Somaliland – the pull of terror – ISN

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Somaliland flag (ISN)

Somaliland flag (ISN)

Recent terror attacks in the self-styled independent Somaliland could be designed to destabilize the secessionist region, dragging it into Somalia’s brutal quagmire, Simon Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.

Somaliland is not Somalia. Ever since Somalia fell apart in the early 1990s that has been the message hammered out by Hargeisa’s would-be officials, who would be officially officials if Somaliland was ever officially recognized.

The latter has not yet happened, despite Somaliland’s relative stability and nascent democracy – casting the rest of what was Somalia more clearly as the wanton haven for pirates, warlords, terrorists and chronic suffering that it is – with over 3 million people homeless due to fighting, and aid workers a constant target for murder and kidnap.

Somaliland has a working political system, government institutions and its own currency. It also has a 740-kilometer coastline along the Red Sea – a vital outlet for Ethiopia, which has been landlocked since the Eritrean secession in 1993.

Somaliland’s democratic transition began in May 2001 with a plebiscite on a new constitution that introduced a multiparty electoral system, and continued in December 2002 with local elections that were widely described as open and transparent. Presidential elections held in 2003 were seen as another milestone, with nearly half a million voters casting ballots in one of the closest polls ever conducted in the region, and the would-be state is gearing up for general elections due next year.

While Somalia was riven by, inter alia, vicious clans, aid-stealing warlords, al-Qaida, an invading Ethiopian army and a weak but internationally-backed transitional government, Somaliland was holding successive rounds of elections, with both winners and losers sticking to the rules. This was laid on a bedrock of traditional authorities showing leadership and maturity, the utilization of indigenous means of negotiation and a measured, positive-sum view of inter-clan rivalries.

Unlike its now-archetypal failed-state neighbor to the south, Somaliland not only has emerged with the basic trappings of self-government, it has some solid legal grounding upon which to build a case for sovereignty.

In 1960, Somaliland was independent for a few days, between the end of British colonial rule and its union with the former Italian colony of Somalia (southern Somalia). Forty years later, in 2001, voters in the territory overwhelmingly backed Somaliland’s independence in a referendum. Somaliland declared its independence from the rest of the Somali Republic in May 1991, following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of its leech regime in Mogadishu.

Somaliland voluntarily joined with its newly independent southern counterpart (the former UN Trust Territory of Somalia that was a former Italian colony) to create the present-day Republic of Somalia. Somalilanders note that they voluntarily joined a union after independence, and that, under international law, they should have the right to abrogate that union, as they did in 1991.

But without official recognition from other states, Somaliland, to its chagrin, is still Somalia. For now, that is in name only, and things could change, both for the better, as Hargeisa sees it, or for worse.

Maybe not by the fiat of international law or African Union pressure, or even by some powerful and dominant entity taking control in Mogadishu, but Somaliland could become Somalia – in the reductionist, pejorative sense, with country name used as synonym for terror-wracked failed state.

It would be a shame, but that seems to be the method-in-madness rationale behind recent terror attacks in Hargeisa – and in pirate-alley Puntland, a region in Somalia that claims increased autonomy, but not outright independence, from the barely existing transitional government in Mogadishu.

On 30 October, just days after the Ethiopian and US-backed transitional government signed an agreement in Nairobi with some of the Islamist opposition – a potential landmark given that both sides were at war in 2006, when the Islamic Courts Union tried to take control of Somalia by force before the Ethiopian Army intervened – five near-simultaneous and apparently coordinated suicide attacks struck high-profile targets in Hargeisa and in Bosasso, the economic capital of the neighboring region of Puntland.

In Hargeisa, the bombs targeted the presidential palace, the UN Development Programme’s compound and Ethiopia’s diplomatic representation, killing 19 people on the spot.

Somaliland is a US ally, and as such is seen by Somalia’s hardline Islamists, most notably the misnamed al-Shebaab (“the lads” or “the youth”) group – which opposed the Nairobi talks – as a perfidious abomination backed by an Addis Ababa bent on further breaking up the historic “Greater Somalia,” which should include the Somali-speaking Ogaden in Ethiopia and parts of northern Kenya, not just Somalia as mapped today.

Somaliland has perhaps been designated an easy target by an al-Shebaab seeking vengeance for the 1 May US airstrike that killed its leader, Aden Hashi Ayro, in the central Somali town of Dusamareeb. That hit came just weeks after the US State Department designated al-Shebaab as a “global terrorist entity.” Afghanistan-trained Ayro was linked to the murder of 16 foreigners, including a number of aid workers and BBC journalist Kate Peyton.

Reacting to the assassination, David Shinn from Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University told ISN Security Watch last May that “I have no doubt that al-Shebaab will attempt to avenge Ayro’s death by attacking American, Kenyan and/or Ethiopian interests in the region.”

The US has not moved on recognizing its unofficial ally Somaliland, out of deference to the African Union, which places a priori value on state sovereignty and integrity, even though both are effectively history in Somalia. What is an effective, relatively free and de facto sovereign state, is denied recognition as such, in favor of a fractious, war-torn country where the state has had at best limited control over the past decade and a half.

If Somalia’s Islamist terror groups have their way, Somaliland’s strong case for recognition will be dismantled – not by Somalia arguing a compelling counter-suit, but by undermining the real democratic and governance gains made by Hargeisa since 1991. This will drag Somaliland into the violent struggles over faith, fatherland, turf and tribe that have made Somalia the failed state par excellence since the early 1990s.

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