SOMALIA: Conflict in Las Anod dims Somaliland’s diplomatic dreams

Published: May 10, 2023

Analysts say the crisis, which has displaced more than 200,000, is damaging foreign perception of Somaliland, long seen as relatively more stable than Somalia.

Since February 6, there has been fighting in the disputed city of Las Anod between forces in the self-declared state of Somaliland and local militia from the Dhulbahante clan in northern Somalia.

The city, also known as Laascaanood, is located between Somaliland and Puntland, a nearby semi-autonomous region in Somalia’s northeast. Both regions are laying claim to the city.

According to data received from hospitals in Las Anod, the death toll stands at 299, with 1,913 injured and more than 200,000 displaced since the conflict began.

Somaliland’s forces have retreated approximately 50km (31 miles) further westwards from its military base in Tukaraq, to military bases on the outskirts of Las Anod, reportedly launching attacks from there.

But analysts say beyond causing chaos in Somaliland, long celebrated for relative stability compared with Somalia, the war is also denting the region’s campaign for international recognition.

The international community still regards the region as part of Somalia, despite decades of lobbying by regional officials on the foreign scene.

Division and secession

The region sees itself as a successor state to the State of Somaliland which existed for five days in June 1960 on today’s territory and had relations with 35 countries, including China, Ethiopia and Israel.

On July 1, 1960, the State of Somaliland voluntarily united with the Italian-ruled south to form the Somali Republic. Three decades later – in May 1991 – Somaliland declared secession from Somalia, reclaiming the borders of the old British Somaliland protectorate.

The secession came as Somalia’s military government headed by Siad Barre attacked northern cities to crush a rebellion by the Ethiopia-backed Somali National Movement (SNM).

Today, Somalia’s federal government consists of five states, including Puntland. Until 2007, when Somaliland seized Las Anod, the city was under Puntland administration.

Since it broke away, Somaliland has been under the dominance of the influential Isaaq clan, which opted overwhelmingly to secede from the rest of Somalia.

In Somalia and Somaliland, the clan structure predated colonial administration and is still a very fundamental part of life and governance there.

According to Markus Hoehne, a social anthropologist at the University of Leipzig who conducted research in the region, the Dhulbahante clan, which reside in the areas of Sool, Sanaag and Buuhoodle, historically disputed between Somaliland and Puntland, were not on board with the idea of dividing the Somali state.

“[The] Dhulbahante were never eager to secede from Somalia, they consciously distanced themselves and did not fully participate in Somaliland’s elections in protest at Somaliland’s secession.”

Sool, Sanaag and Buuhoodle are now part of the SSC-Khaatumo state, which has also declared itself autonomous. The Dhulbahante also claim Las Anod as their capital.

Abdirashid Hashi, former director of Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), told Al Jazeera that the manner in which Somaliland seceded laid the groundwork for conflict of its claimed borders.

“Dismembering a country isn’t something that can be done unilaterally,” he said.

However, Puntland’s Information Minister Mohamoud Dirir told Al Jazeera that the state now wants to leave the decision to the Dhulbahante clan. “Puntland has consistently stated that Puntland will support whatever decision the people of SSC-Khaatumo decide to make, whether they make their own federal member state or decide to rejoin Puntland.”

Intervention and impact

The conflict has highlighted the importance of the region’s security and stability to the rest of the world.

Somaliland’s international partners have consistently shown dismay over Hargeisa’s handling of the conflict and the reported shelling of civilian areas and infrastructure in Las Anod.

During a phone call with Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi on May 3, Andrew Mitchell, the United Kingdom’s minister of state for development and Africa, said, “The economic potential in Somaliland is huge – but stability is fundamental to success.”

Mitchell also called for an immediate ceasefire and the need to produce an electoral roadmap for the delayed presidential elections which were due to be held in November 2022.

On April 17, during a joint call with Bihi, 15 international partners, including the European Union, the United States, Turkey and the UK, noted that the ongoing conflict and lack of clarity on delayed elections are seriously affecting discussions about their engagement with Somaliland.

In a statement after the call, they urged Somaliland to withdraw its forces from Las Anod to create conditions for a ceasefire and dialogue. The statement also added that while they noted Bihi’s “assurances to allow for unhindered humanitarian access”, they were “disappointed” that he  did not commit to a withdrawal of troops around the city.

Human rights activists and organisations have also called for a quick de-escalation of the situation.

“The parties must engage in meaningful negotiations in order to facilitate a legitimate ceasefire,” Guleid Ahmed Jama, ex-chair of the Hargeisa-based Human Rights Center (HRC), told Al Jazeera.

“The issue needs a peaceful conflict resolution mechanism, the international community/regional countries have a key role to play in facilitating negotiations and exerting pressure,” he added.

On April 20, Amnesty International published the findings of their investigation into the ongoing conflict, concluding that Somaliland forces indiscriminately shelled the town, damaged hospitals, schools and mosques and displaced tens of thousands of people.

Garaad Mukhtaar, a traditional elder of the Dhulbahante clan, welcomed the statements but has called for more action from the international community.

“External mediators, for example, UN peacekeeping forces, should be brought into Laascaanood in order to facilitate a ceasefire between the two sides fighting,” he told Al Jazeera by phone from Las Anod.

“Muse Bihi has consistently called for ceasefires and not followed them, the international community should also cut the aid that it gives to Somaliland in order to further pressure it to withdraw its forces from Laascaanood,” Mukhtaar added.

But the absence of a truce has not been for lack of trying.

In Hargeisa, Bihi and Ted Lawrence, the acting USAID Somalia director, met on May 4. Bihi expressed commitment to a ceasefire, but according to local reports, Somaliland shelled Las Anod three days later.

Regional actors like Ethiopia and Somalia have also unsuccessfully tried to intervene, meeting with both sides.

Dimming diplomatic dreams

In the meantime, analysts say the conflict has negatively affected Somaliland’s positioning as a “democratic haven” and its engagement with Western powers is at stake.

“Without the added value of democracy and peace, I think the international community will treat Somaliland little differently to a federal member state of Somalia,” Matthew Gordon, a doctoral candidate in politics and international studies at SOAS University of London told Al Jazeera.

“Somaliland may maintain its strategic importance but it will lose its broader legitimacy amongst groups sympathetic to Somaliland’s independence if the conflict … persists,” added Gordon, a former development worker in Hargeisa.

Beyond exerting diplomatic pressure, the international community has tried to play an active role in bringing the conflict to an end with US diplomats and Finland’s former envoy for the region flying into Hargeisa on numerous occasions.

Following the success of the 2021 local and parliamentary elections and a trip by Bihi to Washington, DC, US Congress amended the National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA), which specifies the annual budget of its Department of Defense. This act pushed for greater cooperation between the US and Somaliland.

A joint military exercise, Justified Accord, due to take place in Berbera in Somaliland in February was cancelled, with no explanations from the Pentagon.

On March 30, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel outlined the US’s willingness to impose travel restrictions on officials responsible for undermining the democratic process in Somalia, including Somaliland.

Clan elders like Mukhtaar have called for sanctions against Somaliland officials, with Hargeisa yet to withdraw troops from the vicinity of Las Anod.

To make matters worse, the humanitarian situation in the area is dire.

“At a time when a devastating famine has already resulted in a loss of lives and livelihoods, it is estimated that around 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes,” Niyi Ojuolape, the United Nations Population Fund’s country representative to Somalia, told Al Jazeera.

He urged Somaliland and the Dhulbahante clan elders to “engage in constructive dialogue” to find sustainable solutions to the conflict.

Still, Hargeisa believes the conflict has not affected its foreign standing.

“Somaliland engages with its partners and has good relations with them,” Mohamed Hussein Jama Rambo, deputy chair of the foreign affairs committee for Somaliland, told Al Jazeera. “We do intend to continue working with our partners on issues of development, peace and democratisation.”