Puntland and Somaliland Clashing in Northern Somalia: Who Cuts the Gordian Knot?*
Published on: Nov 07, 2007

The political future of Somalia will at least partly be decided in northern Somalia. In this regard, the recent escalation of conflict in the Sool region, in the central north of Somalia, merits closer attention and analysis. On Monday, 1 October 2007, Puntland and Somaliland armed forces clashed near Laascaanood, the capital of Sool region.1 Fighting escalated again two weeks later, on 15 October. Since then, Laascaanood has remained in the hands of the Somaliland forces. Though precise numbers are not available, roughly half the town’s population has fled. Some traditional authorities are involved in negotiations, while others wait on the sidelines. At the time of writing Puntland and Somaliland are mobilising for a new round of fighting.
The clashes are localised around Laascaanood but they have a far wider regional relevance. In the first place, they indicate political splits and conflicts within the local community, the Dhulbahante clan, which inhabits most parts of Sool region as well as parts of eastern Sanaag and Togdheer in northern Somalia. The fighting further divides a community already fractured by a number of internal conflicts, ‘traditional’ blood feuds, but also tensions over split loyalties towards Somaliland or Puntland. Second, the clashes bring war to an area that has not seen serious fighting before.2 In addition to large numbers of internal displaced people, further armed confrontation will result in a humanitarian disaster with attendant victims and the destruction of the already poor infrastructure. Third, fighting in the region has implications for the whole security structure in northern Somalia. In this process, Somaliland and Puntland risk the loss of their most important asset – their relative peacefulness in comparison with the situation in the south of Somalia, particularly in Mogadishu. Fourth, the current crisis between Somaliland and Puntland over Laascaanood and Sool brings a focus on one of the underlying conflict drivers for the whole region, the territorial integrity of the former unitary state of Somalia. It points at ongoing and intensifying processes of state-(re)formation in a post-colonial context with high significance also for other African settings. Fifth, in regional security terms, the conflict could fall prey to the counter strategies of the larger players in the Horn of Africa. Though Somaliland and Puntland are currently closely allied to Ethiopia, deepened conflict could result in interventions by Ethiopia and Eritrea on opposing sides. Finally, if the conflict over Laascaanood and Sool were decisively won by Somaliland, it would be another step toward formal recognition and independence. This would set precedence for other secessionist movements, e.g., in Ethiopia. In order to understand the current crisis in its historical context, the next section will briefly outline the developments preceding the most recent events. The second part of the text disentangles the local and wider dynamics of escalating violence involved in the most recent clash between Somaliland and Puntland. 

Background to the Current Crisis – The Tightening of the Knot

The government of Maxamed Siyad Barre was overthrown in Mogadishu in January 1991. At the same time the Somali National Movement (SNM), the guerrilla organisation dominated by members of the Isaaq clan-family, took control over north-western Somalia. Shortly afterwards this region, as the Republic of Somaliland, declared its independence from the rest of Somalia, in line with the borders of the former British Protectorate.3 These old/new borders cut Somalia in the central north, about 70 km east of Laascaanood, where the British and the Italians drew the line in 1874 (Lewis 2002: 55).

There were a number of reasons for this step, but two reasons stand out in particular. First, was the unfolding civil war in southern Somalia after the fall of Barre and the usurpation of the presidency by Cali Mahdi. Mahdi was one of the two leaders of the United Somali Congress (USC), and he took the presidency without the consent of his co-leader in USC, Maxamed Farax Caydiid and without consulting with the other guerrilla factions, e.g., the Somali National Movement, who felt that the south was again marginalising the north (present day Somaliland). Subsequently, Caydiid and Mahdi started to fight for power in Mogadishu causing large-scale destruction and disaster. Additionally, the news coming from Mogadishu was truly horrifying and repelled people in the north. Of second and equal importance for Somaliland’s secession was the still fresh memory of the bombardment of Hargeysa and Burco by Siad Barre’s army. The SNM had taken the two towns in north-western Somalia, which are predominantly inhabited by Isaaq, in a surprise attack in late May 1988. The regime’s counter-attack with indiscriminate shelling and bombing caused thousands of civilian causalities, and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to the countryside or across the border into eastern Ethiopia (Africa Watch 1990). This collective experience of suffering transformed the SNM into a mass movement, which a close observer at that time described as ‘simply the Isaaq people up in arms’ (Prunier 1990/91: 109).

In early 1991, when Siyad Barre was overthrown in Mogadishu by the USC, the SNM took control over much of north-western Somalia. The decision to secede was taken at a conference (Somali sing.: shir) in the town of Burco in May 1991. Representatives of all clans inhabiting north-western Somalia were present, among them Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli.4 At the shir in Burco the SNM leadership – mostly former army officers, politicians and intellectuals – was not clearly in favour of secession.5 However, the rank and file of the movement, remembering the bombardments in 1988, was. The situation was volatile since everybody around the conference had arms, and the SNM was without doubt the most powerful party. One of the high ranking traditional leaders of the Dhulbahante, the late Garaad Cabdiqani, recounted the situation as follows:

We saw that it was impossible to reach an agreement with the people of the southern regions. We decided to establish an administration for the northern region. […] While we were in Burco, big demonstrations happened in the large towns of Hargeysa, Burco and Berbera. There was no other choice than to say: ‘Yes, we accept.’ At this moment we were not convinced about secession, but no one could say ‘no’ (in Höhne 2007).

This step was presented by the SNM as revocation of the voluntary union between British and Italian Somaliland that had united to form the Republic of Somalia on 1 July 1960 (Somaliland Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2002). Despite this historical reference, the declaration of independence in 1991 was clearly born out of the momentary dramatic situation and was ill-prepared. A number of SNM leaders and many members of the non-Isaaq clans were not in favour of cutting themselves off from the rest of Somalia.

In the early 1990s Somaliland was riven by internal conflict (Gilkes 1993). The SNM could not even manage to establish basic law and order in the capital city of Hargeysa. Somaliland’s first president, the former SNM chairman Cabdiraxman Axmed Cali ‘Tuur’, abandoned the secessionist project and turned to the south after he lost his position to Maxamed Ibraahim Cigaal in 1993. During the early 1990s various Isaaq clans (that made up the core SNM) fought each other in Hargeysa, Berbera and Burco. The other non-Isaaq clans in Somaliland, i.e., the Gadabuursi and Ciisa in the west and the Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli in the east, existed in a limbo, in a situation of ‘no war, no peace’ (Richards 2005). The situation in Somaliland stabilised in the second half of the 1990s (WSP 2005; Renders 2006).

Under Maxamed Ibraahim Ciigal, who was re-elected president in 1997, important steps to democratise the emerging state were taken. In May 2001 a referendum on the constitution was held. The first article of the constitution states that Somaliland is an independent country. However, votes on this constitution as well as in all following elections in Somaliland – the local government 2002, the Presidential 2003 and the parliamentary elections 2005 – were not or were only very incompletely cast in the Harti inhabited territories in Togdheer, Sool and eastern Sanaag. This resulted in the disproportionate under representation of Harti, particularly Dhulbahante, in the government institutions of Somaliland (Hansen/Bradbury 2007: 470-471).6

The political marginalisation of the Harti was partly self-induced. Many Dhulbahante and other non-Isaaq clans opposed the secession of Somaliland from Somalia in 1991; the anti-secessionist position of Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli further hardened when Puntland was founded in 1998 as autonomous regional state in north-eastern Somalia, under the rule of the Harti clan-federation. The division of power in Puntland followed the estimated size of the clans in the federation. Majeerteen took the lead, followed by Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli. The experienced Majeerteen military officer and leader of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), Cabdullahi Yusuf, became president and established himself in the capital city of Garowe. 7

From 1998 onwards, Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli had representatives in both of the regional administrations of Somaliland and of Puntland. Members of their elite managed to hold positions in the respective centres and supported their extended families at home. At the same time, since they were an insecure constituency for both regional governments, the Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli lands in eastern Somaliland and western Puntland remained politically and economically marginalised. With very few exceptions, no international NGOs came to their areas, and no state development projects were implemented. Sool and eastern Sanaag became ‘no go areas’ also for many politicians in the respective centres. Even the presidents Maxamed Ibraahim Ciigaal and Cabdullahi Yusuf wisely refrained from visiting Sool and eastern Sanaag. Rump-administrations representing both sides, Somaliland and Puntland, were established in towns and villages of the regions, staffed with locals who received small salaries from either side but remained largely ineffective. The only effective control was exercised by traditional authorities, who, however, increasingly got caught up in regional power politics and conflict (Höhne 2007).

The situation changed in late 2002 following the death of President Maxamed Ibraahim Ciigal and the inauguration of his vice president, Daahir Rayaale Kahin, as president. The new president visited Laascaanood in December 2002. This unprecedented event triggered a brief but fierce shoot out in the town and resulted in the withdrawal of the Somaliland forces and administration from there. The void was filled gradually by Puntland, which took serious steps to establish an effective military and then civilian administration in early 2004. Somaliland reacted by sending armed forces to the Sool region. The Somaliland troops could only proceed as far as Isaaq clans and the few Dhulbahante sub-clans sympathetic to Somaliland resided. Somaliland established itself near the village of Cadhadeye, about 30 km west of Laascaanood. Puntland secured Laascaanood’s western exit and established its troops close to the town. In early October Cabdullahi Yusuf was elected president of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) for Somalia at the internationally sponsored peace conference in Nairobi, Kenya (Schlee 2006). On 29 October 2004, substantial numbers of Puntland and Somaliland troops clashed for the first time. In the one day battle near Cadhiadeye about a dozen soldiers died and more then 20 were taken as prisoners of war on each side. Subsequently, traditional authorities and representatives of the nascent civil society on both sides succeeded in easing tensions. Further fighting was also prevented through the limited military and economic capacities of the parties in conflict. The situation remained tense and militarised (Höhne 2006).

In the years 2005 and 2006, the main focus of Somali and international politics with regard to Somalia was on the south. The TFG moved from Kenya into Somalia in mid-2005, but immediately split. The first session of the parliament held in the provisional capital city of Baydhoa in central Somalia, in March 2006, was overshadowed by the escalation of serious fighting in Mogadishu. Warlords who were partly members of the TFG cabinet and were aligned with the US fought against the militias of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). The latter had grown over the years in various neighbourhoods of lawless Mogadishu. The sharia courts had gained some local legitimacy, but after the September 11th attacks in New York, they had attracted the suspicion of the US (Menkhaus 2007; Marchal 2007 a).

Against all expectations the UIC defeated the warlord alliance and took control over Mogadishu in June 2006. It consequently expanded its rule over much of southern Somalia and thereby challenged the TFG in Baydhoa. In December 2006, a few thousand TFG soldiers, aided by a massive Ethiopian military force of about 40,000 fighters plus tanks and warplanes, and supported by US intelligence, overran the UIC forces and took hold of Mogadishu. The year 2007 saw massive fighting in Mogadishu and parts of southern Somalia between TFG and Ethiopian forces and an unclear amalgam of former UIC militias, Hawiye clan fighters who stand against the ‘Darood dominated’ TFG under Cabdullahi Yusuf, and ordinary criminals taking advantage of the renewed lawlessness (Barnes/Harun 2007).8

When Cabdullahi Yusuf took power in Mogadishu in early 2007, he drew a considerable number of soldiers who were members of the Puntland armed forces from the northeast to the south. Moreover, his earlier presidency campaign in Kenya and his current policy in southern Somalia diverted much of Puntland’s economic resources, which were mostly generated in the port of Boosaasso, to the south. Consequently, Puntland suffers from severe internal weaknesses, engaged as it is in two conflicts – in Sool and, indirectly, by supporting Cabdullahi Yusuf, in the south. Financially, it has teetered for years on the edge of bankruptcy, and salaries to administrative and military staff are paid only irregularly, which weakens the morals of some politicians and soldiers.

In April 2007 Somaliland and Puntland forces clashed again for one day, for the first time since October 2004. This time the fighting happened in eastern Sanaag, in Warsangeeli territory near the village of Dahar. Subsequent and heavier fighting occurred in October 2007 around the town of Laascaanood. In the following section I will briefly mention the main factors involved in the current escalation of violence.