A declaration on 3 September 2023 made by a group of traditional elders and other leading members of the Gadabuursi clan at a conference in Ottawa, Canada, has raised concerns about the emergence of a new conflict in Somaliland. Stating their intention to see Awdal region secede from Somaliland and (re)join the Federal Republic of Somalia, the leaders have raised concerns of a ‘second Las Anod’ in the western area of the self-declared independent region. Such a conflict would risk stretching the Somaliland Army and other security services to a breaking point, potentially creating opportunities that al-Shabaab, weapons smugglers and other non-state actors can exploit.
Mogadishu, SOMALIA. Analysis by Phillip:
The former military regime of Gen. Siad Barre established the Awdal region in 1984. Members of the Gadabuursi (Isaaq-Dir) mostly live here. However, since 1991, communities in the region have complained of being politically and economically marginalized by authorities in Hargeisa. Together with outbreaks of inter-clan violence often over access to resources, the region has suffered ongoing political and security-related instability. This notably came to a head in late 2019 with the emergence of a small, short-lived rebel group.
Another major driver of instability is the widespread belief within the community that it is being denied its ‘turn’ at the Somaliland presidency, which has been held by members of the Habar Awal (Isaaq-Dir) and Habar Je’lo (Isaaq-Dir) subclans since 2010. Delays to elections for the recognition of official political associations and the Somaliland presidency, as well as recent incidents involving security forces, such as on 4 May 2023 when police fired on protestors attempting to block the road between Dilla and Borama, have only fueled this resentment.
Rejecting the foundation of Somaliland’s past success
The declaration made in Ottawa contained hints at the potential willingness of some Gadabuursi leaders, including the clan’s traditional supreme leader, Ugaas Abdirashiid Ugaas Rooble, to use violence to achieve their objective of turning the Awdal region into a new Federal Member State.
The foundations of Somaliland’s long-running political and security-based stability vis a vis the rest of Somalia were established through a series of inter-clan negotiations and peace conferences, most notably at Berbera from 15-27 February 1991 and at Burao from 27 April to 4 June 1991.
The declaration by clan leaders openly rejected these “agreements of the northern communities,” which had been instrumental in preventing the eruption of inter-clan violence that engulfed other regions of the country. Added to this, these Gadabuursi leaders have also called for fellow clan members serving in the Somaliland Army to return to the Awdal region to ‘defend’ their local communities.
Reopening of wounds that never healed
By rejecting the peace agreements that were foundational to the establishment of Somaliland, Gadabuursi leaders risk (or might be seeking to exploit) long-running inter-clan tensions and conflicts in the Awdal region. While some of these have origins in disputes over land ownership or access to resources, others go back to the period during the war of independence the Somali National Movement (SNM) waged between 6 April 1981 and 18 May 1991.
During this time, members of the Isaaq clan dominated the SNM. Gadabuursi subclans either supported Siad Barre’s military regime or attempted to remain neutral in the conflict and defend their own communities and interests. Because of this, the few Gadabuursi within the SNM leadership, most notably Abdirahman Aw Ali, had to spend considerable time and energy preventing clashes between the rebel group and local clan militias in the Awdal region. However, while these efforts were largely successful, fighting would eventually break out between the two sides in January 1991 at Dilla, 28km east of Borama, when the SNM pursued defeated elements of the 26th Brigade of the Somali Army as they retreated from Hargeisa. This threatened to trigger a full-blown clan-based conflict between the Gadabuursi and Isaaq that leaders only averted through the peace agreements that they recently rejected in Ottawa.
Potential sources of support for an armed separatist campaign
For the would-be separatists, there is also the question of what outside sources of support their movement to secede from Somaliland can obtain.
The most immediate and obvious would be fellow Gadabuursi communities living in Djibouti and the Fafan, Shinile and Sitti zones of Ethiopia’s Somali region. These communities could very well provide financial and logistical support, as well as a potential pool for additional fighters.
However, unlike in Las Anod, where Dhulbahante sub-clans enjoy the political, logistical and (unofficial) military support of Puntland, there is no evidence to suggest that authorities in either Djibouti or Ethiopia would be willing to support or turn a blind eye to local Gadabuursi communities supporting an insurgency inside Somaliland. Indeed, both countries would face not only an influx of refugees and illegal weapons but also a worsening of inter-clan tensions within their own populations. This would be especially the case for Djibouti, where the Gadabuursi are a marginalized minority.
Any insurgency would also be heavily dependent, at least initially, on arms and ammunition sourced from defectors from the Somaliland Army. While the ability of clan leaders to induce large-scale defections of Gadabuursi personnel remains unknown, soldiers deployed elsewhere, such as Oog or Yeyle, are unlikely to be allowed to return to Awdal region still armed, or at least unable to return openly in large numbers.
While the ground in the Awdal region may initially appear fertile for the outbreak of a new conflict, the most likely outcome of the Ottawa conference will be a continued deterioration of the local political and security environments. Rather than becoming ‘Las Anod 2.0’, this is more likely to result in negotiations and new agreements with Somaliland authorities because any insurgent force would face considerable logistical issues and a lack of regional support.