Image 1: Hargeisa monument: an MIG fighter jet which bombarded the city in the late 1980s. The monument acts as a stark reminder for Somalilanders regarding the historical perils of the Union.


Historical background of Somaliland

Somaliland, an unrecognised, de facto country in the Horn of Africa is to many simply an autonomous region of Somalia. Yet this unrecognised state will be celebrating its 23rd Independence Day this coming May 18th in honour of the day when it decided to discontinue the union with Somalia. Somaliland was a former British protectorate which was granted independence on 26th June 1960 and 5 days later Somaliland sacrificed independence in order to unite with the Italian protectorate of Somalia which received independence on 1st July 1960 and both united to form the Somali Republic. The Somali Republic from the offset experienced growing pains, in particular the North (modern day Somaliland), which felt it had been marginalised. For example, although 2 entities united to form the union, the president, prime minister and the capital city (Mogadishu) as well as most of the parliament seats and funds, all went down South. The North felt that it had been marginalised economically, socially and politically and that it was treated as a province rather than as an equal partner in the Union.

Yet, it was only with the emergence of the late dictator Siad Barre in 1969 that dissatisfaction reached a zenith amongst the Northern Somalis when he began to severely discriminate and marginalise the Isaaq clan who make up the majority of the populace in Somaliland. His military regime was able to do this through emergency rule in the North and draconian measures that led to mass imprisonments, exiles and murders committed by his forces. Indeed, a peculiar scenario occurred in Somaliland whereby it only received one fifth of the national budget allocation despite hosting two thirds of the army. In the North this created the feeling that it was a region under occupation instead of an equal partner in the Union. The masses were already dissatisfied with Barre’s corrupt rule wherein he favoured his own clans for most important government and military positions. This discontent led to the formation of the Somali National Movement (SNM) in the mid-80s in Jeddah and London amongst the mainly Somaliland diaspora and exiles abroad, their aim at the time was simply to eject Siad Barre’s well-equipped and large army from the North. The war in the North preceded any warfare in the rest of Somalia, and by 1988 it had intensified and the SNM emerged victorious through the use of guerrilla warfare with assistance from the Derg regime in Ethiopia, which was fighting its own war with Siad Barre’s regime. The SNM enjoyed popular support in the North and as a result made inroads into the main cities of the North, which led to Siad Barre sanctioning the bombing of his own country and second city at the time, Hargeisa. Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland, was bombed to the ground and 50,000-70,000 innocents died, according to Human Rights Watch.  Such was the destruction of Hargeisa that it gained the unwanted nickname of the “Dresden” of East Africa. The harsh military measures led to around 2 million people being displaced to Ethiopian refugee camps. In 1991 the SNM finally succeeded in its principal aim of ejecting Siad Barre and his military forces from the North; this was only possible because Siad Barre faced tangible threats from other factions within Mogadishu and they ejected him and his army from Mogadishu in 1991 which led to the eventual collapse and descent into violent war in of Southern Somalia, which would continue unabated for 21 years only somewhat subsiding in 2012.

Initially, the SNM favoured a united Somalia with a federal structure, however, the bloody zero-sum game for power that was played out in Mogadishu in 1991 and the peoples’ calls for independence led to the SNM realigning their philosophy towards outright secession. Then, in a major gathering in the North in 18th May 1991 the Northern populace, the SNM and its leader’s aswell as tribal elders all decided unanimously to repel the Act of Union made with Somalia in 1960 and establish the Republic of Somaliland, which they considered the successor state to the former British Somaliland protectorate that gained independence on June 26th 1960.

Image 2: Somaliland’s current, elected President: Ahmed Mohamoud “Silanyo” addressing Chatham House in London in 2011.



To this day the SNM has gained the distinction of being one of the few victorious, armed rebel movements in Africa to disband in favour of a civilian government. Since 1991, Somaliland adopted a hybrid form of democracy whereby Western parliamentary democracy was fused with traditional Islamic/Somali laws and customs to provide a unique form of government. This democracy was strengthened by bicameral legislatures wherein one house contained the chamber of elected representatives and the other “the House of Elders”, where clan elders were used to diffuse tensions. This distinct form of democracy has survived up until today due to the grassroots, bottom up approach utilized by Somaliland. In contrast Somalia underwent 14 transitional governments since 1991 with immense assistance from the international community, however, analysts have argued that that failed due to a lack of ownership in the political peace process that Somaliland achieved without any external assistance. When observing Somaliland’s history; one political leader usually stands tall; the late leader Mohamed Ibrahim Egal who was a former Prime Minister of the Somali Republic (as it was called from 1960 – 1991) in 1968 and widely considered the modern “father” of Somaliland as it was under his watch that the flag, currency, national army and various government institutions were established in Somaliland. He suddenly passed away in 2003 in Pretoria, South Africa and leaders of Somaliland have usually tried to follow in his illustrious footsteps.

Image 3: Somaliland’s former President Mohamed I. Egal at a ball with President Lyndon B. Johnson on an official state visit to Washington when he was Prime Minister of the Somali Republic in 1969.





Political developments of Somaliland

In terms of its political development and maturity, Somaliland has come a long way, especially when compared to other East African states. Somaliland instituted national elections from 2000 onwards and since then it has experienced 5 parliamentary elections, 3 presidential elections, and several local council elections in its transition to full democracy. Somaliland has even managed to achieve a rarity in Africa; the peaceful transfer of power after an election. This occurred in July 2010 when the former two-term President; Dahir Riyale Kahin made way for the current incumbent President Ahmed Mohamud “Silanyo .This culture of democracy fostered in Somaliland has gained admirers amongst policymakers and international observers who have credited them as free and fair, especially when one takes into account the fact that Somaliland is located in a rough neighbourhood. Somaliland for all intents and purposes is an independent nation as it has its own currency, army, navy, licence plates, ministries, airports, universities, and is in control of its borders based on the 1960 British Protectorate Somaliland borders. However, Somaliland has achieved no recognition whatsoever (apart from de facto recognition from Ethiopia and Djibouti) and the main reason is because the Federal government of Somalia which only controls the capital; Mogadishu still lays claim to Somaliland and is opposed to its de jure independence, although it exercises no influence whatsoever over Somaliland due to its weak nature. This scenario has made it difficult for Somaliland to achieve the same kind of political arrangement that has benefited Eritrea and South Sudan in their split from their “Mother Country” whereby they reached a consensus with their mother state in terms of seceding based on referendums. In fact Somaliland can understandably feel hard done as it too held a referendum in 2001 which was deemed free and fair with over 95% of respondents in Somaliland choosing to secede and become an independent state. Yet, the international community has largely ignored this despite the insistence by some independent observers that the said referendum was free and fair.

In July 2013, the current President Ahmed Mohamoud “Silanyo” triumphed in national, presidential elections and was mandated with a 5 year term through his “Kulmiye” (Solidarity) Party which promised economic development and renewal in Somaliland. Silanyo was educated in Britain where he completed his bachelors and Masters in economics at the University of Manchester in the 1960s. He then worked for the Somali Republic as the Finance & Planning Minister under the late dictator President Siad Barre but defected when it became clear to him that the Siad Barre regime was waging a war against the North and its people. He then became the SNM chairman during their guerrilla war with one of the strongest armies in Africa at the time and he oversaw the gradual shift in power and momentum in favour of the SNM under his stewardship.  Yet, what is most interesting about the current, ruling administration in Somaliland is its strategic shift towards initiating dialogue with Somalia and their Mogadishu based government. Although in the past year dialogue has been initiated with the new government in Mogadishu as it slowly begins to rebuild both governments’ objectives are at odds. For example, Somaliland led by its elected President; a British educated economist Ahmed Mohamoud Silanyo want nothing short of recognition, whilst Somalia’s new, reformist President Hassan Sheikh expects Somaliland to renounce its independence bid and re-join Somalia in a federal arrangement. Yet, despite its unrecognized status; Somaliland has a robust and extensive foreign policy spearheaded by its dynamic Foreign Minister; Mohamed Yonis, a Harvard educated, former international civil servant at the UN and the African Development bank. In his former role; Yonis acted as the deputy head of the United Nations Mission in Darfur and was in contact with various international leaders & personalities such as; UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and George Clooney, a UN Messenger of Peace in Darfur. Under Yonis ascension to the foreign ministry in late 2013; Somaliland has witnessed a mushrooming of diplomatic relations and various investment deals, no doubt a product of Yonis’ vast diplomatic clout. In recent years Somaliland has instituted formal and informal ties with a host of countries and international players, such as; Ethiopia, Rwanda, the UK, France, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, the UAE and Kenya.

Image 5: Current Somaliland Foreign Minister with George Clooney during the UN Mission in Darfur. 


Economic development of Somaliland:

However, recognition or not Somaliland has charted its own path in regards to economic development and Foreign Direct Investment. Strategically located in the Horn of Africa at the mouth of the Red Sea, Somaliland is in an ideal location due to its proximity to the Middle East and the ever busy Red Sea shipping route. Yet, investors are all drawn to Somaliland due to its proximity to its neighbour Ethiopia which has a population of over 90 million and is one of the fastest growing economies in not just Africa but the world. Crucially, Ethiopia is the world’s largest landlocked country, a result of Eritrea’s secession in 1993. This in turn has enabled Somaliland to focus on developing its Berbera Port as a key route for Ethiopia’s exports and imports which will enable Somaliland to increase its revenue ten-fold. Recently, according to the Financial Times; Somaliland signed a deal with Bolloré Africa Logistics, a major French company specializing in the port development of Africa. According to reports it aims to invest $677 million in the Berbera Port and the fabled “Berbera Corridor” which is a planned, key road network between Ethiopia and Somaliland which aims to enable Ethiopia to fully utilize the port of Berbera as its main port. As a result of this; Bolloré aims to transform Berbera into a key African port leader and potentially a $2.5 billion logistics hub facing the Red Sea. In addition, Africa has emerged as a recent frontier for the oil and gas exploration and Somaliland is no different as it is potentially situated in an oil and gas rich peninsula. As such; Somaliland’s government has entered into deals with major multinational petroleum companies to explore for oil. Genel, an Anglo-Turkish oil and gas firm co-owned by the controversial former BP CEO Tony Hayward has recently entered the Somaliland natural resources sector and is scheduled to invest over $1 billion in its activities within Somaliland. Economists have predicted that oil and gas production will significantly benefit Somaliland’s economy and populace due to Somaliland’s small population, proximity to regional markets and its relative stability and vibrant democracy, minerals rich. According to observers such economic developments will enable Somaliland to develop rapidly with or without recognition.

In addition, there have been various investments initiated by the Somaliland government with the aim of utilising such investment to transform its economy and recognition prospects. One such crucial form of investment occurred in 2012 when the multinational billion dollar firm Coca Cola chose to build a $17 million modern, state of the art factory in the outskirts of the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa to act as its East Africa regional hub. More than anything this investment served as a stamp of approval for Somaliland’s nascent but yet vibrant economy. 

Although unrecognised and relatively new; Somaliland has managed to attract its fair share of admirers from the international community and influential personalities. Somaliland itself amongst its extensive diaspora possesses a roll call of famous daughters and sons who are recognised amongst millions around the world. Such examples include; Mo Farah, the British Olympic double gold medallist who was born in Mogadishu but hails from Somaliland originally. Another famous personality from Somaliland is the world renowned former BBC journalist Rageh Omar who came to prominence during the BBC coverage of the Iraq War in 2003. Closer to home Somaliland can lay claim to its own icon; Edna Aden, a former Foreign Minister of Somaliland and the founder of Edna Aden maternity hospital in a place where 4,000 women die from childbirth each year. She turned a garbage dump site in Somaliland into one of the most modern and developed maternal hospitals in East Africa. Her hospital has delivered more than 14,000 babies, tackled fistula and FGM aswell as trained thousands of nurses and midwives over the past decade. Edna Aden has come to the fore in recent years through the PBS Half the Sky movement and has admirers amongst celebrities such as; Angelina Jolie and Dianne Lane. In particular Edna Aden has been recognised for her work in promoting the rights of women and young girls in a conservative African and Muslim state through her decades’ long campaign to improve the plight of Somali women.


Image 7: British, Olympic, double gold medallist Mo Farah holding up the Somaliland flag (Getty Images).


Although unrecognised and oft ignored, Somaliland is a country built on people power and consensus; it is this that has enabled it to succeed for the past 23 years. Although the international community has consistently ignored the case of Somaliland, it has proven to be a unique and commendable case, a democratic nation and an oasis of stability in a volatile region of Africa.


  1. Truth be told, Somaliland was born out of heightened feelings
    premised on profound grievances and immoral acts meted out to the
    population of Isaaq clan by the military regime of President Mohamed
    Siad Barre.The regime comprised of all Somali clans,
    including the Isaaq clan, but what the regime did to the Isaaq clan and
    to other Somali clans cannot be justified by any means. It was a
    military regime, after all. However, these atrocities should not
    precipitate the dismantlement and destruction of Somalia, a country on
    the verge of vanishing if not salvaged quickly.SNM was one of numerous Somali armed
    opposition movements that had teamed up and eventually brought down the
    Barre regime. Unfortunately, the armed movements did not only dislodge
    Siad Barre’s regime, they dismantled Somalia’s central government and
    fragmented the country into mini-states. Thus, the armed movements were
    anything but visionaries; they had taken the country apart and ditched
    it in a deep well, making its citizens clad in hunger and humiliation.Somalia, a tiny country with a population of less than 13 million, cannot afford to split up into several sovereign
    mini-states. It is apparent now that the Khaatumo and Awdal communities are conspiring to end tyranny and division against Somalia.

    • Apparently sir, you missed the point of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant when you were in the first grade. Proud, democratic, independent Somalilanders are pointing the way towards a better future for the entire Horn of Africa. They have earned recognition and respect over more than two decades. For this they should be lauded, not accused of holding others back.