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

Options for the Future – Cutting or Circumventing the Gordian Knot

The government of Somaliland pursues international recognition, and therefore the fragmentation of the former Somali state; the government of Puntland works for the rebuilding of Somalia in the borders of 1990. Against this background it becomes clear that the political future of Somalia will at least partly be decided in Northern Somalia. A peaceful compromise between Somaliland and Puntland seems not at hand, and in fact is largely impossible in the civil war-ridden Somali context, where military force has prevailed over political compromise for two decades. Most observers believe that at this moment neither of the two parties to the conflict has enough resources and material to engage in prolonged military conflict. Nevertheless, Somaliland and Puntland are still on a war footing. More worrisome still is that this mobilization does not only concern the respective armies, which are relatively small, but also the masses of the population.

Two worst case scenarios that could result from the current situation are, first, that the local community in Sool will split violently and a ‘green line’ will run through the area, with Dhulbahante (and Warsangeeli?) allied with Somaliland and opposing their brothers and sisters who stand with Puntland/Somalia;19 or, second, that the conflict could escalate into an inter-clan war between ‘Isaaq’ and ‘Harti’. This would mean that Dhulbahante, Warsangeeli and Majeerteen plus several smaller groups would unite (despite serious internal divisions) if threatened by Isaaq and form a united front on a ‘tribal’ basis. Both scenarios are real possibilities in northern Somalia, where the density of small arms is very high.

If the governments in Hargeysa and Garowe pursue their strategies of escalating the conflict, we might see attempts to violently cut the Gordian knot in Sool and eastern Sanaag. Such an escalation of violence between an amalgam of ‘state’ armies and clan militias on both sides will be difficult to contain. An option to avoid the immediate danger of massive civil war in northern Somalia would be that the international community, e.g., the US and Europe, pressure the Somali parties to the conflict, but also Ethiopia and Eritrea, to refrain from further provocations and steps towards war. This would make it necessary for the international community to expand its focus, which is largely paralysed by the events in Mogadishu and fixed on rather short sighted anti-terrorism politics.20 So far, external policy makers hardly recognise the local and regional diversity of Somali political orders in the Horn of Africa (Hagmann/Höhne 2007).

In the long run, however, disaster in northern Somalia can only be averted if all the stakeholders in Somaliland and Puntland have a chance to sit together in a new round of peace meetings (Somali sing.: shir) and discuss their visions and wishes with regard to territorial and internal political order. Regrettably, this scenario is rather improbable. Niemann (2007: 30-32) has already pointed out several crucial differences between war-making and state-making in the European past and similar processes, e.g., in Africa at the moment. The most relevant differences regarding the current conflict in northern Somalia, which apply also to the Somali civil war as a whole, are the global flow of private capital (e.g., money collected by the Dhulbahante Diaspora to finance warfare in Sool), and the political and military interventions by neighbouring and other powers, who are often less interested in preventing conflict but in ‘winning a battle’ in an ongoing war (over local or regional power, on terrorism etc.).


*I am grateful to Cedric Barnes, Tobias Hagmann and a colleague who prefers to stay anonymous, for criticism and comments. The remaining errors are mine.


1 Place and personal names in this text follow the Somali orthography (with the exception of ‘Mogadishu’ [Somali: Moqdisho], which is so well established in English orthography). ‘C’ stands for a sound close to the Arabic ‘_’ (ayn); ‘x’ denotes ‘_’ (ha), as in, e.g., Laascaanood or in Farax.

2 Before the collapse of the Somali state, fighting in northern Somalia was concentrated in the Isaaq and the Gadabuursi inhabited areas. In early 1991, the SNM fought with some Dhulbahante militias in Sool, but the region was never effectively conquered by the SNM, since traditional authorities managed to broker peace. 

3 While Somaliland supporters tend to speak and write of ‘declaration of independence’, more skeptical observers or opponents of Somaliland’s independence often prefer ‘secession’. I use both terms in this text, since the people about whom I am writing do so, depending on their stand in the conflict. For a brilliant study on the (emotionless) legal issues involved see Schoiswohl 2004. 

4 These two clans, together with the Majeerteen clan and several smaller groups, form the Harti clan confederation inhabiting mainly central and eastern north-Somalia. Some Majeerteen and Dhulbahante, however, reside also in eastern Ethiopia and in southern Somalia, particularly in the town of Kismayo.

5 For long it had been the official aim of the SNM to topple Barre and to rearrange power-sharing in Somalia.

6 In fact, a number of Dhulbahante have positions in the government institutions of Somaliland. However, there is a strong feeling in the community in Sool that their share is not big enough. Moreover, some of the Dhulbahante representatives in Hargeysa do not enjoy much support among their supposed constituency.

7 The SSDF was the oldest Somali guerilla front. It was founded in 1979 as the Somali Salvation Front (SSF) and changed its name into the Somali Salvation Democratic Front after the incorporation of several other opposition movements in 1981.

8 As Harti/Majeerteen, Cabdullahi Yusuf belongs to the Darood clan-family. As president he enjoys the strong backing of his own descent group, and other Darood clans. This and his personal history made Cabullahi Yusuf suspect to many Hawiye in Mogadishu who remember the Hawiye-Darood fighting in the city in 1991 and later on in the north, in and around the town of Galkacyo.

9 Cabdullahi Yusuf’s term as President of Puntland had ended in mid 2001, according to the draft constitution of Puntland adopted in 1998. Cabdullahi Yusuf, however, refused to step down. Jamac Cabdi Jamac was elected counter-president by several traditional authorities and parliamentarians in Puntland in late 2001. Cabdullahi Yusuf mobilized some forces and, with some Ethiopian support, soon chased Jamac Cali Jamac out of Puntland. General Maxamuud ‘Cadde’ Muuse, who belongs to the same sub-clan as Jamac Cali Jamac, took up the cause against Cabdullahi Yusuf. General ‘Cadde’ Muuse was supported by Somaliland. In summer 2003, however, both Majeerteen opponents reached a peace agreement, which had been facilitated by Isaaq and Warsangeeli traditional authorities. Subsequently, Maxamuud ‘Cadde’ Muuse was integrated into the political and military framework of Puntland, until he finally became a candidate for presidency in late 2004.

10 In mid 2007 a similar self-declared autonomous ‘mini-state’, the Makhir state, was set up in eastern Sanaag, which is inhabited by members of the Warsangeeli clan. Its establishment had been the outcome of the growing sense of marginalization among the Warsangeeli. The idea behind autonomy was to gain preferential access to international aid and to have a stronger position for negotiating with the TFG in Mogadishu (Weinstein 2007).

11 At the beginning of November, a minister delegation from Hargeysa arrived in Laascaanood. They reportedly shall find a satisfying solution to accommodate Axmed Cabdi Xabsade in Somaliland, at least in the short run.

12 In fact, this had already been an important reason for Puntland’s intervention in Laascaanood in December 2003 and January 2004. The then vice president of Puntland, Maxamed Cabdi Hashi, who belongs to the Dhulbahante clan, was in charge since the then Puntland President Cabdullahi Yusuf was in Nairobi to compete for the Somali presidency. Both Hashi and Yusuf were eager to get a prolongation of their terms in office, which was finally granted by the parliament in the face of the crisis in Laascaanood and Sool.

13 Particularly Harti, but also some Gadabuursi and the members of certain Isaaq clans have ambivalent positions on Somaliland’s independence.

14 Officially, and according to international law, Somalia still exists, however, as an empty shell. The conflict in northern Somalia shows that legal fiction and political reality on the ground frequently do not merge. For a critique on the failed international policy towards Somalia see Terlinden/Hagmann 2005.

15 The ‘Gordian Knot’ is a legend associated with Alexander the Great (4th century before Christ). It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem, solved by a bold stroke (‘cutting the Gordian knot’).

16 Weinstein (2007) comes to a similar conclusion when he describes the recent takeover of Laascaanood by Somaliland forces as a ‘Pyrrhic victory’ and outlines, how, in a new round of fighting, Hargeysa could lose any hopes for international recognition if defeated.

17 I thank Tobias Hagmann for making me aware of this ‘double bet’ of Ethiopia.

18 The Minister of Finance of Somaliland went, instead, but no details have emerged from the meeting.

19 The term ‘green line’ refers to the frontline that divided Mogadishu in the 1990s due to the fighting between the Hawiye sub-clans of the warlords Maxamed Farax Caydiid on the one side and Cali Mahdi on the other.

20 For a well researched criticism on the stereotypical perception of the ‘failed state’ Somalia as safe haven for international terrorism see: Marchal 2007 b, and Harmony Project 2007.


The Africa Watch Committee. (1990). Somalia. A government at war with its own people. Africa Watch.

Barnes, C. & Hassan, H. (2007). ‘The rise and fall of Mogadishu’s Islamic courts’, April 2007. Accessed 29 May 2007 from http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/publications/papers/view/-/id/458/.

Faisal, R. (2007). ‘Somaliland:  Is Invading Las Anod Part of Creating “New Reality on the Ground?”’. Accessed 31 October 2007 from http://wardheernews/articles_07/october/21_Somaliland_Faisal_Roble.html

Gilkes, P. (1993). Two wasted years: The Republic of Somaliland 1991-1993. London: Save the Children Fund.

Hansen, S. & Bradbury, M. (2007). Somaliland: A new democracy in the Horn of Africa? Review of African Political Economy 34 (113), 461-476.

Hagmann, T. & Höhne, M. (2007). Failed state or failed debate? Multiple Somali political orders within and beyond the nation-state. Politorbis 42 (1), 20-26. Accessed 5 November 2007 from http://www.eda.admin.ch/etc/medialib/downloads/edazen/doc/publi.Par.0215.File.tmp/Politorbis%2042.pdf

Harmony Project. (2006). Al-Qaida’s (mis)adventures in the Horn of Africa. West
Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center. Accessed 1 November 2007 from  http://ctc.usma.edu/aq/pdf/Al-Qa%27ida%27s%20MisAdventures%20in%20the%20Horn%20of%20Africa.pdf

Höhne, M. (2006). Political identity, emerging state structures and conflict in northern Somalia. Journal of Modern African Studies 44 (3), 397-414.

Höhne, M. (2007). From pastoral to state politics: Traditional authorities in Northern Somalia. In Buur, L. and Kyed H.M. (Eds.), A New Dawn for traditional authorities? State recognition and democratisation in sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 155-182). New York: Palgrave.

Jamhuuriya online 26.10.2007. Suxufiyiin ka trirsan Jamhuuriya iyo HCTV oo booqday fadhiisimada jiidda hore iyo gudaha Laascaanood, from

Lewis, I. (2002). A modern history of the Somali. Oxford: James Currey.

Liban, A. (2005). A map of confusion. Somaliland, Puntland and people of Sool region in Somalia. Manchester: Hilin Publishing.

Marchal, R. (2007a). Somalia: A new front against terrorism. 5 February 2007. Accessed 29 May 2007 from http://hornofafrica.ssrc.org/marchal/index3.html

Marchal, R. (2007b). Warlordism and terrorism: how to obscure an already confusing crisis? The case of Somalia. In: International Affairs 83 (6), 1091-1106.

Menkhaus, K. (2007). The crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in five acts. African Affairs 106 (204), 357-390.

Niemann, M. (2007). War making and state making in Central Africa. Africa Today, 21-39.

Prunier, G. (91990/91). A candid view of the Somali national Movement. Horn of Africa, XIII/XIV (3&4), 107-120.

Renders, M. (2006). ‘Traditional’ leaders and institutions in the building of the Muslim Republic of Somaliland. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Ghent.

Richards, P. (ed.) (2005). No peace, No war: An anthropology of contemporary armed conflicts. Athens; Oxford: Ohio University Press; James Currey.

Schlee, G. (2006). The Somali peace process and the search for a legal order. In Albrecht, H., et al. (Eds.), Conflict and Conflict Resolution in Middle Eastern Societies – Between Tradition and Modernity (pp. 117-167). Berlin: Duncker & Humbolt.

Schoiswohl, M. (2004). Status and (human rights) obligations of non-recognized de facto regimes in international law: The case of ‘Somaliland’. Leiden, Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Somaliland Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2002). The case for Somaliland’s recognition as an independent state. Hargeysa.

Terlinden, U., &  Hagmann, T. (2005). Faking a government for Somalia. International diplomacy supports fictitious peace process. Editorial & Commentary, Sub-Saharan Informer (Addis Ababa), 29.07.2005, p.9, also published in the Somaliland Times (Hargeisa). Accessed 5 November 2007 from http://www.ulf-terlinden.de/docs/2005-07-29Terlinden_Hagmann_SSI.pdf

Tilly, C. (1985). War making and state making as organised crime. In P. Evans, D. Rueschenmeyer and T. Skocpol (Eds.), Bringing the state back in (pp. 169-191). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Weinstein, M. (2007) Somaliland moves to close its borders and is caught in a web of conflict, PINR briefing 31 October 2007. Accessed 2 November 2007 from

WSP (War-torn Societies Project) international (Ed.). (2005) Rebuilding Somaliland. Issues and possibilities. Lawrenceville: Red Sea Press.