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Opinion: Lessons from Somaliland

Reduce Somalia's violence by adopting policies of peaceful Somaliland.

Women voters in Somaliland
Women register to vote on June 26, 2010, in Hargeisa, the capital of the self-proclaimed state of Somaliland. (Ali Musa/AFP/Getty Images)

BUNGOMA, Kenya — These days, Somalia is known for two things: its pirates and its Islamic militants. When Al Shabaab, the extremist Islamic insurgents based in southern Somalia, claimed responsibility for the July bombings that killed 78 people in Kampala, international concern over the problem of Somalia spiked.

Somalia’s transitional federal government hangs on by a thread in Mogadishu. Despite several years of international support, including an African Union peacekeeping force, its authority remains tenuous. The international community seems torn over what to do next. At the end of July, the African Union was poised to widen the mandate of the AU peacekeeping force, but was deterred after the United Nations opposed it. What might be a constructive way forward in Somalia?

Somaliland, a peaceful enclave in northern Somalia, offers some valuable lessons. The autonomous area is not recognized by the international community, but it recently held successful presidential elections that saw Dahir Riyale Kahin, the sitting president, hand over power to Ahmed Silanyo, a long-time opposition leader.

Somaliland is a small success story within the larger failed state of Somalia. To understand what might be possible in Somalia, it’s useful to examine the history of Somaliland.

In 1991, when the regime of Siad Barre collapsed, northern Somalia was left in disarray, much like southern Somalia. The area’s strongest political force was the Somali National Movement (SNM), which had been fighting against Barre’s government since the 1980s. The SNM declared Somaliland’s independence and created a transitional government that lasted until 1993.

Somalilanders believed the SNM was only representative of one tribe and wanted a more inclusive government. From 1991 to 1997, Somaliland held more than 30 peace conferences. These conferences happened at the local, district, and national levels and were largely funded by the local business community. They used indigenous conflict resolution techniques to build political institutions that were acceptable to the majority of the population.

By 1997, Somaliland had a basic government structure — a presidency, a judiciary and a bicameral legislature. The legislature had a house of elected representatives, and a house of tribal elders, called the Guurti. The Guurti was meant to provide a link between traditional governance structures and the state structures of Somaliland.

In 2001, Somaliland ratified a constitution, and in 2003, it held presidential elections that were decided by a margin of 214 votes. The outcome was not contested.

Somalia experts such as Ken Menkhaus believe the formation of Somaliland’s government was able to happen because it remained unrecognized by the international community and thus ineligible for foreign assistance. Since 1997, Somaliland’s annual budget is estimated at $20 million to $40 million for a population of 2.5 million to 3.5 million. By comparison, Somalilanders receive at least $200 million a year in remittances.

Running a government on a shoestring budget has drawbacks. The government has focused its investment on maintaining security, not economic development. Somalilanders remain poor. However, they are better off than the rest of Somalia. Though development statistics are extremely limited, available data shows modest improvements in health, education and income indicators since 1991.