BY JETHRO NORMAN. MARCH 3, 2023. The Multi-million dollar Berbera port project, is one of the recent economic investments in Somaliland. Credit Jethro Norman
The de facto state of Somaliland has earned the reputation of an island of peace, democracy and stability in an otherwise tumultuous Horn of Africa region. Yet this narrative, carefully curated over more than three decades, threatens to come crashing down with every shell that lands in the town of Las Anod. The recent conflict in the northern Somali city has been defined by increasingly polarised and irreconcilable narratives about the causes of the fighting. The Somaliland administration blames ‘terror groups’ for instigating the violence, whilst traditional authorities in Las Anod claim they are defending their community from rising insecurity and fighting for self-determination, legitimated by a widespread desire to reunite with Somalia. Yet if we want to understand the structural causes that undergird the current conflict, we need to first look to the evolving character of the Somaliland state and the consequences of greater international political and economic investment. An influx of international support in the last five years has had destabilising consequences for the unrecognised state. It has raised the stakes, intensifying internal competition amongst political elites in the centre, whilst heightening perceptions of marginalisation in peripheral regions. From this perspective, the asymmetrical violence unfolding in Las Anod is not an exercise in counterterrorism (or defence against covertly deployed forces from Somalia) as the government in Hargeisa claims, but state suppression at least partially fuelled by international support. At the core of this conflict, therefore, is the changing relationship between clan and state in the context of a recent flurry of international investment. This insight is crucial not only for ending the conflict in Las Anod, but also for reflecting on the kind of political institutions that are currently being created across the Somali territories. The article draws on fieldwork in Somaliland, including in Las Anod in summer 2021, and conversations with residents in Las Anod and across many of Somaliland’s regions during the course of the conflict.
Conflict in Las Anod
On the evening of 26 December 2022, Abdifatah Abdullahi Abdi “Hadrawi”, a popular young politician in Somaliland’s opposition party, was killed by armed gunmen as he left a mosque in the town of Las Anod. Spontaneous protests erupted, directed mostly at Somaliland officials and forces stationed in the town. As tensions grew, Somaliland forces responded to Las Anod youth throwing stones by firing live ammunition, reportedly killing as many as twenty demonstrators.
Then, on 3 January 2023, the anti-government demonstrations escalated into armed conflict following the police killing of Mohamud Ali Saadle, the bodyguard of an influential local businessman. The Somaliland forces withdrew from Las Anod to defuse the situation, whilst a committee composed of town leaders and traditional elders was appointed to deliberate on the political future of the region. On 6 February, the committee attempted to publicly announce the intention to reject Somaliland and form a federal state under Somalia, to be called SSC-Khaatumo. However, the Somaliland forces, which had taken up positions outside of Las Anod, disrupted the announcement by shelling the town.
Despite promises of a ceasefire, indiscriminate shelling has continued, damaging key infrastructure including hospitals, electricity and water supply. By some estimates, the ongoing conflict has resulted in at least 150 dead, approximately 600 wounded, and 185,000 displaced from the Dhulbahante population alone (data concerning Somaliland casualties is pending). The fighting in Las Anod has drawn widespread international condemnation and raised fears that the conflict may escalate into a regional war.
The public killing of Hadrawi was not an isolated incident, but the latest in a string of unresolved assassinations in Las Anod that are linked to decades of simmering tensions. Las Anod is the capital of Sool, a region caught between two colliding state building projects: Somaliland to the west and Puntland to the east (Hoehne, 2015). Somaliland was borne out of the Somali National Movement (SNM), a predominantly Isaaq clan guerrilla resistance that fought, in coalition with other rebel movements, against the Somali dictatorship under President Mohamed Siad Barre. In 1988 the indiscriminate bombing of major Isaaq inhabited cities of Hargeisa and Burco under Siad Barre resulted in the systematic massacre of tens of thousands of civilians. This brutal episode of violence, and the notion of a state-sponsored Isaaq genocide, is central to the narrative of Somaliland independence, which was declared in 1991 following the collapse of the Somali state (Bradbury 2008).
Over 30 years later, Somaliland remains strongly associated with the Isaaq clan. Whilst the Isaaq mostly inhabit the central regions of Somaliland, Somaliland claims the territorial border of the former British Somaliland protectorate, that also includes other clans. This is the basis for Puntland’s claim to Sool, which rests on a genealogical logic: the region is predominantly inhabited by the Dhulbahante clan, who are part of the larger Harti clan family that are the majority in Puntland. Whilst being suspended between two colliding state building trajectories can confer advantages to certain Dhulbahante elites (Hoehne 2015) it has also led to an enduring perception of political and economic marginalisation and insecurity.
A war of competing narratives
As fighting between Somaliland forces and clan militias on the outskirts of Las Anod continue, a contested and intensely polarised struggle around the dominant narrative has emerged. Fought largely through social media, this parallel war has drawn in participants from across the world, including diasporas, journalists, academics, and even rival US lobbying firms. This maelstrom of competing discourses tends towards explaining the drivers of the conflict in radically different and largely irreconcilable ways.
To make sense of this, we need to understand that the success of Somaliland rests in no small part on the efforts of an influential Hargeisa-centred elite and Somali-landers in the diaspora who have successfully produced and sustained a powerful narrative of statehood, inclusivity and peace in juxtaposition to (and in part because of) prevailing international understandings of chaos and violence in Somalia. Somaliland has – quite rightly – been lauded for its (relatively) democratic elections and largely successful attempts to keep the peace. For example, as Somaliland celebrated its 30 year anniversary two years ago, a steady stream of journalistic and academic pieces heaped praise upon the de facto state, describing it as ‘a miracle on the Horn of Africa’, and ‘a beacon of democracy’.
Clearly Somaliland’s shelling of its own citizens in Las Anod fits uneasily with this carefully curated image of peace and stability. That this narrative crisis for Somaliland might now be existential is reflected in the increasingly strained attempts to explain the conflict to the wider world. The Somaliland administration has consistently sought to frame itself as engaged in a counterterror operation. The President, Muse Bixi, repeatedly called the protesters terrorists, strongly implying Al-Shabaab was behind the unrest and downplaying the scale of popular support. Then, forces from Somalia and Puntland were alleged to be involved. Recently, a new bogeyman has been evoked: China, we are told, might be fomenting the unrest. This discourse has found some purchase within the international media. For example, one widely shared analysis oscillates between baseless allegations of Chinese involvement, and a highly reductionist claim that the current fighting can be explained by Darood/Dhulbahante power loss in 1991. These confused narratives disregard legitimate Dhulbahante grievances and obscure the underlying issues around resource sharing and decades of perceived marginalisation.
To be clear: there is no doubt that some Dhulbahante figures are playing on these tensions and inciting violence. There is also a real threat that, in the future, Al-Shabaab, who have operatives across the Somali territories and thrive in contexts of instability, might try to exploit the situation. Yet none of this means that there are not legitimate grievances in Sool that remain unaddressed and often unacknowledged. Nor does it mean that the solution is to shell the city into submission.
If we want to actually understand the Dhulbahante position, we could do worse than to look at the Las Anod declaration released on 6 February by the 33-member committee and 13 traditional elders appointed to represent the different Dhulbahante subclans. The Las Anod declaration rejected Somaliland’s claim to independence and announced the intention to form a federal state under Somalia, to be called SSC-Khaatumo. The document appeals to principles of self-determination and international law, and effectively announces Dhulbahante self-government. Thus far, most of the discussion of these demands has focused on this political desire to reunite with Somalia, and debate over the right to self-determination in the context of the legal status of Somaliland’s breakaway from Somalia in 1991. However, the declaration also highlights two very specific grievances related to the position of Las Anod within the Somaliland state building project: insecurity and economic underdevelopment.
The first concerns a string of unresolved assassinations that have targeted prominent intellectuals, businessmen and high-ranking officials. By some accounts, the killing of Hadrawi was the latest in over 100 killings which began in 2009 but have increased in recent years. A lot of rumour surrounds these killings, and it is unclear whether one group or multiple groups are involved. However, there is a widespread perception within the Dhulbahante community that the Somaliland administration is either directly behind or implicitly enabling the killings. They argue that Somaliland has a large military and police presence in Las Anod, yet there have been no meaningful arrests for the assassinations. The second grievance concerns what the declaration calls an ‘economic embargo’ imposed by Somaliland designed to restrict the presence of international development agencies in the east and concentrate resources in Somaliland’s central, Isaaq inhabited regions. This has led some to argue that the assassinations were part of the strategy to divide the Dhulbahante and maintain a perception of insecurity in the east.
It is important to stress these are only rumours. There have been long-standing divisions within the Dhulbahante, and a significant number of those assassinated were from a largely pro-Somaliland subclan. Yet whilst the veracity of these claims remains unclear, what ultimately matters for understanding the present crisis is the narrative. Economic underdevelopment and insecurity are inherently interlinked issues that are the key to understanding the current conflict, and its resolution. These twin issues have intensified in recent years in tandem with an influx of international economic and political assistance to Somaliland.
Increasing international engagement
In its three-decade search for international recognition, Somaliland has long lamented a lack of international funding. Indeed, a lack of international investment is central to Somaliland’s narrative as a standout example of self-governance that has succeeded against the odds.Academics have also suggested that, contra the conventional wisdom of the World Bank, the absence of international aid at the crucial moment of Somaliland’s political formation may paradoxically be a key reason for its success. Whilst this may have been true for Somaliland’s early years, it is no longer the case. Buoyed by promises of peace and stability, international partners including the US, the United Kingdom, the EU, the UAE and Taiwan have all announced various infrastructure, trade and military cooperation initiatives and increased their diplomatic presence in Hargeisa.
From 2018–2024 (overlapping largely with the term of the current President of Somaliland, Muse Bihi) the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway pledged $38 million for infrastructure projects in Somaliland. The multi-million-dollar investment by UAE’s DP World is transforming Berbera port into a 1 million container trade hub, and by linking it to Ethiopia (via Hargeisa) with a 250km motorway, is anticipated to reshape the regional economy. The number of nations setting up diplomatic missions within Somaliland has grown, whilst Somaliland has generated a noticeable presence in Washington through certain conservative think tanks and lobby groups. The United Kingdom has funded and trained an elite police unit, the Rapid Response Unit (RRU), whilst Washington is reportedly also interested in using Berbera port as a new military base. Finally, in early January 2023 oil was discovered in Somaliland’s central Maroodi Jeex region, further raising expectations of a lucrative new revenue stream for the fledgling Somaliland state.
This accelerating international engagement has had destabilising consequences for Somaliland that have come to a head under the current administration. Firstly, the recent influx of foreign investment and political engagement has renewed hopes of international recognition for the de facto state. This has raised the stakes, and intensified competition over the state and amongst powerful local business actors. In the flagship Berbera port deal, for example, the Somaliland government contentiously overrode the concerns of local non-state actors (Musa and Horst, 2019). This has political consequences, too. Somaliland’s democratic elections are often heralded by international partners as stand-out examples in a wider region defined by authoritarianism. Yet a political crisis emerged in 2022 over delayed elections, highlighting increasingly fractious internal competition within the Isaaq sub-clans over the state. There were arbitrary detentions of traditional leaders, and in anti-government demonstrations in Hargeisa in August 2022, five civilians were killed in clashes with security forces. The British funded RRU was implicated in these killings as well as in the shooting of protesters in Las Anod at the end of 2022. Much like in Las Anod, Muse Bixi has branded these protesters in Hargeisa as terrorists too. The net result is that politics has become far more of a zero-sum game. Commentators have been correct to observe that customary clan law known as xeerhas been key to the peace making process that rendered Somaliland a viable political settlement. Yet one effect of increasing international investment is to undermine this system by further eroding the tradition of consensus building that was the foundation of the 1991 peace pact. Indeed, it is telling that the Garhajis, an Isaaq sub-clan who form the basis of Somaliland’s two opposition parties, publicly condemned the violence in Las Anod.
If the increased stakes of statehood have resulted in intra-Isaaq divisions in the centre, then it has done the opposite in the peripheries: uniting previously divided groups against Somaliland. It seems that the suddenly realisable prospect of recognition has infused a sense of urgency amongst those who viewed the project as a useful way of keeping the peace, but never seriously considered that it might become an independent nation.
The Dhulbahante are a case in point. The idea of a counter-administration has been around for a long while, and the Dhulbahante effectively governed themselves for much of the 1990s and early 2000s (Hoehne 2015: 54). This was formalised with the establishment of the Sool, Sanaag and Cayn (SSC) administration in 2009, followed by the short-lived Khaatumo administration in 2015. In recent years, support for a counter-administration has waxed and waned. An agreement was reached with Somaliland in 2017 seemed to cement the integration of the region into Somaliland. Yet since the escalation of the crisis in Las Anod over the past six weeks, every Dhulbahante I have spoken to, whether in Las Anod or the diaspora, insists that support for SSC-Khaatumo is now uniform. This includes several individuals who were not previously supporters of Khaatumo. There is a growing perception not only within the east but also in the western regions, that the state is becoming more Isaaq dominated. Awdal region, where Isse and Gadabursi clans predominate, is represented by only 13 MPs, compared to 56 in the Hargeisa region. There are currently no MPs elected from the Warsangeli subclan, who live mostly in eastern Sanaag, members of whom recently joined the Dhulbahante forces fighting in Las Anod.
Much of the recent infrastructural development is also concentrated in the centre. The Berbera corridor for example, cuts a neat line of economic opportunity from Berbera, through Hargeisa, and into Ethiopia (see Hagmann and Stepputat 2023). Travel west from Berbera 120km down the coast to Lughaya and Zeila, and the Berbera corridor is met with indifference, or outright hostility. Infrastructure here is almost non-existent, with much traveling taking place along dry riverbeds. Somaliland’s claim to sovereignty rests on a territorial logic, derived from the borders of the former British colonial protectorate. Yet in economic terms, it increasingly appears more like a city state (Hargeisa) with an appended port (Berbera). Finally, recent oil discoveries have further raised the stakes. From 2013 to 2015 sporadic oil exploration in eastern Somaliland’s Nugaal valley faltered due to fears of insecurity and the risk of violent conflict. Yet now, the discovery of oil proximate to Hargeisa threatens to further entrench the economic power of the centre at the expense of the margins.
Las Anod water supply spearheaded by Dhulbahante community and diaspora. Credit Jethro Norman
Consequences for Las Anod
The present-day conflict in Las Anod must be understood within the context of intensifying clan competition over state resources as a consequence of accelerated international engagement. The ‘economic embargo’ and assassinations that are front and centre to the Khaatumo declaration reflect a widespread narrative that Somaliland has an interest in creating insecurity in the region to keep diaspora investors and international development actors out of the region. As previously mentioned, it is impossible to verify the truth of these claims, and it is beyond the scope of this article to do so. Rather, this article will show how this narrative of manufactured insecurity and economic marginalisation has intensified following the expansion of the Somaliland state through increasing international investment.
When NGOs do manage to travel to Las Anod, they are officially advised to stay in Aynabo, a nearby Isaaq town, and to only travel into Las Anod during the day. Locals argue this reinforces perceptions of insecurity and takes business away from Dhulbahante. This charge is not entirely fair as the situation is also a consequence of the UN and aid agencies’ own increasingly stringent security policies. Moreover, beginning under the former presidency of Silanyo (2010-17) there were some efforts to develop Las Anod through government funded projects and international aid agencies. Notably, this has included the rehabilitation of Nugaal university, the general hospital, several roads, and a hybrid solar power plant. Nonetheless, this investment is still perceived to be a fraction of that invested in Somaliland’s central heartlands. Moreover, the alleged ‘economic embargo’ on the east goes beyond development projects. For example, in 2022 there were 97 scholarships available for Somaliland students to study abroad at Ethiopian universities. Only one was awarded to a student from Sool region.
Strategically situated at the mouth of the Nugaal valley, Las Anod has the potential to become a major trading hub. In the last few years the city has enjoyed a spurt of economic growth, driven in large part by increasing diaspora investment. Important infrastructure such as the water supply, a number of hospitals, the electric company, and even roads leading to and from Las Anod have been spearheaded by the local Dhulbahante community and their relatives in the diaspora. This includes a large real estate project modelled on US-style gated communities, as well as several new high-end hotels. Land prices have soared, and each summer more diaspora members return to Las Anod. Yet an economically growing Las Anod has been interpreted as a threat to Hargeisa, both economically and in terms of leading towards greater Dhulbahante demands for autonomy. Thus, the narrative goes, Somaliland enables the assassinations in Las Anod (mentioned above) to continue. The assassinations have been a feature of the town for over a decade, but in the last five years have been increasing during the current (2017–) administration.
In October 2021, the Somaliland administration expelled en massean important group of several hundred traders from Las Anod. The traders were from a clan that mostly lives in southern Somalia called the Rahanweyn, who have in the past been vilified as Al-Shabaab collaborators. Again, whilst evidence is scarce, rumour is plentiful. The Rahanweyn were an important business community in Las Anod and some Dhulbahante interpreted their expulsion an attempt by Somaliland to undermine the growing economic power of Las Anod and scapegoat them for the killings. This is consistent with the narrative that the assassinations were also intended to scare off diaspora investors and prevent the town becoming a rising business hub. However, there is another narrative that Dhulbahante traders were being outcompeted, and themselves orchestrated the deportations.
Another example of how economic competition was intensifying in the run up to the conflict in Las Anod concerns the lucrative khat business. In Las Anod, every morning you can watch the daily khat delivery flying in from Kenya, landing at the airport just outside of town. Until recently, the khat business was monopolised by a prominent Dhulbahante/Jama Siyad businessman, Mohammed Abdirahman Arale ‘Jabutawi’. Yet in October 2022, Somaliland apparently revoked Jabutawi’s licence to import Khat, reportedly awarding sole licence to import Kenyan khat to a company controlled by members of Somaliland’s president’s sub-clan. Jabutawi is an important figure in Las Anod. Whilst khat is his main business, he has also invested in other industries, including a prominent electricity company and a huge hotel. His business ventures are a direct source of employment for hundreds of families in Las Anod. It is significant therefore that Jabutawi was an important factor in the immediate escalation from the anti-government demonstrations into a wider conflict. The protests that began on 26 December remained largely spontaneous civilian protest until the evening of 3 January when Somaliland forces stopped and killed one of Jabutawi’s bodyguards in the centre of town. In retaliation, forces loyal to Jabutawi took up arms against the Somaliland troops and pushed them out of the city.
The current conflict continues to bear the hallmarks of this economic struggle. Notably, Somaliland forces have targeted infrastructure that has not been built by Somaliland, but by the Dhulbahante diaspora. In 2021 I visited the water supply system built by Dhulbahante diaspora that provides clean water to much of the town. I also witnessed the Las Anod community fundraising $120,000 for an oxygen plant during the Covid-19 crisis. As the conflict escalated, Somaliland troops attacked the water system, whilst shelling of the general hospital also destroyed the oxygen plant. Most recently, Sool electric plant owned by Jabutawi and Dhulbahante diaspora investors was attacked, with one worker killed and seven captured. Aside from the immediate health consequences for those still living in Las Anod, these attacks on infrastructure funded and built primarily by the Dhulbahante community clearly have an extra symbolic importance.
As the number of displaced approaches 200,000, in the midst of the dry season, a humanitarian crisis is looming. Yet communities across Sool have refused to accept any humanitarian aid that comes from Hargeisa, whether it comes from the Somaliland business community or international NGOs. They have raised concerns that aid sent through Somaliland would be diverted. Yet these communities also want to send a political message that they do not want to receive aid coming via Hargeisa anymore. This again highlights how the issue of aid and development is highly political and at the centre of grievances driving the conflict.
Conclusion and ways forward
Following six weeks of fighting in Las Anod, the narrative of peace and stability that Somaliland has carefully built over three decades is rapidly unravelling. To understand the recent violence in Somaliland we need to look at the relationship between clan and state in the context of a recent influx of international investment, and address the core interrelated grievances of insecurity and economic underdevelopment. Somaliland has functioned remarkably well if we understand it for what it is to most Somalis within its borders: a social pact amongst clans to keep the peace. However, once it becomes a serious exercise in state-building – that is, through the construction of a centralised administration and institutionalisation of political and economic hierarchy – the more repressive aspects of the state inevitably come into view. This is an insight that is crucial not only for solving the conflict in Las Anod, but also for reflecting on the kind of political order and institutions currently being created across the Somali territories.
Conflicts in the Somali territories are often explained in terms of clan. This is unquestionably an important factor in Las Anod. But focusing solely on the clan ignores how the conflict is also an issue of a rapidly expanding state structure and concomitant political instability. The central unresolved contradiction at the heart of the Somaliland project is that it is an attempt to create a multi-clan national identity in the midst of a social reality where the clan remains the dominant social structure for many people. Las Anod is not simply about Dhulbahante resistance to Isaaq domination. It is part of a generalised pattern of resistance to an encroaching state apparatus increasingly aligned with a particular clan. Over the last decade, other counter-administrations have been announced, including Awdalland State in Somaliland’s western region of Awdal, and Maakhir state in eastern Sanaag region. These have been diaspora driven initiatives, and thus far failed to galvanise popular support on the ground, but they share the same basic grievances as SSC-Khatumo, and the same aim – to form a federal member state of Somalia.
At present, there is dangerous deadlock in Las Anod. Somaliland appears unwilling to back down and leave their base at Goojacade outside of the city, whilst Dhulbahante traditional leaders will not negotiate until the troops withdraw to Oog. Trust between the two sides has almost completely broken down. Despite -or perhaps also because of – the hyperconnectivity of the conflict (the whirlwind of videos, images and WhatsApp messages through which most people come to understand the conflict) at present there remains a degree of opacity around what is actually happening on the ground in Las Anod. There are shifting geopolitical layers to the unfolding crisis, not least the alleged role of Djibouti, and speculation over how Mogadishu, specifically the recently re-elected president Hassan Sheik Mohamoud, might respond. Make no mistake: there are also global dimensions to the conflict in Somaliland too. But it is not the spectre of transnational terrorism or China that international partners should be most concerned about. Rather, it is their own skewed investment strategies, buoyed by Western imaginaries of a romanticised ‘state that does not exist’, and blind to the plurality of political voices on the ground.
And also the Fiqishiine, a Hawiye subclan that has resided in Sool since the 1960s and often intermarry with Dhulbahante.
This bears some interesting resemblance to the Sultanates of Ifat (1285–1403) and Adal (1415–1577) who similarly functioned as city states connected to ports in the region (in this instance, Zeila).
This is especially contentious because until the 1930s Aynabo was inhabited by the Dhulbahante, but they were subsequently pushed out by Isaaq/Habar Jeclo.
(see Norman, 2022 for a wider discussion of community-diaspora development)
Bradbury, M. (2008). Becoming Somaliland. https://iupress.org/9780253219978/becoming-somaliland/
Hagmann, Tobias and Finn Stepputat (eds) 2023. Trade Makes States. Governing the Greater Somali Economy. London: Hurst & Company.
Hoehne, M. V. (2015). Between Somaliland and Puntland Marginalization, militarization and conflicting political visions rift valley institute | Contested Borderlands. www.riftvalley.net
Musa, A. M., & Horst, C. (2019). State formation and economic development in post-war Somaliland: the impact of the private sector in an unrecognised state. Https://Doi.Org/10.1080/14678802.2019.1561621,19(1), 35–53. https://doi.org/10.1080/14678802.2019.1561621
Norman, J. (2022). ‘Kinshipping’: Diasporic infrastructures of connectivity, circulation, and exchange. Geoforum, 135, 93–101. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.GEOFORUM.2022.08.005
Learning from Sembène: Telling the stories that …
Jethro Norman is a postdoctoral researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. His research and fieldwork has focused on East Africa (Somalia, Somaliland, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan), with expertise in humanitarianism, security, conflict and development. Jethro’s current research covers the politics of humanitarian assistance, trade and development in the Somali territories, with a particular interest in the role of the Somali diaspora.