The recent London Conference on Somalia occurred with multiple Somali voices both inside and outside of the region indicating their claims, struggles and hopes for the outcome of the nth conference on Somalia. Many had already made up their minds, with few optimistic about achieving any durable solution to the long-standing conflict. This was true in Somaliland where the debate on whether to participate or not dominated local newspapers, television and conversations on buses and in restaurants. It should be noted that the members of the Somali National Movement (SNM), which ushered Somaliland’s struggle for independence, participated in a National Reconciliation Conference in January and again in March 1993 in Addis Ababa.
Despite that, future reconciliation conferences saw Somaliland entirely absent, whereas parties from Puntland and South Central Somalia are no strangers to the conference game. Somaliland prior to the London Conference held a non-participatory stance popularised by the former president Riyale irrespective of who the organisers of the conference were. What has changed then?
Somaliland, the breakaway region of North-western Somalia, declared independence in 1991 after a ten-year struggle against the dictatorial regime of Siad Barre. Twenty years onwards, Somaliland has forged a viable system of governance incorporating traditional mechanisms and western-style democratic institutions, wherein peace and stability has by and large been a grassroots movement.
While skepticism reigned regarding the outcomes of the recent London Conference, the discourse of non-participation in Somaliland was finding less and less support. A nation that juxtaposed itself against its neighbours in the South was undergoing a national identity crisis. Recognition remains a long-standing ambition for Somaliland, and the absence of that despite twenty years of self-governance precipitated many to suggest that perhaps ‘there is another way’ to pursuing recognition.
Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silyano – the current president of Somaliland—sought wide public consultation on the issue of participating in the London Conference. While this participation remained within the parliament and influential Somalilanders, the public sentiment seemed to be echoing a new discourse and framing of Somaliland politics. Yet the shape of this new public discourse on Somaliland’s status was ambivalent and lacked a consensus.
The capacity for many citizens to suggest that returning to a union with the rest of Somalia as one possible solution indicated some shift in attitudes. Although national symbols of the Barre regime are still vehemently detested, the shape of what Somaliland’s politics might look like in twenty years time was now open to public debate.
In my estimation this is happening for two important reasons. Firstly, the popular SNM struggle which ushered Somaliland’s independence should be seen with an understanding that although it remains an important epoch in Somaliland’s history as a nation, its relevance is used to primarily distinguish those citizens who were politically and socially closer to the Barre regime, and thus willing to financially and militarily contribute to the SNM struggle. The memorialization of the conflict is taking on different meanings for citizens who were physically, psychologically and socially removed from it. Citizens are more cosmopolitan than before, with many Somalilanders arriving from the diaspora, and many in civil society and the private sector taking apolitical positions. Secondly, many are feeling the economic and political impact of relative international isolation. While many nations participating at the London conference recognise Somaliland’s achievements, the pursuit of a unified Somali state in the region is still openly championed. The options on the table for Somaliland were leaked before the conference began and Somalilanders vociferously debated its contents. Some rejected it as anticipated, and yet for those that did not, it indicated that at the discourse level Somaliland’s isolation was taking a toll.
The consciousness of ordinary Somalilanders regarding their political future was beginning to change. Many also discussed the London Conference as an opportunity for Somaliland to have access to bilateral organizations and donor states hoping to contribute development assistance to the region.
However, many Somalilanders are also suggesting that participation does not entail endorsement of any platform that promotes a unified state. After all, Somaliland has ended all major conflicts and has established strong democratic institutions that make it less than congenial and perhaps difficult to engage with the peace-building and reconciliation stage that the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is understandably engaged in. Instead, participation is being discussed as a means to share knowledge, experience and promote Somali-led solutions to Somali problems. Thus recognition still features quite prominently throughout the discourse on participation; ordinary Somalilanders say quite often that ‘another way’ has been shown through the example of South Sudan.
The debate on participation in the resolution of Somalia’s conflict for Somaliland citizens means a few steps must be taken. First, the agreement that international conferences, though useful in drawing international attention to Somalia/Somaliland, will not bring about a political resolution to the conflict; instead a grassroots approach is more desirable. Secondly, leading on from this, Somaliland’s example can serve as a model for institutionalising traditional mechanisms into resolving claims made by different groups. Thirdly, political will on the part of politicians is needed that prioritises peace and stability above individual claims to power.
So for Somaliland, close cooperation means that the London conference on Somalia may be an opportunity for Somaliland to showcase itself and advertise its strengths as a viable nation on a public stage it has not been on for the last twenty years.
Siham Rayale is currently a PhD student in the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.