EDITORIAL: Deep-seated grievances, tribalism, and extrajudicial killings fuel Somaliland’s revolt

Hargeisa (Caasimada Online) – When Somaliland’s principal tribal elders and political figures began establishing their own breakaway administration Thirty years ago, on May 18th, 1991, they pledged to eliminate tribalism and unite their enclave’s disparate tribes into a cohesive nation.

But that was a short-lived dream. Throughout the next 30 years – especially when their state started to shape up – its successive leaders have succumbed to the temptation to toy with clan loyalties, sowing discord among them to tighten their grip, thereby marginalizing some key tribes.

In the vacuum, as Somaliland’s leaders continued favoring a few tribes at the expense of others, including indigenous tribes, vertical inequalities, lack of political rights, and economic grievances started to grow, creating a long battle about identity and historical sentiments tribes had nursed around who belongs to the land.

Decades-long discriminations and marginalization against some tribes, including those based in eastern regions and territory stretching from the border with Ethiopia where much of oil resources are located, added to the grievances that ignited protests against Somaliland’s leader which saw the resources’ rich territory fell from his grip last month.

When the anti-government protests erupted in Lasanod, a town in Sool, a region that Somaliland occupied 15 years ago from the neighboring Puntland, Somaliland’s leader Muse Bihi appeared unsure how to respond.

 At first, he insisted that calls for an end to the mysterious extrajudicial killings in the town by the protestors had been put in the shade by saboteurs who were part of an external conspiracy to undermine Somaliland’s stability and unity.

In the following weeks, Mr. Bihi ordered his troops to crackdown against protesters, with soldiers and battlewagons sent into the restive town to combat “criminal gangs.” At least 10 protestors were killed.

Despite the intensifying crackdown, the revolt continued unabated in the town. Protestors began to take up arms, first to defend themselves and then to oust ‘occupying’ forces from their town. Anti-Somaliland militias have taken control of the city after evicting forces loyal to the government.

The eastern region of Sool, the epicenter of the anti-British and Italian control resistance in Somaliland in 1899, has long represented a political headache for Somaliland leaders.

Challenging the breakaway state’s rule, leaders of the anti-Somaliland uprising, including the most influential tribal chiefs, have since returned home, ending nearly two decades of exile. 

Hundreds of local politicians, elders, and residents assembled in a massive conference hall in Lasanod town, now entirely under tribal militia’s control. They announced unilateral plans to establish their autonomous government, declaring independence from Somaliland.

The uprisings, although over long-festering grievances that neither successive Somaliland governments solved, appear to be threatening the rule of the current Somaliland leader, who has recently embarked on a controversial two-year term extension, ignoring calls by the opposition to hold elections.

In a sign of growing cracks within the government on the backdrop of the uprising, several officials broke with Bihi’s administration. In protest over the deadly response to the protests before they devolved into an armed uprising.

Seeking to contain the fallout from the revolt in the Sool region, Bihi, the Somaliland president now facing the threat of the rebellion spread into other regions, deployed more troops in potential hotspots.

The prospect of partition has hung over Somaliland, partly owing to its long history of political discord and its relatively short history of harmony despite it being a peaceful haven in the troubled horn of Africa region. 

Some major clans in the region resented the exclusive patronage and benefits, including the unfair distribution of resources that Somaliland leaders have granted to a network of favorite tribes.

The capture of Lasanod town by tribal militias has also revealed signs of shifting loyalties within the security apparatus as members of the Somaliland troops have defected and joined the revolt against president Bihi, indicating that their tribal connection can trump over loyalty to their leader.