Monday, February 27, 2012

Somalia the “Failed State”—So What Are Somaliland and Puntland, Chopped Liver?

On February 23rd, as I reported here a few days ago, the United Kingdom’s prime minister, David Cameron, hosted the 20th in a long series of international conferences on what to do about Somalia, the country that plunged into civil war—and stayed there—after its dictator was deposed in 1991.  The United Nations’ secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and the U.S. secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton were also in attendance, as was a global press corps.  The usual line in the press and in diplomatic circles is that the Republic of Somalia is a “failed state” and that this is why this strategic country on the Horn of Africa, poised between central Africa and the Arabian peninsula, is a haven for terrorists and pirates and a threat to global security.  So why did no one at the London Somalia Conference sing the praises of the Somaliland and the Puntland, two de facto sovereign republics in “Somalia’s” north which hold elections, carry out economic development, police their territories, and do more to keep piracy and terrorism in check than the ineffective, barely existent Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu?  In fact, why does every nation on earth recognize the failed T.F.G. instead of the success stories in Somaliland and Puntland (which sent delegations to a Somalia conference for the first time this year, as I noted here recently)?  The answers have to do with colonialism, oil, the war on terror, religion, and the usual impediments to any separatist struggle: diplomatic inertia and petty symbolic politics.  For the details, read on.

Somalia’s president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed,
and prime minister, Abidweli Mohamed Ali, in London

In the 1880s and ’90s both the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Italy purchased land from different sultans along what is now the coast of Somalia, establishing a British Somaliland in the northern third of the country, on the Gulf of Aden, and a larger Italian Somaliland covering the rest of what is now the Republic of Somalia, including the east coast.  Interior areas were ruled by an independent entity called the Dervish State, which successfully kept the British at bay and crowded to the coast by allying themselves with the German and Ottoman empires during the First World War.  After those empires were dismantled at war’s end, the British quickly subdued the Dervish State with aerial attacks.  When the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy in the 1930s, he used Italian Somaliland as a base to expand his African territories, conquering Ethiopia and Eritrea from Emperor Haile Selassie.  This left French Somaliland (modern Djibouti) and British Somaliland surrounded, but still well positioned with strategic ports.  After the Italians lost the Second World War, Ethiopia’s independence was restored (with Eritrea as its possession) and Italian Somaliland became a United Nations trust territory.  With the benefit of an economically ascendant post-Fascist Italy investing in its administration and infrastructure, Somalia was fairly well positioned for the independence the U.N. eased it into in 1960.  It was combined with British Somaliland to become the sovereign Republic of Somalia.  For a while, Somalia was doing about as well as any other new African state, or a bit better.

Then, in 1969 the elected president was killed in a coup d’état led by Mohamed Siad Barre, who replaced its parliament and constitution with a Communist dictatorship as the Somali Democratic Republic.  When Selassie was deposed in a Marxist coup in 1974, the Soviet Union found Ethiopia’s new dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam a more ideological and congenial client and shifted its resources and support from Somalia to Ethiopia.  This led to Somalia’s unsuccessful war against Ethiopia in 1977 to try to annex the Ogaden, an ethnically Somali landlocked desert region which lies mostly on the Ethiopian side of the border.  The 1980s laid the Horn of Africa low with a devastating depression and famine, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 bled a lot of development money from the region.

Mohamed Siad Barre, hero of the people

In 1991, Barre was deposed by a largely non-ideological coalition of clan groups, backed by the post-Communist multi-ethnic Ethiopian government and by Libya’s dictator, Col. Moammar al-Qaddafi, seeking to extend his influence southeastward.  Soon after the coup, the clan leaders of what used to be British Somaliland declared independence as the Republic of Somaliland.  They have functioned as an independent state ever since, though without any international recognition whatsoever.  The rest of Somalia never had a functioning central government again.  Barre loyalists, supporters of the new government, and various clan and ethnic warlords wreaked havoc throughout the country, a situation which, combined with a new famine, led the United Nations to dispatch a peacekeeping operation called United Nations Operation in Somalia, or Unosom, simply to secure the delivery of international food aid.  The United States, under President George H. W. Bush (Sr.), also sent in a military contingent to try to stabilize the situation, meeting with a disastrous situation for the U.S. troops, which Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, withdrew in 1993.

1992: the U.S. Marines, welcomed as liberators—or not 

In 2004, the Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) was formed in exile in Nairobi and established a foothold in Mogadishu, the capital.  Among its provisions was the granting of self-governing, but still, unionist states like the Puntland State of Somalia, which had been functioning as a large de facto independent state at the very tip of the Horn of Africa since 1998.  (For years, I assumed that the name Puntland derived from an Italian term for “Horn of Africa”—you know, punta, point, something like that.  Turns out it is named after the legendary Land of Pwenet, or Punt, referred to in ancient Egyptian texts but whose exact location is a mystery.)  Since 2004, the T.F.G. has never managed to extend its administration outside Mogadishu, but self-governing areas such as Puntland are nominally unionist: they don’t want independence, but they also don’t want to be all tangled up administratively with an embattled and dysfunctional “central” government.

The flags of the Republic of Somalia (left) and the Puntland State of Somalia

If anything, things in Somalia have become even more chaotic in the past five years or so.  Pirates who operate out of lawless bases on the mainland have been making the busy trade waters off the Somali coast a dangerous zone for ships of any flag.  The southern third of the country has become infested with a militant Islamist organization called al-Shabaab, which imposed shari’a law on the area it controls and has recently allied with al-Qaeda (which was driven out of its safe havens in Sudan first by Clinton’s bombing campaign and then by the hiving off of South Sudan under U.S. auspices in July 2011).  Even Somaliland’s control over its territory has now been compromised, with a pro-unionist (but not T.F.G.-allied) state called Awdal State or Awdalland consolidating its bulwark in far western Somaliland, along the Djibouti border, and a new clan coalition called the Sool, Sanaag, and Cyn State of Somalia (S.C.C.) (also called Khaatumo State) inserting itself along the Somaliland–Puntland border and taking over territory from each (including the former Maakhir State that Puntland had absorbed in 2009).

Approximate area controled by the Sool, Sanaag, and Cyn State of Somalia.

Rebels allied with separatists in Ethiopia still control parts of the Ogaden region in the interior.  Anti-Islamists in the far south, on the border with Kenya, in 2011 tried to establish a unionist state called, variously, Jubaland, Azania, and Greenland.  (This shows an unfortunate lack of research on the part of this fledgling state.  Juba is the capital of nearby South Sudan and was almost a name chosen for that country, as was Azania—a sort of all-purpose African country name which was once used for an envisioned post-apartheid South Africa—while Greenland ... um ... doesn’t somebody even Google these things?)

Map of Somalia today—or at least a few months ago.
The emergent Sool, Sanaag, and Cyn State is not shown here.

Jubaland/Azania/Greenland has had a hard time getting recognized as a self-governing state of Somalia in the way that Puntland and central Somalian clan fiefdoms like Ximan iyo Xeeb, Galmudug, and Hiiraan had been (see map).  But in late 2011 the Kenyan and Ethiopian militaries launched an invasion of southern Somalia in an attempt to uproot al-Shabaab.  For Kenya this felt especially necessary.  With the deadly al-Qaeda bombing of their U.S. embassy in 1998 still fresh in mind and escalating al-Shabaab incidents in their tourist-dependent north coast, Kenya has been suffering more from Islamist terrorist spillover than any other sub-Saharan African country.  The U.S. gave—and continues to give—its blessing and some covert assistance to the Kenyan operation, seeing it, pretty reasonably, as a front in the War on Terror and as part of a larger project—that included South Sudan’s independence and growing cooperation with Ethiopia—of encircling the Islamist areas in the Horn.  The Kenyan and Ethiopian armies’ progress has been slow—al-Shabaab, inconveniently, is popular among many locals—but they have also not lost much ground.

Kenyan tanks on their way to Somalia last year

Now, it seems a legitimate, even objectively laudable and noble, interest of foreign powers like the U.N., the U.S., the U.K., and France to clean Somalia up so it at least does not provide lawless zones that are a safe haven for pirates and al-Qaeda terrorists.  (See my recent blog post about how interethnic relations in Ethiopia fit into the U.S.’s larger Horn of Africa strategy.)  The question, then, is why have they not decided that the best way to do this is by recognizing Somaliland as sovereign, stabilizing unionist regimes in Puntland, S.S.C., Galmudug, Jubaland, etc.—maybe even Awdal—and forming a national government that way rather than by trying to expand the deeply mistrusted and irrelevant T.F.G.’s influence beyond the few blocks of Mogadishu it controls?  (Some of these suggestions are made in a trenchant Feb. 21st New York Times opinion piece by Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation.)

Map showing how one Canadian firm plans to carve up the region

The first and easiest answer is inertia.  The international community is always slow to recognize new regimes operating out of new capitals, and, as I have discussed before in this blog, horribly allergic to redrawing Africa’s boundaries—South Sudan being a significant new exception.  The Western powers have of course noticed the successes of Somaliland and Puntland, but why reward them with recognition?  Already, Somaliland is trying to position itself as an economic power, a plan that will benefit the U.K. more than anyone else.  The newly formed Somaliland Development Corporation has offices in London and was set up to smooth way for foreign corporations worried about investing in a war-torn region.  (Most foreign investors pulled out in the 1980s.)  Somaliland’s minister for energy and mining, Hussein Abdi Dualeh, has claimed his country has “hydrocarbon potential with a geology similar to basins containing 9 billion barrels across the Gulf of Aden,” according to Reuters, and sees Somaliland as a future major producer of oil and natural gas, as well as mining opportunities.  And Puntland—which is already cooperating with the U.S. and other nations in capturing pirates and policing the offshore waters better than any other organization can—has similar economic ambitions, and has no plans to send any profits to Mogadishu, not incidentally.  Puntland’s minister for international cooperation, Abdulkadir Abdi Hashi, said at the London conference, “We have spoken to a number of U.K. officials, some have offered to help us with the future management of oil revenues.  They will help us build our capacity to maximize future earnings from the oil industry.”  He mentioned BP in particular.  If all that is working, more or less, why mess with it?

Traditionally, I think, the West has feared that formalizing Somaliland’s status might embolden other, less well formed statelets elsewhere in Somalia to seek the same recognition—and some of them may be Islamist regimes that it would be harder to justify saying no to.  And attempting to fold Puntland into a more functional federation of self-governing states might bring those different pseudo-states to a state of war if they suddenly have to hammer out a shared government, with their different ethnic, clan, and sectarian values.  The West has simply long accepted the fact that Somaliland and Puntland are de facto stable and sovereign but need not be de jure independent, while the rest of Somalia is a basket case where the most one can do is keep al-Qaeda from gaining a foothold.  Compared to Somaliland and Puntland, the rest of Somalia has no significant resources anyway—just problems.

But now things have started to change.  The establishment of Awdalland has destabilized Somaliland, and now the president of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Gelle, a member of the Issa ethnic group, is retaliating in a water dispute with Somaliland by setting up a rival pseudo-state run by his clan coalition, called the Saylac and Lughaye State of Somalia, in the Awdal vicinity.   Military conflicts are erupting in Somaliland’s Buhoodle region, where Ogaden National Liberation Front fighters from Ethiopia are trying to establish a safe haven on the Somaliland side of the border.  The Puntland-based Golis Ranges Islamists militia has now allied itself with al-Shabaab—and, thus, with al-Qaeda—with the explicit goal of disrupting Puntland’s ascendant economy.  Instability is also growing in the areas controlled by the S.S.C. (some of it described recently in this blog).  If these crises grow, then the lucrative oil deals in Somaliland and Puntland, and their ability to keep their waters relatively pirate-free will be under threat.  The U.S., U.N., and U.K. have not yet begun to confront this reality.  But when the oil and other development firms start complaining that the area has become harder to operate in, believe me: the West will suddenly see stabilizing the north as a priority.  That will mean admitting the tack so far has been wrong.  I personally think they can manage that.

Informal militias operating in Somalia’s Buhoodle region

With al-Shabaab on the defensive in the south and stable modern democratic institutions entrenched in the north, it is time to try to expand stability inward towards Mogadishu and not—as has not worked for twenty years now—hallucinating that Mogadishu has a federal government and trying to expand it outward a few inches at a time.  Things are changing quickly in the Horn of Africa.  At this London conference, Prime Minister Cameron dodged all questions about Somaliland recognition.  The loyal B.B.C. threw the U.K. delegation questions about why al-Shabaab (!) was not included in the conference—a way of making talking to anyone other than the T.F.G. seem suddenly ridiculous.  Somaliland’s president, Ahmed Mahamoud Silanyo, had specifically announced that he wanted to make progress on recognition at his nation’s first visit to the London conference.  He returned home empty-handed this time.  But there is lots of money to be made in the region.  He may get his wish yet.  At the next Somalia conference, whenever that will be.

Edna Adan Ismail, Somaliland’s foreign minister, with her nation’s flag

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  The book, which contains dozens of maps and over 500 flags, is now in the layout phase and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by early fall 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]


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