Somaliland Cyberspace

The bombings in Somaliland and Puntland – an attempt to drag the north into the politics of violence in southern Somalia

Markus V. Hoehne
PhD Candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale, Germany.

Horn of Africa Bulletin, 20 (10), 4-6. 2009

For years, the situation in Somaliland and Puntland had remained relatively calm. Somaliland, in the northwest of the Somali peninsula, unilaterally seceded from the rest of war-torn Somalia in May 1991. Since then it has overcome internal tensions and managed to rebuild a stable and peaceful polity. In recent years, political reforms were introduced that lead to an increasing democratisation of the country. Compared to its neighbour to the west, Puntland in the northeast is a late-comer. It was established only in August 1998 as federal state of a future Federal Republic of Somalia. It did not accept the secession of Somaliland but adhered to Somali unity. Internally, it is based on power sharing between the three largest Harti clans inhabiting its territory. Both political entities managed to distance themselves from the warlordism and factional fighting in Mogadishu and the rest of the south. The everyday life of the people in the north was characterised by the efforts of peacefully rebuilding their society. For years the only large scale security threat in the north emanated from the continued conflict between Somaliland and Puntland over the Harti inhabited regions Sool, Sanaag and Southern Togdheer. These regions are simultaneously claimed by Somaliland and Puntland as part of their respective state territories. While violence erupted occasionally in the contested borderlands, the centres of both political entities remained stable and peaceful. Currently, both governments in Hargeysa (Somaliland) and Garoowe (Puntland) are preparing presidential elections for early next year.

Throughout 2008 it became clear, however, that the general security situation in Puntland in the northeast of the Somali peninsula was deteriorating. The region made international headlines as the hotbed of piracy in the Horn of Africa. In the last twelve months, several dozen ships have been hijacked and high sums have been paid to pirates by foreign governments in order to free ships and crews. Garoowe obviously lacks the means to prevent piracy within its territory. Moreover, criminality and violence has increased in the interior of Puntland. Armed gangs operate in the large towns such as Boosaasso, Garoowe and Gaalkacyo. Several international NGOs were attacked and a few foreigners were abducted and released only against ransom payments. This situation in Puntland is strongly linked with Garoowe’s continued support for Abdullahi Yusuf and his Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Abdullahi Yusuf, who belongs to the Majeerteen clan of the Darood clan-family, was President of Puntland between 1998 and 2004. After his election as head of the TFG in October 2004, many soldiers of the Puntland army were sent to the south in order to support Abdullahi Yusuf’s fight for power in Mogadishu and environs. This caused a security vacuum in the northeast that the new President of Puntland, Mahamuud Hirsi Adde Muuse, was not able to fill. However, until recently it seemed that Puntland’s slow decay could be stopped by a new President coming to power in the January elections. One could even have speculated that in the case of a regime change and in the face of the TFG’s failure, Puntland would have opted for enforcing its autonomy from politics in the South.

Now, violent politics predominant in the south seem to have crept in to the north. Five concerted suicide bomb attacks hit Somaliland and Puntland on 29 October 2008. In Hargeysa, the capital city of Somaliland, the Presidential Palace, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) compound and the Ethiopian liaison office were attacked. In Puntland, two offices of the Puntland Intelligence Service (PIS) in the town of Boosaaso were bombed. In total, more than 20 persons were killed and about 35 were injured. While the local security forces have not yet definitively identified the perpetrators, it can be assumed that Somali Islamists and nationalists with relations to the south were behind the well organised and devastating attacks. This reasoning is based on the timing and the targets of the attacks.

First, the attacks happened simultaneously with a press conference being held in Nairobi, at which the results of negotiations between the TFG and the Djibouti faction of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) were announced. The negotiations had been held under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD). The explosions in northern Somalia could be interpreted as a forceful demonstration that the meeting in Nairobi did not have the approval of the more radical and militarily powerful groups in Somalia. Second, the targets that were chosen both in Somaliland and Puntland point to larger political connections with the south. The Presidential palace in Hargeysa is the center from which Somaliland’s struggle for independence is coordinated. This independence, however, has never been accepted by Somali nationalists. Under the brief rule of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in 2006, it became clear that Islamist politics in southern Somalia are also strongly informed by (Pan-) Somali nationalism. The UNDP office in Hargeysa stands for large scale development projects in Somaliland, including training for the security forces and support for the Hargeysa University, where Somaliland’s upcoming elite is educated. Thus, the organisation is a stabilizing factor in Somaliland and, at least indirectly, contributes to the country’s future independence under a new generation of regional leaders. As part of the UN system, the UNDP of course also supports the TFG in the south.

The Ethiopian liaison office, of course, is an easy target for those who wish vengeance for Ethiopia’s brutal military campaign in Mogadishu and its environs. The aims in Boosaasso are directly related to Abdullahi Yusuf. The PIS was established under his Presidency in Puntland. Many leading PIS officers are close relatives of Abdullahi Yusuf. Since the latter is the head of the TFG, he and his ‘family’ can be perceived as prime targets of insurgents fighting the TFG in southern Somalia.

This brief analysis does not suggest that those involved in the attacks necessarily originated from the south. Of course there are a number of native ‘northerners’ who are sympathetic to radical Islamic and (Pan-) Somali causes. Yet, whoever the perpetrators and their supporters were, the bombings clearly point to the overall aim of the attackers to drag the relative peaceful and stable polities of Somaliland and Puntland forcefully into the violent politics of southern Somalia. The immediate danger is that the explosions demonstrated the vulnerability of Somaliland and Puntland, and will lead to follow-up operations of radical groups with networks all over the Somali peninsula. It remains to be seen whether the governments in Hargeysa and Garoowe can handle this threat. Without some external solidarity and effective support, this will be a very difficult task. Apart from some very brief reports on BBC and CNN, the international community has not noticed what happened in Somaliland and Puntland.