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Somaliland vs Puntland: The struggle between clan and country

Guled Ismail
Wednesday, April 18, 2007


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The statement from the Somaliland ministry of information was characteristically undiplomatic and bellicose “The Somaliland National Army entered Dhahar[a town in the disputed Sanag region]today…in the full knowledge that there is no opposing force that can stop it”. Many Somaliland supporters wince at the crassness of such pronouncements. Don’t they know that underestimating a foe has been the downfall of many an arrogant nation through the ages? As if to underline the point the Somaliland Army was under intense fire within 24 hours from a determined and well equipped force of Puntlanders.


The belligerence was by no means coming from the Somaliland side only. Puntland supporting websites published the pictures of dead Puntland commanders killed in previous skirmishes in a sinister act to incite the Puntlanders into violence against Somaliland. A band of Darod clan chieftains known as `Isims’ gathered in the Puntland capital of Bosaso and promptly issued a shrill call to arms. This is a clear departure from the traditional role expected from clan elders which is to work for peace and dialogue.


The conflict between the self-declared Republic of Somaliland and the Regional State of Puntland which is nominally a part of Somalia but runs its own affairs, is over two vast but barren regions known as Sanag and Sool. Somaliland claims both regions on a simple premise: They fall well within the borders it inherited from colonial Britain on 26 June 1960. On the face of it this claim is unassailable: Every African country bar none has the same borders it inherited from the European colonial powers. Even Ethiopia, the only Black African nation never to have been colonised owes its Eastern borders with Somalia and Kenya to the demarcations made by the British authorities in the 19th and early twentieth centuries. The adherence to the colonial borders was considered so vital to the stability of the continent that the first group of African leaders including great revolutionaries like Nkrumah, Nyerere and Sekou Toure issued a declaration in Cairo stating “ The colonial boundaries….form tangible realities… and must be respected”. That fact Somaliland is not internationally recognised is irrelevant: Taiwan has clear, known and respected boundaries although it is not a recognised member of the United Nations.  


The Puntland claim is based on the clan affiliations of some of the people who live in the two regions. I say “some” because that accurately describes the reality on the ground. Both regions are shared by people from the Isaq clans who are generally loyal to Somaliland and Darod clans whose sympathies lean towards Puntland.


A surefire way to indicate local people’s preferences came in the form of the Somaliland Referendum on Independence in 2001 and the following Presidential, local and Parliamentary elections. Those towns and villages that saw themselves as part of Puntland refused to take part in these Democratic exercises. Most of the people of Sanag, the bigger of the two disputed regions, including its capital Erigavo enthusiastically participated in the voting as was confirmed at the time by the international observer groups monitoring the landmark elections.

The inhabitants of Sool’s capital Las Anod rejected the Somaliland ballot boxes but even here almost every village and hamlet west of Las Anod displayed the white, green and orange colours of Somaliland and exercised their right to vote for the first time in their lives.


Perhaps irked by Somliland’s electoral success Puntland broke an `unwritten’ arrangement not to aggressively take over any part of the two regions when its troops entered and took full control of Las Anod the capital of Sool in 2002. Somaliland, despite the hostile pronouncements of it’s officials demonstrated a remarkable degree of restraint and did not retaliate. Instead it conducted a quiet policy of hearts and minds, negotiating with one sub clan and one village at a time; paying teachers salaries on time in the areas under its control, supplying emergency medicines and strengthening social bonds through sports events etc. Most important of all it kept on side a powerful group of elite Darod politicians, diplomats, businessmen and chiefs who were always pro Somaliland on principle but potentially susceptible to clan pressure from their kinsmen in the disputed areas. All of this seems to be bearing fruit as Somaliland authority slowly but surely spreads eastwards bringing it into direct conflict with Puntland forces. 


What is at stake here is which of the two ideas takes supremacy: clanhood or nationhood. If it is clan then Puntland has a case and Somaliland should cede those areas inhabited by Darods.


Naturally this also means that no leader should rule over an area inhabited by other clans. Accuse me of stating the obvious but where does this leave President Abdullahi Yusuf who is desperately seeking to rule over Mogadishu, a town not inhabited by his clan? It is one of these great little ironies of Somali politics that Mr. Yusuf is the founding father and some say still the backseat driver of the very Puntland that so vociferously proclaims that no clan should rule over another yet so equally vociferously supports Mr Yusuf’s attempt to rule over the Hawiye on the basis of the supremacy of nationhood over clan.


Time for Puntland and Mr Yusuf to make choices.


Guled Ismail
E-mail: [email protected]

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