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PUNTLAND: FEDERALIST OR QUASI-SECESSIONIST? (Part II)

Tuesday July 7, 2020
By Aman Obsiye

Introduction

The recent announcement of Benaadir region receiving representation in the Federal Parliament of Somalia has once again showcased Puntland’s true sociopolitical character. Puntland’s political elite have protested the entry of Benaadir in Somalia’s Upper House, and have shamefully proclaimed that they may seek secession.

In this sequel to Puntland: Federalist or Quasi-Secessionist?, I will be shedding light on Puntland’s claim of being the “Mother of Federalism” and expound on how Somalia became a federalist nation-state. Additionally, I shall expound on Confederalism (the latest political ploy by the neo-landers) and shall be revisiting some themes from the first essay.

How Federalism Came to Somalia

To understand how Somalia became a federalist nation-state in 2004, you must go back to 1978. In April 1978, mere weeks after the Ogaden War concluded, Abdilahi Yusuf created a rebel group called Somali Salvation Democratic Front(SSDF) and aligned it with Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia’s then-dictator.

The SSDF was funded, trained, fed and housed by Mengistu. In essence, they were an extension of Ethiopia’s military machine and in June 1982 were utilized. Mengistu and the SSDF invaded Galdogob, a city in central Somalia, and hoisted the Ethiopian flag during their brief occupation. The SSDF’s act of invading their home country alongside a foreign enemy was utterly treasonous.

Fast forward to 1991, and Mengistu Haile Mariam is overthrown by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). In 1995, the TPLF declared that Ethiopia is a federalist nation-state, and officially rename it the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Meles Zenawi was a brilliant and ambitious statesman, who sought to dominate the Horn of Africa and make Ethiopia its undisputed hegemon. Traditionally, Somalia served as the counter-weight to Ethiopia’s dominance in the Horn, so naturally, Zenawi sought ways to prevent the return of a strong Somali nation-state. Like Mengistu, Zenawi found a willing partner in Abdilahi Yusuf.

Three years after the TPLF officially introduced federalism to Ethiopia, the SSDF created a regional entity called Puntland and declared that Somalia would be a federalist nation-state. This was not coincidental. 

Zenawi understood that Somalia’s Achilles’ heel was its inability to form a united polity due to clan animosity. What better way to further divide Somalia, weaken its sovereignty, and thus obviate its rise than to balkanize it by introducing clan federalism. Puntland became the vehicle that Zenawi used to introduce federalism to Somalia. If Puntland claims to be the Mother of Federalism, then Meles Zenawi is its father. 

Arta 2000, Nairobi 2004, & Mogadishu 2006

Though Zenawi wanted Somalia to be a federalist nation-state, the Somali masses still yearned for a strong unitary nation-state. In April 2000, the Djiboutian government hosted the Somalia National Peace Conference, better known as the Arta Conference. Meles Zenawi opposed the conference, and Puntland completely boycotted it, because it advocated for Somalia to remain a unitary nation-state, and not federalist.

Eventually, another peace process transpired in Nairobi in August 2004, where the international community capitulated to the desires of Zenawi. In 2004, Somalia became a federalist nation-state with Abdilahi Yusuf as its president and Puntland as the sole federal member state. Shoving federalism down Somalia’s throat was Zenawi’s greatest foreign policy achievement; Puntland was merely the vehicle that Ethiopia used. 

Now that Zenawi got Somalia to officially adopt federalism on paper, he moved to the next phase of his foreign policy objective and began strategizing the invasion of Somalia’s national capital. In December 2006, Meles Zenawi sent the Ethiopian military machine to occupy Mogadishu and put Abdilahi Yusuf in the presidential palace. Abdilahi Yusuf was eventually kicked out of the capital and later died in exile in Yemen.

Somalia’s Current Federal Experiment

Fast forward to present-day Somalia, and the entire country has federalized into five/six states, with the northern territories (Somaliland) under secessionist occupation. The FGS’ current administration desires to implement a federal system where the federal government is supreme.

When you compare how federalism is applied in Ethiopia and Somalia, you will notice that the two federal systems are diametrically different. Since the beginning of Ethiopia’s federalism experiment, its federal government has always been supreme. You will never see the regional presidents of Afar Region, Somali Region, etc., dealing in foreign policy. But in Somalia, you’ll regularly see some regional heads interfering in foreign policy, with Puntland being the main culprit.

Puntland is an anomaly when compared to the other federal member states in Somalia. Puntland is the only federal member state to base its jurisdiction on clan federalism, while all other federal member states base their jurisdiction on provincial federalism. The borders claimed by Puntland are literally based on clan borders, hence its claims over specific districts in Mudug, Sanaag, and Sool. Clan federalism in Puntland is due to their belief in clan supremacy. And if they cannot run the country, they figure ways to derail the political process. Hence their steadfast subversion of Somali sovereignty.

There seems to be a modus operandi for Puntland’s political elite: use foreign enemies against your homeland to achieve clannish political goals. It was they who invited and aligned with the Italian colonialist in the late 1800s; it was they who aligned with Mengistu and invaded Galdogob in 1982; it was they who invited and aligned with Zenawi to invade and occupy Somalia’s national capital in 2006.

Puntland’s political elite continue to operate under this modus operandi. In September 2019, they began to advocate for confederalism for two main reasons: (i) Somalia’s sovereignty was becoming stronger on the international stage, and (ii) the proliferation of federal member states had diluted Puntland’s influence.

Under a proper federal system, a strong Somalia can eventually emerge (e.g. United States, Ethiopia, etc.) but under a confederal system, Somalia is forever doomed to be weak. Honestly, the reason Somalia has been so weak thus far is that it has been functioning as a confederalist entity, albeit wrapped in the façade of federalism.

The explicit political design of confederalism is to have a weak national government. In 1789, the United States officially transitioned from confederalism to federalism. Their previous governing document, the Articles of Confederation, was replaced by their current governing document, the Constitution of the United States. The Preamble states the reason for the transition: “to form a more perfect Union.” What America’s founding fathers meant by “to form a more perfect Union” was to bring their 13 states closer in unison to form a truly unified sovereign nation-state.

The FGS’ decision to grant 13 senate seats to Benaadir, Somalia’s most populous region, is helping form a more perfect Somali Union. This decision has left the neo-landers in an uproar, as they view Benaadir’s political representation in Somalia’s Upper House as strengthening “others” while diluting their perceived privilege. This is due to their belief in clan supremacy, and their belief has led them to now advocate for the so-called “nuclear option,” secessionism. Again, if they cannot run the country, they will figure ways to derail the political process. So, we must ask ourselves, is Puntland a federalist or quasi-secessionist entity?


Aman Obsiye is an Attorney based in Minneapolis, MN.  He received his Juris Doctor and Master of Public Policy degrees from the University of Minnesota.

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