Somaliland: The Quest for Independence

By: Atira Naik


Somaliland is a small nation-state internationally recognized as part of Somalia, bordering Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somaliland's semi-autonomous Puntland region. Somaliland, today, has all the workings of an independent nation. It has a democratically elected government, a working constitution, a currency and a capital, Hargeisa, comprising roughly 1.5 million residents.

Somaliland Landscape
Somaliland Landscape

Despite declaring independence in 1991, the country have yet to gain international recognition as an independent state, hence its inclusion as an 'unrecognized country.' The territory was a British protectorate until 1960, which was when it unified with the rest of present-day Somalia, the latter being subject to Italian rule. Civil war in Somalia broke out during the 1980s, providing Somaliland with an opportunity to carve out its own state based on colonial borders.

Since 1991, they have experienced stability unparalleled to that of Somalia, which continued to be entrenched in a civil war that destroyed their economy and infrastructure. In 2001, the residents of Somaliland held a referendum, with results depicting the overwhelming support by Somaliland’s inhabitants for the region's claimed independence. Moreover, the government of Somaliland has rejected invitations of peace talks that aim to reunite Somalia, citing that since it wishes to maintain its independent status it cannot be a party to such discussions.

History of Somaliland

The first interaction between the Somalis and the British was in 1827, with the “Articles of Friendship and Commerce” between the tribe of Habr Awal and England. These agreements intensified to become concrete treaties that were signed by both England and the clans of Somaliland, then referred to as British Somaliland. This paved the way for the British to establish a protectorate in that region, which was controlled from Aden, Yemen, and administered as a part of British India until 1898. Later, it was administered first by the British Foreign Office, and then by the British Colonial Office.

In the late nineteenth century, Britain, with the support of Italy, and France, with the support of Russia, were locked in a power struggle to determine who would win control over the river Nile. Britain won, due to a series of agreements it convinced tribes in northern Somalia to make. These agreements were twofold: they were a means of countering French influence, and ensuring a regular mutton supply for their army stronghold in Yemen, given Somaliland's had an abundant supply of livestock. The historian Ioan Lewis is quoted as saying that Somaliland was ‘one of Britain’s least rewarding possessions, at least ‘in relation to its size and significance’. However, while Somaliland was overlooked as a small player in a big game, Somalia was left to meet Italy’s high expectation of being an integral part of of its north African empire, which also included modern-day Libya and parts of Egypt.

Camels in Somaliland
Camels in Somaliland

In fact, for a brief week, Somaliland was indeed considered a country; with full recognition from other countries and the UN. On 26 June 1960, Somaliland could no longer be referred to as British Somaliland, a gesture recognized by 35 countries around the world. This is where Somaliland's struggle for independence began. A legislature advocating the union of Somaliland and Somalia was passed, and on July 1, when Somalia gained independence from Italy, the two were joined together to form the nation-state of Somalia.

After a year of independence, a new constitution was proposed, which was immediately and overwhelmingly opposed by voters in the north, that is, the people of Somaliland. It was clear that there were tensions between the two nations from the start. This tension only escalated when, in 1969, a military coup brought General Siad Barre to power.

Both Somaliland and Somalia’s populations are largely divided into clans. Thus, since independence, the leaders of Somalia and Somaliland tended to give preference to their own clans, mainly supporting them as patrons or sponsors. The vast majority of Somaliland, in the north, however, consists of different subsets of the same clan called the Isaaq clan. Somalia, however, is more diverse, and had many other clans co-existing within it. Since Somalia was in power, and Barre was from a clan in Somalia called the Darod clan, it was with glaring transparency that Barre privileged his own clan, which of course led to northern Somaliland’s Isaaq clan’s growing frustration and bitterness toward the ruling government.

All this resentment finally culminated in the birth of a primarily Isaaq northern rebel group known as the Somali National Movement (SNM), to challenge the rule of the then-government. The crackdowns and protests that followed greatly emphasized that the region of Somaliland seemed to be its own nation under suppression. All this led to an all-out civil war between the SNM and the central government in the late 80s, during which thousands were killed and millions were forced to flee to neighboring countries.

Finally, on 18 May 1991, the SNM pronounced that the region would be re-establishing their boundaries, and forming their own nation, the Republic of Somaliland. However, the civil war in Somalia was still raging on, and this led to international coverage, and American intervention. This became known as the infamous ‘Black Hawk down’ incident, where 19 US troops were killed, and this had the effect of completely eclipsing the birth of a new player at the world stage.

Current Situation in Somaliland

Today, Somaliland is far better off than all of its neighbours to the south. It was able to form its own democratic government, army, currency, flag, economy, and much more. It is a rather unanticipated pillar of stability in an otherwise tumultuous region. African specialist Bronwyn Bruton said that Somaliland got a great deal of positive publicity for being ‘stable and kind of a peaceful island in a sea of violence that is Somalia.’ This however, as Bruton points out, is largely due to the fact that it is a single clan territory, and thus does not suffer inter-tribal conflicts as in Somalia.

Passport of Somaliland
Somaliland Passport

Indeed, today Somaliland is a full-fledged nation-state in the Horn of Africa, yet it does not get to experience any of the benefits of being a country. While Somaliland is stable by local standards, it is also not prospering. It has become a world-player, just not a very good one.

In 2012, the World Bank estimated its GDP per capita at just $348, which would make it the fourth-poorest country in the world. Its main industry is livestock export, which accounts for about 70% of its jobs, and indubitably cannot be developed much further. Somaliland is now looking into oil exploration; however, this requires capital, something they are denied, due to the fact that they are not recognized as a country.

According to Somaliland’s Foreign Minister Saad Al Shire, the fact that they are not recognized impacts them in very negative ways, as he expounds, "we are not present in the forums in which aid efforts are discussed. We cannot get bilateral aid. We cannot get loans. We cannot attract international investors."

In 2016, Somaliland was hit by a regional food crisis that the UN described as one of the largest humanitarian emergencies since 1945. More than a million of Somaliland’s total population of four million people were at risk of starvation, yet help was painfully slow to arrive. This is mainly due to the fear of the name of its country itself – that is, too often, it is lumped together and mistaken for Somalia, a region notorious for its violence and chaos.

What’s dangerous for Somalilanders right now is to stay in international limbo. The lack of recognition is impeding international relief, he reiterates, and stymying development.

Moreover, the longer this lack of recognition, lack of international aid and benefit continues, the more likely it is that the stability the region is experiencing breaks down. Puntland, a neighboring semi-autonomous region of Somalia, and Somaliland, have long been engaged in a clash over a disputed shared border region. Lately, dozens more have been killed and injured in these clashes, and it is speculated that this conflict risks breaking out into an open war.

Map depicting Somaliland
Horn of Africa Map

The Republic of Somaliland has quite a strong case its independence: indeed, it is a fully-functioning nation, with a relatively stable government, democratic elections, army, coast guard, and border police. Moreover, Bruton explains that "since Somaliland was a part of a British colony rather than an Italian colony, they were never really a part of Somalia and so they have a right to be separate." Yet, this recognition has been denied to them for 29 years. It is possible that looking at the conflicts it is facing from external sources, such as Puntland, and internally, such as its weak economy, it is crucial for them to receive it now, so that it is able to face these obstacles that are slowly gaining significance.

Essentially, the Republic of Somaliland is being punished for its colonial ties with Somalia, and Somalia’s incapability of handling its own depredation and chaos, which is, to any fair-minded individual, a gross miscarriage of justice.


Somaliland profile. (2017, December 14). Retrieved from

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2015, July 31). Somaliland. Retrieved from

Somaliland. (2020, March 5). Retrieved from

Keating, J. (2018, July 20). When is a nation not a nation? Somaliland's dream of independence. Retrieved from

Beaubien, J. (2017, May 30). Somaliland Wants To Make One Thing Clear: It Is NOT Somalia. Retrieved from

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