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

Dynamics of Escalating Violence in Sool

As outlined above, the most recent fighting between Somaliland and Puntland forces in Sool is nothing new. However, the questions are: why did it escalate now, and, what is at stake? Reason for the timing of events can be found in recent internal power struggles within Puntland and Somaliland. Moreover, the developments in Mogadishu, where Cabdullahi Yusuf fights to establish his rule over Somalia, sharpen the debate over the respective status of Somaliland and Puntland regional administrations. Besides these regional and ‘national’ issues, the personal interest of some Dhulbahante politicians and their respective local constituencies were decisive for the escalation of the conflict in early October 2007.

Personal interest, clan rivalries and strategic choices
As borderland communities, Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli occupy positions in both Somaliland and Puntland administrations. One of the prominent Dhulbahante politicians in the region is Axmed Cabdi Xabsade. In the mid 1990s he was speaker of the House of Representatives (Golaha Wakiilada), one chamber of the bicameral Somaliland parliament, in Hargeysa. He fell out with President Maxamed Ibraahim Ciigaal and subsequently turned his back to Somaliland (Liban 2004: 14). As a Dhulbahante politician and former military officer, he was involved in the establishment of Puntland and finally became Minister of Interior in Garowe. Over the summer 2007 Xabsade had got into open disagreements with the current President Maxamuud ‘Cadde’ Muuse and the vice president of Puntland, Xassan Daahir ‘Afqurac’, a Dhulbahante from the Sool region. Both had come to power after Cabdullahi Yusuf had been elected Somali president in 2004.

Xabsade had previously sided with Cabdullahi Yusuf against Maxamuud ‘Cadde’ Muuse when the latter was in military opposition to Cabdullahi Yusuf in 2002.9 This had negatively affected the relationship between the Puntland strong-men. Moreover, Xabsade perceived the policy of the Puntland government towards Laascaanood and the Sool region as mistaken and not benefiting the local community (personal communication with an informant in Galkacyo, 30.10.2007). While visiting the town of Buuhoodle and other Dhulbahante inhabited places in September 2007, Axmed Cabdi Xabsade initiated the establishment of a local administration which was supposed to be independent from Somaliland and Puntland.10 Behind this step were not only the personal discontent of the minister with the general policy towards the Dhulbahante inhabited area, but also the looming tensions between two large Dhulbahante sub-clans, Maxamuud Garaad and Farax Garaad. Many of the Farax Garaad sub-clan felt that the new vice president of Puntland, Xassan Daahir ‘Afqurac’, who belongs to the Maxamuud Garaad branch, distributed important positions under his authority to members of his own group to the exclusion of other Dhulbahante groups. Axmed Cabdi Xabsade, who by descent is a member of the Farax Garaad branch, tried to counter these developments by initiating a kind of Farax Garaad administration in some places, e.g., in Buuhoodle. President Maxamuud ‘Cadde’ Muuse reacted by calling Axmed Cabdi Xabsade back to Garowe. The minister delayed his return, allowing the president of Puntland to dismiss him for defying his orders (telephone interviews with informants in Garowe and Buuhoodle, 27 and 28 October 2007).

Following his dismissal Axmed Cabdi Xabsade went to Laascaanood and other places in order to mobilise members of his Dhulbahante/Farax Garaad sub-clan against Puntland authority. He also received support from Jamac Siyaad, a sub-sub-clan belonging to the Maxamuud Garaad branch, which nevertheless had for some years already opposed Puntland. As well as encouraging local opposition to the Puntland administration, the dismissed minister approached Somaliland for support. The government in Hargeysa was more than willing to give him a helping hand. Consequently, Somaliland troops, with the consent and help of some Dhulbahante, advanced towards Laascaanood and pushed Puntland out of its positions in and around the town.

It is clear that Axmed Cabdi Xabsade overplayed his hand. He might have hoped to just threaten the Puntland administration in order to regain his position. Alternatively, he might have speculated that he would gain a new and equally influential position in Somaliland. At the moment, however, he has no position, either in Somliland or in Puntland. Axmed Cabdi Xabsade told a Somaliland journalist from the newspaper Jamhuuriya who visited Laascaanood in late October that he was ready to become a Somaliland citizen and to compete even for the presidency in the upcoming elections. Commenting on that, the reporter indicated that Xabsade’s reputation as a power hungry and opportunistic politician might thwart his plans (Jamhuuriya online, 26.10.2007).11

For the government in Hargeysa, Axmed Cabdi Xabsade’s approaches represented a golden opportunity to break the stalemate in Sool and to recapture Laascaanood with some Dhulbahante support. The Somaliland government’s reasons for a renewed push against Puntland were two-fold. First, since January 2004, Somaliland troops had been stationed in Sool without achieving any discernable progress, and Hargeysa was increasingly humiliated by the advance of Puntland in Sool. Moreover, the establishment of a more effective Puntland administration in Laascaanood seriously challenged Somaliland’s claim for internationally recognised (ex-colonial) borders. Second, the Somaliland president, Daahir Rayaale Kahin, faces upcoming presidential elections in spring 2008. Throughout 2007 he was involved in several internal conflicts over limits of freedom of speech in Somaliland, electoral legislation, and the question of increasing the number of legal political parties beyond the current three allowed by the constitution (Hansen/Bradbury 2007: 468-469; 472). For these reasons, the opportunity to divert the attention of the voters away from internal problems toward an external threat that helps to mobilise ‘national’ consciousness is most welcome to leading figures in the Somaliland government. The possible extension of the term of office in time of crisis and ‘state of exception’ may also be part of the president’s agenda.12

War-making and state-making in Somalia and Somaliland

Tilly’s famous dictum of ‘state making’ through ‘war making’ (1985) brilliantly captures the processes of state formation in Europe since early modern times. Its applicability to similar processes in Africa was, however, long denied. States in Africa are generally perceived as internally weak but territorially stable colonial constructs (Herbst 1990: 137, in Niemann 2007: 26). In a recent article Niemann (2007) refuted this argument and used Tilly’s model of state-making for explaining the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He convincingly argued that the current wars in the DRC have to be understood as re-negotiations of the territorial and political framework in Central African states. Niemann underlined that the question of political community – who belongs to which polity, and who has what rights – lies at the heart of many territorial conflicts in the continent.

This argument also captures important issues at stake in northern Somalia. Up to now the process of state formation in northern Somalia has basically been limited to the central regions of Somaliland and Puntland where the government institutions, but also international organizations and NGOs, are predominantly located. It is in the centres that the political decisions are taken, and also where debate occurs when the nascent civil society (particularly in Somaliland) has a chance to articulate its positions peacefully. In the periphery, e.g., in much of Sool and Sanaag, economic development and political participation are very limited, and the sense of belonging to one of the two regional states is weak. At the same time, among many Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli, the hope that Somalia will be re-established as a strong national state has not yet died. This links the local developments in Sool directly to the situation in southern Somalia, and wider still to the international politics toward Somalia.

In the arena of Somali regional politics, since the international community refuses to acknowledge Somaliland as an independent state and remains wedded to the ideal of the territorial integrity of Somalia, the fight for power in Mogadishu causes nervousness in Hargeysa. If Cabdullahi Yusuf gains control over Mogadishu and much of the south, then Somaliland would have to confront a strengthened and internationally recognized Somalia. The latter would include Puntland as a federal state. Therefore, it is imperative for the government in Hargeysa to gain military control over the dissident regions of Sool and eastern Sanaag before southern Somalia and Puntland can form a united front in the north against Somaliland. A large-scale military confrontation between Somaliland and Puntland would most probably also clarify the contradictory and opaque notions of belonging held by a number of the inhabitants of northern Somalia (Höhne 2006).13 They would have to decide whether to fight for an independent Somaliland or to stand for the unity of Somalia. By creating a new ‘reality on the ground’ through capturing and holding Laascaanood, Somaliland would probably also enhance its chances for international recognition, provided southern Somalia remains unstable for the coming years (Faisal 2007). This connects well with Niemann’s use of Tilly and the argument that state-making can be a (side) product of war-making.

While these developments are not yet in train it is clear that nearly all further endeavours to set up a fully effective state recognized under international law will most probably produce large-scale armed conflict between Somaliland and Puntland/Somalia. Without clarifying their territorial borders, Somaliland and Puntland/Somalia cannot exist as states in the formal sense recognised under international law.14 Statehood is important, since it allows entrance to the international system of states and thereby access to development aid and bilateral economic cooperation on a large scale. The ‘Gordian knot’ mentioned in the subtitle of this article refers to the mutually exclusive aspirations of Somaliland, on the one side, and Puntland/Somalia, on the other, with regard to statehood.15 Moreover, while the current crisis might present a chance for at least one of the two parties in conflict to ‘win it all’, there is also a high risk of losing what so far has been the biggest asset of Somaliland and Puntland, internationally, and what attracted moderate assistance by some NGOs and international organisations (short of political recognition): their relative peacefulness and internal stability, when compared to the instability in the south.16

The positions of Ethiopia and Eritrea on the crisis in northern Somalia are so far unclear. For many years, both powers have used the civil war in Somalia in their own politics, and most recently they have intensified engagement with their Somali proxies when Ethiopia intervened in support of the TFG, while Eritrea gave a helping hand to the UIC (Menkhaus 2007). Both Puntland and Somaliland have accused each other of collaboration with Ethiopia’s enemies, the Ogadeen National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Eritrea/the UIC, respectively. However, none of these allegations can be substantiated and both are likely to be driven by propaganda purposes.

It is safe to argue that for Ethiopia much more might be at stake in the current conflict in northern Somalia than for Eritrea. Ethiopia has good economic relations with Somaliland and receives a considerable number of sea imports via the port of Berbera, north of Hargeysa. At the same time, Ethiopia backed Puntland militarily against the advancing UIC militias in mid 2006, and continues to underpin Cabdullahi Yusuf’s fight for power in Mogadishu. In this sense, the conflict between Somaliland and Puntland is a conflict between two ‘client states’ of Ethiopia. On the one side, this poses a problem for Ethiopia, which backs both. On the other, it doesn’t, since its overall objective is to prevent a unified, resurrected Somalia. That’s why Ethiopia puts its bet on different ‘horses’ at the same time (Somaliland, Abdullahi Yusuf etc.).17

According to most sources Ethiopia has not yet openly interfered in the crisis in northern Somalia. In early October the Ethiopians failed to engineer a meeting between Puntland President Maxamuud ‘Cadde’ Muuse and the Somaliland President Daahir Rayaale Kahin in Addis Ababa.18 It is also arguable that that Addis Ababa does not gain anything from an internationally recognized secession of Somaliland. Therefore, Ethiopia might be eager to maintain the status quo of contested borders in northern Somalia and prevent politically decisive fighting between Somaliland and Puntland over Sool. For Ethiopia, the most important thing is that ‘someone’ controls Laascaanood and Sool, in order to prevent the infiltration of the area through ONLF fighters or UIC cells.