When it comes to Third World civil wars, Somalia has long been seen as the worst-case scenario. However, on 8 February this year Somalia held their second presidential election since the civil war broke out in 1991. During decades as a collapsed state and in conflict, Somalia has faced chaos and a horrible level of violence. As in most modern day wars though, the conflict has had different effects depending on what area of the country one is looking at. Somaliland, a northern region, has upheld relative peace and working political institutions throughout the conflict, while the rest of the country has been falling apart. They also declared their independence in the beginning of the civil war and have worked for official self-rule ever since. So how do Somalia’s recent elections and strive for stability affect Somaliland’s work for independence?
Somaliland is a poor country with high unemployment rates. But the people of Somaliland are proud of their culture of compromise and discussion, which is often contrasted with Somalian tribalism and warlords. Many agree that Somaliland does fit the bill of an independent country; they have their own currency (the Somaliland shilling), free elections and are even maintaining a monopoly of violence with a military and police force of their own. Still, they have yet to receive recognition from any other state.
Per the praxis of the international community, breakaway states do not receive recognition until they have the approval of the official government, in this case Somalia. In Africa, where colonial borders are easily questioned and there are many similar conflicts, the African Union is unwilling to open what is considered to be a powder keg of new conflicts. The only two recognized border changes since de-colonisation are the establishment and recognition of Eritrea in 1993 and South Sudan in 2011. Both new countries were preceded by fierce conflict and are still, to this day, haunted by violence.
Somaliland, unlike both Eritrea and South Sudan was originally a different colonial entity from Somalia. During its time as a colony the land was claimed by the United Kingdom and governed in a very different fashion than that of the Italian Somaliland, which is today the rest of Somalia. It has been argued that it was the British rule that made the people of Somaliland more inclined to cooperation and that it is the reason why the conflict never reached them. The fact that Somaliland chose to join Somalia at independence has been used as an argument for independence and its legitimacy.
Many hoped that this year’s election in Somalia would put a definite end to the civil war by hosting the first real, popular election since 1969. Security risks instead caused the election to be carried out through intermediaries – clan elders who have represented the population on an ethnic basis since the last election. There are still periodical attacks from the terrorist group al-Shabaab, who were the main opponents of the government during the war, and with tensions remaining there was fear that polling stations would become easy targets. Some of the legitimacy of the election was thereby lost, but the peaceful transition of power that followed could still be a step in the right direction, and it has inspired many to remain hopeful.
When it comes to Somaliland’s role in the election, they declared that there would be no representatives from their region taking part and stated that anyone claiming to represent areas in Somaliland were not recognised by their governing body. At the same time, accusations of support for reunification with Somalia have been used as smear campaigns against some parties, a sign of the consensus of the Somaliland population in favor of independence. Somalia, on the other hand, has stated that separation is out of the question. Over the last couple of years, both sides have participated in several official talks, but their goals remain incompatible.
However, the success of the Somali elections has been a topic of discussion over the last few weeks. Even though the elections weren’t decided directly by the people, the number of voices heard has greatly increased since 2012. In the last election, only 135 elders could cast votes, compared to 14000 this time. Many also see the peaceful transition of power as a good sign. On the other hand, there have been plenty of reports of corruption and bribery, both on a local and international level. The newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohame, is said to have received enough money to buy the election from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Qatar, Egypt and Ethiopia instead backed other candidates who could have helped them get their way. International bribes and influence were also a problem in the last election, as there were reports of ties between the Muslim Brotherhood and the then newly elected president Hassan Sheikh Mouhamud. The ties between the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar put a strain on relations among the Gulf countries and we might see more competition between Gulf countries over influences in the Horn of Africa in the future.
Countries across the Gulf have not only taken an interest in Somalia but also in Somaliland. Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates made a deal with Somaliland officials to build a military base in the port of Berbera. The United Arab Emirates have since been threatened with legal complaints from Somalia, who say that the deal is illegal since it did not go through the Somali government. The new Somali president then urged Saudi Arabia to support them and to put pressure on the United Arab Emirates.
There is still no telling what the involvement of the UAE will do to Somaliland’s work for independence but it is far from a recognition. The tension in the surrounding region, both across the Gulf and in Ethiopia, could potentially carry over into the conflict, if relations with Somalia were to turn violent. However, that seems unlikely. With Somalia not yet free of the al-Shabaab, it seems unlikely that Somalia will provoke another conflict on the heels of that one. As for Somaliland, part of their legitimacy and international sympathy comes from the fact that their breakaway was and remained peaceful. A war would not be in their favor. Some have even asked whether the people of Somaliland can unite and cooperate as well as they have without the shared goal of independence – international recognition might do more harm than good. When it comes to identity building in Somaliland, they are almost always painted as the opposite of Somalia. This definition, common in both international and internal media has also been a legitimising factor. Perhaps the more pertinent question now is: how will Somaliland’s sense of identity handle the seemingly growing and stabilising Somalia?