The History of Somaliland

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

By: David Serpa

The History of an Unrecognized Country

Somaliland is an unrecognized country, internationally recognized as an autonomous region in northwestern Somalia, in the Horn of Africa. Somaliland declared independence in 1991, after the fall of president Siad Barre in Somalia. This declaration has yet to be recognized by any independent states.

Despite its lack of recognition, Somaliland has a working political system, government institutions, a police force and its own currency, the Somaliland shilling. Its capital is Hargeisa and the population of the region is about 3.5 million people.

As Somalilanders are ethnic Somalis, the official language is Somali like in Somalia; with many of the country's inhabitants also speaking Arabic and English as well. The overwhelming majority of the population are Sunni Muslims (BBC, 2017).

British Somaliland

Looking at Somaliland today, it is difficult to understand the situation without first going back to British Somaliland. The current Republic of Somaliland seeks to gain international recognition of its borders, based on the colonial borders of British Somaliland.

In the 1870s, Egypt, then under the control of the Ottoman Empire, assumed control of parts of Somaliland, especially along the coast. Due to trouble in other territories and financial pressure, Egypt negotiated to leave Somalia under the control of the British in the 1880s.

Somaliland was ruled from Aden in Yemen, located very close to the northernmost parts of Somaliland, just across the Gulf of Aden. Coastal Somaliland was of interest to the British since it was on the path of the Suez Canal leading to India (Kaiser’s Cross, n.d.).

Eventually, some Somalis grew discontent with the British administration and sought independence, starting the Anglo-Somali Wars at the start of the 20th century. Led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, also known as the “Mad Mullah”, the revolutionary Somali Dervish forces faced the British in their attempt for independence.

After many years of low-intensity resistance, the British defeated the Dervishes in 1920, consolidating their hold on Somaliland (Kaiser’s Cross, n.d.). Italy, who also participated in the battles, was able to consolidate its power over Italian Somaliland, with its capital in Mogadishu. During World War II, British Somaliland was briefly conquered by the Italians, but it then returned to British control.

The 1960s brought about radical changes for Somaliland. The British government announced readiness to grant independence to the protectorate, which was expected to unite with Italian Somaliland as a single country - today's Somalia.

On June 26, 1960 British Somaliland became independent and was recognized by 35 countries. For five days, it existed as a recognized independent state, an important fact and claim, later to form part of Somaliland’s arguments and claims to statehood. After this period, Somaliland merged with Italian Somaliland to form the Republic of Somalia, the present-day country of Somaliland (Kaplan, 2008).

One Somalia

Somalia and Somailand are highly heterogeneous countries; however, differences arise because of its complex clan and sub-clan system. The north of Somalia, Somaliland, is mostly populated by people of the Isaaq sub-clan, part of the Dir clan.

People in the north felt discriminated and ignored under the first Somali governments, since leaders belonged to different clans, which were greater in number (Justice, 2011). Things took an uglier twist for Somalilanders as Siad Barre took control of the country in 1969.

Barre, of the Darod clan, became president of Somalia through a military coup after the president Ali Shermarke was assassinated. His government quickly took an authoritarian turn, arresting opposition, banning political parties and suspending the constitution, among other moves.

His government drew on Islam to govern, as well as socialist ideology. He therefore sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War as he saw in them a natural partner. This changed during the Ogaden War with Ethiopia, also a Soviet ally; the Soviets chose to support the latter instead of Somalia.

With this turn of events, Barre sought support from the US (Einashe, Kennard, 2018). Somalia lost this war, making many people discontent. The US supported Barre throughout his rule, as part of their global containment strategy against Soviet Union.

Barre opposed the importance of clanism in Somali society and saw it contrary to the development of a modern state, thus he sought to eradicate it, replacing it with a unified Somali identity.

This was mostly relevant in his rhetoric though; his government still targeted different clans on a near-systematic basis at some points. For example, after a failed coup attempt in 1978, Barre responded by committing reprisal killings and purging the civil service of people of the Majerteen clan, as he blamed them for the event (Mass Atrocity Endings, 2015).

The Isaaq majority in the north, continued to feel marginalized and unrepresented during Barre’s government. They were purged from the civil service, victims of violence, business confiscation, among other abuses. Consequently, in 1981 a group of Isaaq people formed the Somali National Movement (SNM), an insurgency aimed at toppling the Barre regime.

The government responded with increased repression and violence against the Isaaq and those suspected of collaborating with the SNM. Egal, the former Prime Minister of Somalia and an Isaaq himself, was arrested during this time.

The insurgents became more active and launched an offensive in 1988. The Barre regime responded with an air raid of Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, aimed at destroying the city.

The same occurred in Burao and Berbera, other cities in Somaliland. Over 40,000 people were killed and 300,000 displaced. The actions taken by the Barre government against the Isaaq clan between 1988 and 1989 are considered an act of genocide (Thelwell, 2017).

Shortly after, Barre’s regime started losing control due to a few factors. Its bombing campaigns were costly and unpopular, at the same time, the Cold War was coming to an end and the Soviet Union collapsing. As such, the US was not interested in supporting the regime anymore. Many groups became stronger, taking control over parts of the country.

In 1991, the majority Hawiye clan group the United Somali Congress (USC) launched an offensive on Mogadishu, leading Barre to flee the country, and taking control of the government. While he tried to regain control, he was later forced into exile, eventually dying in Nigeria. In 1991, divisions within the USC led to the start of a civil war.

Somaliland managed to achieve some stability and the SNM shifted its aims from unification to independence. With fresh and vivid memories of the violence during the genocide, Somalilanders were set on avoiding any similar wrongdoing in the future.

Along with the centralization of the country, these factors motivated prominent elders, gathered by the SNM, to distance themselves from Mogadishu and remain peaceful.

They concluded that an independent and sovereign Somaliland would be able to tackle these issues (Forti, 2011). Consequently, the SNM declared Somaliland independent on May 18, 1991. The unrecognized country has retained sovereignty over its borders since this declaration.

The Unrecognized Republic of Somaliland

Until today, Somaliland is not recognized as a sovereign state by any other nation. As such, this has become the most important political and social issue for Somaliland. The vast majority of the population supported the decision in 1991 to declare independence from Mogadishu. Negotiations to finalize the status of Somaliland with Somalia have been non-existent.

Since independence the people of Somaliland have been reassured of their decision just by looking south. The recognized country of Somalia is faced by a myriad of problems, especially a semi-anarchic state of affairs which contributes to constant fighting and war.

In turn, it possesses all of the characteristics of a failed state. The Fragile States Index in its 2019 report categorizes Somalia as the second most fragile state on the planet (Messner et al.).

The representatives of Somaliland base their claims of independence on a few factors;

In a 2001 referendum more than 97% of the population voted to endorse the constitution adopted in 1997 (BBC, 2017). The vote thus reaffirmed the support for Somaliland's self-declared independence.

They also rest their claim on their initial independence and colonial boundaries. During colonial times, as mentioned above, the colonial entity of British Somaliland was based on the same borders of the current unrecognized country of Somaliland. The current government of Somaliland sees itself as the successor state of British Somaliland.

In this sense, Somaliland and Somalia do not share a long common history. Deep unification was never materialized; thus, the people of Somaliland do not feel part of the country of Somalia. In addition to this, Somaliland was briefly recognized as a sovereign state in 1960 before merging with the rest of Somalia.

Somaliland’s status and borders during colonial times make a particularly strong point in its claims for recognition. Since the founding of the Organization for African Unity, the precursor to the African Union, in 1963, the organization has committed to maintaining colonial borders, mostly for the sake of stability (L.T., 2016).

This is exactly what today’s Somaliland has been arguing; their territory is the same as was under British occupation and ruled separately from the rest of Somalia during colonial times. This created divisions in terms of history, culture and the way their societies are organized. These issued remained unresolved afterwards, as clearly evidenced during Barre’s government.

Somaliland, unlike Somalia, is not a failed state and its government does in fact retain monopoly on the use of force within its borders. Although unrecognized, it is one of the most stable and democratic countries in the region, including North Africa and the Middle East.

On the southern side of the border, the terrorist group Al-Shabaab is very active and even controls territory within Somaliland. While Somaliland has not registered a terrorist attack since 2008 (Gov.UK, 2019).

After violent conflict in the 1990s, a state of peace has been restored in Somaliland. The territory has held seven democratic elections since 1992, with the 2010 election in Somaliland being perhaps the first democratic transition of power in the Horn of Africa’s modern history (Rosen, 2016).

Democracy in Somaliland

In general, Somaliland seems to meet all of the practical requirements for statehood; it contains all the elements of a state, and many of a modern democratic state. The 2001 Constitution provided for a multiparty democracy which so far has been respected.

Saad Ali Shire, the Foreign Minister of Somaliland states; “We have a functioning democracy. We have our own army. We have our own police. We have our own coast guard. You know, we have our own border police. We have fulfilled all the conditions of a sovereign state" (Beaubien, 2017).

Other items such as their own currency, the Somaliland Shilling, can also be found; if using a statehood checklist, Somaliland most likely would pass on all categories. To a large extent, Somaliland meets more of the requirements of a modern state than Somalia, whose government does not exercise control over its territory, is not democratic, and is constantly threatened by pirates and terrorists.

The international community and western countries, especially the United States, have tried to promote peace, development and transition towards democracy in Somalia, mostly by working with the Somali government. Despite foreign aid and cooperation with this government, poverty and violence are still rampant in Somalia.

The international community promoted peace negotiations involving different Somali interest groups, yet between 1991 and 2009, sixteen peace conferences were organized and all of them ended in failure (Walls, 2009).

Somaliland has not participated in these and remains much more stable. Even though Somaliland struggles with underdevelopment, it showcases most of the aims the US and the international community have towards Somalia. Hence the Somaliland government argues they should receive support and recognition.

Given Somaliland does not get involved in Somali affairs, it has not reaped any of the benefits of foreign assistance. They claim this hinders their development, this is why for example their 2016 planned budget was 295 million US dollars, equivalent to 84 US dollars per capita (The Economist, 2015). According to the Somaliland Central Statistics Department.

Its GDP per capita as of 2017 was only 675 US dollars, while unemployment is high. Not recognizing Somaliland means that they cannot participate in international forums, the United Nations, African Union and cannot obtain loans from bodies like the World Bank, while also having a hard time attracting international investment. All of this prevents the economic development of Somaliland.

The Non-Recognition Camp

The international community and the African Union maintain that recognizing Somaliland could weaken Somalia and most worryingly, lead to chaos across Africa as other groups replicate. The fear is that other secessionist movements, of which there is no shortage in Africa, will see a green light for pushing for independence as well if this happens.

This could bring about instability as well a series of conflicts. Even within Somalia, Puntland and Jubbaland, other regions with large degrees of autonomy, could see a chance of pushing for independence.

One cannot rule out a new wave of violence between North and South of the country, as Somalis could be discontent with this scenario. The international community tends to defer to the African Union on matters like these, and their position is that Somalia must remain a single country (T.G., 2015).

The international community is also reluctant to recognize Somaliland independence, due to lack of interest in the country, which seems to be perceived as not very strategic or vital for regional powers.

It is worth noting that diplomatic and lobbying efforts from Somaliland have apparently not been as strong, thus their case has not had the reach they would desire. Their efforts have focused on building the Somali government, which would certainly be weakened if Somaliland was recognized, thus this move would go against their past work (Beaubien, 2017).

International Recognition of Somaliland

Many in Somaliland maintain the hope that one day they will become a sovereign country. While the fears of the African Union and those supporting a unified Somalia are valid, as there is certainly the potential for an escalation of violence in the region.

Modern Somaliland is partly built on it being the opposite of Somalia in many ways. The peace, unity, democracy and stronger rule of law in Somaliland stand out in stark contrast to the situation of Somalia.

Somalilanders believe these problems could be revived if they accepted reunification with Somalia and gave up their claims to independence. Thus, the fate of one of the most stable and democratic states in. the regions seems to be in limbo.


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Messner, J.J., Haken, N., Taft, P., Onyekwere, I., Blyth, H., Maglo, M.,…Obike, K. (2019, April 07). Fragile States Index 2019 – Annual Report.

Rosen, A. (2016, February 11). The Other Somalia. Retrieved June 28, 2019, from

Thelwell, K. (2017, November 02). 10 Facts About Isaaq Genocide. The Borgen Project. Retrieved July 02, 2019, from

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Walls, M. (2009). The Emergence of a Somali State: Building Peace from Civil War in Somaliland. African Affairs, 108(432), 371-389. doi:10.1093/afraf/adp019

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