Towards a proper understanding of the conflict in Somaliland

Contributing to the ongoing discussion of the conflict over Laascaanood in Somaliland, Markus Hoehne critically engages with Jamal Abdi’s earlier arguments about the matter. Hoehne argues that what is at stake in the conflict over Laascaanood is the question of Somaliland’s secession versus the unity of Somalia. This conflict has been smoldering for a long time. The fact that it escalated now, in early 2023, violently, can, according to Hoehne, be related to first, more external engagement in Somaliland (as Jethro Norman, also in this discussion, has stated), which gives the government in Hargeysa a relatively powerful position, and second, to an authoritarian style of rule under the current President Muuse Biixi of Somaliland, who tries to use the de facto state power of Somaliland to militarily subdue the rebellion in Laascaanood. The UK seems to play an increasingly neo-colonial role in this conflict, with British politicians and diplomats siding with the government in Hargeysa while a British oil company is investigating oil prospects in central Somaliland.

By Markus Virgil Hoehne

On 11 July, Jamal Abdi published a text on the ROAPE blog entitled “Debating Somaliland – lack of recognition and conflict”. In it, the author touches on the conflict over Laascaanood in the Sool region and current developments in Somaliland that are related to this conflict. Before I engage with Jamal Abdi’s arguments, the background to the political situation must be briefly explained.


Somaliland’s claim to Laascaanood and the Sool region is contested. Puntland, an autonomous region in northeastern Somalia, also considers the town and region as part of its state territory. The bone of contention is that Somaliland, in northwestern Somalia, seceded unilaterally from Somalia in 1991 and sees itself as independent state. It is not recognized as such but exists as a de facto state. Puntland, on the other hand, established in 1998, remains part of Somalia and supports the establishment of a federal Somali republic. Thus, the question of Somali unity versus Somaliland’s secession is at stake in the conflict between both regional political entities.

The people residing in the Sool region predominantly belong to the Dhulbahante clan, which is part of the Harti clan collective, itself constituting the main constituency of Puntland. Simultaneously, in colonial times, the Dhulbahante were part of the British Protectorate of Somaliland, which existed in the northwest of the Somali peninsula between roughly 1888 and 1960. On 26 June 1960 Somaliland became independent. On 1 July it united with the Italian-administered Somali territories (to which southern Somalia and today’s Puntland belonged) to form the Somali Republic.

Thirty years later, in 1991, Somaliland seceded from Somalia, then collapsing in the wake of the Somali civil war. However, the declaration of independence was not supported by all groups in the region. While most members of the Isaaq clan-family, who are the demographic majority and reside in the center of Somaliland, are for Somaliland’s independence, most Dhulbahante in the east are in favor of Somali unity. The Isaaq had suffered tremendously at the hands of the previous military dictatorship in Somalia (1969-1991), but the Dhulbahante, as a rule, had supported it.

Until 2007, Laascaanood, the urban center of the Dhulbahante, was not controlled by Somaliland. Then Somaliland forces captured the town. Between 2009 and 2015, Dhulbahante put up armed resistance to Somaliland’s occupation. Yet, from 2015 until 2022, locals in Laascaanood cooperated with the Somaliland administration for the sake of development. Simultaneously, most Dhulbahante residing outside Laascaanood, throughout the regions of Sool and Sanaag and around the town of Buuhoodle, remained distanced from Somaliland.

At the end of December 2022, an uprising began in Laascaanood. Somaliland police, including Rapid Reaction Units (RRU), a UK-trained special force, opened fire at demonstrators, killing and injuring dozens until early January 2023. When the local people started to take up arms, the Somaliland forces withdrew. Elders in Laascaanood called for a clan meeting and an all-Dhulbahante council, complemented by representatives from the much smaller Fiqishiini clan, who are closely allied to the Dhulbahante in Sool region, to begin discussing their political future. On 6 February, when the council planned to publish its decision, the Somaliland army positioned to the north of Laascaanood started shelling the town.

This marks the beginning of an ongoing war between armed Dhulbahante, Fiqishiini, and some minorities standing with them, who from end of February onward have also been receiving support from other Harti clan militias, including armed units from neighboring Puntland, and the Somaliland army. The latter is predominantly staffed by members of the Isaaq clan-family and some other clans from western Somaliland.

In the course of the war, civilian infrastructure, such as the General Hospital of Laascaanood, has been damaged by the indiscriminate shelling of the Somaliland army. As of July 2023, hundreds of civilians have been injured or killed, including staff of the Red Crescent and local hospitals. Many more fighters on both sides have been falling victim to the war so far.

The debate in ROAPE

Jamal Abdi begins his analysis by stating that:

According to the government, Somaliland’s security forces are facing a mixture of misguided local residents, elements of Al-Shabab terrorists and militias from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland.  Not surprisingly, the competing narrative is that Laascaanood is being defended by local residents who have taken up arms against a state whose legitimacy they now reject.

Al-Shabab are militant Islamists, mainly active in southern Somalia, who are fighting against the government in Mogadishu and its international allies and terrorizing parts of the local population. Jamal Abdi does not state decisively whether he thinks Al-Shabab is or is not involved in the conflict over Laascaanood.

In my view, however, as an analyst one has not only the responsibility to outline different points of view (as Jamal Abdi did, to some degree), but also, if possible, to qualify existing points of view. There have been repeated attempts by the Somaliland government and its supporters to link the uprising in Laascaanood and surroundings to Al-Shabab influence. Even the “research institute” Sahan joined in and wrote in Issue 555, 19 June, 2023 of its briefings (only available to subscribers) that “[t]he total number of AS [Al-Shabab] fighters in the Sool region is now plausibly estimated at 1,000”, without providing any evidence for this and without any other reliable source confirming this sensational “news”.

These allegations are highly problematic, since they aim at totally delegitimizing the uprising of the inhabitants of Laascaanood both nationally and internationally. They also seek to mobilize international support “against terrorists”, which usually translates into extreme violence against local populations, as examples from southern Somalia or Afghanistan indicate. Thus, this claim of Al-Shabab’s involvement in Laascaanood has potentially dramatic consequences. To restate this claim, even just as an option, without analyzing it, is irresponsible. This is especially the case since, over the past six months, neither the government in Hargeysa nor anyone else has been able to present any tangible evidence whatsoever to substantiate these allegations.

While Jamal Abdi does not say that he, as an author, supports these allegations, the fact that he repeats them without qualification lends  the Somaliland government’s war propaganda some credibility. This impression is substantiated by Jamal Abdi using the word “misguided” (in the same sentence) for residents of Laascaanood who have been rising up against the very real violence they have experienced at the hands of Somaliland security forces in December 2022 and January 2023, and ever since. Also, his use of the word “now” in formulating the opposite point of view – namely that locals are taking up “arms up against a state whose legitimacy they now reject” (my emphasis) – is noteworthy. This “now” suggests that the (Somaliland) state previously enjoyed legitimacy among the Dhulbahante. Yet, as anyone familiar with the political history of the region would know, most Dhulbahante never accepted Somaliland as a state, nor did the Warsangeli, their Harti brothers who live in the east of the Sanaag region that was also part of the former British Protectorate but today is fully integrated into Puntland.

Elders in Buuhoodle, a Dhulbahante-inhabited town in the Togdheer region (which Dhulbahante refer to as Cayn), told me during field research in 2004 that they would never accept Somaliland’s independence. The same went for people in Xudun, Taleex, Badhan and Ceelbuuh (all towns and villages in Sool and Sanaag), with whom I spoke at around the same time (between late 2003 and late 2004). I found that Laascaanood was full of “Dervishes” between 2002 and 2004 – “Dervish” being a reference to the anti-colonial uprising against the British and other colonizers in the Horn of Africa between 1899 and 1920, under the leadership of Mohamed Abdille Hassan, whose followers were called “Darawiish” in Somali.

I frequently re-visited these places over the years and found that this attitude had not changed substantially, even after Somaliland had managed to capture Laascaanood at the end of 2007. Some in Laascaanood started to cooperate with Somaliland’s administration for the sake of development, and indeed, some improvements were realized: the first local university, Nugaal University, was supported, some tarmac roads and local government buildings were built, and the General Hospital was renovated. But politically, hardly anyone seriously supported Somaliland’s independence.

Jamal Abdi argues that Somaliland had indeed gained acceptance and legitimacy in Laascaanood in recent years. Supporters of this argument would refer to the participation of locals in the most recent municipal and parliamentary elections in 2021. Indeed, this voting did take place, and in Laascaanood Waddani, the leading opposition party in Somaliland, achieved a clear victory. To understand how substantial this participation of Dhulbahante in Somaliland politics was until recently, it is important to look in detail at the numbers of votes cast. All over Sool region, 63,080 votes were cast. According to a video-report from the local electoral committee in Laascaanood 31,407 persons cast their votes. In Caynabo, an Isaaq-dominated town in western Sool, it was reported that 24,414 votes were cast. The remainder, some 5,000 votes, were cast in Taleex and Xudun (also in Dhulbahante territory).

The important question now is: How big was the eligible voting population in Laascaanood (18 years and above)? This is difficult to establish in the absence of any reliable census data anywhere in the Somali territories. The UN mentioned that around 185,000 persons fled Laascaanood when Somaliland started shelling the town in February; however, several thousand remained behind and took up arms or assisted their people in the fighting. Thus, I would estimate that Lasscaanood is inhabited by around 200,000 people. One could assume that, of these, some 120,000 would be 18 years and above, and thus eligible to vote. If this is correct, one can say that ca. 25% of those eligible in Laascaanood cast their vote in 2021. In my view, a voter turnout of 25% can hardly be interpreted as giving Somaliland legitimacy there.

Therefore, if taking part in the democratic process through elections confers legitimacy on the state, it seems that the election results from Laascaanood in 2021 show that still, after 32 years of the government in Hargeysa claiming the Dhulbahante territories, Somaliland did not achieve much legitimacy there. This, in my reading, has been confirmed by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its report on Somaliland’s elections in 2021. This report, which celebrates these elections (and the ICG has a record of reporting rather favorably on Somaliland in general) mentions on pp. 6 and 7 that:

The Warsangeli sub-clan appeared particularly indifferent to the vote. Few votes were cast in eastern Sanaag, where the Warsangeli reside, resulting in the loss of four parliamentary seats previously held by Warsangeli representatives. The low turnout could be interpreted as the sub-clan’s rejection of government efforts to include them in Somaliland’s politics. […] The news was in some respects less discouraging in the eastern parts of the equally contested Sool region, from where the Dhulbahante hail. Turnout among the Dhulbahante was higher than among the Warsangeli, but their overall representation still dropped from seven to six seats, a setback for Somaliland’s attempts to fully incorporate Sool under its political umbrella.

Clearly, Somaliland as a state had always enjoyed only very (very) limited legitimacy in the Dhulbahante-and Warsangeli-inhabited areas, and whatever legitimacy they had, seems completely lost now, after the attacks of the Somaliland army on Laascaanood.

In his analysis for ROAPE, Jamal Abdi mentions the series of assassinations that have caused massive insecurity in the city over many years. Focusing on the most recent assassination on 26 December 2022, which triggered the demonstrations in Laascaanood mentioned above and turned into the ongoing armed uprising, Jamal Abdi states:

While the perpetrators are still at large, it appears sound to suggest that Somaliland was most likely not behind the assassination of Cabdi. The logic underpinning this assertion is straightforward: both Cabdi and many of those who have been assassinated before him in Laascaanood were pro-Somaliland. Therefore, it appears unlikely that Somaliland has systematically targeted those who were promoting the legitimacy of the state in a region where the imagining of Somaliland is limited.

Here he refers rather indirectly to the widespread suspicion of many locals who believe that the Somaliland administration was behind this and many previous assassinations in Laascaanood. Inhabitants of Laascaanood would argue that those who were assassinated in 2020-2022 were engaging with Somaliland politically, but were also highly critical of President Muuse Biixi (2017-) and his government. This made them a target, especially since many of them supported the opposition and thus were undermining Muuse Biixi’s chances of winning the next elections (which had been scheduled for November 2022 but were postponed by the government).

Moreover, some locals also argue that Isaaq elites who are dominating politics in Somaliland want revenge against the Dhulbahante, who until 1991 supported the Somali military dictatorship. When I was in Laascaanood for a short field trip in May 2023, virtually everybody mentioned that the reason for the uprising from December 2022 onward was the assassinations, which had not been properly investigated by the Somaliland administration in Laascaanood. People would add that under President Biixi the local administration, including the police, had remained conspicuously inactive regarding the assassinations in Lasanod.

Some had observed that, shortly before assassinations, Somaliland police was seen at their respective locations. Additionally, they stressed that, after the assassinations, no decisive action was taken to apprehend culprits. Some arrests were made, but rather randomly, and following a pattern that instigated sub-clan conflicts among inhabitants of Laascaanood without ever providing convincing proof regarding those arrested. While I personally think that other factors may also play a role in explaining the current uprising, and I have outlined them in my earlier and a  analysis of the matter, this point has to be taken seriously.

International actors in Somaliland

Jamal Abdi’s main argument in his analysis for ROAPE opposes the reasoning of Jethro Norman, who argued earlier, also on the ROAPE blog, that through increasing engagement with Somaliland, international actors have fostered conflict in the center of Somaliland and also on the peripheries, such as Laascaanood. In the center, elite competition over resources has led to clashes in holding presidential elections. Demonstrations demanding elections were dispersed violently by the incumbent administration. Eventually, the elections were postponed, against the will of the opposition.

Jamal Abdi defends the postponement as legal, since it was accepted by the Upper House of the parliament, called Guurti in Somali. He adds that in the past all presidential elections in Somaliland were postponed, suggesting that this has nothing to do with increasing external support and internal competition over resources. However, he is ignoring the fact that the Upper House in Hargeysa has lost its legitimacy among the vast majority of Somalilanders.

The Guurti members have never been elected, contrary to the provisions of the Somaliland constitution. Over the years, they have become dependent on the executive paying their generous fees and tolerating the inheritance of Guurti seats by close relatives of deceased members without any real credentials. Together with the military, political and economic elite, the Guurti members constitute a new social and elite class in Somaliland which is not accountable to the ordinary people any more. Jamal Abdi also does not mention that, in the past, similar contestations have taken place. He argues that a threefold increase in Somaliland’s national budget to about $130 million in the period between 2009 and 2012 did not lead to internal competition. Yet, this position is undermined by a deeper historical analysis.

Between 2008 and 2010, the previous Somaliland government under President Dahir Rayale Kahin clung to power, just like the current Somaliland administration. Elections had been scheduled for 2008. Demonstrations happened in 2009 and the police violently dissolved them. Members of the incumbent administration shamelessly corrupted the resources of the state and were harshly attacked by the KULMIYE party, which then was the leading opposition party (and today is the ruling party in Somaliland). Only after enormous pressure did elections finally happen in 2010, two years too late.

Simultaneously, the Dhulbahante in the Sool region and around Buuhoodle established an armed resistance movement, claiming to feel marginalized by the Somaliland government, which was preventing development and aid coming to their regions. They also wished to rid themselves from what they perceived as Somaliland’s occupation (from 2007 onward). One can argue that what is happening today, since late 2022, regarding conflicts in the center of Somaliland and the war in the Dhulbahante areas is the previous conflict writ large. Thus, there seems to be a connection between the increased resources now available to the Somaliland government, the inequality of their distribution and conflict.

Jamal Abdi still tries to hold on to his original argument by stating that, throughout its existence since 1991, Somaliland has not received any foreign aid. Yet, he omits to say that over the years Somaliland has been getting its fair share of the money given by international donors to Somalia as a whole. Moreover, he remains silent about the massive foreign private and state investments that have taken place in central Somaliland in recent years, starting most visibly with DP-World and Ethiopia investing hundreds of millions over the years in the Berbera port and the Berbera corridor linked to it, which connects Berbera and Wajaale. Finally, he omits from his analysis the prospects of discovering oil around Berbera and other places in central Somaliland, which would be exploited, if viable, by the British company Genel Energy.

If oil exploitation materializes, it will fundamentally change the rules of the game in Somaliland and, with the utmost certainty, mostly benefit the Isaaq elites, who are already in charge. This will most likely lead to even more conflict in Somaliland in both the center and the periphery. In this regard, one can speak of an unholy neo-colonial alliance between the UK as the former colonial power and Somaliland, which it supports short of recognition. Thus, the UK has trained police special forces that the government in Hargeysa has used to repress civilian opposition, while a British oil company is likely to start exploiting oil in central Somaliland soon.

The UK’s Foreign Office censors information on its assessment of the situation in Laascaanood and especially who shot protesters in the town in late December 2022 and early January 2023. On top of that, a British diplomat, Catriona Laing, has just been named as the UN’s Special Representative to Somalia and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia. In her first address to the UN Security Council at the end of June, she dramatically downplays the number of injured and dead the war over Laascaanood has produced so far. Shortly afterwards, Sir Gavin Williamson, a conservative backbencher in the UK parliament, successfully presented a motion for Somaliland’s recognition, albeit it is unlikely that any bill based on this motion will go through.

Jamal Abdi concludes his analysis by arguing that a lack of international support is to blame for the conflict over Laascaanood. His logic is that a recognized Somaliland that would have access to international aid and resources for development could have satisfied the demands of all those claimed to be citizens by the government in Hargeysa. This argument pretends that the current war between the Harti and Fiqishiini clans on the one hand, and the Somaliland army on the other, was just over the issues of resources and development. However, this ignores the fact that the root cause of the war over Laascaanood is the conflicting political visions on the one hand the Dhulbahante, Warsangeli and Fiqishiini, as well as some local minority groups that have joined them, a majority of whom wish to be part of Somalia (hence their leaning toward Puntland), and on the other hand the Isaaq and other clans who support or at least tolerate Somaliland as independent state.

The war over Laascaanood shows that the relative strength of the Somaliland government, which in recent years has managed to acquire considerable resources via foreign direct investments and recently forged diplomatic ties to Taiwan, contains a certain risk. Currently, President Muuse Biixi, who showed authoritarian tendencies early into his presidency, is abusing the de-facto state power at his disposal by letting his army attack Laascaanood and, very likely, carrying out considerable human rights and humanitarian law violations. To give more support to such a ruler and even contemplate recognition for Somaliland, as Jamal Abdi suggested, would contribute to more insecurity in the Horn of Africa.

Negotiating a future

Instead, negotiations between the rebels in the regions of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn, Puntland as neighboring power that supports them, Somaliland, and the Somali government in Mogadishu should be facilitated by credible external mediators to clarify the relations of all the actors involved without resorting to more violence. There should not be many preconditions for these negotiations other than that the Somaliland army vacates Dhulbahante territories, which has already been recommended in a press statement by the UN Security Council in June 2023. What is more, neither Dhulbahante or the other clans opposing Somaliland’s independence can be forced back into Somaliland, nor can the rest of Somaliland (except the predominantly Harti-inhabited regions) be forced to join Somalia. A constructive solution has to be found, and this will take time.

Markus Virgil Hoehne is a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Leipzig. Hoehne has been researching Somali issues since 2001 mainly in Somaliland and Puntland. He is fluent in colloquial Somali and the author of numerous scholarly publications on conflict dynamics in Somalia and Somaliland.

Featured Photographs: Images taken by the author during a trip to Lasanod in May 2023. 


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