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Between Somaliland and Puntland: Marginalization, Militarization and Conflicting Political Vision: A Book Review

Reviewed by: Abdirahman A. Issa 
Author: Markus Hoehne
Publisher:  Rift Valley Institute
Publication date ‏: ‎ 2015

On 26th December 2022, an unarmed civilian  was killed in Laacaanood. The killing was the last in a string of assassinations that began in 2009, two year after Somaliland captured the town from Puntland. By the end of December 2022, the citizens of Laascoond had enough of the endless assassinations that had taken place under Somaliland’s administration, and demanded accountability. Somaliland soldiers responded to demonstrations with live bullets that killed around 20 protesters and injured more. When Somaliland forces were unable to control the situation in early January 2023, they withdrew from the city to prevent further bloodshed. What began as a protest against the assassinations morphed into a revolution dubbed the “Blue Revolution.” The protesters hoisted the Somali flag in all the public places in the city. They claimed that the Somaliland Administration is responsible for the assassinations, which Somaliland vehemently denied and insisted instead that these targeted killings were the work of terrorist.

The protestors in Laascaanood on January 2023 clearly stated that they wanted a unified Somalia and the formation of their own administration. The Dhulbahante traditional elders who had not set foot in Laascaanood since Somaliland’s capture of the town at the end of 2007 returned to convene a meeting determining the political will of their people. The traditional elders praised the youth-led revolution and demanded that Somaliland troops should withdraw from Dhulbahante territory. The revolution gave a common cause to Dhulbahante that helped to (for the moment) overcome their divided loyalties between Puntland and Somaliland and to take their destiny into their hands.

Anyone who is interested in understanding  these  dynamics   should  read  the book “Between Somaliland and Puntland: Marginalization, Militarization and Conflicting Political Vision”, published in 2015 by Markus Hoehne  —a German social anthropologist,  who has conducted a long-term ethnographic  study focusing on Sool and Sanaag regions. In contrast to several other non-Somali scholars, such as Michael Walls or  Mark Bradbury,  who had done their research mainly in Hargeisa and thus in their publications usually echoed the Somaliland–narrative produced in the center, Markus Hoehne ventured into the peripheries, spending time in regions labelled  as “disputed lands,” and brought the perspectives of their inhabitants to the table.

With the fall of the Military dictatorship in Mogadishu in 1991, the SNM convened a meeting in Burco at which  delegates hastily pronounced the termination of the union with Southern Somalia and the declaration of the Republic of Somaliland. Somaliland claimed to be the successor of the British Protectorate of Somaliland, which existed for five days as independent state before  it voluntarily merged with Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic.

The territory that today is circumscribed by the regions Sool and Sanaag (plus the area of Buuhoodle), where predominantly  Dhulbahante and Warsangali reside, was included in the British Protectorate based on the Anglo-Italian treaty of 1894, which established the border between the British and Italian colonizers. The Burco conference in 1991 was attended by some elders and intellectuals from the Warsangali and Dhulbahante, but they later contended that they couldn’t oppose the cession given the anti-Darood sentiment prevailing at the conference, the fact that many Isaaq civilians in the area were armed and the non-Isaaq delegates feared retribution by the SNM since they were perceived as supporters of the deposed dictator.

Up until today, particularly Dhulbahante and Isaaq have a conflicting history and a divided memory. Somaliland in 1991 was founded on the “collective trauma” suffered by the Isaaq under the military dictatorship lead by Siad Barre (1969-1991). The latter has committed massive war crimes against Isaaq civilians in northwestern Somalia in the 1980s, persecuting and torturing civilians and eventually bombarding Hargeysa and Burco in 1988, leading to unimaginable death, displacement, and destruction. After the secession in 1991, history, symbols and memorials of Somaliland were developed around the SNM struggle and heroism. This was effective in the center, yet it did not instill a sense of belonging among members of the other clans, who had not supported the SNM. Dhulbahante and Warsangali, on the other hand, soon began to assert that they opposed the dissolution of the union and accused the SNM to be behind the collapse of their “Daarood government.” Over the 1990s, the Dhulbahante’s historical reference became the struggle of the Darawish against British colonialism; they accused the Isaaq of being quislings for the colonizers who had caused major destruction in  their lands 1899-1920. In contrast, Isaaq regarded the Darawish as a bunch of marauding religious extremists; more recently, some Isaaq like to compare them to Al-Shabab. Dhulbahante  argue that they wouldn’t support the colonial demarcation of their lands by the colonizer who they fought against, which today justifies their ignorance of Somaliland’s claim to their clan-territory.

Refusing the secession of Somaliland and the Isaaq narrative built around it, most Dhulbahante and Warsangali elders decided to participate in the establishment of the Puntland state of Somalia in 1998. Since civil war was still raging in much of southern Somalia, they settled on joining their Harti kin in Bari, Nugal, and North Mudug to form a Harti -administration. Markus Hoehne observes that Harti emerged as a significant reference point for political mobilization during the first years of the civil war when Dhulbahante, Warsangali and Majeerteen were stating their claims to control Kismayo in the south. Abdullahi Yusuf was elected as first president of Puntland, and Markus Hoehne claims that Dhulbahante back then were in favor of Abdullahi Yusuf, seeing him as a “hero” and “defender of Daarood interests.” Puntland contends that the colonial borders ceased to exist when British Somaliland joined Italian Somaliland on 1 July 1960.

Markus Hoehne points out that what in central Somaliland (the Isaaq heartland) is considered as a period of peace and reconstruction (Nabad iyo Daldhis) was regarded by Dhulbahante and Warsangali as the time of breakdown and disintegration (wakhtiga buurburka iyo qaran jabka). While many Isaaq have a bitter memory of the military regime, many Dhulbahante and quite a few Warsangali remember it with fondness.

Markus Hoehne documents that Somaliland and Puntland established shadow administrations in Sool and eastern Sanaag in the early 2000s, without, however, being strong enough to assert their competing claims. The local elders often arranged with both administrations to a degree to avoid confrontation. The administrations were all staffed with locals. Markus Hoehne states that Somaliland’s President Egal (1993-2002) and Puntland’s President Abdullahi Yusuf (1998-2004) had an informal agreement not to confront each other in the disputed regions. This allowed them to develop their respective centers. The first military confrontation, Markus Hoehne notes, occurred in December 2002, after Dahir Rayaale Kaahin had succeeded President Egal who had died unexpectedly in May 2002. Kaahin visited Laascaanood  to lay the groundwork for the upcoming local government elections. This provoked the resistance of Puntland. Several soldiers and civilians were killed and injured when Kaahins soldiers and armed forces sent from Garowe  clashed in the middle of  the city.

The clash in Laascaanood, Markus  Hoehne contends, broke the (unofficial) stalemate between Somaliland and Puntland and protracted militarization of the region began officially. Puntland troops went back to Garowe without forming an administration but they returned in December 2003 on the pretext of stopping a feud between Bahrasame and Qayaad. Somaliland reacted by capturing Adhicadeeye, a village west of Laascaanood. Markus Hoehne, who was on the ground at that time, observed that media in Hargeisa agitated nationalist sentiments and this, he argues, was probably the first time the public Hargeisa became aware of the issue of their claimed borders in the east.  This fueled nationalism and the believe in their state among the Isaaq in central Somaliland.

Abdullahi Yusuf  was elected in 2004 as the president of Somalia, while Cadde Muuse succeeded him as Puntland’s president in 2005. During his term (2005-2009), Cadde Muuse was preoccupied with resource exploration, and the security in the Dhulbahante territories, where the conflict with Somaliland had broken out, was not a priority for his administration. Simultaneously, some misunderstanding among Dhulbahante, the dominant clan in Sool region, happened. Markus Hoehne mentions that Maxamuud Garaad  had dominated the politics in Puntland for some years, which angered Faarax Garaad branch of Dhulbahante, whose members reside mainly in the Hawd area.

Puntland’s Minister of Interior, Axmed Cabdi Xaabsade,  hailing from Dhulbahant/Bahrasame (belonging to the Faarax Garaad branch) fell out with Cadde Muuse in 2007 and soon mobilized troops from his sub-clan to support the Somaliland occupation  of Laascaanood.  In exchange he received a huge welcome in Hargeysa. Markus Hoehne asserts that the big fish which, in the background, gave green light to the capture of Laascaanood was Ethiopia. In 2007, Ethiopia was concerned of ONLF’s Presence in the region and Puntland disinterest to do something about it. Given that Ethiopia is an important partner for both, Puntland and Somaliland, its endorsement of Somaliland’s military move resulted in the  retreat of Puntland’s troops “retreated east to Tukaraq without a shot being fired”

Already before that, the region had been a no-go area for NGOs to deliver humanitarian aid. Yet, the occupation of Laascaanood by Somaliland forced end of 2007 compounded the marginalization of the region. Many people were displaced from their homes and the local economy suffered as the number of consumers in the area sharply declined. Most traditional elders and elites left the city and did not return for many years (until early 2023). The diaspora stopped investing and partly also sending remittances, since they considered  Laascaanood  an “occupied city ”.

President Faroole, who took over from Cadde Muuse in 2009, also did not lift a finger to bring Laascaanood back under Puntland’s control. This disgruntled many Dhulbahante who lost faith in the “assertion of Hartinimo” and came to see Puntland mainly as a Majeerteen-project. As result, the idea to establish an autonomous regional administration for Dhulbahante gained momentum. Markus Hoehne states that “Throughout the 1990s and for most of the 2000s, clan members had failed to agree on a clear stand, whether to be pro-Somaliland, pro-Puntland or completely independent. ” However, he noted that when he interviewed many Dhulbahante in early 2009,they talked of having their own administration  with the name of  “Darwish-land”

The First  autonomous Dhulbahante  Administration called Sool, Sanaag iyo Cayn (SSC) – with “Cayn” referring to the area around Buuhoodle – was established in Nairobi in 2009. Markus Hoehne notes that SSC couldn’t function due to lack of resources and that their supporters were  mainly from Faarax Garaad  and  Dhulbahante were not united regarding the idea to have SSC. The first administration that indeed united virtually all Dhulbahante was founded in Taleex, the old center of the Darawish, in 2012. Markus Hoehn writes that Khatumo was“ the most conclusive result of any Dhulbahante conference in 20 years.” Both Somaliland and Puntland opposed Khatumo and at one point cooperated to sabotage it. Somaliland’s government was worried that  if it lost control over the Sool region, Somaliland would  not get recognition.  Puntland’s President Faroole (2009-2014), on the other hand, was worried that Khatumo would weaken his political leverage in Mogadishu. However, Hoehne stressed that the  “autonomous Dhulbahante administration was acceptable to most ordinary people living in Puntland”  which “may have tied Garowe’s hands in terms of its response to the establishment of this clan statelet.” In light of the currently (early 2023) unfolding  events  in Laacaanood, it appears that Puntland politicians have changed their minds and now support an autonomous regional state  for Dhulbahante, as both the current and former president of Puntland (Deni and Gaas) have clearly stated.

The Khatumo administration did not have  the military power to confront successfully the armies of their neighbors, Puntland and Somaliland, so they concentrated on gaining recognition from the federal government in Mogadishu. Nevertheless, their efforts in Mogadishu yielded no results, and most of the Khatumo leaders joined Puntland on the eve of Puntland presidential election in 2014. Ali Khalif Galaydh, a  Dhulbahante/Faraax Garaad politician from Buuhoodle, became the so far last leader of Khatumo. He entered into negotiations with Hargeisa and eventually signed an agreement with Somaliland. The Khatumo Administration was formally dissolved in 2017.

Eastern Sanaag, inhabited by Warsangali, is controlled by Puntland – since the early 2000s. However, like Sool, both Somaliland and Puntland claim the region based on the political logics outlined above (the clan-logic adhered to by Puntland, and the colonial-territorial logic preferred by Somaliland). Warsangali lands share with Dhulbahante lands the label of “disputed area”. Eastern Sanaag is hardly accessible for the international community. This results in economic marginalization and lack of access to humanitarian aid. However, Warsangeli lands have not become militarized. Markus Hoehne reasons that this is due to the remoteness and in accessibility of the region. Moreover, the Idea of a Maakhir —a separate Administration for Warsangali emerge at one point — but didn’t materialize. Markus Hoehne argues that what differs Warsangali from  Dhulbahante is their cool headedness which prompted themto “play their political cards carefully” and avoid  their region to become another theatre for military confrontation (like Dhulbahante lands).  Warsangeli go about their affairs quietly. They accept Puntland. But also Somaliland has appointed officials for the region, and Warsangali have ministers in Hargeisa, though not as many as Dhulbahante.

Markus Hoehne characterized those who straddle between the two administrations in northern Somalia as “borderland entrepreneurs.” Axmed Cabdi Xabsade, who was instrumental in the capture of Laascaanood by Somaliland end of 2007, is a  typical  example. First he served in Somaliland as chairman of the Parliament (1993-1997), then he became Minister of Interior in Puntland (1998-2007), later went to back to Hargeisa to serve as a Minister (2008-2014) and again he come back to Garowe in 2014,  but this time he was not appointed any portfolio as he had devoured his significance. Markus Hoehne argues that there is an economic logic for the borderland people to serve in both administrations. One can find brothers or close cousins working as soldiers or officials on different sides, for Somaliland or Puntland. However, their opportunism comes at a great cost, as the clans inhabiting the regions Sool and Sanaag (and the area around Buuhoodle) suffer greatly from lack of access to international aid, intercommunal divisions, protracted conflict including clashes of rival armies, displacement, and lack of infrastructure and economic development. Hoehne thus explains the history of what we can observe in Laascaanood today.

Reading his book also shows that the sentiment of people in Laascaanood and other parts of the SSC regions are not new but deeply rooted in the political history of northern Somalis since around 30 years.

Turing to policy recommendations, Markus Hoehne suggest, among other things, to deescalate and avoid  military confrontations, organize a transparent referendum in Sool and eastern Sanaag  so the locals can decided without pressure  (and not under duress, as the situation was in Burco in 1991) their destiny. This can also open the avenue for NGOs to come  up with an approach to deliver much needed humanitarian and development project in the contested regions.

The book “Between Somaliland and Puntland: Marginalization, Militarization and Conflicting Political Visions” can be downloaded for free here:

Reviewed by: Abdirahman A. Issa 

Issa is a student  of Somali History, culture, society and politics. His interests also include governance and development in fragile and post conflict contexts. He can be reached at  [email protected]

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