Somaliland's route to peace

12th December 2013

Sarah Phillips explores Somaliland's approach to peacebuilding and asks if donors have overlooked the importance of secondary education in development.

When Somalia's government collapsed in 1991, violence engulfed much of the country for over two decades. But in Somaliland – a self-proclaimed republic in Somalia's north-west – the story has been quite different. Its leaders managed, in fits and starts, to negotiate an end to large-scale violence within six years. Travelling through Somaliland now – something still impossible in most of Somalia – one is struck by the strength of popular pride in the achievement of peace and relative security.

So how has Somaliland managed to establish and maintain its greater stability? My research on this question for DLP highlights three particularly important factors: a domestically-funded peace process that motivated cooperation among elites; Somalilanders' conscious desire for an enclave of peace within the surrounding turmoil; and quality secondary education.

Elite cooperation

At the launch of the new $60 million Somaliland Development Fund (SDF), the Danish Ambassador noted the “leadership and ownership” demonstrated by Somaliland. Yet this ownership was partly fostered by an initial lack of international support: the Government of Somaliland's unrecognised status made it largely ineligible for official international grants and loans, or political or military assistance. The lack of external funding motivated strong – though arguably collusive – cooperation between Somaliland's politicians and business leaders to secure the money needed to disarm militias and bring greater stability to the country. This stood in obvious contrast to Somalia, where successive governments and peace processes have been substantially underwritten by external political and financial support.

In Somaliland, President Mohamed Ibrahim Egal used loans from private businesses to demobilise the clan militias. In exchange for loans towards his state-building project, Egal gave business leaders not just a more stable environment in which to operate, but generous tax exemptions and opportunities for extraordinary profits. For example, in 1994 Egal used such loans to print a Somaliland Shilling, to underline Somaliland's proclaimed independence. He then declared the old Somali Shillings illegal in Somaliland, selling them to his creditors at fire sale prices in exchange for hard currency. His creditors then resold them very profitably across the 'border' in Somalia. While such arrangements didn't conform to ideals of inclusivity, they did foster ownership of Somaliland's peacebuilding process among the business elite – who literally bought in to it.

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see how the Somaliland Development Fund affects Somaliland's future, and whether it succeeds in its aim of giving the Somaliland Government “ownership over how and where the funds are spent”.

Peace above all else

For Somaliland, the maintenance of peace is the gravitational centre around which all other political and economic considerations orbit.

The loans that Egal received from the business elites were (and remain) widely accepted within Somaliland as legitimate. Part of the reason for this seems to be a powerful idea that continues to permeate society and shape political change in Somaliland: the value of peace above all else, something almost certainly underwritten by the trauma of war. For Somaliland, the maintenance of peace is the gravitational centre around which all other political and economic considerations orbit. On this basis, peace is exchanged for relatively exclusive access to the key drivers of economic growth.

Despite their pride in Somaliland's achievements, Somalilanders fear its internal combustion. Somaliland's dominant political narratives revolve consistently around the notion that peace is fragile, that its maintenance requires a continual effort from everyone, and that its maintenance is a reflection of the Somalilanders' exceptional nature. During my research I often heard people comment that Somaliland “works because Somalilanders want it to work” and that it “runs on trust”. Rituals of trust are an important component of peace and security in Somaliland: if people don't trust that others are as invested in maintaining peace as they are, it can quickly collapse.

I watched one such ritual unfold when I asked to enter the grounds of Sheekh School to do some interviews. Behind the school fence sat a couple of guards who would not allow us to enter until we could demonstrate that there was a personal connection linking us, on one side of the fence, to them on the other. My Somalilander friends began calling person after person, moving through a chain of acquaintances and then strangers, until they found someone who knew one of the guards personally, at which time the gate was opened.

It was a theatrical display, revealing a very constructed idea of security. The people on the other end of the phone clearly did not know me (or my friends) and so could vouch for neither my integrity nor my purpose. Presumably, they could not actually be held accountable for my actions once inside either. In fact, what seemed to be happening was that my friends and the guards were acting out the 'discovery' of a previously unknown personal connection between me (the outsider) and the local community. However obviously strained this discovery was to all observing, it was nevertheless vital to perform it in exchange for entry.

The role of secondary education

The reason for my visit to Sheekh Secondary School was the striking influence of its graduates – as highlighted in my research – on Somaliland. I found that a disproportionate number of the politicians, activists and technocrats who helped establish Somaliland's stability had attended it. Among Sheekh alumni are all but one of its four presidents and all three of its vice-presidents. When I asked why Somaliland had leaders who were relatively effective at negotiating and maintaining peace, the answers often included Sheekh School. My findings suggest the significant role of quality secondary education in forming leaders who promote development.

“We used to say to the international community [that] all we need is three Sheekh Schools...”

Sheekh School was a privately funded boarding school that gave free tuition to the top students in Somaliland. On the basis of merit, it offered students from different backgrounds training in critical thought and leadership, networks of trust outside the clan, and pathways to higher education abroad.

One of its graduates lamented that foreign development practitioners overlook its importance: “We used to say to the international community [that] all we need is three Sheekh Schools... The international community is fixated on primary education and on literacy, which is obviously important but there is no focus on educating the elite... We all know what they think is important, and that that is short-term training programs, and these are not futile but they also are lacking in many areas.”

Somaliland's Minister of Planning noted that while donors have funded some buildings for secondary schools in the territory, investment in the quality of the education provided has been lacking: “We have quantity but not quality.”

These comments are timely in the light of what seems to be growing interest among donors in expanding the current, MDG-oriented, focus on primary education – to include higher education, for example. Findings from both Somaliland and from forthcoming DLP research in Ghana suggest the value of investment in quality secondary education and tertiary scholarships.

Secondary education didn't make the list of initial priorities for the Somaliland Development Fund – unsurprising, perhaps, given the pressing needs elsewhere. But in the long-term, investment in secondary education would play a significant role in increasing government capacity to achieve development objectives: it could be more relevant than at first appears to the SDF's aim of enhancing core state functions.

See also: Duncan Green's review of Sarah's research paper on Somaliland.




09th March 2014 at 19:32

This research revealed the difference between Somaliland and somalia. It gives a wake up call to the international community that peace will not come through internationally funded peace processes, which have failed many times. Somaliland shows the international community that Somalia's elites are not ready to stabilize their country. Somalia would benefit from Somalialand's recognition, as Somalailand could support peace building in Somalia.



24th February 2014 at 13:46

Very interesting piece. Thanks to Allah for allowing us to overcome the challenges that faced the people of Somaliland over the past 20 years and more. This is also a lesson for our neighbouring Somalia - a good and practical example - and for other countries with similar circumstances, like Libya and so on. Thanks Sarah for this in depth and informative research.



29th January 2014 at 17:55

Very nuanced and in-depth research on Somaliland. I think there are lessons here for South Somalia and all those involved in its statebuilding and stabilization process.

One of the lessons could be for international actors to reflect on their involvement in such process to appraise likely consequences and implications at the local level.

The second lesson could be for Somali leaders to realize that they have today the 'basic security' necessary on which they could build on a political process that is legitimate (however imperfect it is in the beginning) to end the conflict in the country.



17th December 2013 at 08:57

This is very encouraging. Somaliland has been peaceful and they even have mechanisms in place and working institutions like a university and the port. This is unlike Somalia Mogadishu. Unfortunately, the breakaway Somaliland state is not recognized by the UN, making it very hard for them to have access to funding. I wish the UN would wake up and realize that recognizing Somaliland is a pillar of the peace process for Somalia.

Leave a comment

The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.


Sarah Phillips

Sarah Phillips

Sarah Phillips is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney. Her work focuses on politics, development and security in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, particularly Yemen and Somalia/Somaliland, and on the politics of state-building.

Read more

Related items

Politics - the problem and solution to poor services?

Why - and how - does politics trump everything else in service delivery?

Opinion by Claire Mcloughlin13th March 2014
Opinion by Susy Ndaruhutse11th September 2014

Gender - the power relationship that Political Economy Analysis forgot?

Why more questions about gender relations could help

Opinion by Evie Browne13th February 2014

Welcome to DLP's blog

Welcome to DLP's new blog on politics, power, policy and developmental leadership

Opinion by Heather Marquette10th December 2013

Taking the Results agenda to the next level?

On new book The Politics of Evidence and Results in International Development

Opinion by Chris Roche15th July 2015

The seeds and roots of change

Guest post on leadership networks for Governance for Development

Opinion by Heather Lyne de Ver1st December 2014

Security and justice – the mismatch between policy and practice

What hinders more politically nuanced security and justice programming?

Opinion by Shivit Bakrania21st July 2014

The inclusiveness test: making change work

Guest post for openDemocracy

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal4th November 2015

Shuffling the decks: quick fixes versus long-term stability

Guest post for Development Progress on 'post-conflict' DRC

Opinion by Suda Perera22nd January 2015

It's all about inclusion, but how?

Guest post for the World Bank

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal6th April 2016

Politics, risk and development: three takeaways

Reflections from two conferences

Opinion by Chris Roche19th February 2016

What's in a name? Leadership as more than the 'big men' and 'big women' of history

Looking beyond 'The Leader' for a deeper understanding of how change happens

Opinion by Heather Lyne de Ver11th February 2014

Fiji's Roshika Deo - outlier, positive deviant or simply feisty feminist?

First in a series on 'Power, politics and positive deviance', theme of DLP's 2016 annual conference.

Opinion by Priya Chattier 1st February 2016

What is transformative leadership?

Guest post in University World News

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2016

Inequality – the politics behind the policies

Discussion starter for the #polinequality conference

Opinion by David Hudson11th February 2015

Pacific power: new femininities and women's leadership in the Pacific

The educated, internationally connected women who are changing the way 'development' is done

Opinion by Ceridwen Spark24th June 2014

Medellin - more than a miracle

From the most murderous city on earth to 'a new global standard for urban policy': the politics of change in the wake of crisis

Opinion by Cheryl Stonehouse4th March 2014

Is developmental patrimonialism a dead end?

The first of two posts introducing a new DLP paper on growth and democratic transition

Opinion by Tim Kelsall27th September 2016

Developmental leadership: putting inclusiveness first

Inclusiveness should be the first step towards building more robust states.

Opinion by Seth D. Kaplan24th September 2015

Parliamentary strengthening: the IDC report

Having presented evidence to the UK's International Development Committee, what of the final report?

Opinion by Tam O'Neil9th February 2015

Forgotten South Sudan tangled in factionalism and failed politics

A toxic blend of complex historical identity politics and short-term elite politicking

Opinion by Jonathan Fisher4th September 2014

Political analysis as the practical art of the possible

Bringing politics back into PEA - a new paper with Adrian Leftwich

Opinion by David Hudson24th July 2014

Somaliland's route to peace

What can we learn from Somaliland's approach to peacebuilding? 

Opinion by Sarah Phillips12th December 2013

The challenge of realising Pacific democracies' development potential

How can Pacific democracies deliver for their citizens?

Opinion by Julien Barbara8th July 2016

Politics shape services; and services shape politics

How governance and sector specialists can help each other understand the politics of service delivery

Opinion by Richard Batley19th June 2014

Indonesia and the political settlements trap

The challenges of 'resettling the settlement'

Opinion by Graham Teskey17th July 2015

Education, development, and the problem with consensus

Why rethink the international consensus on 'quality basic education for development'?

Opinion by Michele Schweisfurth7th April 2014

Two remarkable transitions: lessons from Oman and Somaliland

Political settlements and international power structures

Opinion by Sarah Phillips20th July 2015
Opinion by Suda Perera19th December 2016
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal24th November 2014
Opinion by Dan Hymowitz3rd February 2017

Authoritarianism, democracy and development

What does the evidence say?

Opinion by Tim Kelsall27th November 2014

Inclusive political settlements: who and what gets included, and how?

First of six posts on political settlements by researchers, policymakers and practitioners.

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal13th July 2015

Cancer and the links between medicine and development

Guest post for From Poverty to Power

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2015

What do we do on Monday? Political settlements in theory and practice

The value of the political settlements framework

Opinion by Edward Laws15th July 2015

The politics of redistribution: we need you

Which are the key country cases? Help us shape new research.

Opinion by David Hudson16th October 2014

Developmental leaders, 'dirty hands', and the dark side of collaboration

The ambiguities of supporting 'developmental leadership'

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi11th December 2013