Somaliland Cyberspace

Report on the recent situation in Somaliland

Source: The Republican newspaper, January 27, 2003

by Markus Hoehne Virgil

The report, 'Identity, conflict and reconstruction in a war-torn society'

The author, Markus Hoehne Virgil, stayed in Somaliland during the latter half of 2002, in which short time he lived like an ordinary Somalilander and went to a local school (Nuradin Institute of languages, Hargeisa) to study and learn a functional Somaliland and took note of how people went about their lives socially, politically ETC.


Somaliland is a region in the northwest of Somalia, at the Horn of Africa. After the collapse of the state in Somalia 1991 and the failure of the UN-US intervention that had aimed at ending the humanitarian crisis and at re-establishing the state not a lot of good news was reported from Somalia. Mostly, Somalia was referred to in combination with words like "warlords", "anarchy", and recently, "terror".

But one decisive aspect of the situation in Somalia in the last decade is the "radical localization" (Menk-haus 1998: 223) and regionalization. A closer look at the developments on the local level opens a very interesting perspective. In some regions, like Somaliland, the people have been able to bring the civil war to an end and to re-establish the basic structures of a peaceful social and political order.

My way to Somaliland While writing my master thesis about strategies of peaceful conflict resolution in Somalia, I became aware of the very interesting developments in Somaliland in the last decades.

In the early 1980s, the Somali National Movement (SNM) took up arms against the suppression of the Barre-regime in the South. After ten years of guerrilla warfare, the Isaak -dominated movement freed Somaliland from the national army. Led by the SNM, and sup-ported by many civilians, the former British colony in the northwest of Somalia seceded from the rest of Somalia and declared itself independent in May 1991.In the following years, the civil war was brought to an end by recourse to traditional strategies of conflict resolution, as described by I.M. Lewis (1961).

Since 1993 and simultaneous to the still on-going peace process, structures of an independent Somaliland state emerged. Although this process continues to develop, Somaliland is presented in the literature as a positive example for conflict resolution and state building starting from the local level, and without much external support. Naturally, there was only sparse information about the recent developments in the northwest of Somalia.

I became interested in the present situation in Somali land and visited the region from the beginning of July until late September 2002.Before I deal with the recent developments in this region, some characteristic features of the Somali society shall be outlined.

This will be necessary in order to present the current situation in Somaliland.

2 Central Features of the Somali-Society

About eight million people are currently living in Somalia. In the dry north, the majority of the people follow nomadic lifestyles, herding camels, sheep and goats. In the south, agriculture is possible and a special sedentary culture has developed here.

Apart from the cultural differences between sedentary and nomadic Somalis, the central, and, to a cer-tain extent, common features of the Somali society are Islam and clan. Almost all Somalis are Muslims. They trace their lineage in a rather fictive genealogy back to the family of the prophet Mohamed (Mukhtar 1995: 1ff). Along with religion, the the most important sign of the Somali identity is the clan structure. The Somali society is a segmentary society.

The highest level of segmentation is that of the clan family. Each of the six big clan-families (Darod, Haw iye, Isaak, Dir, Rahanweyn and Digil) is subdivided into many clans, subclans lineages and diya-paying groups.

The binding force inside this structure is patrilineal descent (in Somali: tol). Through remembering his or her father's lineage up to 23 generations, every Somali knows exactly to where he or she belongs. Yet, people can also be connected by contract (heer).

Heer is relevant especially at the level of the diya-paying groups that are mainly concerned with paying and receiving compensation payments for crimes, like manslaugther, for example. Heer is also contracted to confirm the outcome of negotiations. This segmentary order is very fluent. Groups can unite on a higher level of segmentation, or a unit can split into small subgroups, depending on the external situation and internal interests. To gain strength and influence in a conflict situation, for example, it would be reasonable for groups to merge.

However, if economical or political resources are sparse, groups dissolve and sometimes come in conflict with each other. In pre-colonial times, no central authority was established in the Somali territories. Even in colonial and post-colonial times, the central authority was always weak. In absence of or due to the weakness of the state, recourse to force or search for a compromise in time consuming negotiations were the prevailing strategies to enforce rights or to deal with conflicts. In this context, individuals depended on their respective groups. Nevertheless, the idea of equality is widespread among the Somalis, especially among the men.

Decisions are taken by every level of segmentation through public gatherings (shir). During a shir, every Somali man has the right to speak.

Naturally, some men are more respected than others, due to their individual skills. Elders, religious sheikhs, for example, are respected for their knowledge or their art of speaking.

Some positions are inherited and even wealth is a source of prestige. In general, one can say that the flexible social order of the Somalis fits very well to the nomadic way of life. Especially in Somaliland, which has been neglected by the colonial and postcolonial rulers, and where the nomadic way of life is still dominant, the social and political structures outlined above have great influence on the recent developments.

Somaliland between conflict and reconstruction " a recent report I spent most of my time in the capital Hargeisa. During the first month, I stayed in the house of a Somali man who I had met in Gof6ttingen one year ago. Later I stayed in two very simple hotels in the city center. I undertook two longer journeys, each about ten days, to the Sanaag and Sool regions in the eastern part of Somaliland.

These journeys, especially the trip to Sool, dramatically changed my picture of Somaliland which had been influenced by my Hargeisa experiences.

In the following essay, I want to elaborate on this topic: the very different perspectives on the situation in Somaliland that were presented to me and that I subsequently developed. The sources of my information are open interviews with politicians, journalists, traditional leaders or just persons who I came to know as interesting interview partners; talks with friends or people I occasionally met in the streets; newspaper articles; and general observations.

3.1 Colours, cars and khat: my first impression of Hargeisa When I arrived in Hargeisa, I was positively surprised: a lot of reconstruction work has been accomplished since the near complete destruction of the city only a few years ago. Old and new houses were built up with coloured fronts.

Business was booming. Women, especially, were present in the streets, selling khat, the "national drug", changing money, working in shops or in the market. They dressed in colourful clothing and moved freely until late at night. The streets were crowded with people, animals (mostly donkeys and goats) and cars, including elegant limousines and big off-road vehicles.

Music and exotic odours stimulated my senses. The civil war monument in the city center appeared somewhat cute: its pedestal was covered with Disney-esque and colourful paintings of bloodshed and gore. On its top was a Russian MIG-warplane with sparkling flashing lights after dark. This is one of the planes that had bombed the town in 1988! I had the impression, that the Somalis living here had overcome death and destruction in a very short time and very successfully.

In count-less daily conversations people were asking me: "How do you see the situation in Somaliland?" And in the begin-ning of my stay I was really convinced, when I answered - and there was no doubt that my conversation partners expected this answer: "I am very impressed by the peace and stability reached here." Later, the words "peace and stability" became rather a tapoos, used in very superficial conversations.

3.2 Behind the facade.

It took me about two weeks to realize the ugly face of poverty, despair and insanity behind the facade of the booming and prospering town. Beside the main roads, many houses are still in ruins. A lot of men are jobless.

Many of the young people have no education. The average wages are not sufficient to feed a family. There is no birth control. Men without a job have one or more (until four) wives and many children. Huge amounts of money are spend every day on khat. I would guess that two thirds of all males in Hargeisa chew khat almost every after-noon.

The impacts on the economy, the family and the individual health are, at least in the long term, disastrous. One sees quite a lot mentally-disordered people chewing khat from morning until midnight. The public health care system is very basic. But apart from these very serious social and economical problems, Somaliland appears to be a political success story.

3.3 Somaliland, seen from the capital About 600.000 people are currently living in Hargeisa. It is an Isaak dominated city, although Somalis from all clan families and some foreigners live here. The government, almost all international and many national Non Governmantal Organizations (NGOs) and the four daily newspapers are located in the capital.

In private talks different views on the situation of Somaliland are articulated. But the dominant and in public (e.g. in the newspapers) announced view is, that Somaliland is a peaceful, sand independent country. The official version of the government and the central arguments of the Somaliland "hardliners" can be summarized as follows: Somaliland was a British colony until 26th of May 1960.

After four days of independence, Somaliland unified voluntarily with the newly independent Somalia, formerly under Italian rule. This union was problematic from the beginning. The people in the North felt oppressed by the more populated and politically as well as economically better developed South.

In December 1961 young Isaak military officers tried to undo the unification, but unfortunately without success. Over the years, the oppression of the North by the South became unbearable. Starting in 1982, the Somali National Movement (SNM), the Isaak sponsored guerrilla movement, fought to free Somaliland.

This aim was reached in early 1991. With the declaration of independence of the Re-public of Somaliland in May 1991 the unfortunate unification of Somalia and Somaliland from July 1960 had been resolved, even if this step has never been accepted by the international community. In the following years, a peaceful and social and political order has been established by the Somalilanders.

These positive developments peaked in May 2001, when 97% of the population of Somaliland accepted the constitution of the republic in a referendum. Today, the administration works effectively in the whole country. The next step will be the successful realization of free elections in late 2002 and early 2003. There are some problems, like the information gaps between the capital and some remote areas, or the fact that nobody knows exactly, how many people are living in Somaliland, and where - more than half of the 2-3 million inhabitants of the country still live as nomads.

But it is beyond doubt, that "the Somalilanders" will master their future against all odds. In this perspective, Soma-liland is at least empirically a sovereign state.

3.4 Erigavo and Maydh.

In the Sanaag region After three weeks in Hargeisa, I travelled by car to Erigavo, the capital of the Sanaag region. Sanaag is the biggest of the six regions of Somaliland and it is situated along the border of Puntland, the autonomous region in the northeast of Somalia. Sanaag is sparsely populated. The most people live as nomads. Only certain land near Erigavo is suifor agriculture. About 20.000 people live in the city. The civil war has left its marks in and around Erigavo.

Some houses are still in ruins. The unemployment rate is high. Ma ny of the inhabitants came in the early 1990s as refugees. Sanaag is a very heterogeneous region. The dominant clans are Habr Yonis and Habr Jeclo, belonging to the Isaak clan family, and Dulbahante and Warsangeli, belonging to the Harti faction of the Darod clan family. Some places of the region are inhabited by only one of these clans, in other places, members of different clans live together.

Erigavo is a mixed place. Habr Yonis, Habr Jeclo, Dulbahante and Warsangeli as well as different minority groups, like Midgan and Yibiro, live together. The division of the region in general, and Erigavo in particular, can be shown by the following points: east of Buraco in the centre of Somaliland, not the Somaliland Shilling, but the "old" Somali Shilling is used as currency, like in the rest of Somalia.

The most imported goods come from Bosasso, the big Puntland port. War-sangeli and Dulbahante are as Harti "brothers" of the Majerteen, the dominating clan in Puntland. Thus, one can say that economically, if not also partly genealogically, Erigavo and Sanaag are linked to Somaliland.

On the other hand, the Somaliland administration has been established in Erigavo since 1996. The governor, representatives of the ministers in Hargeisa, the judge and the police force represent the central govern-ment. Historically, the region is very important for the Isaak, the dominant clan family in Somaliland. Legend tells that the founding father of the clan family, Sheikh Isaak, came from Yemen about 800 years ago.

He had landed in a place at the coast, about 160 km north of Erigavo. Today, his tomb rests there, near the fishing village Maydh. In the Daallo mountains leading down to Maydh, the graves of some of his sons, the "fathers" of the different Isaak clans, can be found. The whole area is very important for the self-image of the Isaak. In more recent times, Sanaag belonged to the British Protectorate of Somaliland.

In the early 20th century, many of the inhabitants of the region, Isaak as well as Darod, have fought side by side with the British against the uprising of the "Derwish" forces (I will come to this point later in detail). Thus, with regard to politics and history, Sanaag and Erigavo belong to Somaliland.

It cannot be overlooked, however, that the administration is weak. Many daily matters are regulated between the families, bypassing the state. Conflicts especially are handled in the traditional way: to avoid violence, families have to negotiate with each other on the basis of traditional pastoral nomadic and religious norms. Traditional authorities, like elders and sultans, play a crucial role in this process.

Nevertheless, from the following example I draw the conclusion that the regional administration is to a certain extent respected by the people in Erigavo. One day I became witness of a (somebody told me: the first) demonstration in Erigavo. In the night, the water supply for the households has been cut.

The price of water had increased. The next morning, a crowd of people - men, women and children - stood in front of the government building to demonstrate against the increase of the water price. The crowd and the representatives of the government stood face to face.

Each side articulated its position and at the end it was concluded, that ten representatives of the demonstrators should be chosen to discuss the matter with the governmental authorities. What might be most striking with regard to the situation in Erigavo is that the situation in general is not violent. Despite the economical, Genealogical, political and historical divisions and the fact that many people (as everywhere in Somaliland) have weapons at home, Erigavo and most parts of Sanaag are not known for frequent escalation of violence. This is very different in Lasaanod and the Sool region.

3.5 Lasaanod and Telex in the Sool region

Back in Hargeisa, I heard a lot of fascinating stories about Lasaanod and its inhabitants: there is neither Somaliland nor Puntland, the people just deal with their matters on their own; they were the "Derwishes", the soldiers of the "Mad Mullah"; they hate foreigners; they kill infidels etc.

At the beginning of September I drove to Lasaanod, the capital of the Sool region. This region is situated next to Sanaag at the border to Puntland. Immediately after one has crossed the border between the regions Togdheer in the centre of Somaliland and Sool, no Somaliland flag can be found.

Only the old Somali flag, a white star on blue ground, waves at the check points along the road. The Sool region and Lasaanod are almost exclusively inhabited by Dulbahante. Most Dulbahante don't like Somaliland. The Dulbahante had fought at the side of the Barre regime (Barre was Marehan, Darod) against the SNM from 1988 to 1990. But there was hardly any devastation in Lasaanod or Sool itself.

Since 1990, when the state collapse forced most Somalis to seek the protection of their family group, the population of Lasaanod has grown from about 5000 to 60,000. What is most striking is that in this city at a lot of men carry guns in public. The political and economical situation is very depressed. In my first intensive talk with a resident, I was told: "We don't know to where we belong." On the regional level, Lasaanod is caught between the political rivalries of Somaliland and Puntland.

Both political entities have established a rudimentary administration in the place, consisting of a governor, a police officer and some police forces. But none of these "administrations" has real influence. When they get some money, they behave loyal to their respective "government".

But normally, every-body sticks to his family. The only real power lies within the families. On the local level, the situation is often tense due to the discord among the different Dulbahante families. The situation is worsened by the < TT> existence and frequent use of small arms. Every two or three month, somebody is shot. One day after I have arrived, an aqil, a traditional family group head, was shot in the streets by two men with automatic riffles. This killing happened in revenge for a murder about 15 month ago.

The situation immediately became very tense. Everybody was shocked. The garads, the highest traditional leaders of the Dulbahante, tried to calm down the situation to prevent the further escalation of violence. During the following days, the garads consulted the parties of the conflict and negotiated the reparation of the crime.

A high blood price would have been accepted. But it would be better if the family of the escaped killers would hand over the culprits. They would then be brought before a sharia court and sentenced to death. With the execution of the killers, the case would have been finished. "Kill the killers" is the maxim in Lasaanod. This is a drastic preventive measure in a surrounding where everybody has an automatic gun and where no strong central force keeps law and order.

Due to the collapse of the state, the number of high traditional leaders has proliferated. Before 1990, the Dulbahante had only two garads, descending from old garad families. Today, there are about ten garads. Every big family wants to be represented by its own leader. This does not foster unity and stability. The leaders them-selves are totally overworked.

They have to cope with the traditional matters of conflict resolution between the families as well as with regional and national politics. In terms of politics, some garads lean toward Puntland. They stress the "Harti" connection. Furthermore, Puntland never declared itself independent. According to its constitution, Puntland is an autonomous region of Somalia.

Other garads are moderately pro Somaliland, but only because Somaliland is more peaceful and than Puntland where the warlord Abdulahi Yusuf reigns. But if one asks further, it comes out that the leaders as well as the "ordinary" people among the Dulbahante want a peaceful Somalia to be reestablished. This is the reason, why nobody fully supports Somaliland. The Dulbahante can cooperate with the Isaak on a family level. There are links between Dulbahante and Habr Jeclo and Habr Yonis.

They intermarry with each other and cooperate with regard to the common grazing grounds in the Sool and Sanaag regions. But the Dulbahante will not accept being part of an Isaak-dominated independent Somaliland. Contrary to what I was told in Hargeisa, I was assured by all my informants in La-saanod, that no constitutional referendum had taken place in Sool in May 2001. Sool and even some parts of Sanaag had not voted.

During the time that I was in Lasaanod, a delegation of Somaliland politicians and Isaak elders arrived in the city to talk with the Dulbahnte about the political future, especially about the problems connected with the upcoming elections. But nobody in Lasaanod wanted to talk about politics. The people there were concerned with their own problems and wanted to avoid any disturbance from the outside (Somaliland or Puntland). When I left, the only discussions between the Somaliland delegation and the Dulbahante had concerned traditional matters.

The Isaak supported the Dulbahante garads in solving the problems resulting from the murder and both parties negotiated about some pastoral nomadic conflicts between Isaak groups and Dulbahnate. The argument, used in Hargeisa, that Sool belongs to Somaliland according to the colonial borders is ridiculous in the eyes of the most Dulbahnate.

The dominant opinion is that the region had never fully been part of Somaliland. In this context the people refer to the rebellion lead by Saeed Mohamed Abdille Hassan. The "Mad Mullah", as the British called him, and his "Derwishes" fought between 1899 and 1920 against the British and the Isaak, who mostly supported the colonial power. Mohamed Abdille Hassan himself was Darod, his mother was Dulbahnte and his father Ogaden. He was educated in Mecca by Sheikh Salih. From him he adopted a very rigid, anti-western interpretation of the Islam. The Mullah was also a gifted poet. His leadership was based on his ge-nealogical linkage, his religious authority and his poetic skills.

The core of his troops consisted of Dulbahante. The centre of the uprising was Telex, a fortified castle in the middle of the semi-desert, about 120 km east of Lasaanod.

One day, I visited the ruins. The British destroyed the castle in an air strike in early 1920. This marked the end of the anticolonial rebellion. Afterwards, the British classified the region as "unsettled area"; contrary to the rest of the protectorate, Sool was administrated by a military governor until 1960. The ruins of Telex remain impressive.

In the politically and economically depressed surroundings, the Dulbahante gain strength from this glorious history. The people in Lasaanod often refer to themselves as "the Derwishes". This can be interpreted as a political statement: we have never been part of Somaliland, and we will never be part of it.

4. Conclusion:

Aspects of identity in Somaliland.

The trips to the east, especially to Sool, have shown me that Somaliland as a political and genealogical entity is not as homogeneous as some claim and that peace and stability in the country are not as secure as is often presented in Hargeisa. There is not a single convincing "Somaliland" identity. Identity breaches run along different historical experiences, genealogical affiliations and political as well as economical orientations.

The argument for an independent Somaliland, based on a distinct Somaliland identity, can be found in Hargeisa in a very pure form. It is most strongly articulated among members of the government and among the Habr Awal clan of the Isaak. It starts with the colonial history, refers to the common experiences of oppression and resistance in the 1980s and culminates in the declaration of independence, the successful reconstruction of a basic social and political order and the positive referendum in May 2001. This position may be illustrated by the following quotations: "We are different tribes, but we are all Somalilanders."

"We are not creating a new identity. We have always been Somalilanders" (Minister of Information and national Guidance). "The Somaliland case is a reality" (Edna Aden, the leader of the famous Edna Aden Hospital in Hargeisa and the current Minister for women and family).

A very different view is taken in Lasaanod among the Dulbahante. They had fought the British and the Isaak that have been associated with the colonial power in colonial times. Genealogically, the Dulbahante are a part of the Darod clan family, which is spread over the whole area of Somalia and which strongly supported t he Barre regime, even if Barre fought bitterly with the Majerteen in the early 1980s. The Dulbahante experienced the last decade as a time of decay. They are caught in between. They do not get much support, neither from Somali-land nor from Puntland.

Among one another, they are divided. They are only strong when they refer to the history of the Derwishes: a friend in Lasaanod told me, that the Isaak are in search of their identity only now. The Dulbahante are preserving their identity. In Sanaag the situation is different again. Somaliland, the identity and the political vision, is not uncon-tested. But nevertheless, peace is kept. The people manage to live together in spite of their genealogical heterogeneity.

On the administrative level, Sanaag is Somaliland; economically, genealogically, and politically, the in-habitants have strong links to Puntland.

In general, one can say, that the Somaliland identity is currently under construction. It is not as strongly anchored in the hearts and minds of the people living in the region as it is presented in Hargeisa. But it is growing stronger, at least among the Isaak, the dominating group in Somaliland. Even members of other clan families, one can find a pragmatic attitude towards Somaliland as the most peaceful and region in Somalia today.

To avoid any static or reduced picture of the situation in Somaliland and Somalia, I want to close my report on the recent situation in Somaliland with some advise that was given to me by the Foreign Minister, Mahamed Saeed Mahamed "Gees": don't give too much weight to clans, it will mislead you. The problem of Somalia is not only the clan problem. Many factors play a role: economy, religion, infrastructure, land tenure, resources. One can not reduce the society to the clan.

Nobody can speak for a whole clan.


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