In February and March 2023, clashes erupted in the city of Las Anod between Somaliland forces and tribal militias aligned with the central Somali government. This marks the latest round of tensions between Somalia and Somaliland, which unilaterally declared independence from the former in May 1991. These clashes resulted in the death of 210 people with 680 more injured, and have led the international community to call for a ceasefire. A joint statement released by the US State Department called for “unhindered humanitarian access” and “constructive and peaceful dialogue.” This crisis raises many key questions regarding potential repercussions of the conflict and how it could shape the future stability of Somaliland.
Dimensions of the Crisis
There are many factors shaping the escalating political and security crisis in Somaliland, including:
1. Three Somaliland provinces want to rejoin Somalia: In early February, three Somaliland provinces, including Sool Province, indicated that they wanted to rejoin Somalia. A committee composed of 33 members and 13 sheikhs representing all tribes in the city of Las Anod (the administrative capital of Sool) announced that they wanted to becoming a federal state of Somalia. They also pledged their support for the unity and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia, and asked Somaliland to withdraw its forces from the city.
This declaration comes in response to the failure of security forces to maintain stability following a series of assassinations targeting various prominent politicians, intellectuals, businesspeople, and governmental officials. On 26 December 2022, Abdel Fatah Abdullah Abdi, a political opposition figure and member of the Waddani National Party, was killed. This led to anti-government protests which escalated into armed conflict after a local businessman’s bodyguard was also killed on 3 January 2023.
2. Rising tensions over Las Anod’s allegiance: Las Anod has experienced ongoing conflict over whether it should be aligned with Somaliland or Puntland, the neighboring semi-autonomous region. Somaliland’s claim to the city is predicated on boundaries dating back to the British Somaliland Protectorate, while Puntland’s is based on tribal links. The Isaaq tribal group is primarily located in central and southern Somaliland, while Las Anod is home to tribes including the Dhulbahante, which are part of the Harti clan. A majority of the population in Puntland belongs to the Harti, which could lead to the integration of Dhulbahante areas, including Las Anod, as part of Puntland.
A ceasefire was signed on 10 February 2023, but this has not prevented violence from continuing in Las Anod between tribal militias aligned with the Somali government and Somaliland forces. These ongoing clashes are the result of allegations from both sides of violating the ceasefire. Somaliland accused militias in Las Anod aligned with the Somali government of launching major military attacks on their bases. Meanwhile, the militias accused the Somaliland government of launching new military attacks and firing on protestors with the help of the Somaliland Police’s Rapid Response Unit (RRU), which has received funding from the UK government. This unit was established in 2012 as a counterterrorism force and has often been accused of committing human rights violations against the people.
3. Escalating opposition protests after postponement of elections: The Somaliland elections commission announced on 24 September 2022 that it would postpone presidential elections for nine months for logistical and financial reasons. These elections were set to be held on 13 November 2022. This change was due to the political crisis arising from disputes between the government and the two main opposition parties—Waddani and the Justice and Welfare Party (UCID)—over the presidential elections. This resulted in the opposition parties announcing in mid-August 2022 that they would organize mass demonstrations in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, as well as in many other Somaliland cities. During the demonstrations, there were violent clashes with police forces that resulted in at least five people being killed and about 100 more injured.
The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that Somaliland’s House of Elders (the Guurti) had announced in October 2022 that they would extend the term of the current president for two more years in order to resolve the ongoing conflict. This created uncertainty regarding when the next presidential elections were actually going to be held, and provoked significant pushback from the political opposition who refused to recognize Muse Bihi Abdi as president after 13 November 2022.
4. Regional mediation to resolve the conflict: In March 2023, Ethiopia sent a delegation to Hargeisa to meet with President Abdi and to discuss the cessation of hostilities in Las Anod. This delegation also visited Garoowe, the administrative capital of Puntland in northeastern Somalia, to hold similar meetings with tribal sheikhs and Ahmed Elmi Osman, the Vice President of Puntland. Ethiopia became involved in mediating the crisis in order to protect its own strategic interests regarding Red Sea access via the Berbera Port, which could serve as a good alternative to ports in Djibouti and Eritrea.
This is not the first time that Ethiopia has become involved in mediating crises in Somaliland. It previously hosted a meeting between then-Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmaajo) and Somaliland leader Muse Bihi Abdi in February 2020, mediated by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Ethiopia is one of only three countries (along with Djibouti and Turkey) which have diplomatic missions in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.
Djibouti has also tried to help resolve the crisis over Somaliland. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) issued an official statement to this effect on 2 February 2023. However, during this period, the opposition in Djibouti had accused President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s government of providing military equipment and advisors to Somaliland during the recent clashes. In a statement issued on 13 February, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mahamoud Ali Youssouf denied these allegations, which he said were meant to destabilize relations between Djibouti and its neighbors. He stated that the Somaliland government had not asked Djibouti to mediate in Las Anod.
It is worth noting that Djibouti has previously played an important role in negotiations between the Somali and Somaliland governments. The president of Djibouti hosted a meeting between his Somali counterpart, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, and the president of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, on 7 December 2022. This meeting aimed to restart bilateral negotiations which had originally begun in 2012. The last round of talks was held in Djibouti in 2020 without any significant results, since none of the parties were willing to compromise on their demands.
There are many potential repercussions of the escalating political and security crises in Somaliland, which could impact the Horn of Africa more broadly. The most important consequences of the conflict include:
1. Growing humanitarian costs: The continued instability in Somaliland poses a major humanitarian threat. Conditions have recently deteriorated significantly due to rising food insecurity and lack of access to basic services, since much of the infrastructure including hospitals and water, electricity, and sewage utilities have suffered extensive damage. Waves of internal displacement have also placed thousands of lives in danger. Civil protection and European humanitarian operations estimated that around 95,000 refugees and asylum-seekers have arrived in Dolo and Werder in Ethiopia from Somalia since the start of the conflict in Las Anod in early February 2023.
The UN has indicated that most refugees arriving from Somalia are women and children, and that these families have temporarily settled in around 13 locations including Bokh, Galhamur, Danod, and Woredas in the Dolo region. The rising number of displaced persons from the conflict has resulted in increased pressures on water, sewage, and sanitation, and further strain on already scarce resources. It has also led to increased incidence of waterborne illnesses due to unsanitary conditions in temporary shelters.
2. Peace negotiations with Somali federal government at a standstill: The lack of stability in Somaliland has also stalled negotiations with the central government. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre support the peace process and have called on political and societal leaders in Somaliland to engage in political dialogue to maintain stability, peace, and unity. However, their Somaliland counterparts have not shown serious interest in holding talks. For years since its declaring independence, Somaliland has not appeared willing to engage in Somali reconciliation summits. The first of these summits was held in Djibouti in 1991, while Turkey has been involved with later summits as part of its growing interest in Somalia.
3. Increased openings for Al-Shabaab militants: Al-Shabaab could take advantage of this continued instability, tribal divisions, and conflicts over resources in Somaliland to strengthen its hold over the region. For three decades, the group has been unable to infiltrate this region and stability was maintained. However, the continuing unrest will no doubt have implications for the war that the central Somali government is waging against Al-Shabaab. The Somali government’s efforts in this regard have been backed by many regional and international actors, which have helped reestablish security in many cities that had been previously been under Al-Shabaab’s control in the Lower Shabelle region in southwestern Somalia.
4. Implications for Somaliland’s efforts to achieve international recognition: The ongoing instability in Somaliland could also have negative repercussions for its efforts to achieve international recognition. This is particularly true since foreign actors are now more likely to see Somaliland in a less positive light. For more than three decades, some international players have seen Somaliland as an oasis of peace, democracy, and stability in an otherwise turbulent region. This is perhaps why Western countries have launched various initiatives in the fields of infrastructure, trade, and military cooperation, and stepped up their diplomatic presence. For example, the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway had offered $38 million for infrastructural projects in Somaliland. Somaliland has seen these foreign investments as a step towards recognition as an independent state.
There are two main scenarios for how political and security circumstances might develop in Somaliland:
1. Resolution of the current crisis: This could be achieved through mediation efforts, either by regional actors including neighboring countries such as Ethiopia or through international actors such as Norway or Turkey. This seems like a probable outcome given the involvement of many international and regional actors, including Qatar, Turkey, the UAE, the UK, and the US. These countries issue a joint statement along with Somalia on the importance of ending violence in Las Anod, maintaining the ceasefire, allowing “unhindered humanitarian access,” and pursuing “constructive and peaceful dialogue.”
A delegation from the US embassy in Somalia also visited Hargeisa in an effort to end the war in Las Anod and to demand an immediate and unconditional ceasefire. US mediation efforts in the crisis are the most likely to achieve results, particularly following a visit by the Somaliland president to the US in mid-March 2022. President Joe Biden later signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2023, which for the first time will allow Somaliland to participate in US military programs. Other international reports from February 2023 also indicated that Somaliland could offer to host a US base on its territory in exchange for recognition as a sovereign state.
2. Current conflict continues: This is also a possible outcome given that Somaliland has dug in its heels regarding certain preconditions for starting negotiations to resolve the current conflict. In a meeting with Norwegian and Turkish delegations on 6 December 2022, Somaliland stated that it was ready to negotiate with the Somali government provided that certain conditions were met, including honoring and immediately implementing all previous agreements. It also stipulated that Somaliland would negotiate as an independent sovereign state, specified a timeframe for negotiations, and asked that an international mediator oversee the implementation of any agreement reached. These conditions could pose an obstacle to negotiations.
In conclusion, the escalating security and political crises in Somaliland poses a domestic threat to Somalia but could also have far-reaching consequences for neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa. Reaching a peaceful settlement will be necessary to overcome these crises which threaten national integration efforts. This should occur through adopting consensus-based national solutions grounded in a shared commitment to the national interests and objectives of Somalia. African mediators could play an important and balanced role in resolving these crises in accordance with the principle of “Africa solutions to African problems.” It will be necessary to neutralize increasing international competition in the region, which could have negative implications for the future stability of Somaliland.
Menan Khater – InterRegional for Strategic Analysis