Somaliland: legitimate orphan state yet built on chaos and terrorism

Somaliland: legitimate orphan state yet built on chaos and terrorism

By Ali Hindi

Translated into English by the Center for Arab Progress 

Executive Summary:

The Republic of Somaliland, Somaliland, or British Somaliland, are all definitions used to describe this republic that remained outside of international recognition. It was identified as a rebel state against the Federal Republic of Somalia from 1993 till this day. Additionally, Somaliland has this bizarre geographic positioning for its four million people with an institutional set up for a fully-fledged state.  It has an area of 68,000 square miles, extending along the Gulf of Aden coast to the east, along the western border there is Ethiopia. It is bordering Djibouti from the north and Somaliland Territory of Puntland from the south.

Somaliland lacked any international and regional recognition ever since its independence from the “mother” state. Given that the United Nations and the European Union require the consent of the African Union, who in return require approval from the Mogadishu Government. This was also the case with Eritrea and South Sudan, when Ethiopia and Republic of Sudan considered a referendum for their independence.


Somaliland gained its independence from Britain in 1960, yet, they were then joined to the Italian colonial power and formed the Republic of Somalia. This is when Mohamed Siad Barre came to power in 1969, and claimed to rule through a centralized leftist regime. At the time, Somalia got entangled in a series of wars with Ethiopia and Kenya, which generated governmental policies that gave birth to armed opposition. In 1980, the Somali National Movement was established in the north of Somalia. Consequently, this led to the fall of the Barre regime in 1991. Then the armed forces of the north declared independence and became the foundation of the Government of the Somaliland.

The question here is how did this rebellion against the centrist-state create dissonance among the members of the same tribe? This questioning would require to go through defining what Somaliland is and what its tribal structure is.

Components of the Somali National Movement

The Somali National Movement was formed from all the tribes living in Somaliland, with a numerical majority of the Isaaq tribe. The first founding initiative for the country was the Grand Conference on National Reconciliation was held in the city of Borama in the north near the borders of Ethiopia, in 1993. It was done in the presence of representatives of the tribal elders. The conference resulted in the declaration of an independent Somaliland state in October 1993.  Also, the conference brought an end to the Abdirahman Ahmed Ali Tuur presidency for the Somali National Movement, which is a branch of the Garhajis from the Isaaq tribe. Subsequently, Mohammed Haji Egal was chosen from the Habar Awal from the Isaaq tribe for the presidency. Moreover, the conference recommended drafting a constitution for the country.

The majority of the population of this country constitutes from the Isaaq tribe, and this large tribe is divided into a number of branches which are:

  • The Garhajis to which belongs to the Habar Yoonis and Eidagale sub-branches
  • The Habar Awal and its sub-branches Saad Musa and Issa Musa
  • The Habar je’lo
  • The Arap
  • The Ayoub

The other tribes or clans that make up Somaliland are:

  • The Harti tribe, a tribal joint with Puntland
  • The Godabirsi tribe
  • The Gabooye tribe
  • The Issa tribe: that stretches across the border with Djibouti
  • The Fiqishini tribe


The Elections and the Configuration of the Political Parties

The first elections in the republic were held in 2003 where the United Peoples’ Democratic Party won. It was run by Dahir Riyal Kahin, who is a member of the Godabirsi tribe and became the first elected president for Somaliland. In the second place came the Peace, Unity, and Development Party headed by Ahmed Mahmoud Silyano, who is from the Habar Je’lo branch from the Isaaq tribe. In the third place came Faysal Ali Waraabe from the Justice and Development Party, which had a very narrow support base.

In subsequent elections such as in 2010, Ahmed Mahmoud Silyano won, the head of the Peace, Unity, and Development Party. Whereas Dahir Riyal Kahin came in second place, and Faysal Ali Warabi came in third place again.

As for the 2017 elections, the victory went to the Peace, Unity, and Development Party again. Yet, it was run by the leadership of Musa Bihi Abdi from the branch of the Habar Awal from the Isaaq tribe. Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi came in second place running the Waddani Party, who belongs to the Garhajis branch of the Isaaq tribe. Yet again, the Justice and Development Party came in third place.

The Background and Ramifications of the Tribal Conflict

Returning back to the implications of the Borama conference in 1993, which proved that the Garhajis had reservations against appointing Mohamed Hajji Egal as Prime Minister.  These objections soon turned into indignation from the Garhajis, who were representatives of the Habar Yoonis and Eidagale branch. They believed that the steps taken by Egal after assuming presidency created an imbalance in their representation in the military and civilian institutions of the Somali National Movement. Thus, the Somali National Movement later became the basis of the government, and it was clear that the Habar Awal were granted the basic sovereign functions in the government. The Garhajis were threatened by the granting of power and wealth to their opponents from the Habar Awal.

Consequently, in mid-October of 1994, violence erupted in the capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa, which is part of the regions of the Garhajis people. The conflict was between militias belonging to Abdirahman Ahmed Ali Tuur and government forces (which were formed from other branches of the Isaaq tribe and other tribes). This resulted in hundreds of people being killed and injured. Then the violence spread to the outskirts to include the city of Borau.

Based on these events, Abdirahman Ahmed Ali Tuur moved in alliance with General Mohammed Farah Aidid in the south, who was part of the Somali civil war. The General also commanded an armed movement to capture Mogadishu. All of which led the Habar Yoonis (from the Garhajis) to be cornered into surrendering to the sovereignty of the Somaliland.

At the same time, there were an unexpected turn of events on the ground when other branches of the Isaaq tribe and other tribes came together to unanimously criminalize the Garhajis people. This is when Musa Bihi Abdi, the current head of state (won elections in 2017) and the man of war, along the Minister of Interior chosen by Egal, led the battles against them. This resulted in the exodus of the Garhajis in large numbers from Hargeisa and Burau, who then took refuge in Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, there were mediations conducted by the Senate and tribe elders to solve the rift, gradually bring the Garhajis back to their lands and activate their role in public life again. The Waddani party (which came in second in previous presidential elections) were mostly composed of the Garhajis people.

The Rebellion of Colonel Saed Awal Ari

In 2010 elections, Mohamed Mahmoud Silano (from the Habar je’lo branch from the Isaaq tribe) won and assumed the presidency of the government. Following that, a discord emerged between the Garhajis and Habar je’lo, which was a result of years of conflict. All intensified when the Habar je’lo supported the government of Egal against General Abdirahman Ahmed Ali Tuur during the events in mid-1990.

Additionally, the tensions led to resurgence in the acts of violence between the Garhajis and government forces. Voices against policies of discrimination that were about Garhajis representation in government appeared again. However, mediations continued to play a pivotal role in calming the situation, until Musa Bihi Abdi from Habar Awal won the presidential elections in 2017.  This resulted in an explicit alliance between Habar Awal and Habar je’lo making the tilt of power in favor of Musa Bihi over his opponent Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi from the Garhajis. Then Musa Bihi Abdi appointed Mohamed Kahin Ahmed from the Habar je’lo as minister of interior which further fueled the differences between the branches of the same tribe.

The last half of the year of 2018 also witnessed an escalation in the confrontation between the government forces and members of the Garhajis. It included the seizure of the Garhajis properties which is where the government was tolerant with those involved in the attacks. This then instilled feelings of injustice and discrimination among the Garhajis, and that the government is systematically targeting them.

A few months later, Colonel Saed Ari from the Garhajis declared his rebellion against the military establishment. He described them as accomplices with the Habar Awal and Habar je’lo.  Colonel Ari then formed an alliance with the forces in Qardho in Puntland (which is outside of the Somaliland jurisdiction). Within two months he returned with an armed militia comprised of 400-600 men, with medium and light weapons. They were protected by the mountain ranges of the Bossa area with a majority of Garhajis people, and Saanaj area which was an area that witnessed a fierce battle over its ownership with Puntland in mid-2018.

Puntland is a disputed area where the Somaliland government claims it is part of it in accordance to the British colonial division. However, the Puntland administration maintains that these areas belong to the Majarteen tribe with their branches the Darout and Harti (which are tribes from the Puntland region).

Hargeisa, Burau, and their outskirts witnessed marches followed by violence in response to accounts of fierce battles in the cities of Afweyne, Erigavo, and Badhan. The reports from the Commission of Human Rights in Somaliland confirmed that the government used extreme force and various types of weapons in those battles in order to control areas rich in gold.  Considerably, the mountain ranges where Colonial Ari was protected within are of strategic importance. Given that these ranges are characterized by an abundance of drinking water and fertile plains overlooking the Gulf of Aden.

A report from the International Crisis Group warned that the border dispute between Somaliland and Puntland would give the Somali extremist group Al-Shabab the opportunity to ally itself more with ISIS cells in the area. It has been observed that these ISIS cells are active in the Puntland region. Furthermore, the reports indicate that the Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the bombings in the city of Bosaso. Later the New York Times (issued on July 22, 2019) claimed that the Qatari State had a hand in the bombings, in order to impact the UAE investments in the region. These reports were denied by Doha, yet, the person directly involved with the allegations is the Qatari businessman Khalifa Qaid Al Muhannadi, who frequently accompanies Qatari Prince Tamim.



Somaliland is significant geopolitically given its control over the Gulf of Aden through the port of Berbera. It has become a major regional player and some even claim that it is key to the Red Sea. Recognizing this reality and especially the dangers of creating hot spots for transnational terrorism, means there is a strategic threat for naval navigation and important economic activity associated to it. In other words, any organized presence of extremist armed groups leads to explosiveness in the region. Thus, this deprives the region from opportunities of economic activities and growth, in which the climate of peace between the countries is led by the Ethiopian president Dr. Abi Ahmed.

Translated from the Arabic:

جمهورية ارض الصومال:  الدولة اليتيمة المشرعة على الفوضى والإرهاب

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