Somaliland unilaterally declared independence from Somalia in 1991. Despite meeting the criteria for statehood, it has not yet achieved de jure recognition. Making Somaliland a puzzling and fascinating case is that its successes in post-civil-war peace and state-building were achieved without external involvement in the political process. Political and social leaders in Somaliland have achieved on their own what the combined capacity and economic means of the international community has failed to achieve in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Somalia. Put differently, actors fighting on opposing sides of one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars voluntarily ceased hostilities, peacefully negotiated and in this way created peace, stability, democracy, and an inclusive state. Given the above, it is unfortunate and concerning that a violent conflict has once again erupted in Somaliland. Since early January 2023, the Somaliland National Army (SNA) has been in open conflict around the city of Laascaanood (the administrative capital of the Sool region). Who exactly the army is fighting is somewhat unclear and it is imperative to stress that verification is rendered difficult due to the lack of independent and reliable sources. According to the government, the army is facing a mixture of frustrated and misguided residents, Al-Shabaab terrorists, and militias from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. Not surprisingly, the competing narrative is that the SNA is facing locals from Laascaanood who have taken up arms against a state whose legitimacy they now reject.
It is almost convention, in Western media and academia, that political conflicts and crises in Somalia/Somaliland are analysed and explained through the lenses of clannism, i.e., the segmentary Somali kinship system. This short piece will argue that clannism has little utility in terms of understanding the root causes of the present conflict in Laascaanood. The argument being advanced is that the root causes of this conflict can best be understood through the intersection of economic marginalisation and limited state capacity, leading to erosion of state legitimacy.
The clannism convention
Having authored the standard “classic” ethnographic study of the Somali people, the British anthropologist Ioan Myrddin Lewis is broadly considered the foremost scholar in Somali studies. In 1961 he published A Pastoral Democracy wherein he makes two main contentions about Somali culture and society: a) Somalia is a highly egalitarian society devoid of any formal authority; and b) clannism is the all-pervasive and overriding organising force ordering socio-political relations. For Lewis, Somali culture can best be understood through the segmentary clan system, consisting of agnatic corporate groups feuding one another. According to this view, Somalis are essentially a warlike people, and their loyalty lies above all with their own clan. Following the logic of the Lewisian paradigm, the Somali civil-war and the subsequent dissolution of the central state in 1991 is due to the bellicose nature of Somali culture, rooted in the segmentary clan system. As Lewis wrote: ‘For better or worse, violence is actually endemic in this pervasively bellicose culture’ (Lewis 1998: 100). This view has permeated both academic and popular discussions on Somalia/Somaliland to the extent that it is virtually standard procedure to construe socio-political conflicts as rooted in the clan system. An excessive focus on a system of social organization, which itself hardly has any independent agency, is invariably accompanied by an underlying risk of neglecting other explanatory factors.
State capacity and legitimacy
To fully understand the root causes of the present conflict in Laascaanood, it is necessary to shed light on the east-west division in Somaliland society, which is gradually crystalizing in the public consciousness. It is, however, important to stress that this is, more than anything else, rooted in lack of economic development and state capacity. Anyone who has travelled in Somaliland, can hardly help but notice the apparent developmental disparity between western and eastern regions. The western regions are thriving, and the state is not far from achieving a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. While the eastern regions, i.e., Togdheer, Sool and Sanaag, are far less developed. At the same time, the state’s capacity to provide basic public goods, including order, is limited in the east. This is particularly the case in Sool and Sanaag. It appears that limited economic development and state capacity have generated a pervasive perception of marginalisation, which in turn erodes the legitimacy of the state.
The conflict in Laascaanood
Since 2009, the city of Laascaanood has been plagued by systematic assassinations of prominent figures, including politicians and intellectuals. The latest, Cabdifataax Cabillahi Abdi, a young and popular member of Somaliland’s main opposition party, was gunned down on 26 December 2022. His killers are still at large. The assassination of Abdi led frustrated locals, most of whom were young students, to call for demonstrations. The situation escalated when the police, and later the military, opened fire against innocent and unarmed civilians, killing 10–15 people and injuring many others. Although the army was ordered to retreat to its bases on the outskirts of the city in early January 2023, the demonstrations grew. Locals began waiving the Somali flag while some burned the Somaliland flag. Subsequently, a committee consisting of 33 community leaders was assembled to discuss the future of the city and the region. While this committee ostensibly was working independently, it was organised by a group of so-called traditional leaders (Garaads) who held parallel discussions on the future of the region. Some of them have never acknowledged the legitimacy of Somaliland and have been involved in previous attempts to setup parallel states, e.g., SSC and Khatuma State of Somalia. It warrants mention that several of the Garaads were accompanied by armed militias. Prominent cabinet members, hailing from Lascaanood and the secretary of interior were also dispatched to Laascaanood to avert further escalation and to engage with the traditional leaders once the latter had concluded their internal proceedings. On 6 January 2023 fighting broke out. It is unclear who commenced the fighting as each side blames the other. The Darood community constitutes the clear majority in Laascaanood, whereas the Issaq constitute the majority of Somaliland as a whole. It is, therefore, tempting to construe the ongoing conflict as a clan confrontation. There is, however, hardly any evidence suggesting that clan is an important factor, let alone the most important factor, in terms of understanding the root causes of the present conflict. First, while it is true that the majority of those opposing Somaliland in Laascaanood are Darood, it is equally accurate that not all Darood support the current uprising in Laascaanood. In fact, some of the senior military personnel of the SNA hail from Laascaanood as do many of the soldiers fighting on the side of the SNA. Second, the current uprising, including the waiving of the Somali flag, is not confined to Laascaanood or Sool but has also occurred in areas populated by the Issaq. Protesters also waived the Somali flag in the Issaq town of Ceel Afweyn in Sanaag, symbolically declaring their disloyalty to Somaliland. Interestingly, the background for the uprising in CeelAfweyn and Laascanood is virtually identical. Protesters in Ceyl Af-afweyn took to the streets because an unarmed local man was shot and killed by the police. According to both protesters and members of parliament hailing from Sanaag, at least four other innocent people have been killed by either the police or unknown perpetrators, within a short period of time, making the latest killing the final straw.
Ending the conflict
Somaliland’s achievements in peace and state building are indeed intriguing. How is it that communities that fought on opposing sides of a bloody and lengthy civil war voluntarily consolidated peace, and forged a viable state with virtually no external assistance? Fully grasping Somaliland’s successes in peace and state building requires acknowledging that, the xeer system, rather than the so-called clan system, constitutes the principal institution in Somali culture, historically governing socio-political relations.
The xeer system can be construed as both a shared normative order, informally defining the rules of the game, and ultimately as a regime that governs socio-political relations. The permanent population in Somaliland is completely homogeneous in terms of language, history, culture and religion. Due to cultural homogeneity, there is limited need for negotiating which values and norms ought to be considered universal. Similarly, complete religious homogeneity renders the need for interpretation of divine will superfluous. Somaliland is, thus, characterized by uniformity of shared beliefs/values and the xeer regime conforms to these. It further derives its greater legitimacy from society’s external and internal ultimate source of authority, i.e., Islam and Somali culture. Consequently, the content of the xeer regime enjoys legitimacy. This legitimacy allows the xeer regime to exert moral and normative constrain upon behaviour. How else do we, for instance, explain that the Somali National Movement (SNM), rather than seeking retribution, invited the communities that had supported the government of Maxamed Ziad Barre to peace negotiations after Barre’s troops were ousted from Somaliland in early 1991? Similarly, how else do we explain that the non-Issaq communities voluntarily mediated peace between different fractions of the SNM when conflict broke out amongst them in 1992? These are merely two examples and, by studying Somaliland’s peace and state building trajectory, one finds countless examples of pro-social behaviour which, in my view, are attributable to the normative and moral intervention of the xeer regime. By efficiently moderating behaviour, the xeer regime implicitly offers a remedy to the issue of free riding which, if not dealt with efficiently, is an implacable enemy of cooperation. And without successful collective action, it is almost certain that Somalilanders could not have ended war, consolidated peace and forged a viable state on their own in a post-civil war context.
This begs the question of whether the xeer regime will once again prove sufficient in solving Somaliland’s internal challenges without direct external intervention? The present conflict in Laascaanood is not the first challenge that Somaliland has faced since 1991. Several violent conflicts have erupted and common to all is that they were ultimately solved through peaceful negotiations. One could therefore, optimistically, argue that the ingredients that have proved fruitful in peacefully ending previous conflicts are still available, i.e., the normative intervention of the xeer regime. While cautiously optimistic, it appears sound to suggest also that the present conflict will eventually be solved through negotiations. As a prerequisite for commencing negotiations, the traditional leaders, currently in Laascaanood, demand that the SNA is moved far away from the city. That president Muuse Biixi and his administration are seemingly refusing to meet this demand may seem imprudent and improvident. Decision makers in Somaliland are, however, in a rather precarious strategic situation. By refusing to abandon Laascaanood, they risk prolonging the conflict. But by abandoning the city, they risk losing control of the entire state to Puntland, which also lays claims to Sool, Sanaag and even parts of Togdheer.
As of mid-February 2023, it is rather difficult to predict how this conflict will end, not least because of the scarcity of information. We still do not know which actors are involved, or what their motives are. Most importantly, we still do not know who is responsible for the assassinations that have plagued Laascaanood since 2009 and ignited the current conflict. That said, it is safe to assume that Somaliland is not behind the assassinations. The reason for this is simple: most of the individuals that have been assassinated since 2009 were pro-Somaliland. Therefore, it appears untenable to suggest that Somaliland systematically targeted the very same people who were promoting the legitimacy of the state in a region where its legitimacy is fragile. What could change the situation rather drastically is the emergence of credible evidence suggesting that an outside force, e.g., Puntland or Al-Shabaab, has deliberately assassinated community leaders in Laascaanood to destabilise Somaliland.
Note that I am not saying that violent conflicts have not erupted in Somaliland since 1991, but merely that they were eventually solved peacefully through negotiations.
See Lewis (1961).
This is particularly the case in cities such as the main port city of Berbera, Gibiley and the capital of Hargeysa.
It is difficult to verify the exact number of people who have been killed. Sources in Laascaanood, interviewed by telephone, mention that more than 100 people have been assassinated.
It remains unclear whether anyone has been held accountable for the killing of unarmed protesters.
Note that most of them were not traditional leaders when Somaliland was established 32 years ago in 1992.
Several prominent cabinet members and ministers have subsequently said that the militias were allowed to accompany the Garaads as a gesture of goodwill.
This is a point that Marcus Hoehne omitted mentioning in his piece published on African Arguments on 6 February 23.
The term “permanent” is used to distinguish between Somalilanders and temporary refugees from e.g., Syria, Yemen and Ethiopia.
For a discussion on the importance of uniformity of shared beliefs and political legitimacy, see Beetham (1991).
The Somali National Movement is the insurgency that fought against Maxamed Ziad Barre’s government from 1981–91.
Abdi, Jamal (2021) “Social Order: Voluntary Agreement and Consent in Pre-colonial Somali Society”, Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 21, Article 15.
Beetham, David (1991) The Legitimation of Power. London: The Macmillan Press.
Lewis, I. M. (1961) A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa. London: Oxford University Press.
Lewis, I. M. (1998) “Doing Violence to Ethnography: A Response to Catherine Besteman’s ‘Representing Violence and ’Othering’ Somalia’”, Cultural Anthropology 13, Article 1.