Saturday, May 18, 2024
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The rise and fall of secessionist Somaliland

By Osman Hassan

The secessionist one-clan enclave, aka Somaliland, is in the news for all sorts of bad news. It has known better days at one time, it was the pride of western governments eager to break up the only two Somaliland(s) that united of the wider Somali homeland they carved up in 1884. As it teeters to collapse, some of its diehard backers have not given up on it. Their focus is to ensure that the unionist regions, in particular the SSC regions, should not succeed to free themselves. This article is about this enclave, its rise and fall. Let us start from the beginning.

“Somali land” was the name that Egyptians referred to the Somali inhabited lands in the Horn of Africa. Subsequently, when that homeland was partitioned by colonial powers in 1884, each named its part as Somaliland, putting the two words together and preceded by its name. So came Italian Somaliland, British Somaliland and French Somaliland. The other two Somali territories, the Ogaden and the Northern Frontier District, were joined to Ethiopia (uncolonized) and Kenya, a British colony.

The name Somaliland was first discarded by British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland when they became independent and united in July 1960 to be known initially as the Somali Republic and later Somalia. Next, the name French Somaliland was dropped in 1967 by General De Gaule, France’s president at the time, to put down mounting pan-Somali nationalism seeking independence and unity with Somalia. He changed the name to the cumbersome one of the “Territory of the Afar and Isse” in a vain attempt to obliterate its Somali Identity.

It’s ironic that the defunct Somaliland name was revived and appropriated by the very ones who have aversion to the name Somali, or detest to be associated with it and all it invokes – fraternity, affinity, unity, and what have you. They would now call themselves Somalilanders to distance themselves from the name Somali. They are none other than the Somali National Movement (SNM), a rebel armed group hailing from one of Somalia’s northern clans (Isaak). Taking advantage of the collapse of the Somali State in 1991 it unilaterally declared the secession of the northern regions (former British Somaliland) from Somalia, as a separate country and reverting back to its former name, Somaliland, without the British prefix.

The other four northern unionist clans made no resistance to challenge SNM, partly because of its overwhelming military superiority, having laid its hands on the arsenal of the disintegrated Somali National Army (SNA) based in the North, partly because there was no union to defend since southerners turned on each other and brought down the State collapsed, and finally because there was hope that the State would soon be restored and its governments end the secession. How wrong they were!

The secession was justified on the injustices meted out to the Isaak clan by the military ruler, Mohamed Siyad Barre. But ill-treatment was not confined to them. Other clans suffered too under the military regime in varying degrees and none sought secession as a remedy. What makes this justification in any case hollow is that Siyad was no longer in power at the time when the secession was declared and, with his departure, possibilities existed for positive change. But it was not to be.

The fact is that the yearning for secession has been simmering long before Siyad Barre took power in 1969 and goes back to the years soon after union with Italian Somaliland. As the clan become discontented with a union where they had to be equal with other clans, they began to hanker after a return to their former Somaliland where they could be the masters and lord over others (as happened). The injustices and alleged genocide against them were overplayed and cynically exploited to justify the secession. The collapse of the State and a southern Somalia that subsequently descended into chaos and inter-clan wars provided SNM the perfect opportunity to declare the secession. And so they did it on 18 May 1991.

What could have achieved the goals of the secession

Just as a united northern clans, under the banner of a five-days old independent Somaliland, agreed to unite with independent southern Somalia, so they could have equally withdrawn from the union if united and southerners, who themselves have destroyed the State and descended into disunity and inter-clan clan civil war, had neither the will nor the ability to stand in their way at the time or any time after.

One more point to remember. Southerners, with some exceptions, had not been as ardent about it as northerners about the union.

The union, one has to remember, was a northern initiated project more or less pushed on foot-dragging southerners. Once a united northerners took that road, the international community would have had no qualms to recognized a born-again Somaliland.

What was expected from SNM/Somaliland

The SNM/Somaliland could have cultivated a genuine effort to make the secession acceptable to the unionist clans after they took over the north. What if the SNM/Somaliland could have established an inclusive Somaliland for all its stakeholders, that all its people, clans and regions were treated equal and at peace- with each other, where all the human rights abuses associated with the military regime were banished, a Somaliland that´s true to its past as the heart of Somalism, a beacon to all Somali lands in the Horn?

If such hypothetical assumptions were to be true, one has to ask how many of the Dhulbahante people in the SSC regions, taking them as an example among the non-Isaak unionist clans, would  still remain opposed to Somaliland or attached to a union:

  •  Aware that the union exists only in name, one-sided and not mutual,
  •  Aware that the North and South had been de facto separate entities for 32  years, not because SNM so dictated but because Mogadishu is averse to it
  • Aware that the refusal to expand the federal system to the north and include entities like the SSC, or the fact the federal government is reluctant to set foot and rule anywhere in the north, not even the largely free areas like Buuhoodle District and almost all of Makhir in Sanaag, are all indicative of the meaninglessness of the union,
  • Aware that while they had been ignored all along despite their unionist allegiance, some of the leaders in Mogadishu have been, and continue to be openly more sympathetic to the secessionists,
  • Aware that they receive nothing from Mogadishu, and that even international aid meant for the north is denied to them.

If such were the choices, one can only surmise that they would be rational, put their interest first, and opt for Somaliland, rather than a nominal union unreciprocated in Mogadishu. So would I, speaking for myself and as a long-standing opponent.

President Bihi of Somalaliland

Dr Ali Khalif Galaydh, Khatumo’s former President, sought the kind of Somaliland sketched or as he put it “Somaliland la wada leeyahay” (A Somaliland fairly shared by its people). He got no where with the current leader in Hargeisa, Muse Bihi, who believes the victor takes all.

What failed the secession

What defeated the secession to achieve its ends is not the central government in Mogadishu which largely turned its back on the union and some of its leaders even condone it, nor the international community which, if anything, sustained it with disproportionate unconditional aid, nor the unionist clans who, though not embracing the secession, have not otherwise challenged it.

What failed the secession instead are its own sponsors, the SNM/Somaliland, through their follies and misguided policies. When they could have gone for winning the hearts and the minds of the other clans by forging reconciliation, equally and a common nation, it got carried away with vainglorious triumphalism after the ousting of Siyad Barre which they falsely claimed credit.

From Victim to victimizer: One-clan rule.

Rather than taking the right way that promised a united connected Somaliland and good prospects to gain recognition, the SNM/Somaliland went instead on the wrong track from the outset. On replacing the ousted military government in the north, they embarked on a three-pronged directions: impose colonial-like one-clan rule, secondly taking revenge and committing massacres on unionist communities in places like Dila, Borama in Awdal (1991) both Awdal region, and at Hudun in Sool, and thirdly ethnic cleansing entailing both land grab and concomitant massacres as happened in Kalshaale in Buuhoodle region and now happening in Lascanod. Different crimes of different degree and duration took under different leaders, but Colonel Musa Bihi is by far the worst.

Muse Bihi, the Idi Amin of Somaliland

Nothing attests to SNM/Somaliland’s blind, senseless and self-defeating brutalities than what they had been doing in Lascanod since their leader Muse Bihi took office. Bearing in mind that Lascanod, unlike Buuhoodle did, not resist the occupation in 2007, and that at no other time since them did it openly challenge the occupation until the uprising, why then wouldn’t they appreciate this, let sleeping dogs lie, and if anything reward the city for its tolerance?. Only an Idi Amin type could ruin all that and that is Muse Bihi.

Colonel Bihi’s True Agenda of Lascanod

Colonel Bihi’s victims in Lascanod might see him as a sadistic blood-thirsty monster, killing them for its own sake. This is after all the man who once said: ”why would I need to heed peace when I can spill blood and get my way?”. His soulmate, Idi Amin, expelled the entire Asians population from Uganda in 1972. And like him, colonel Bihi  emptied Lascanod of all its residents hailing originally from southern Somalia. His agenda is to do the same with its native Dhulbahante population – “ethnic-cleansing” in today’s parlance.

To be fair to him, ethnic-cleansing the SSC people predates his rule and represents in essence an SNM goal from the outset. It was their guru, Haji Abdo Waraabe, who pioneered the slogan: “Dhul ma guuro ee dadkaa guura” (Land doesn’t shift away but it is its people who should move away”. That was what was behind the massacre at Kalshaale as they tried it implement their policy and also capture Buuhoodle. It failed albeit at high cost in human blood. Today, Buuhoodle remains free and unconquered, flying the national flag.

Colonel Bihi, when he came to power, chose Lascanod as a better target for ethnic-cleansing. First because it was already occupied and proved submissive to all SNM colonial-like rule. Secondly because of its larger fixed urban population. Unlike the Kalshaale, whose nomads will always remain around and never abandon their land, those urbanised Lascanod residents are unlikely to return, once removed, so long as SNM ruled their land.

Extrajudicial targeted assassinations.

Extra-judicial targeted assassinations turned out to be the most fearful weapon among SNM/Somaliland array of repressive measures against the residents of Lascanod. 150 of the city’s most prominent people were assassinated. None of the killers were ever found and no effort was made to do so.

It’s obvious that SNM/Somaliland security forces, the killers themselves executing their government’s policy, would not investigate their actions or admit to it. Fear drove many people to quit their city and go elsewhere in Somalia or abroad. None of the members of their two houses of parliament in Hargeisa, nor their media, or prominent traditional leaders, ever raised the issue or campaigned against it. This amounts to a collective conspiracy against the city and the wider SSC community.

The uprising for freedom

The assassination of another prominent young man, better known as Hadraawi, was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. This led to instantaneous protest by stone-throwing teenagers expressing their anger but otherwise no threat to the occupier. If they were left alone to give vent to their anger that could have been the end of the story. Restraint however is considered as weakness by an arrogant occupying force used over the years to act as law unto themselves, with free hands to illtreat the locals as they please.

When tear gas could have disbursed the protesters, the occupying militia  resorted instead to live ammunition, and heavy weapons at that, firing at the kids at point-blank, killing dozens of them in two days. That triggered the blue uprising when the town’s people came out with their guns, some waving the national flag, and chased out the SNM/Somaliland militia from most of the town. The rest is history. Today, the remnants of the occupier’s militia are holed up in Gooje Adde, their last ditch outside Lascanod, fighting a lost a cause but their days are numbered.

Massacres have parallels in history, and have been known to bring the downfall of their perpetrators. There was the Amritsar massacre when, in April 1919, British forces fired at a large gathering of unarmed Indians demanding political reform. 378 of them were killed and more than 1200 wounded. It served as a catalyst for India’s campaign for independence under Mahatma Gandhi which ended British colonial rule. Similarly, there was the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa when on in April 1960 police opened fire on a group of people, mostly youngsters, protesting peacefully against oppressive Apartheid laws. 250 of them were killed or wounded. It too marked the beginning of the end of Apartheid albeit after 30 years. The massacre of teenagers in Lascanod has also ushed the uprising which almost, as of now, ended SNM/Somaliland occupation of SS-Khatumo lands. It may do more, and even bring the collapse of Somaliland as its clan fight now over denied election and one-man dictatorship.

The occupier’s response to the uprising

When in 1960 the people in British Somaliland asked their freedom from their coloniser, the British graciously agreed on the spot and not only that but with continued friendship and aid. When the people of Lascanod similarly asked their freedom from their colonising supposedly brothers, their response was what no coloniser in Africa, when asked freedom, ever did as SNM/Somaliland did – to destroy the city, sparing no mosques, hospitals, schools, water supply and power supplies, etc. With such merciless action, the residents could only run for their lives. Today, almost 300,000 of them are displaced, languishing in the bush, or are refugees across borders. For the SSC-Khatumo people, this mindboggling barbarity is the last nail in the coffin for the SSC to ever be part of Somaliland in any form, inside or outside Somalia.

What was the message of the uprising

The uprising came to be known as the blue revolution because of the sight of the streets of Lascanod thronged with thousands of people waving the Somal national flag. They were first and foremost rising against the tyranny of SNM/Somaliland for nearly 15 years that was becoming more and more unbearable. The rose up in the end to be free from that occupation and to their own masters. That is what the uprising was mainly all about.

They people did not primarily rise up to defend their union with Mogadishu. If that was the case they would not have been idle all these years that SNM/Somaliland occupied Lascanod. And they had less motivation to defend the union when its custodian in Mogadishu turned their back on it and if anything sided with the enemy of the union.

In coming out with the flag, they were identifying with the wider Somali unity that the five-pointed star symbolizes. In their eyes, their Dervish forefathers fought for the unity of the Somali people, not unity with Mogadishu per se, and that is what the flag represents. They were sending a message to all and sundry that they are part of that wider unity, and for that reason cannot belong by force to one secessionist clan’s enclave that rejects the unity of the Somali nation (which encompasses Somalia’s unity), and even less one that has given them hell, killing their flower generation as if they were rats.

The chicken has come to home to roost for SNM/Somaliland

What goes up comes down. So is the rise and imminent fall of SNM/Somaliland. As southern Somalia sunk into turmoil and disaster, bringing down both the government and the State, in contrast the one-clan SNM ruled enclave exhibited in its heyday an outwardly impressive but faulty façade, parading all the paraphernalia of democracy, albeit confined to the clan. Such display of superficial democracy was not born out of genuine belief in it but meant for the benefit of their westerners backers/admirers. They got their reward and would be cited as an oasis of peace and a beacon of democracy (they are neither today). With such praise, they persuaded themselves that recognition was round the corner. It never came after 32 years playing to the western gallery and it will never do any time in the future.

The enclave chose to close their eyes to the fact that a Somaliland, in which all its clans are onboard, united on both the secession from Somalia and the quest for recognition, by first creating an inclusive Somaliland, shared equitably by all its clans, was a necessary condition for recognition. No country will recognize one clan whatever false pretenses they make that they represent or speak for all others.

Some would say creating a Somaliland united on secession is mission impossible. Others could say it has never been tried. What they chose instead was to have their cake and eat too: maintaining their one-clan rule and at the same time pursuing recognition. It’s that failure to achieve a united Somaliland which denied them recognition.

Recognition is now out of the question with Makhir and Khatumo-SSC gone, and Awdal likely to follow suit. Once these pillars are gone, what is left is the clan’s rump  which is already in turmoil and could fall apart. Somaliland was born from the chaos of Somalia’s civil war. The chicken has come home to roost and what they saw they are reaping. At least Somalia exists albeit with a -government confined to Mogadishu. But Somaliland, as an SNM/one-clan polity shall perish from its own self-inflicted failures.

The union cannot be taken for granted even if SNM/Somaliland is out of the way- The problem lies in Mogadishu and no longer in Hargeisa.

Last words

Out of the failures pervading Somali capitals and their failed leaders, comes Khatumo- SSC victorious, the one the trio, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, Muse Bihi and Ismail Omar Geelle colluded to eliminate for the sake of Somaliland.

Emerging from its revolution and liberation, it’s truly, unlike Somaliland, a beacon of democracy – witness the formation of its administration- and a symbol for Somali unity and brotherhood. All those who value these bonds should support it.

Osman Hassan
Email: [email protected]

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Osman Hassan is a seasoned journalist and a former UN staff member. Mr Hassan is also a regular contributor to WardheerNews.


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