Debating Secession in Somalia

By Liban Ahmad

Northern Somalis for Peace and Unity conference that was held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington from 1 to 2 December, 2006   created an atmosphere – and hopefully a framework—for discussing questions about unity and secession. One of the topics that conference participants addressed is: Unity vs. Secession: The case of the Northern Somalia.

Although conference organisers were unionists, dedicating a session to a discussion on   the merits and shortcoming of the unity secession in one of the conference programme shows that assumptions behind both unity and secession movements were rigorously examined. Many luminaries who attended the conference have personal memories and experiences about the Somali unification, the civilian regimes, the military regime, and the post-1990 fragmentation.

Our first generation of politicians and bureaucrats have bequeathed to the young generation a host of political problems  that can not be addressed without asking the motives behind the secession and the merits of a united Somali Republic. Why did the Somali National Movement, the armed outfit that had a major role in overthrowing the military dictatorship of Somalia, turned its back on Somali unity without consulting other social groups in what was known as Ex-British Somaliland? Was the decision to secede a result of caprice or pondered option? Was the motivation political or tribal?  What will happen if Somaliland is recognised as a Republic?

In an answer to the last question, professor Ali Khalif Galaydh, former Somali premier, and NSPU conference attendee, predicted civil strive in the north if Somaliland is recognised as a state. From the professor’s remarks, one can extrapolate aggressive policies that Somaliland will adopt to extend its writ in territories that are not now under the Somaliland administration. In that case, the civil strive scenario that Professor Ali Khalif Galaydh painted is as dangerous as any attempt by a Somali government of national unity to drag those in favour of secession into the Union.

In this essay, I aim to locate unity and secession within the context of Somalia’s state collapse. Before the widespread civil that brought to an end the military dictatorship, unity and secession did not feature in the Somali political discourse. The armed opposition forces against the military regime of Somalia ( 1969-1991) shared one objective: to topple the regime. Beneath the shared objective lay hidden agendas that culminated in the state collapse in Somalia, pogroms and prolonged civil war.  The Somali political scientist, Professor Ahmed Samatar,  detected opposition   disharmony and unpreparedness  for nation building  in a 1987 essay in Third World  Quarterly. I quote Professor Samatar at length:

While the inception of any organised and change-oriented dissent politics is certainly welcome and is more valuable than acquiescence or vacuity, both movements[-- Somali National Movement and Somalia Salvation Democratic Front--] possess severe handicaps which have constrained their viability and impact. Foremost among these are widely differing and contradictory ideas among their respective memberships about the nature of problems and their solutions. In both the SSDF and SNM Camps, a number of elements coexist: individualistic and petty capitalist ideology, Islamic fundamentalism, clanism, and impulses of social democracy… Those serious weaknesses are due partly to the naïve belief that the demise of President Siyaad Barre’s rule will automatically usher in a buoyant and productive economy, and democratic politics; and partly to an inability to see beyond the most immediate fragmentation and alienating circumstances, that is, the lack of a coherent theory of mobilisation and reconstruction.”

Professor Samatar faced unjustified criticism for pointing out leadership dysfunction within opposition forces. What transpired in Somalia after the overthrow of military dictatorship in 1991 vindicated Professor Ahmed Samatar. The opposition forces’ failure to help Somalia pass through the transition from military dictatorship to parliamentary democracy increased clan anxieties about repeat of past human rights violations committed during the military dictatorship.

Although the military dictatorship spared no Somali social groups that were perceived to have a connection with armed opposition forces, Somali National Movement leaders based their decision to declare the unilateral secession on military regime’s brutalities (detention and summary execution) against SNM activists and sympathisers. Subsequent reformulation on the case of secession was based on “the existence of Somaliland as a geopolitical entity from 1897 when the British Protectorate was established; and the recognition of its independent sovereignty between 26 June 1960 when Somaliland was granted independence from Britain and 1 July 1960 when it united with Italian Somalia to form the Somali republic.”


While I believe  every Somali’s right to self-determination, --- and I emphasise the word self-determination for many Somalis  are of the opinion that the state apparatus turns out to be instruments of oppression—the ground on which Somaliland leaders based the case for secession is not flawless. After the Scramble for Africa, Somalis were divided up by three European Colonisers—Italy, Britain and France. Citing that part of Somalia’s   colonial history as legal basis for secession is not as convincing as pragmatic reasons that could have been explored.  That major shortcoming does not hide the fact that secession movement has not only given unity a new meaning but is has also renewed many Somalis’ faith in unity and raised questions about Somalis’ ability to set up durable political institutions . Attachment to pre-state collapse unity in Somalia is motivated by unionists’ civil war experience and   the tribulation they passed through under the military dictatorship. The pressing question is: shall we look upon secession movement as genuine attempt based on    inalienable rights of people who want to set up a state of their own or shall we regard it as corrective measure aimed at redefining shared political institutions for Somalis in the future?

Secession through eyes of non-Somali analysts and academics

Many academics and analysts writing on   secession movement portray a picture that does not take into account the complexity of the Somali politics especially when it meanders into identity. An apparent missing narrative does render the work of some academics or analysts wholly biased in eyes of many people. The methodological oversight that lead to an incomplete picture of the social reality  or misinterpretation of past and present events can be avoided  provided the enormity of the task of conducting research in a segmented,  a war-torn society is kept in focus. The following three extracts are from works on identity and secession movement in Somalia 

“When the SNM took over the northwest in early 1991 tensions between the Isaaq on the one side and the Gadabuursi, Ciisa, Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli on the other side were high, because the latter had fought for Barre until his fall. In this situation the SNM which had after its victory over the Somali National Army become the most superior military power in the region, proposed peace-negotiations. Several small-scale peace-conferences took place on the local level all over the northwest”

Traditional Authorities in Northern Somalia: Transformation of    positions and powers,(2006) Markus V. Höhne

In the 1970s and 1980s, most Dhulbahante, being Darood, supported the regime of Siyad Barre, who belonged to the Marexaan clan of the Darood clan family. A further factor strengthening this alliance was the appointment of Axmed Suleban ‘Daffle’, a Dhulbahante, as the head of the National Security Service (NSS), making him one of the most powerful men in the state. Until 1991 the clan fought on the side of the government against the guerrillas.

Political identity, emerging state structures and conflict in northern Somalia (2006) Markus V. Hohne


“Having abandoned the Somaliland cause, [Garaad] Abdiqani was instrumental in shifting much of Dhulbahante political and public opinion behind the establishment of the Puntland administration, where the clan received the post of Vice President and a large share of parliamentary seats. The honeymoon with Puntland did not last long, and in 2001 a new focus for Dhulbahante loyalty emerged with the formation of a Somali Transitional National Government (TNG) at Arta, Djibouti.”

Somaliland: Democratisation and Its Discontents (2003), International Crisis Group

The first two quotes, by the social anthropologist, Huhne, facilitate understanding informants’ interpretation of parts of Somalia’s recent, turbulent past. They are not  definitive.

The fact that the three non-Isaaq clans in Northern Somalia did not set up armed opposition fronts does not mean those clans sided with the military dictatorship. Somali armed opposition forces against the former military dictatorship did not spring up quickly. Their growth influence was a function of the oppression and perceived human rights violations as well experience of political mobilisation and resourcefulness. Prominent members of Gadabuursi, Ciisa, Dhulbahante and Warsangeli joined armed opposition forces. Many Isaaqs held positions in the military regime before and after the 1988 civil war in the north.

As to the third quote from the 2003 International Crisis Group report on Somaliland,   an important part of northern Somalia’s reconciliation initiatives is missing. According to Mohamud Abdi Ali ‘Bayr’, an SNM veteran and the author of Peace and Reconciliation Preliminary Report published in 1996, the late Garaad Abdiqani Garaad Jama was instrumental in starting the peace overtures to SNM more than year  before the ouster of Somalia’s military regime. His initiative laid the foundations for the peace negotiations and Burco conference in 1991. In a 2005 interview with the BBC Somali Service, the late Garaad Abdiqani, stated that the position of the Dulbahhate clan ‘is not clear as far as Puntland and Somaliland administrative disputes are concerned.” He emphasised the diversity of opinion and the absence of reliable method to determine which administration people Sool pledge their allegiance to.


Contrary to the picture ICG report paints about the Dhulbahante’s loyalty, the Transitional National Government of Somalia was set up in 2000, not in 2001. The prime minister of the TNG was Professor Ali Khalif Galaydh who happens to hail from Dhulbahante clan. Both Puntland and Somaliland administrations objected to the TNG. From 2000-2005 Ahmed Mahamed Adan (aka Qaybe) and Mohamed Abdi Hashi—both from same clan as Premier Ali Khalif Galaydh’s—were the Speaker of Somaliland Parliament and  Puntland Vice President  respectively. 

The  three quotes above highlight the  task facing the anthropologist, political  scientist or sociologist studying the Somali society: to make careful use of ethnographic  work, consider historical facts that may widen understanding  past or present social reality  and above all bring to light what Clifford Geertz called  [competing ]  first order interpretation[s]  from the people whose lives, political and traditional institutions and are being studied. The clan-paradigm on its own cannot yield reliable facts about Somalia and Somalis’ aspirations.


Liban Ahmad
E-mail: [email protected]



Bayr, Mahamud Abdi Ali(1996) Peace and Reconciliation Preliminary Report. Hargeisa.

Bradbury, Mark, Abokor, Adan Yusuf, Yusuf, Haroon Ahmed

Review of African Political Economy Volume 30, Number 97 / September 2003

Geertz, Clifford (1973)  The Interpretation of Cultures.  Basic Books 2000 paperback

Höhne, Markus V. ( 2006)Political identity, emerging state structures and conflict in northern Somalia.  Journal of Modern African Studies, 44, 3 (2006), pp. 397–414.

---- (2006) Traditional Authorities in Northern Somalia: Transformation of positions and powers.

Workring Paper, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

Samatar, Ahmed I.(198t) Somalia impasse: state power and dissent policlcis. Third World Quartlerly( 1987) Vol.9, 3.

Somaliland: Democratisation and Its Discontents (2003), International Crisis Group

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