Somaliland: A study in the potential of indigenous resources

Ploughshares Armed Conflicts, Defence & Human Security

Christina Woolner

Christina Woolner is currently studying for an MPhil in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. A former program officer with Project Ploughshares, she spent the last two years teaching peace and conflict studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Hargeisa.

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 34 Issue 3 Autumn 2013

Localizing peace: Reflections from Somaliland

“Somaliland? Is that, like, Somalia? Are you sure it’s safe?”

So went the usual response when I told people of my plans to spend a term in Somaliland, teaching peace and conflict studies at the University of Hargeisa. This query, of course, is warranted in many respects. Mention the word ‘Somalia’, and images of AK-47-toting teenagers, pirates in fishing boats, and a series of failed international interventions to restore peace are often what spring to mind.

As it has yet to receive international recognition two decades after declaring independence, most people’s lack of awareness of Somaliland can be forgiven, even though it functions with most of the trappings of a modern nation-state: a constitution, elections, a flag, national anthem and currency, visa requirements for foreigners (like me!), and fairly well respected borders. While south-central Somalia has remained embroiled in an ever evolving civil war, Somalilanders picked up the pieces that remained after violence ransacked the region in the late 1980s/early 1990s, elected a government and drafted a constitution, rebuilt their cities, and endeavored to return to life as usual.

Yet because of the violence that has plagued its southern neighbour for two decades, the story of Somaliland’s relatively peaceful existence has largely been overlooked. In many ways, however, the lack of foreign attention to Somaliland has been more of a blessing than a curse. Indeed, many Somalilanders credit their use of indigenous conflict resolution practices and governance mechanisms for the relative peace they experience today.

The fact that the populations of Somalia and Somaliland are ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and religiously the same thus begs a series of questions: What allowed Somaliland to regain a semblance of order, while south-central Somalia remains entangled in war? What role did local and international actors play in each of these settings, for better or worse? And what might this case be able to teach us about the dynamics of so-called liberal peacebuilding models (top-down, institutional), and grassroots movements that draw on local knowledge, language, and experience?

Full answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this article. Yet in what follows, I attempt to unravel some of the differences in experiences between Somaliland and south-central Somalia, while also considering broader questions of agency, ownership, and the interaction of local and international knowledge and actors in the peacebuilding process.

Somaliland: A brief history

Somaliland and Somalia’s paths arguably diverge with European colonialism. While Italy claimed south-central Somalia, Britain formed “British Somaliland” in the north. Somaliland was a ‘peripheral’ colony within the British empire, governed by ‘indirect rule’; Britain’s main interests in the region were maintaining control of the strategic coastline. They had little interest in developing inland (Bradbury 2008, pp. 24-25; Lewis 2002). The Italians, however, had very different designs for the region and sought to develop a ‘true colony’ by extending their political and territorial authority as far as possible (Lewis 2002, p. 85). These differences would come to play a role in the nature of post-independence political developments.

Despite their different colonial pasts, upon independence in 1960 British and Italian Somaliland ‘re-unified’ to become the Republic of Somalia. Disparities between the north and the south soon emerged: Somaliland was politically and economically marginalized by Siad Barre’s regime (1969-1991), and resistance to the federal government operating in Mogadishu grew in the north, culminating in armed resistance led by the Somali National Movement (SNM) throughout the 1980s. Although the SNM was not initially a separatist movement, heavy fighting between government forces and the SNM in 1988 mobilized many of the Isaaq clans of the north; by early 1991 the SNM had gained control of most of the northwest (Bradbury, pp. 60-63).

An end to hostilities between northern clans was declared in February 1991, and following the ‘Grand Conference of the Northern Peoples’ Somaliland declared independence in May. The process of state-building and postwar recovery began. Meanwhile, in the south, Barre was overthrown and the armed resistance movement splintered. The region dissolved into a civil war that continues to this day.

Grassroots peacebuilding: The Somaliland experience

Somalis have a rich tradition of conflict resolution that is rooted in kinship linkages; respect for elders (caaqilo); a strong emphasis on dialogue and oral expression; and an evolving system of customary law (xeer), which on an ongoing basis combines Islamic law with local customs and political treaties negotiated between clans. It is precisely these traditions, and the values embedded in them, that Somalilanders credit for the relative peace and prosperity they experience today.2

Before any formal negotiations began in Somaliland, women (who are usually excluded from the political process) prepared the way for dialogue; due to multiple clan affiliations gained through marriage, women have long served as informal diplomats in interclan feuds.3 This informal diplomacy was followed by a grassroots movement by a group of elders calling themselves dab damin (fire extinguishers), who set out to engage various groups in the dialogue necessary to stop the fighting.4 This travelling group of elders/mediators—called ergo in Somali—set out to persuade other clan leaders to participate in a series of guurtis— gatherings of elders, poets, and other representatives of various subclans—to discuss how to resolve the conflict. Over the next three years, a series of local and national interclan meetings and conferences were held—often under the shade of acacia trees—in which new political treaties (xeer) to end the fighting and compensate injured parties were established (Bradbury 2008, pp. 102-103).

These meetings culminated in the six-month Borama conference in 1993, which laid out plans to increase security and territorial control, a new constitution, and the establishment of a bicameral parliament. The conference itself was infused with tradition and Somali values at every stage; poets and other artists played as important a role as the elders at the negotiating table, bringing a sense of cultural legitimacy and continuity that allowed negotiations to proceed.

The National Charter and government that came out of this meeting drew heavily on long engrained practices and values. Xeer was elevated to the national level; Somali cultural values were enshrined in the Charter; and elders were officially incorporated into the governing structure—the upper house of the bicameral parliament is known as the Guurti (Bradbury 2008, p. 100). Today, places like the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies where I taught have incorporated the lessons and values of this peace process into their teaching and research agenda. While Somaliland has faced its challenges in the last 20 years, and lack of international recognition has meant very little financial support for reconstruction efforts, the relative peace and stability in the region speak profoundly to the success of grassroots-led, culturally embedded conflict resolution practices.


The Somaliland experience, which is notably devoid of foreign involvement, underscores the immense potential of indigenous knowledge and resources.


Lessons going forward: Accounting for cultural continuity and change in peacebuilding

Since Boutros Boutros-Ghali popularized the term ‘peacebuilding’ in his 1992 Agenda for Peace, the term has undergone an evolution of sorts. In most circles, even today, the ‘liberal’ model of intervention has prevailed: post-conflict reconstruction efforts have followed a blueprint of democratic institution-building, market liberalization, and promotion of the rule of law. While this model has certainly seen success, in recent years it has been criticized for, among other things, failing to take into account local realities and approaches to peace that are arguably necessary to make peace sustainable. More attention is thus finally being paid to ‘elicitive’ and bottom-up peacebuilding models, indigenous conflict resolution mechanisms, and even the ‘hybrid’ forms of peace that emerge when international actors pay better attention to local contexts.5

The lessons that can be drawn from the Somaliland peacebuilding experience are both straightforward and complex. On the surface of things, the divergent paths taken by south-central Somalia and Somaliland illustrate the pitfalls of liberal interventionism and the potential of utilizing local conflict resolution mechanisms in pretty stark terms. Beginning with the catastrophic UNOSOM-backed U.S. intervention in 1993, international interventions in the south have not only failed to bring peace, but have, at times, arguably exacerbated the situation, radicalized opposition groups, and led to a more entrenched conflict. The Somaliland experience, which is notably devoid of foreign involvement, underscores the immense potential of indigenous knowledge and resources, and the need for peacebuilding to proceed on terms that make sense to the local population. Indeed, the need for local ownership is a theme that is finally coming to characterize more and more peacebuilding agendas, including those advanced in Somalia (see Donais 2012; Siebert 2012).

Yet the answer to south-central Somalia’s woes will not be simple. When I asked my class at the University of Hargeisa why they believed the situation in Somaliland was so different from the one in the south, the answers I got were complicated. Students pointed out, for example, that Somaliland’s experiences under Barre, and under European colonialism, were much different than those in the south. While the British utilized traditional governance mechanisms in their indirect rule of the region, Italian rule eroded these systems. Two decades of clan warfare and the more recent phenomenon of al Shabab have significantly undermined the delicate balance of kinship networks that historically functioned to maintain peace and have also eroded respect for the position of elders. While sustainable peace will only be achieved through a locally owned process that draws on deeply held cultural values, the dynamics of contemporary Somalia may go beyond the scope of situations that traditional conflict resolution mechanisms were ever meant to address.

In a recent article Nathan Funk (2012) highlights the importance of valuing the local in international peacebuilding processes, but also suggests that privileging the local over the non-local is not enough, because “if local resources were fully developed and operational, the local peace would already be made” (p. 401). Instead, he suggests that peacebuilding can be seen as “a process of cultural introspection and reconstruction”—a process of dialogue and critical reflection on the elements of culture that both promote and impede peace. While peacebuilding must “proceed on an authentic and locally valid basis or rationale,” Funk contends that an essential element of peacebuilding is “balancing cultural innovation with cultural continuity” (p. 400).

Conceiving of peacebuilding as a process of cultural introspection does not preclude the involvement of foreign actors. It does, however, limit their potential role to one of facilitation. In Somaliland, this involvement was not necessary. In Somalia, foreign involvement into the foreseeable future is a given. For this involvement to be positive, however, international actors would do well to consider the Somaliland experience, the immense value of local resources, and the need for local ownership. And for their part Somalis, too, need to step back and reexamine their rich history of conflict resolution practices, take stock of the values and ideals they wish to carry into the future, and together reimagine how historical tradition and recent innovations may shape a more peaceful future.



1. The author would like to acknowledge and thank the members of her “Foundations in Peace and Conflict Studies” course at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (University of Hargeisa), who offered invaluable insight into the peacebuilding process in Somaliland and the use of indigenous conflict resolution practices both past and present; and the Director of the Institute, Adam Haji Ali Ahmed, for reviewing a draft of this article.

2. For a good discussion of indigenous conflict resolution practices and their use in Somaliland, see Walls et al. 2008.

3.For more on the role of women in Somali peacebuilding processes, see Jama 2010, pp. 66-67; Farah 1993.

4. For an account of these ‘wandering elders’, see Lederach & Lederach 2010.

5. The term ‘elicitive’ peacebuilding was first used by John Paul Lederach in 1995. For some interesting critiques of the liberal peacebuilding model, see Aggestam &; Björkdahl 2013. For a discussion of local ownership and the concept of ‘hybridity’, see Donais 2012.


Aggestam, Karin & Annika Björkdahl, eds. 2013. Rethinking Peacebuilding: The quest for just peace in the Middle East and Western Balkans. London & New York: Routledge.

Bradbury, Mark. 2008. Becoming Somaliland. London: Progressio.

Donais, Timothy. 2012. Peacebuilding and Local Ownership: Post-conflict consensus-building. New York: Routledge.

Farah, A.Y. 1993. The roots of reconciliation. London: Action Aid.

Funk, Nathan. 2012. Building on what’s already there: valuing the local in international peacebuilding. International Journal, Spring.

Jama, Faiza. 2010. Somali women and peacebuilding. Whose peace is it anyway? Connecting Somali and international peacemaking. Ed. Mark Bradbury & Sally Healy. Accord Issue 21. London: Conciliation Resources.

Lederach, John Paul. 1995. Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation across Cultures. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Lederach, John Paul & Angela Jill Lederach. 2010. When Blood and Bones Cry Out: journeys through the soundscape of healing and reconciliation. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Lewis, I.M. 2002. A Modern History of the Somali, 4th ed. Oxford: James Currey.

Siebert, John. 2012. Turning a corner? The Ploughshares Monitor, Vol. 33, Issue 4.

Walls, M., K. Mohammed & M.O. Ali. 2008. Peace in Somaliland: An Indigenous Approach to Statebuilding. Hargeisa/Geneva, Switzerland: InterPeace and the Academy for Peace and Development.

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