Updated: Aug 28, 2019
By: Kirsten King
The autonomous but unrecognized Republic of Somaliland, claims the entire territory of the former British Somaliland protectorate, an area roughly the size of Wisconsin, though ownership of its easternmost area remains in dispute with the neighboring autonomous region of Puntland.
Somaliland is a democratic and Islamic nation that has operated independently since gaining sovereignty in May 1991; complete with its own president, military, police force, postal system, currency, and national passport.
Its anthem Samo ku Waar meaning “Long Life with Peace” shadows the political climate of the region which has remained relatively sheltered from the violence and religious extremism that has permeated in the south for decades, ever since the outbreak of the Somali Civil War that has turned nearly a million Somalians into refugees and some 1.1 million into internally displaced persons and is still ongoing today.
History of Somaliland
Somaliland lies just on the northern end of the horn of Africa, close to what many believe to be the “Cradle of Life” in the Ethiopian Rift Valley—the birthplace of humankind where the first prehistoric evidence of humans has been discovered.
Indeed, archeologists trace human existence in Somaliland back to the Paleolithic area, with Neolithic cave paintings still visible today.
In ancient times, Somaliland was known as the “Land of Punt” to the Egyptians--an epicenter of trade in gums and resins, ostrich feathers, and slaves--the Arab speaking world referred to the Somali inhabitants of the region as Barbars or Berbers.
The area was organized by sultanates in medieval times, and tribal lines ran deep with the dominant clans; the largest of which was the Isaaq whose founding father was Sheikh Isaaq bin Ahmed, an Arabian scholar greatly responsible for the spread of Islam in Somaliland during the 12th century.
During early modern times as European powers vied for colonial expansion in Africa, the northernmost part of modern day Somalia near Djibouti was controlled by France and Egypt with the southern swathe ruled by the sultan of Zanzibar.
The British first gained influence in the region through a series of articles of “peace and friendship” in the 1820’s with the respective clans and eventually establishing a protectorate across from their base at Aden in 1886 with the southern part of the country controlled by Italy.
Independence and Modern Somaliland
Before the outbreak of the First World War, an uprising against the British led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, the leader of the Dervishes, led to the Somaliland Campaign, a conflict which lasted until the British aerial bombardment of the Dervish capital at Taleh, leading to the consolidation of British Somaliland.
Somaliland stayed under British rule until June 26, 1960 when it was granted independence under the promise that it would join the Italian trust territory in the south to form a unified independent state. For five days after being granted independence from the British, the newly-granted Somali State existed independently before being united with the Trust Territory of Somaliland to form the Somali Republic on July 1.
Less than a decade later, the fledgling state experienced political turmoil in 1969 when the Somali Republic’s first president Abdirashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated by his own bodyguard and a military coup d’etat led by General Mohamed Siad Barre established control—his military dictatorship would last another 21 years.
Resistance movements sprang up in the 1980’s supported by Ethiopia to which the Barre regime responded with bombing campaigns of the northern cities of Hargeisa and Burao, leveling most of the infrastructure (only 5% of Hargeisa’s buildings were left standing) and killing anywhere from 50,000-200,000 of the Isaaq civilians who inhabited them.
This violent onslaught gave rise to the rebel group, the Somali National Movement. Although initially not a separatist group, the Isaaq outrage toward the genocidal actions of the Barre regime pressured group leaders to support separation after the SNM and other clan-led rebel groups overthrew Barre in 1991.
Somaliland formed as a de-facto state on May 18, 1991 and has operated independently from Somalia ever since. Although, due to the continued violence between Islamic insurgents in southern Somalia in its ongoing civil war and the unclear state of Somalia’s second separatist state, Puntland; the African Union and the United Nations will not recognize the sovereignty of Somaliland for fear of risking further tensions in this already tumultuous region.
However, Somaliland remains sheltered from most of the violence due to its uniquely formed parliamentary government which power-shares with the main clans thereby avoiding political unrest. It also has a growing economy, stimulated by remittances from money transfer companies, in particular the UAE based Dahabshiil.
Today, three countries have Somaliland consulates, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Turkey, and eight countries recognize the Somaliland passport. Additionally Denmark and Kenya have liaison offices with Somaliland, it has representative offices in 12 other countries, and more are set to open in the future as Somaliland continues to gain acceptance on the world stage.
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Hugh Chisholm (ed.), The encyclopædia Britannica: a dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information, Volume 25, (At the University press: 1911), p.383.
Central Intelligence Agency (2011). "Somalia". The World Factbook. Langley, Virginia: Central Intelligence Agency.
Lacey, Marc (June 5, 2006). "The Signs Say Somaliland, but the World Says Somalia". New York Times.