Somaliland: Obama Should Provide Recognition to Avoid Strife


By: Henry Johnson CMC ’14

Somalilandsun – A hundred Somalilanders turned their eyes to me as I took the microphone from the woman next to me. I tapped her shoulder and waited for her to finish hurling accusations at the President of Somaliland, who nervously shifted in his seat at the front of the room. “There is killing happening everywhere in that region, please stop!” The event moderator anxiously tapped his pen on the table. He gazed at me and twitched his head in the direction of the woman before cutting her off in his booming voice. “Ok, do you have a question please,” he asked. She ignored him and could not stop, like a brake less car rocketing downhill. “People—women and children—are dying, anyone want to fact check, please come to me!” I mustered the courage to face her. In her glassy eyes, I saw wells of sadness and rage. I gently touched her arm holding the microphone and she surrendered it with a teary look of exhaustion. She sat down in a swirl of emerald green silk and her blue hijab no longer poked above the seated crowd. I snatched her free speech. Most of the audience looked on at me approvingly, but I was not sure if I approved of myself. Everyone now waited for a response from the president.

The president retorted, “It is absolute lies that there has been any killing in that area. People in that area live in peace; their leaders are in my government, in my ministries. It is people like you on the outside—I don’t know what your motivations are—who cause the problems we are working to solve.”

Even without a microphone, the woman responded contrarily. The president shouted, “Well just keep quiet then!” and nervously laughed. Her accusations roiled the audience, many young Somalilander men rose from their seats to point at the woman, calling her a liar and calling for respectful discourse. Her stand ruptured the upbeat tenor of the press conference for the President of Somaliland and his delegates. They argued why the U.S. should recognize their state, which lacks international recognition. I was assigned to run microphones at the event, hosted by my employer, the Atlantic Council—a foreign policy think tank in Washington, DC. Her searing comments, although dramatic in the setting, sprang from a basis of truth. Somaliland is locked in a tribal struggle over territory pregnant with oil.

Moments before I took her microphone away, she stated her specific allegations against the Somaliland government, which separated from greater Somalia during the upheaval following the outbreak of the Somalian civil war in 1991. She accused the president of catapulting a region in eastern Somaliland, known as Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn (SSC), into bloodshed and ethnic strife. The family of clans that predominate SSC compose only a minority demographic nationwide and many of them seek independence. Since voting patterns largely reflect tribal affiliation, most SSC clansmen wind up on the losing side of a winner-take-all system of democracy. Accordingly, they resist the domination of their homeland by an alien clan. In early 2012, clan and political leaders from SSC declared the making of a new semi-autonomous state named Khaatumo, which Somaliland has refused to recognize.[1] In addition to confronting this irredentist movement, Somaliland faces military contest for SSC from neighboring Puntland, another mini-state that broke off from Somalia in the 1990s. Puntland claims a right to SSC based on kinship ties with the tribal minority there. Somaliland, on the other hand, argues these territories fall within the former borders of British Somaliland, the former colonial protectorate used as its territorial model. The new Khaatumo state rejects the authority of both, however, and established itself in Cayn with plans to dislodge occupying armies and militias from Sool and Sanaag.

“Mr. Silanyo, since you took the office three years ago there was 1,500 people killed in Puntland, Sool, Sanaag, Cayn. That people were innocent civilian nomadic people, just like the lady here, lady Hamiya,” her thickly accented voice quivered as she held up the picture of the six-year old girl she was eulogizing. “She was killed in last November when election was done in Khaatumo in Hudun. I’m pleading you today that you have to tell the truth. There’s two reason why killing is happening, first you are forcing them to come with you and they say, ‘No, we want to be part of Somalia.’ And oil, the gas and oil that you’re talking about is in Sool. I’m speaking to you now, there is killing in Hudun. I’m telling everyone here this is little Hamiya, you killed her.”

With some background research, I corroborated many of the woman’s claims. Sool and Sanaag lie on top of a large reservoir of oil, known as the Nugaal block, estimated to contain over four billion barrels of oil.[2] Control of this lucrative property has led to simmering hostility between Puntland and Somaliland for years. In late 2010, triangular fighting erupted between Somaliland armed forces, militias sponsored by the Puntland administration, and independent SSC militias. By the time all sides agreed to a cease-fire, over 100 people were reported killed and over 150,000 displaced according to a United Nations report.[3] The rise of the non-aligned Khaatumo administration has goaded Puntland and Somaliland into an alliance of convenience against Khaatumo, which threatens to seize their respective sales of the oil-rich land. In June 2012, both administrations coordinated an attack on Khaatumo political leaders and security forces.[4]

She also correctly assessed that fighting coincided with elections in the SSC territory. The Khaatumo-controlled town of Hudun, which is in Sool and on top of the Nugaal oil block, became the target of a series of offensives launched by Somaliland starting in November 2012. This is the same town where she said little Hamiya was killed. Somaliland sold the land underneath Hudun to the oil company Genel Energy the previous October. Initially, President Silanyo’s administration ordered attacks on the town, leaving six dead, because “local gangs” hampered its officials from distributing ballots for local elections.[5] In a press statement, a Somaliland general claimed that the army repulsed Khaatumo militias aimed at intimidating voters.[6] More likely, Somaliland used the elections as a pretext for asserting martial law over the town. Somaliland attacked the town over nine times in the span of three months, but still has not captured it.[7]

Video of the Atlantic Council meeting was uploaded on YouTube. It garnered over 29,000 views and a slew of hateful comments. Both sides of the debate turned the YouTube commentary into a virtual bloodbath. For example, one user wrote of the president: “You dirty lier you will not take our land from us you filthy isaq slave. we will go to war and drag your bodies on the streets of somalia.” The Isaq clan is the numerically largest one in Somaliland and its members hold majorities in the electorate. These YouTube users, most likely from the disenfranchised tribes in SSC, illustrated the galling fear of Isaq domination. From the opposite side, someone wrote, “All those Faqash haters and that fucking stupid khaatumo bitch Siilaanyo kicked your ass and he will do it again.” The word “Faqash” was first used as a term denoting regime collaborators and loyalists. It carries an ethnic meaning as well. Somalia’s former dictator, Siyaad Barre, coopted the support of minority clans in the 1980s to suppress the Isaq clans from rebelling. “Faqash” replicated the sound made by Barre’s troops walking through mud.[8] In today’s context, the term refers derisively to proponents of reunification.

This ethnically charged language provides cause for concern; escalating competition for the Nugaal oil block could lead to outright ethnic cleansing. No foreign government has diplomatically recognized Somaliland, leaving it hard pressed for economic and security support. Its diplomatic isolation drastically increases the value of land such as the Nugaal block and also reduces the costs of abusing ethnic minorities. In spite of its flaws and also because of them, the United States should recognize Somaliland. With recognition, the U.S. could potentially put an end to the conflict in SSC and utilize Somaliland’s strong track record in combating regional terrorism and piracy. The U.S. could benefit from these security policies and assist them by training the Somaliland army in counterterrorism, coordinating anti-piracy measures, and using the country’s ports. Recognition would also strengthen the state’s efforts at stamping out financial crime and arms trafficking. Lastly, the U.S. might hope that recognition will clear roadblocks in Somaliland’s path toward vibrant democracy; in 2010, outside observers deemed Somaliland elections free and fair.[9] With a mutually beneficial act of diplomacy, the United States could bring justice to little Hamiya and ratchet up pressure on Somali terrorist groups like al-Shabaab.