpost for British ships sailing to India or the Gulf of Aden. The British colonial praxis there could best be described as indirect rule and, as a result of this soft approach to indigenous political systems, the traditional order stayed largely intact.
Additionally, the relationship between north and south Somalia has always been difficult. Only days after gaining independence in 1960, the two countries unified and Somalia has since been dominated by the southern part of the country. After the bloody 1977-78 Ogaden war between Ethiopia and Somalia, the government of Siad Barre became more repressive, and more Somalis from the former British Somaliland protectorate called for national sovereignty free from Barre's rule.
Due to the Barre regime's violent repression, Somalilanders, encouraged by Ethiopia, took up arms and formed the Somaliland National Movement (S.N.M.) in 1981 to resist Barre. In the late 1980s, Barre virtually lost control of the province and ordered the air force to bomb Hargeisa, today's capital of Somaliland. The bombing and subsequent raids of government troops claimed tens of thousands of casualties. However, by the end of the 1980s, what has become the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland was nearly totally under the control of the S.N.M. The vacuum left by the collapse of the central government in Mogadishu in 1991 had, therefore, less effect on Somaliland than it did for the rest of the country.
Somalis, although belonging to one nation, are organized along clan lineages; traditionally, conflicts are solved by local clan elders. After state collapse in 1991, clan leaders and elders in Somaliland gathered in a traditional meeting, a so-called Guurti, and proclaimed Somaliland's independence in May 1991.
Since then, Somaliland can be regarded as a relatively stable region. With little foreign help, it has managed considerable progress in consolidation of statehood: in a nationwide referendum held in 2001, the country introduced a new constitution with overwhelming support from voters. In April 2003, voters were again called to the polling stations for the election of a new president. The ballots in which Dahir Riyale Kahin was elected president were comparatively open and fair.
The consolidation reached a climax at the end of September 2005 when the country held parliamentary elections. Although far from being perfect, international observers from the Catholic Institute for International Relations called the elections free and fair. Furthermore, more voters in recent elections turned out to vote for candidates from different clans, a clear signal that Somalilanders are beginning to trust their political system. But the consolidation of statehood has so far not been followed by international recognition from the international community.
Somaliland in the International Arena
Although Somaliland managed stability and continuity in domestic policy, its foreign policy has been less successful. Part of the problem is that the new president of the Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) in Somalia, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, is a former warlord from Puntland, the northeastern part of Somalia. Puntland and Somaliland were already at war in early 2004 over the provinces Sool and Sanaag. While Somaliland claims that on the basis of the colonial boundaries these provinces belong to Hargeisa, Puntland is determined to take hold of all areas in which its fellow clansmen live (Somaliland is predominantly inhabited by the Isaaq clan, while Puntland is inhabited by the Darood).
A success in the peace process in southern Somalia between Yusuf and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan would inevitably lead into another conflict between Somaliland and Somalia in which Puntland undoubtedly would hold a dominant position. Thus, the resolution of Somaliland's status is a prerequisite for success of the peace process in overall Somalia. [See: "Somalia's Uncertain Future"]
On a local level, Somalia's strategically key position in the Horn of Africa between the Arab peninsula and the African continent is adding its part to the ongoing struggle. Many Somalis believed that efforts for the resolution of continuing state failure in their country would come from the Arab countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa. But for the time being, the countries keenest to bring stability back to Somalia are the East African countries that have formed the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (I.G.A.D.). These members consist of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya and Sudan.
I.G.A.D. is committed to Somalia's unity since it fears that a successful secession of Somaliland could be quoted as a precedent by other secessionist movements in East Africa. At the same time, Somalia and subsequently Somaliland have become theaters for proxy wars. Arab countries are trying to balance Ethiopia's influence in the Horn. Yemen, for instance, supported Jama Ali Jama, a rival of Yusuf in Puntland, as Yusuf is regarded by many Somalis and Arabs as being overly tied to Addis Ababa.
Furthermore, Yemen serves as an important transport hub for small arms to Somalia and Somaliland despite a United Nations arms embargo and despite a maritime presence of U.S.-led military forces engaged in the "war on terrorism." During the 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Somalia became the theater for a proxy war between the two countries. Eritrea channeled weapons to Somali warlords in the Ethiopian Ogaden region in an attempt to open a second front in the war. A unified Somalia is the only country in the Horn that, potentially, could become a rival to Ethiopia's dominant role. Therefore, Eritrea rejects the recognition of Somaliland since it still hopes that a single, unified government for all of Somalia could emerge which would not be under the influence of Ethiopia.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, maintains good relations with Somaliland as well as with Yusuf and the T.F.G. With Eritrean independence in 1993, Ethiopia lost access to the Red Sea and is since dependent on the port of Djibouti for crucial imports and exports. Somaliland's port at Berbera might very well offer an alternative trade route if officially recognized and Ethiopia repeatedly showed a willingness to establish diplomatic links to the government in Hargeisa. Djibouti, on the contrary, feels uneasy; on the one hand it doesn't want to promote a competitor for its main source of revenues -- its port facilities -- but on the other hand it is relieved that the commonly shared border is relatively safe.
Meanwhile, the question of Somaliland's independence has created a row between the two former colonial powers of Somalia, Italy and Great Britain. Italy has strongly emphasized the importance of Somalia's unity and is subsequently supporting the T.F.G. headed by Yusuf.
American sources mentioned in the Economist in December 2005 recently indicate that Italy is even funneling weapons to the provisional government despite a United Nations arms embargo. Britain, as the former colonial power of Somaliland, is said to develop a much more open approach to Somaliland and has repeatedly encouraged Hargeisa's process of democratization.
The United States also pursues this more open approach. The U.S. State Department announced that it "welcomes the September 29 parliamentary elections in Somaliland." Furthermore, a report published by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a number of recommendations for strengthening U.S.-African policy, in which it called Somaliland's capital Hargeisa a strategic location in the global war on terror and criticized the lack of a U.S. presence there.
At the same time, the conflict about Somaliland's secession between the former colonial powers is making it difficult for the European Union to develop a common stance towards Hargeisa.
While Somalilanders voted for their right of self-determination, the subject of state secession is still a matter of ongoing conflict. With a transitional government in southern Somalia reluctant of accepting Somaliland's independence, neighboring countries deeply divided on the issue, the regional organization I.G.A.D. unable to endorse any solution, and a European Union paralyzed by the quarrel between the U.K. and Italy, Somaliland's future remains to be seen.