By Sarah Phillips

Could someone please clone Sarah Phillips? The University of Sydney political scientist has a great new Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) paper out on Somaliland, following her excellent paper a few years ago on Yemen.

Political Settlements and State Formation: The Case of Somaliland may not sound like much of a page turner, but it is brilliant. It explores one of those natural experiments beloved of researchers – what can we learn when two neighbouring countries part company and head off in different directions (North v South Korea, West v East Germany).

Phillips compares Somaliland v Somalia – while the first has emerged from the  shared chaos of the 1990s (and a brutal effort by Somalia to put down Somaliland separatists) into the sunlit uplands of relative peace and stability (some taxation, rudimentary public services, security, two peaceful presidential transitions through the ballot box, including one to the opposition), the other is the quintessential failed state. How come?

Her conclusions do not make comfortable reading, for they trample on any number of received wisdoms. Try these on for size:

Somaliland’s government has received virtually no direct financial aid, largely because it is not internationally recognized. The country itself gets a lot of aid via NGOs, UN projects etc etc, but the government has been generally outside this loop, forced to rely on local sources of funding.

Perhaps more important than the financial aspects, this meant there was no pressure to accept template political institutions from outside. Instead, Somaliland had time and political space to negotiate its own (e.g. clan-based) political settlements. The process involved a series of ad hoc, messy, consultative, and local peace conferences. In the most important conference, in 1993, one group stalled proceedings by reciting the Koran for several days. That’s not in the good governance playbook.

The peace process was almost entirely locally funded, due to Somaliland’s unrecognized status (so no bilateral aid or loans were available). That produced a strong sense of local ownership (literally). In the words of one minister, when asked by Phillips about aid ‘Aid is not what we desire because [then] they decide for us what we need’.

What’s less discussed is the power politics that underlies this transition. The second president used private loans to demobilise about 5,000 militia fighters. He offered stability (and tax breaks) to the business elite in exchange for funding demobilisation and the nascent state institutions. This was effective but certainly not inclusive – the elite came mainly from the President’s own clan. But according to Phillips, Somalilanders generally still see it as a legitimate process – that’s what leaders do.

The paper highlights the critical political importance of elite secondary schools in forging leadership. Available to a relatively small group of often privileged Somalilanders, this is in stark contrast to the donor emphasis on universal primary education. In particular, many of Phillips’ interviews led to the Sheekh Secondary School, set up by Richard Darlington, who fought in WWII as the commander of the Somaliland Protectorate contingent. Sheekh took only 50 kids a year and trained them in leadership, critical thought and standard (Darlington borrowed from the curriculum of his old school, Harrow). Sheekh provided 3 out of 4 presidents, plus any number of vice presidents, cabinet members etc. And no it isn’t a weird Somaliland version of Eton and Harrow (I asked) – it stressed student intake from all clans, especially from the more marginalized ones.

Somalilanders believe they are special, but also at risk:

‘For Somalilanders, the threat of violence was less from an external invasion than an internal combustion. This perception had profound impacts on the institutions – and the ideas about violence that undergird them – that were fostered during this period. Protection from violence was viewed as an internal matter, and if violence had been a political tool and a political choice for local actors in the recent past it was believed that it could become so again with little warning. Peace was precarious, and it rested on a tenuous balance between coalitions with roughly equivalent power.  Somaliland’s civil wars in the mid-1990s provided the opportunity for local coalitions to determine that no one clan could dominate the others.’

Conclusion (with due nods to local context, can’t generalize etc etc)? There is an upside to detachment from external aid and political influence. In the right circumstances, being detached can promote co-dependence between local elites, leading to durable, authentic institutions: ‘legitimate institutions are those born through local political and social processes, and that these are largely shaped through the leadership process.’


  1. I really believe that it was the early education based on critical thinking borrowed from the british examples of harrow and eton that contributed to Somalilands ability to provide better leaders.

    But also realise that just getting an education does not guarantee critical thinking, critical thinking has to be apart of the course work, philosophy, logic etc to develop into a first world nation we need first world thinking programmed into the schools or at least a few schools so that we can assure that some of our kids grow into better leaders.

    The only reason we arnt at the level of Somalia is bc we have been blessed with men and women who were taught better, a truly great education saves lives and builds nations

  2. "Somaliland’s civil wars in the mid-1990s provided the opportunity for local coalitions to determine that no one clan could dominate the others." Sarah, which clan was trying to dominate the others? Are there clans that suffer from phobia about others? Some allies were formed, that we know.

    • in sl govt powers are shared. if you are against the snm people as the majority
      of sl..that's your problem.

  3. I Just wanted to add that miss Philips has just hit the hammer on the right spot. The main differences of the two former colonies can be traced back to their two educational trajectaries,plain and simple. That the elite of both colonies at the time of independence were the product of two completely divergent educational curriculum as Philips rightly argues is a much signaled fact. The British Harrow based education exported to the small Somaliland town of Sheik and its effect on the Somaliland elite at independence,we all know about. Concurring with Philip's theses is a one Laura Jacobs who,writing in Dutch, has one time submitted a university theses in which she argued for the recognition of Somaliland. Of particular interest for this discussion is what she says about the different educational trajectories followed by the two former colonies. Concerning that of the North, she is in agreement with Philips but adds that the best students from Sheik and other such elite schools in Somaliland would then be sent to elite universities in the UK . What she says however,which to me was a kind of confirmation of what I had always suspected about supposedly Southern intellectuals, who in my personal observation,most of the time don't seem to be worthy of that title,is that the Italians in contrast to the British, had created a kind of mass education in their colony which had translated into the churning out of a large group of proletarian semi-intellectuals. Now to me, going back to my own observation of Somali media over the years but also in the capacity of working with Somali people, mainly from the South-Central, for more than two decades,these remarks have solved a mystery. Which is why is it that when Southerns claim that they had been educated for such and such a field complete with their titles,they nevertheless fail to live up to these expectations! One Southern woman once claimed that she had been a parachutes in Somalia but when she was asked to describe how a parachute jump is organized,she was completely lost for words!

    If taken any,no offense intended here.

  4. There are power within the Isaaq clan which seeks the destruction of Somalia and one of these idiot§ is godane and the other one is silanyo.

    • what you talking about ? Somalia is destroying itself and rebel dissidents minded of your kind
      should not blame the GOSL for such atrocities of the Somalian mafias.

  5. Sarah has made several salient points that should provide us a beacon of light to spur us on to more feats, to further gains. We should be grateful about these insights. Do not look under the stones. Look at the useful.

  6. We are different culturely and the way we do things Somalia and Somaliland, no need to generalise there are educated people from Somalia and Somaliland as well. Elders of Somaliland are behind our peace and some of them never went to school.To me elite is offensive word and it does not make naturaly child or young person becoming good leader. Good education helps and expand your thinking , but there are ways people who have not that privilege managed to deal their affairs for centuries and still do.

  7. The elders certainly had a place but what cant be argued is the caliber of men that went into government on the Somaliland end. They elders did help but only as far as our culture let them, our culture like all others isnt perfect and what you see in Somaliland now is a mix of the old and the new so both ends need to be honored. Those that brought people together on clan lines and those that saw further ahead and built a nation on secular democracy. One was needed to stop the bleeding and stabilize after the war and the other stepped in to build a future for the survivors.

    We need to keep progressing, never be happy with just surviving but we need to take our place amongst the finest nations and that needs a whole new set of plans and men and women willing and able to make it so.

    • Do not get me my wrong NLander, I am not against progess, education, development and more many good things comes with it, but i do not agree with some of you the idea that elites are good. For instance UK is where class difines your ability and if you are from Upper class family who sent you to Eton or Harrow , then Oxford and Cambridge your future is certain. I do not want us to be like that, i know there is always be among us have and have nots, but I would love our children to have close and fair future and if some could not have that chance to be respected for being human.

      • I totally agree in that we shouldnt have a nation of haves and have nots, what I am suggesting is that the government invest in 2-4 schools that are top notch in three major cities something along those lines. Build schools on that template and set standards for getting into them. Standards that the lower schools have to teach their students from there its up to the students to prove themselves.

        There are countries that are good examples for equal education and we can take that template and apply it. All we need is a government willing to take it seriously and provide funding for it and a public that wont get stupid and lets the system work. English and Somali are taught as a priority, Real Science, Math etc are manditory to be taught in non segragated classes.