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Somaliland: Another African Biafra?

By Heikal I. Kenneded
Friday, January 25, 2008


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As most readers remember about the short-lived secessionist Republic of Biafra in southern Nigeria (1967- 1970), small separatist states have a rather shaky trajectory of existence. When Nigeria, which like Somalia became an independent nation in 1960, its borders were arbitrarily made up by its British colonial power. This made one “nation” by combining several feudal states into one. After independence, in the mid-1960s, the military took over; the economy of Nigeria went southward, ethnic tensions flared. This resulted in many thousands of the Ibo tribe to be killed in fighting with Hausas, while more than a million refugees fled to their Ibo clan homeland in the Eastern Nigeria. Consequently, on May 30, 1967, the leader of the Eastern Region, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, unilaterally declared the independent Republic of Biafra. The new nation of Biafra initially attracted several African governments’ support, including Tanzania, Gabon, and Zambia, while it had also enjoyed the military and economic support of several developed nations, such as France, Israel, and South Africa. Finally, the breakaway state of Biafra descended into a raging civil war that eventually saw its catastrophic downfall after only three years its conception as an independent nation-state. Might Somaliland be heading for a repeat of Biafra?


Those who champion Somaliland’s independence would like to draw a parallel between their renegade state and that of neighboring country Eritrea, which earned its independence from Ethiopia almost at the same time (circa. 1991) that Somaliland declared its secession from the Somali Republic proper. Most political analysts, however, would rather liken Somaliland to that of the failed state of Biafra. Most important of all, critics point out to how little progress Somaliland made in regards to economic development, political stability, and genuine democratic values during its “independent” existence. Recently, Somaliland has been engaged in destructive skirmishes with its neighboring state, Puntland, which is a clear indication of how direly unstable Somaliland is. In addition, despite extraordinary support from northern Somalis in the Diaspora, the state’s economy is still in shambles, while the infrastructure is despicably in tatters. Equally worrying is the recent expulsion of Somali journalists expelled from Mogadiscio and seeking asylum in Hargeisa. This is another example of how intolerant Somaliland is to outside media, lest they serendipitously stumble on undemocratic practices in their government.


The more likely explanation is that the timing and the manner of their choosing to declare their secession was deeply flawed and opportunistic, it’s bound to fail – for reasons explained below. It’s no wonder that President Riyale and his henchmen are stoking fears within their constituents that their state is reveling in democracy and stability while the rest of the Somalia is going into flames in order to dampen any further questions about their failure to lead and achieve tangible developments or recognition of their “independence” for the past two decades.



Now, few people would put their bets on the idea that the so called Somaliland state would ever achieve any international recognition as an independent country. Almost two decades after its secession from the rest of Somalia, Somaliland’s leaders are struggling to find a sympathetic audience among the international community. In fact, the recent setbacks or snubs encountered by President Riyale during his recent trips in the US and Great Britain underscore the reality on the ground http://www.voanews.com/english/2008-01-17-voa69.cfm. Despite the ferocious campaign of the separatist leadership of Somaliland to attain recognition for their small state for the past 17 years, there were few results to show for it. Conventional wisdom has it that Somaliland has failed to achieve its independence, in part because it’s either too fractious in clan composition to stand on it own, or it sets a dangerous precedent for other disgruntled states in the African continent. I am of the opinion that this is the case because there has been a failure of leadership to make the case that Somaliland is a state worthy to stand independently on its own. Moreover, there are indications that such a “premature” secession from the rest of Somalia, while not stable and only such a concession, might lead to future conflicts in the region. Winning international recognition is crucial, and not just for the sake of recognition, per se, but rather vital for a small, poor “country” like that of Somaliland. That’s not to say, however, that Somaliland cannot continue to exist for a long time and prosper as a renegade state like that of Taiwan.


But the question is what compelled Somaliland in the first place to secede unilaterally from the rest of the union – the Somali Republic? In looking back at some of the rationalization put forth over the years by many of the separatist leaders in Somaliland, can be broken down into three main premises: first, when Somalia and Somaliland merged as the Somali Republic, shortly after the two states achieved their independence, respectively from Italy and Britain in 1960, it was the northerners in Somaliland who took the initiative to unite with their southern Somali brethren and subsequently proposed an Act of Union that was afterward passed in unison with the south. Despite their selfless act to realize the dream of a “Greater Somalia,” leaders from the North found themselves to be rather underappreciated and constantly shunted to the sidelines when the first National Government was formed and throughout the civilian government rule (1960–1969) before the Siyad Barre regime came and consolidated its power under dictatorship. The second, accusatory claim, is that they (Somaliland) were also single handedly targeted and had committed against them a “genocide” by the Siyad Barre regime, while the rest of the Southern clans either stood by or in some cases colluded with the dictator in his ferocious “ethnic cleansing” of the Isaaqs in northern Somalia. And thirdly, there’s the naïve argument that Somaliland was “pushed” to declare its unilateral decision to secede from the Union when the southern leaders formed a national government without consulting with their counterpart leaders in the SNM leadership in the north, after the successful overthrow of the Siyad Barre regime in 1991.


In fact, no one can argue honestly against the claim that the leaders of Somaliland at the time of independence were at the forefront of advocating the creation of the union between the south and north of Somalia. To take that laudable historic step back, however, the current Somaliland leaders need to come up with a reasonable justification of annulling such a commendable act of uniting the country. Despite the chaotic democratic elections in the country during the 1960s, the relatively minority northern sub-clans held enough parliament seats and presidency of the National Assembly, in addition to the Prime Minister’s position in the last civilian government (1967-1969) – PM M. Hajji Ibrahim Egal. Because in any fledgling democracy, there are always the trappings of one ethnic or clan group being sidelined or underrepresented – not a viable reason to break a union because of past grievances to rule.


The second claim and most pernicious allegation that the southern Somali clans colluded with the callous Siyad Barre in their darkest hour of “elimination” could not be further from the truth. This is a baseless claim to incite hatred and probably drive a wedge between the northern and southern Somali peoples. In other words, it is malicious propaganda used by some separatist leaders in order to unite the historically “conflict-prone” northern Isaaq sub-clans. Thus, to set the record straight for posterity’s sake, the Somali National Movement (SNM), which valiantly fought against the Siyad Barre dictatorial regime in the north, were many times on the receiving end of both the moral and military support of their counterpart southern opposition groups (e.g. USC) during their struggle for freedom.


In a gripping book* by Jama M. Ghalib who originally hails from the north and a prominent supporter of the SNM (an ex-minister of the Siyad Barre regime), details in his book, for instance, how the late human rights activist, honorable Dr. Ismail Jimale Osoble, the first chairman of the United Somali Congress (USC) graciously protested in the international arena about the “genocide” of the northern sub-clans by the ruthless Siyad Barre army, led by General Gani and General Morgan. In his efforts to stop the massacre in the north, Dr. Ismail Jimale also convinced many of his Hawiye clan elders in the south to extend their support to southern army officers posted in the north in order to mutiny against the Siyad Barre regime and join forces with SNM. As Mr. Ghalib attests in his book, several patriotic southern army officers later “joined the SNM attack on Hargeisa on December 1989.” In his book, Mr. Ghalib also discusses how initially some of the SNM leadership officers declined the selfless support of their counterpart southern officers in getting rid of the country the weakened dictator. The author alludes that there were already secessionist elements rife within the SNM commanding officers and their leadership who had no desire whatsoever to associate themselves with anyone else from the south, lest they would thwart their long-term goal – to secede from the rest of Somalia.

On the third premise, that Somaliland was “pushed” to declare a unilateral independence from the rest of the Somali Republic proper was due to the “rushed” and one-sided decision to form a government in part of the USC leadership after the successful overthrow of the Siyad Barre regime is groundless. This theory is more compelling than convincing as history shows differently.  In reality, this is another erroneous theory concocted and propagated once again by some of the separatist, mean-spirited leadership of the former SNM faction who among themselves couldn’t agree who would hold important ministerial cabinets of the “short-lived” Somali government led by president Ali Mahdi and Omar Arte Ghalib as its prime minister. In fact, it was only after an incestuous conflict flared within the USC leadership - between Ali Mahdi and General M. Farah Aideed in which the SNM leadership agreed unanimously to secede and form its own government in the north. Thus, this is a clear indication that most northerners were bamboozled into secession by some of their manipulative leaders who decided to jump ship when things took a downward slope in the south, instead of correcting their erred brothers and working towards a better resolution for a stronger Somalia.



It seems that Somaliland has benefited from the ever escalating violence and chaos in the rest of Somalia in regards of making their case to the rest of the world and rebuilding their war-ravaged lives. But it remains to be seen if they stay the course of being cohesive and progressive once the warring factions in the south come to their senses and work towards peace and justice. Perhaps, the only certain thing about Somaliland is this: without a genuine and honest dialogue with the rest of the Somalia proper, its chances for a successful independence are doomed. Even the most ardent separatist champions in Somaliland are aware of this fact, but they claim that at the current volatile situation in the south of Somalia, there’s no viable partner of peace to conduct with such negotiations. Though the chances of bridging the gap between the self-righteous south and the dubious northerners seem implausible, there’s a hope for better days to come in the Horn of Africa. It’s too soon to say what will ultimately become the fate of the Somali union. It may all depend on how the leaderships from the two sides of the union behave in order to save the “marriage.” But I am sure every one will agree with me that neither the current leadership in the north nor in the south is posed to tackle such delicate matters in the union of the state. Instead, both presidents, Mr. Riyale and Mr. Yusuf are deeply entangled in the brawl of territorial feud involved in their clan homelands. Their past history also lends them little credibility in engaging peaceful negotiations any time soon.


* The Cost of Dictatorship: The Somali Experience. By Jama Mohamed Ghalib. New York: Lillian Barber Press, 1995. Pp. Xvi, 267

Heikal I. Kenneded
Washington D.C. 
[email protected]

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