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History: Brief History of Somaliland


In fact, that the SNM leadership would acquiesce to Guurti direction is in accord with the party's long-time reputation of being "one of the most democratic movements in the Horn of Africa." Its party congresses, rather than being programmed celebrations of solidarity, have frequently been contentious, as various men vied for the position of chairman.

This acceptance of pluralism and dissent has influenced the still-developing polity: the parliamentary vote in October 1993 to approve a 'clannish-diverse' government and its program of action for the projected two-year transitional period was far from unanimous. Despite the relatively democratic, tolerant, and representative nature of the transitional government, the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity continue to refuse to recognize it as a sovereign state---a seal of approval that would facilitate access to desperately needed development assistance. To bolster its case for recognition, Somaliland is now considering the utility of a national referendum to convince the international community that the vast majority of northern Somalis support independence.

Despite the transitional government's unusual and expanding penchant for inclusive politics, Somaliland's minority clans remain largely unconvinced that they will have a significant voice in governing the new country. Sensing that they needed political organizations to champion their own interests, members of the Gadabursi, Dolbahante, and Issa clans proceeded after Somaliland's unilateral declaration of independence to form them. The Somali Democratic Association, which largely represents the interests of the Gadabursi, has put itself on record as opposing the split-up of Somalia, and the United Somali Party representing the Dolbahante and Warsangali leans in the same direction. The attitude of non-Isaaq clan leaders unaffiliated with any party continues to be ambiguous. Though the transitional government announced in July 1993 that political parties other than the SNM would not be allowed to operate until regulations governing their operation had been instituted, it is unlikely that it will hazard the breakout of interclan violence of the kind witnessed in Somalia by challenging the existence of these organizations.

Although a supreme court has been named, a comprehensive national judicial and legal system is not yet in place. Instead, local clan elders usually meet throughout the country to decide disputes and mete out punishments with resort to a traditional mix of Somali customary law and Islamic Shari'a. Often they must deal with the breakdown in security resulting from clan militiamen and shiftas (bandits) patrolling the highways in search of booty. With the hope that the rule of law can be made uniform and predictable in Somaliland, a group called Lawyers for Civil Rights in Hargeisa aims to supplement the use of customary law and Shari'a by presenting to the government proposed legal codes that are also based on useful precedents from Somalian and British law.

Even though the aim of the transitional government in Hargeisa is the modernization of Somaliland, it does not envision the total remaking of civil society. This acceptance of most forms of traditional social organization is a mixed blessing, however. On the one hand, clan autonomy seems to be largely recognized, as is the authority of local elders, making the imposition of the regime's will by force unlikely. On the other hand, the state's respect for tradition may well mean a lesser commitment to confront gender inequality than was the case even in the early years of the Siad Barre regime. The traditional practice of infibulation and female circumcision on young girls continues everywhere. Reports continue to filter out of the country of attacks by armed men on women, demanding either protection money or their property. Displaced women without the protection of near male kinsmen are especially subject to rape and abuse. Somali women's groups continue to respond to such lawlessness by denouncing those incidents of violence in public protests, and by demanding their inclusion in power-sharing arrangements at

every level to assure government action against perpetrators.The condition and status of women is further shadowed by the recent expansion of Islamic fundamentalism in Somaliland. The presence and influence of radical Islamists is felt everywhere. The government in Hargeisa has considered adopting Shari'a as the law of the land; feeding centers for the displaced are eagerly funded by wealthy Saudi fundamentalists; Koranic academies run by Somali fundamentalists are sprouting throughout the country to educate a significant percentage of the school-aged population; and clandestine centers training 'Islamic warriors' are reputedly scattered in various locations.

In storming against society's immorality and adoption of so-called Western habits, a significant portion of the condemnation of zealous imams and roadside preachers is directed against women. In a notorious incident of January 1993, a gang of young men and boys were incited by a local demagogue in Hargeisa to stone five women to death for prostitution. Others, who have appointed themselves to police community morals, rail against the increased commercial involvement of women, previously the province of men. That there are few avenues open to women---particularly war widows---who must sustain themselves and their families, is dismissed as of little account.

While clan affiliations divide, religion in Muslim Somaliland unites. On this basis, Islamists have made their pitch to the population that fundamentalism provides the only hope for preventing in the North the chaos that reigns in the South. In response to this, as well as to the lack of development everywhere in the country, non-Islamist Somalis of various clans have come together to represent the multitude of interests within the country that cut across clan affiliations. Muslims in a society where Islam has been traditionally moderate, they are alarmed by the slow but steady growth of fundamentalism, and so seek other vehicles for fostering national unity.

Such individuals have independently begun a number of relief and rehabilitation associations that provide income opportunities to the displaced and destitute, teach children, deliver health care, and promote community development. Various voluntary youth organizations run programs that divert energy from the direction of banditry, and aforementioned new civil rights group also evidences the resurgence of civil society. If the spread of fundamentalism is to be stemmed, groups composed of Muslims who reject the appeal of the Islamists while working for social change should be supported. In this way outsiders can reinforce a vital manifestation of the gradual but positive trend within Somaliland toward power-sharing, decision-making through consensus, respect for autonomy, and acceptance of differences.

Unlike in the other four countries examined in this article, there are powerful checks on the power of the executive in Somaliland. The power of the clans, demonstrated in their reluctance to turn control of the national airport in Hargeisa and seaport in Berbera over to the national government, indicates that these are independent and diffused loci of potential resistance to the state. But clans and their leaders are not civil society; in Somaliland they are merely autonomous reproductions of the state on a smaller scale. And since each clan guards its sovereignty and separateness jealously, cross-clan interest coalitions have seldom formed for reasons other than to confront the menace of powerful alliances of other clans.

national Guurti, however, is also a powerful check on the power of the executive, and here we can see the hand of civil society creating representative institutions. An inter clan organization encompassing the variety of clans in the country, it collectively stands for interests that transcend the narrow preferences of any one. Those who serve, are both traditional agents and leaders of their people, though their selection is almost invariably on a basis that westerners would not identify as strictly democratic. A still fuller resurgence of civil society, of course, is seen in the creation of directly representative civic organizations over the past two years.

Whatever its future relationship with Somalia may be, if Somaliland keeps to its present path of cautious consensus-building and respect for local and regional autonomy, preparing for free and fair elections at the end of the transitional period in 1996, and extending the rule of law to prevent the type of criminal behavior that most notably victimizes women, then the future for civil society and human rights there may be the most hopeful in the Horn of Africa.

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