As the risk of escalating violence in Laas Aanood grows, commentary has become increasingly
shrill on all sides. Some of it is constructive, but much of it is inflammatory and even hateful.
Diplomatic rhetoric from international partners comes too little too late. The dispute between
Somaliland and Puntland over Sool and eastern Sanaag has been allowed to fester without any
meaningful attempt at a comprehensive political settlement for more than two decades. Sooner
or later, it was inevitable that simmering tensions would eventually erupt into serious conflict.
The crisis in Laas Aanood was both unnecessary and inevitable. The political status of the Sool
region has been a moot point for over three decades since Somaliland’s 1991 declaration of
independence. Traditional elders from the Dhulbahante clan participated in the consultations
on separation and signed the original declaration without duress. But popular support for
independence among the Dhulbahante has remained fluid, and the participation of clan leaders
in the 1998 formation of Puntland revealed divisions with the clan.
In 2007, Somaliland seized control of Laas Aanood through deft political manoeuvring within
the Dhulbahante, and Puntland forces withdrew to the east of the town. An uneasy equilibrium
has held ever since, although marred by occasional skirmishes. Peace is maintained chiefly by
the restraint of the administrations in Hargeisa and Garowe. Since 2009, however, an
increasingly strident faction calling for an autonomous Dhulbahante clan entity (Sool, Sanaag,
and Cayn, (SSC)/ Khaatuumo) has struggled unsuccessfully to challenge the status quo. This
faction has come to dominate the narrative of the recent uprising, framing it in terms of ‘self-
determination’ for the Dhulbahante.
The overt involvement of Al-Shabaab adds fuel to the fire. A group of several hundred Al-
Shabaab fighters has been based near Buuhoodle since at least 2021, several dozen of whom
have reportedly joined the protests in Laas Aanood. The jihadists’ propaganda arm, Al-Kata’ib,
has come out actively in support of the uprising and offered military assistance. Several leaders
of the Dhulbahante resistance committees are known to have prior links to Al-Shabaab.
Today there is a clear and urgent imperative to de-escalate the conflict, disengage combatants,
and allow humanitarian aid to war-affected civilians. But a return to the status quo ante is no
longer tenable. Dhulbahante leaders have announced the establishment of an interim council to
administer their territories and called upon the Federal Government of Somalia for support,
antagonising both Somaliland and Puntland. The stage is set for a protracted and dangerously
The crisis in Laas Aanood cannot be understood independently of Somaliland’s claim to
independence and the question of Somali unity. On the contrary, the hazards inherent in the
current situation call for an urgent revival of dialogue between Mogadishu and Hargeisa
towards a longer term, comprehensive political settlement.
Talks between the two sides were initiated a decade ago by the British at the London
Conference on Somalia, underpinned by a commitment from the UK that negotiations would
be conducted “without prejudice to [Somaliland’s] aspirations for independence.” But the UK,
together with other international partners, soon recognised the federal government in
Mogadishu, thereby violating its pledge to Hargeisa and undermining incentives for
constructive dialogue. After 9 more rounds of talks, the process unceremoniously collapsed in
Ironically, Dhulbahante calls for ‘self-determination’ may hold the key to a permanent
resolution of the question of Somali unity. Somaliland has long argued that its people have the
right to self-determination– which they did exercise in an internationally observed but formally
unrecognised referendum in 2001. Whether Somaliland opts for independent statehood or a
continuing association with Somalia, this should represent the will of Somaliland’s people.
Dhulbahante unionists have long rejected self-determination as a legitimate option for
Somaliland. But today an unelected caucus of clan elders in Laas Aanood, without a
functioning administration or territorial control, is demanding that it should be awarded the
same right, without apparent irony.
In a sense, both sides make valid arguments; the right to self-determination is enshrined in the
United Nations Charter, as it is in Article 20 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’
Rights. The challenge to both of these legal instruments is to define who enjoys the exercise of
this right, under what circumstances, through which procedures, and to what ends. Somaliland’s
political, legal and moral case for self-determination is arguably stronger than that of Eritrea,
South Sudan or East Timor– all of which have been granted statehood.
Laas Aanood’s claim to self-determination is more consistent with the demands of aggrieved
minorities in countries across the African continent, and newly independent European states
such as Bosnia, Nogorno-Karabakh, and Kosovo. This is the expression of a legitimate fear of
persecution or marginalisation.
Notwithstanding its growing investment in economic and social development, Somaliland has
largely neglected its eastern territories; the eastern clans have likewise been politically and
economically marginalised. This is especially true since the introduction of multi-party
democracy in 2002. Significant proportions of those communities have historically chosen not
to vote. Puntland defends its claim to the same territories based on blood relations but has
shown no more interest than Somaliland in meaningfully honouring its commitments there.
Little surprise then that many Dhulbahante leaders are now looking to Mogadishu for succour.
Somaliland’s argument is that Somali unity could only be restored – if at all – as a matter of
popular choice – not coercion. Likewise, the crisis in Laas Aanood is anchored in fundamental
human rights to dignity, respect and –after recent fatalities – life.
The exercise of ‘self-determination’ would necessarily take very different forms for Somaliland
as a state and for the Dhulbahante as a community. But it is long overdue that the voices of
both parties should be heard within agreed upon political and legal frameworks. If Somaliland
wants to retain control over the Sool region and the Dhulbahante, then Hargeisa must do a
much better job of promoting their rights and accommodating their concerns – not simply
imposing its authority based on colonial borders. Similarly, if Mogadishu seeks a stable union
with Somaliland, then it will have to work much harder to make unity attractive, and, ultimately,
allow Somalilanders the right to choose.
By The Somali Wire Team