Somaliland: Clan vs. National Identity

By: Gerson Falcao

Somaliland Overview

Somaliland is an unrecognized country located in the northern part of the Horn of Africa and the northwestern part of internationally recognized Somalia.

It has an estimated population of around 3.5 million and is one of the most homogeneous regions in Africa. Most people are Sunni Muslim and of ethnic Somali origin. The majority of which belong to the Isaaq clan, one of the four dominant clan-families in Greater Somalia.

This article focuses on the elements concerning the identity of the Somaliland population and the Somali clan-system. These elements are related to the historical context of the region and the Somalian armed conflict which are briefly explained.

Somali Clan System

Somalia is an internationally recognized country in the Horn of Africa. Although it is recognized as one entity, it is actually made up of three distinctive parts; Somaliland, Puntland (autonomous region) and Somaliland (de facto state). All three territories make up an important geopolitical point with hundreds of kilometers of coastline along the Gulf of Aden.

Somalis are organized in clans, patrilineal and typically divided into sub-clans, sometimes with many sub-divisions. There is no formal agreement on the clan and sub-clan structures and anthropologists have difficulties to find consensus identifying all the lineages. The four dominant clans are Hawiye, Darod, Dir, and Isaaq - which is the main clan family in Somaliland.

According to the WordAtlas, in the 21st century, many Somalis remain more loyal to their clans than to the idea of Somali national identity. Somalis usually know their exact position within the clan system.

The population of the major cities in Somaliland is predominantly Isaaq, genealogy divided into two subfamilies from two lineages linked with clear agreements on the clan and sub-clan structures that have not changed for centuries.

However, Somalilanders not only preserve their clan-family identity but also a kind of national identity and claim for Somaliland citizenship and are entitled to both a Somaliland passport and identity card.

The Somaliland national identity is generally based on the feeling of security and the peaceful living conditions of the people when compared to its southern neighbour - Somalia. In addition, the country has been historically separated from Somalia even before it declared independence in the early 1990s.

British Colony to Unrecognized Country

In the 19th century, the United Kingdom and Italy established colonies in the northwest of Somalia (Somaliland).

These colonies joined independence in 1969 and were added to the Somali Democratic Republic under the military government of Mohamed Siad Barre. Siad Barre considered the clan system as inconsistent to the purpose of a modern state, however, his regime failed in their attempt to change that system.

In 1981, Hasan Adan Wadadi, a former Somali diplomat based in London, started a rebel group named the Somali National Movement (SNM). This group gained strong support from the Isaaq clan after the state-sponsored massacre of thousands of Isaaq civilians between 1987 and 1989.

The government of Siad Barre collapsed in 1991 as the Somali civil war broke out. In the same year. The SNM declared the independence of Somaliland from neighboring southern Somalia, creating a separated elected government, army and police force, a capital city (Hargeisa) and a national currency. In line with the policy of the African Union on separatism, the declaration has never been recognized by the international community.

Somaliland - not Somalia

Over the years, the failures of the peace process in Somalia reinforced coalitions of clan-based opposition groups that began competing for influence and power in a country with no real central government. In Somalia, armed factions clashed as each sought to exert authority over the capital and most of the rural communities returned to practice customary and religious law.

The main clans gained territorial exclusiveness and domination by powerful warlords who still played significant roles in the armed conflict. Around 500,000 people are estimated to have been killed since the start of the war in 1991.

The scenario of violence and war has been different in Somaliland. In Somaliland, the political system ensures relative security, allows the transfer of power between rival parties and attempts to preserve equal political rights for women and various clan family groups.

Republic of Somaliland

The Republic of Somaliland has a democratic government, territory, a population, a military, a police force and even a national currency. Nevertheless, it does not have transnational sovereignty since the international community only sees it as an autonomous region.

In cultural terms, Somalilanders follow the same clan-system as the rest of Somalis and that system matters for all functions of society, even for the structure of the government where the larger and higher-status clans dominate political offices and leadership positions.

To sum it up, the Somaliland clan system is the same as in Somalia. Although Somalilanders share a feeling of national identity more-so than their southern counterparts as it does not seem to conflict with the traditional clan-identity.

National identities are commonly stronger among people from the richest, most prosperous or peaceful regions, that are more exposed to the promotion of the interests of a particular nation such as self-governance and wealth. Somaliland nationalist sentiments stand for a strict Islamic public identity, with the idea of a progressive state, anti-extremist, stable and open to the outside world.

Somaliland's National Identity

From one perspective, Somalilanders perceive themselves as a nation and refuse any dependence on a central authority in Mogadishu. Their national identity is a normal and common feeling of pride which claims for autonomy and the protection of the national religion and the Somaliland natural, cultural and economic resources such as the Port of Berbera, an important source for foreign investments and relations.

Alternatively, the clan-family system is a traditional and cultural identity associated with the long-standing divisions in Somali society. Somalilanders still divided along clan-family lines, sometimes accuse each other of clan favouritism and power monopolies.

They frequently reproach southern Somali immigrants and ethnic minorities of advantaging the stability of the region. Both of these groups are marginalized minority communities, frequently seized down in an inferior social and clan-family position.

The clan-family identity refers to the feelings a Somali can find through membership of a collectivity but the national identity refers to the ideology a Somalilander can find through place or territory attachment. In that sense, national sentiments of Somalilanders have a political dimension and may increase with the government’s efforts to achieve international recognition.

Historical incidents concerning the Isaaq clan-family, religious and ethnic homogeneity but mostly prosperity and the security conditions in the region are factors for increasing the Somaliland national identity, inclusively amongst minority groups and other clans-families facing discrimination.

For most Somalilanders, the clan-family and national identity are not in conflict, but rather closely related and supported by a good relations between citizen and (unrecognized) state.


African Studies Center (University of Oxford) seminar by Yusuf Kajura Serunkuma (Makere University) on November 5, 2018

Ethnic groups and clans in Somalia by WorldAtlas. See

United Kingdom Homme Office, Country Policy and Information Note-Somalia: Majority clans and minority groups in south and central Somalia, Version 3.0, January 2019, p. 13 of 40

A French reportage from France 24 À la découverte du Somaliland, le pays qui n’existe pas diffused in 2014 explains how people from Somaliland defend national identity. See

Journal of the institute for Security Studies, July 2016, p. 237-258

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