The Somali Digest brings a unique analysis of the risks associated with Colonel Said Awil Jama Arre’s recent return to the self-proclaimed state of Somaliland. Since 2017, Somaliland authorities have struggled to contain growing instability in the Sanaag region. Several factors have driven this, including conflict between the region’s clans and subclans, postponed elections, and the recent outbreak of conflict in the Sool region between the Somaliland army and the SSC-Khaatumo movement.
The return of Colonel Arre is a sign that Somaliland authorities have become increasingly desperate in their conflict with SSC-Khaatumo specifically. However, any effort to mobilise his clan will carry serious risks of not only destabilising the Sanaag region but also creating further political instability inside Somaliland and creating a new conflict with Puntland.
Two major flashpoints of inter-clan conflict are the regional capital Erigavo (Ceerigaabo) and the El Afweyn (Ceel Afweyn) town.
Inter-clan conflict in Sanaag
The city of Erigavo is inhabited by the members of the Isaaq-Garhajis subclans of Habar Yoonis and Habar Je’lo, as well as the Harti subclans of Dhulbahante and Warsangeli. One of the major sources of conflict in the regional capital remains unresolved land ownership disputes dating back to the period after the first civil war (1981-1991), which are referred to as ‘Taagan’, meaning “the case is still open and will be solved later on.”
In addition to intra-Warsangeli land ownership disputes, there has been conflict between the Isaaq and Warsangeli over mining rights. Since 2015, an intra-Isaaq conflict has simmered in El Afweyn, occasionally erupting into violence between the pastoralists of the Habar Yoonis and Habar Je’lo over access to pasture and water. In August, the conflict between these communities resulted in deaths, injuries and displacement.
As a member of the Habar Yoonis subclan, any effort by Colonel Arre to organise a militia or mobilise his community members to support the Somaliland army will be seen as a threat by the Habar Je’lo, Dhulbahante and Warsangeli. This could trigger a new arms race between these communities and even open the door to the SSC-Khaatumo to increase its influence and presence in the Sanaag region.
Somaliland’s election issue
While President Muse Bihi, the opposition Somaliland National Party (Waddani), and the Justice and Welfare Party (UCID) have agreed to hold elections for the recognition of official political parties and the region’s presidency on 13 November 2024, bad blood persists. In Sanaag, the El Afweyn feud between the Habar Yoonis and Habar Je’lo further complicates this. The conflict intensified in 2017 when President Bihi’s ‘rainbow’ (‘jeegan’) alliance between the Habar Je’lo and Habar Awal secured victory in the presidential election as it had done in 2010.
However, President Bihi and his administration are still unable to escape from the impact of the violence during the August 2022 protests, which Waddani and UCID organised to demand holding elections as scheduled. These protests, during which three people died and nearly 90 others sustained injuries, have created lingering anger and resentment, meaning that any future protests will carry the risk of bursting into violence.
While the outcome of the 2017 elections has likely played a vital role in the decision by Col. Arre in mid-2018 to rebel and then defect to Puntland, President Bihi permitted his return, possibly in the hope it would cause a split among Habar Yoonis supporters of the opposition Waddani Party. However, it is also likely to harden opposition among other leading figures from the subclan who consider his return a threat to their own influence within their community.
Conflict in Sool
The aggressive rhetoric of Colonel Arre towards the SSC-Khaatumo movement on his return comes at a difficult time for Somaliland authorities. Following their loss of bases on 25 August at Gooja’adde, Maraaga, Hargaga, Buundada Boda, and Buurta Hodan, which included the loss of tanks, armoured vehicles and the capture of several senior officers, the Somaliland army has been on the back foot against the SSC-Khaatumo administration. The aggressive rhetoric of Colonel Arre on his return is a likely indication that he will help mobilise members of the Habar Yoonis to regain these bases or at least defend against the further loss of territory in the Sanaag region.
However, members of the Dhulbahante and Warsangeli may also interpret this as inciting violence against their communities. This risks not only increasing inter-clan tensions but could also open the door for the SSC-Khaatumo to try and expand its military operations to Sanaag.
Confrontation with Puntland
Finally, expanding the conflict between Somaliland and SSC-Khaatumo into a wider Isaaq-Darod conflict would also increase tensions with Puntland. Puntland’s President Said Abdullahi Deni has previously threatened to launch a military intervention to support SSC-Khaatumo if Somaliland attacked it. Instability or conflict in Sanaag would also present an opportunity for authorities in Garowe to try and capture territory in the eastern parts of the region, which Puntland claims but Somaliland currently holds.