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.

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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.

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