Foreign aid and conflict in Somaliland

Foreign aid to Somaliland has fostered authoritarian rule and contributed towards conflict in the eastern city of Las Anod. In recent months, the apparent miracle of democracy has fractured as conflict has led to hundreds of deaths, and hundreds of thousands displaced. Jethro Norman writes there is a clear international dimension to the crisis. Those in Washington, London and Brussels are oblivious to the problem right under their nose: the consequences of their own aid and investment strategies. 

By Jethro Norman

On 18 May Somaliland marked its 32 year since independence. The date is known for being a day of colourful celebration and nationalist fervour in the capital Hargeisa, drawing in international visitors and journalists. This year, however, the celebrations were muted. Fighting in the eastern city of Las Anod has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. The spiralling conflict has taken many international observers by surprise, and severely damaged Somaliland’s carefully curated reputation for peace and stability. It has also revealed a gaping blind spot in foreign engagement to Somalia.

From beacon of democracy to authoritarian rule

Somaliland declared its independence on 18 May 1991 following the collapse of the Somali Democratic Republic under Siad Barre. Whilst international recognition has remained elusive, Somaliland has earned the reputation of an island of peace, democracy and stability in an otherwise tumultuous Horn of Africa region. A little over two ago, as Somaliland celebrated its 30 year anniversary, a steady stream of journalistic and academic pieces heaped praise upon the de facto state, describing it as ‘a miracle on the Horn of Africa’, and ‘a beacon of democracy’.

This all started to change in December last year when a local opposition politician, Abdifatah Abdullahi Abdi, was assassinated by unknown attackers. Anti-government protests spread across the city, before morphing into an armed confrontation between the Somaliland Army and forces from the local Dhulbahante clan.

In February, the Somaliland army retreated to the outskirts of the city, as clan authorities renounced Somaliland and declared their intention to re-join Somalia. Since then, there has been a military stalemate: the Somaliland army has sporadically attacked the town, whilst forces inside Las Anod have been reinforced by clan-affiliated militias from across Somalia.

In a few short months, Somaliland’s narrative arc, carefully curated over more than three decades, has taken a dramatic nosedive. The fighting has drawn widespread international condemnation and the increasingly bellicose administration has even been threatened with US sanctions. Amnesty has called for an investigation into human rights and humanitarian law violations citing Somaliland forces indiscriminate shelling of Las Anod, including damage to hospitals and schools, and a number of civilian casualties.

How could this beacon of democracy mutate into a repressive authoritarian state, almost overnight? Quizzical analysts are finding answers in the usual suspects: from al-Qaeda linked terrorist groups to China, a dizzying array of actors are alleged to be behind the uprising. This is spurred on by the Somaliland government and its neoconservative allies in Washington who insist that the conflict is not local, but a conspiracy of international actors.

They are right – but for the wrong reasons. There is a clear international dimension to the crisis, but it is not transnational terrorism or Chinese intrigue that is destabilising the region. Those in Washington, London and Brussels are oblivious to the problem right under their nose: the consequences of their own ill-thought out aid and investment strategies.

Foreign aid fostering conflict

In its three-decade search for international recognition, Somaliland has long lamented a lack of international funding. Academics have suggested that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the World Bank, the absenceof international aid at the crucial moment of Somaliland’s political formation may be a key reason for its success. Whilst this may have been true for Somaliland’s early years, it is no longer the case.

Emboldened by promises of peace and stability, international partners including the US, the United Kingdom, the EU, the UAE and Taiwan have all announced various infrastructure, trade and military cooperation initiatives and increased their diplomatic presence in the capital, Hargeisa. The multi-million-dollar investment by UAE’s DP World is transforming Berbera port into a 1 million container trade hub that is anticipated to reshape the regional economy. There has also been deepening security ties. The United Kingdom has funded and trained a controversial elite police unit, whilst Washington has been interested in establishing a new military base in Berbera.

This dizzying gush of international engagement intended to stabilise Somaliland has however had destabilising consequences for the whole region. Firstly, it has renewed hopes of Somaliland becoming internationally recognised as an independent state, dramatically raising the stakes, and intensifying competition amongst political elites over control.

The political crisis that emerged in summer of 2022 over delayed elections highlighted this increasingly fractious internal competition. In anti-government demonstrations in Hargeisa in August 2022, five civilians were killed in clashes with security forces, a grim harbinger of what was to come in Las Anod.

If the increased stakes of statehood have resulted in competition in the centre of the region, then it has done the opposite in the peripheries: uniting peripheral communities against Somaliland. Much of the recent infrastructural development is concentrated in the centre. The Berbera corridor for example, cuts a neat line of economic opportunity from Berbera, through Hargeisa, and into Ethiopia. This is an important dimension of the conflict in Las Anod.  The declaration to re-join Somalia made by traditional leaders in Las Anod decried an ‘economic embargo’ imposed by Somaliland designed to restrict the presence of international development agencies in the eastern regions. It is not only in Las Anod that resistance to the Somaliland state has grown. Over the last decade, movements to establish counter-administrations have emerged in three out of Somaliland’s six districts, including in the otherwise peaceful western region of Awdal.

The future of aid

This crisis highlights the need to re-design and refocus foreign aid and investment strategies. A skilful Somalilander elite, including a sizeable diaspora, successfully courted international partners and sold them a vision they desperately wanted to hear: of a fledgling state striving for peace and democracy. Aid and development has been criticised for becoming increasingly ‘bunkerised’ and securitised with international staff living in fortified compounds often sealed off from wider society and reliant on specific local partners for information. This situation makes it difficult for many international staff to travel outside of the central regions of Somaliland, and engage with the plurality of voices and political feelings within the territory.

The answer is not to cut aid. Rather, there is a need for a more careful and equitable distribution of aid. This requires aid and development agencies to be more flexible and mobile. Another consideration is to engage diaspora organisations instead of international humanitarian agencies. Whilst this comes with its own set of risks, diasporic aid is less bureaucratic and can access areas that international practitioners cannot.

This piece builds on the arguments the author made in a longer analysis in an article for African ArgumentsConflict in Las Anod and Crisis in Somaliland: External Investment, Intensifying Internal Competition, and the Struggle for Narrative’ (3 March 2023).

Jethro Norman is a postdoctoral researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. His research and fieldwork has focused on East Africa (Somalia, Somaliland, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan), with expertise in humanitarianism, security, conflict and development. Jethro’s current research covers the politics of humanitarian assistance, trade and development in the Somali territories, with a particular interest in the role of the Somali diaspora.

Featured Photograph: A monument of a hand holding aloft a map of Somililand (3 May 2015).


  1. I will confine myself to 2 points which are either baseless or highly incorrect that the writer of this article mentioned to support his argument namely that foreign aid to Somaliland has fostered the conflict around Lasanod and that this year’s 18 May celebrations were muted due to the situation in Lasanod.
    Actually Somaliland gets neglible foreign aid mostly in the form of vaccines for children.Gov budget is entirely funded through Somalilander taxpayer including salaries of the civil servants,social services as health&education,police, army etc.There was lately the Somaliland Development Fund,financed by Denmark,UK& Norway to the tune of $30 million per annum.This relativrlely small amount was the only development aid that Somaliland was getting & it was run by the donors themselves with a significamt amount used as admin costs.Even this fund has been deactivated since the outbreak of hostilities in Lasanod.
    So how foreigh aid which hardly existed fostered the Lasanod conflict? Had Jethro Norman confused Somaliland with conflict ridden and terrorism infested Somalia which gets billions of dollars in foreign aid including ftom Denmark?
    This year has been marked with the biggest 18 May celebrations in Somaliland ever since the reinstation of Somaliland independence 32 years ago.Celebrations were also held almost in every West European country,in North America,Australia,the Gulf and of course in all East & Horn of Africa countries.Anyone who saw the 18 of May postings on social media will concur.
    Unlike most countries in the global South,Somaliland owes no one anything and no country has a leverage over the direction of its policies or actions.This should be understood well.

  2. The root of the unrest in Lasanod, Somaliland was planned by the diaspora Daroods since Farmaajo’s ousting from the presidential seat of FGS. Meetings were held in the USA, Kenya and Jigjiga to revive the Khatumo claim of a dulbahante state of Somalia. In the meantime planned assassinations of the Somaliland government officials have been taking place almost monthly by these anti-somaliland groups as, they have admitted in recent statements from the mouth of both puntlands’ speaker of parliament and the ex-speaker of Somaliland’s parliament. All these assassinations were blamed on Somaliland’s government. The last one used by both the opposition and these groups to organize demonstrations, leading to loss of property and lives. Lasanod town was not marginalized and received more development projects and peace since 2007 when its’ inhabitants invited the Somaliland government and troops to establish law&order. Indeed it was the fastest growing city of all daroods’ inhabited territories. Mr gala dagalka Garaad who has been in exile for 15 years was allowed to enter Lasanod with his army and remnants of Al Shabab from Somalia, is the reason why people fled from the town and the war of attrition began. The truth is that the Somaliland’s forces haven’t shelled the town and most of the damage was self-inflicted to blame again here Somaliland’s forces. The treasonous ex-speaker has been plotting against Somaliland as he admitted recently that, he has never believed in Somaliland inspite of being part of the cabinet in the last administration and the speaker of Somaliland parliament until recently. Today all their treasonous plans have come to an end. The world knows the truth and the people of Lasanod will come back to their town, peace will prevail and Lasanod will be rebuilt. All those who planned to destroy Somaliland have failed because this is a blessed republic and all chickens come home to roost. The daroods are fighting each other across the HoA. Long live Somaliland.


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