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The recent uprising in the Las-Anod district of the Sool Somalia region—claimed by both Puntland, a semi-autonomous part of Somalia, and Somaliland, which purports to have seceded from the rest of Somalia—has attracted the attention of local and international media. The turbulence has prompted the Somali UK diaspora to petition with over 10,000 signatories asking the UK’s “FCDO to stop Somaliland’s” funding. Though many voices called for calm, the situation is flammable– that might start conflict any moment as the uprising of the native Dhulbahante peoples, including their traditional leaders who were away from their lands (SSC region), are now pouring into Las-Anod city of Somalia’s Sool province while the separatist Somaliland forces are stationed on its outskirts.
To understand the contextual background of the Sool, Sanaag, and Ceyn (SSC) regions’ demographic makeup; the Sool and Sanaag regions comprise four and five districts, respectively, while Sanaag is one of the largest regions of Somalia size-wise. Ceyn (pronounced as Ayn) was not one of the eighteen regions recognized under the last Somali government in 1991 and neither under the current Federal Government of Somalia. However, it has historical significance and symbolizes the Dervish resistance against the British Empire in the turn of the 20th century.
Following the collapse of the central government in 1991, the Somali National Movement (SNM), derived entirely from the Isaaq clan & aimed to secede from the rest of Somalia, saw the Dhulbahante sub-clan of the larger Darood clan, as an impediment to its objective. To overcome this obstacle, SNM used both coercive heavy handed and soft methods. Initially, the Dhulbahante prevented the SNM’s entry into SSC lands. Another key development was the formation of Puntland State with SSC regions as a federal member state, which was a blessing for Somalia’s unity but failed to bring all the varying Dhulbahante elites onboard. Hence, Somaliland wasted no time exploiting this fault line and seized Las-Anod without a fight in 2007.
International aid makes up 74% of Somalia’s budget, and when aid structures were discussed in Ankara and Brussels in 2013, donors pressured president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to sign the “Somaliland Special Arrangement.” That aid-sharing agreement lumped the SSC region into Somaliland and “permitted donors to bypass Mogadishu” when it expired in 2016. Ironically, although SSC was politically represented in Puntland and selected from it, the Puntland administration never objected to this unique arrangement placing the SSC territories under Somaliland. This aid-sharing agreement has adversely affected SSC populace while giving Somaliland the means to use aid funds to exacerbate the marginalization of the Dhulbahante peoples while furthering its separatist objectives throughout Somalia.
Henceforth, Somaliland dropped the ball when it ostensibly turned to extrajudicial targeted killings to sustain its indirect rule in the SSC region. Over the past years, Somaliland has allegedly murdered 119 high-profile members of the resident Dhulbahante sub-clan. On December 26, 2022, Abdifatah Abdullahi Abdi (Hadrawi-Sangub), an intellectual, politician, and famed poet whose poetry was named after two of Somalia’s greatest poets; Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame (Hadrawi) and Mohamed Abdullahi Isse (Sangub), was assassinated and this triggered the massive public uprising against the Somaliland administration based out of Hargiesa. In response, Somaliland deployed its forces, including a UK-trained and equipped Rapid Reaction Unit (RRU) and fired live ammunition into the huge crowd of protesters culminating in the death of twenty unarmed civilians.
On 3rd January 2023, the Somaliland president, Muse Bihi Abdi, issued a press release acknowledging that the Somaliland forces were behind the civilian deaths. He willfully reduced the number of deaths, also claiming that the total number killed since 2009 was forty individuals. He added that many of those responsible for the killings were caught and sentenced, but no independent sources can confirm this utterances. The next day, the uprising gained further momentum. An investigative journalist tweeted that Somaliland troops assassinated another prominent member in Las-Anod: “some people saw the shooting, and it was not hidden as was the case in the 119 shootings before it.”
The revolt in the SSC brings the likelihood of unifying the Dhulbahante elite and dwindling the Isaaq’s support of the current Somaliland regime due to Abdi’s dictatorial tendencies. In a wrap-up making insights about probable scenarios, it’s critical to understand the contemporary context, including the time, space and individuals involved.
First –Somaliland’s president, Muse Bihi Abdi– formerly served as an anti-aircraft technician in the Somali National Army under the military regime. According to his former colleague, who opted to remain anonymous, Abdi was renowned for having the kind of personal egoism and anger that Clausewitz characterizes as:
“easily inflamed, in whom excitement flares up suddenly but soon burns out, like gunpowder [with] inflammable emotions, feelings that are easily roused, are in general of little value in practical life, and therefore of little value in war [and] their volatile emotions make it doubly hard for such men to preserve their balance; they often lose their heads, and nothing is worse on active service.”
Abdi was also “accused of committing genocide in Borama of Awdal in 1991.” In the 1990s, during Habraha’s civil war (intra-subclan wars among Issaq), he declared that “while I can kill, I will not accept an inviolability.” Therefore, his rage-driven overt reliance on force and lack of problem-solving can worsen the situation and spell the end of the mirage that is secession.
Second, Somaliland’s withdrawal from SSC territory will spark outrage from the Isaaq elite and put Abdi’s term extension in unchartered waters. This conclusion carries two risks: (1) exacerbating the ongoing Somaliland constitutional crises, or (2) it might reignite another Intra-Isaaq clan conflict. In either case, if this confrontation continues, it will spark unionist feelings in the Awdal region (another bastion of unionism in Northwestern Somalia). Combining all of these influences will further erode any secessionist inclinations.
Third—though less likely—another stalemate that drags on for years. With this, the SSC region will be free from the Somaliland administration, and they will forge a membership as a federal member state, despite the overbearing Somaliland/Puntland’s claims over them, if they are clever enough. Unionists in from the neighboring Isaaq sub-clans will also follow in this example and feel comfort because they will exercise their rights and express their thoughts without worrying about being suppressed by the Somaliland security forces. The same goes for the Gadabursi subclan in the aforementioned Awdal region.
Finally—while discounting Puntland—the beneficiary of all this conundrum is the Federal Government of Somalia which will have ample opportunity should it choose to exploit it in its favour and realise that its position and leverage on the Somaliland question has strengthened.
Abdiweli Garad is a Ph.D. Candidate and teaches at the Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS) at the University of Birmingham, he can be reached out on Twitter: @agaraad; Skype: aogarad; Email: [email protected];
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