“Uh, Wait… Say What? Conversations Between Northern Somalia and Dhulbahante Urgently Needed!”

On Saturday May 20, 2023, a perplexing and bursty situation was observed in Northern Somalia’s breakaway territory. A soldier of the army was seen standing guard during an Independence Day celebration parade in the capital, Hargeisa on May 18, 2016. The Northern Somalia army and militias associated with the Dhulbahante people have been involved in a long-standing conflict for control of Las Anod, capital of Northern Somalia’s Sool region, since February. This conflict began after the Dhulbahante made it clear that they want to be a part of Somalia instead of being governed by Northern Somalia, which declared its independence in 1991. The violence could potentially spread throughout Sool, endangering Northern Somalia’s hard-earned stability as leaders on both sides double down on warlike rhetoric and recruit new fighters. Capable belligerents must immediately commit to a ceasefire to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. Once this is achieved, they should initiate talks about Sool’s future administrative status to ensure that both sides have credible representatives at the table, the Dhulbahante should appoint an inclusive leadership team for these negotiations, and Northern Somalia should hold its overdue presidential election to restore local legitimacy to its governing elite.

The reasons behind Northern Somalia’s proclaimed independence from Somalia and the subsequent rebellion led by the Isaaq clan, which still holds political power, have their roots in a British protectorate. Somalia, on the other hand, was under Italian colonial rule until 1960, after which the two territories merged into one. The colonial-era borders placed Sool on Northern Somalia’s side of the line, resulting in Somalilander identity. Nevertheless, the majority of Sool’s population is Dhulbahante, a people who belong to a non-Isaaq clan family, the Darod. Under Somali dictator Siad Barre’s rule from 1969 to 1991, they suffered less than the Isaaq and generally fared better. Consequently, they are mostly in favour of being governed by Somalia and reject inclusion in Northern Somalia’s state-building project, which they believe to be serving Isaaq clan’s interests.

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The Dhulbahante have long searched for an alternative administrative arrangement to Northern Somalia’s rule, uneasy with the Isaaq clan’s ascendancy. One such arrangement is joining Somalia’s federal member state of Puntland, where their family ties with the Darod/Harti clan hold deeper. Not all Dhulbahante share the same vision for the future, but many others aim to break with Northern Somalia. As a result of this struggle for power, authorities in Northern Somalia’s capital, Hargeisa, have been struggling to stamp their authority in Sool. Although Northern Somalia forces took control of Las Anod only in 2007, Hargeisa has taken steps to placate the Dhulbahante. These measures include offering posts in regional and national government to community elites and a promise to allocate 2% of Northern Somalia’s budget to developing Sool and the adjoining Sanaag region. However, there has been little improvement of relations, fuelling the Dhulbahante’s perception of exclusion.

The conflict began after an assassination of a Northern Somalia opposition member from the Dhulbahante in Las Anod on December 26, 2022, setting in motion a series of events that led to fighting. Protests gathered in town after the December assassination, complaining that the Northern Somalia authorities’ efforts to stop the killings had been insufficient, prompting police to disperse the demonstrators using excessive force. This action rapidly caused the protests to grow into an uprising, which led to Hargeisa’s partial retreat on January 5. On February 5, the Dhulbahante stated that they and the areas they live in fall under Somalia’s rule, prompting Northern Somalia security forces and Dhulbahante militias to come to blows. This confrontation resulted in over one hundred deaths and the displacement of at least 150,000 people, with fighting continuing to rage on the outskirts of the city, which is now under Dhulbahante control. Observers report indiscriminate shelling of houses and other buildings. The two sides are reportedly enlisting new fighters and purchasing new weaponry, intensifying the conflict.

Hargeisa has blamed the conflict on outside actors like Mogadishu and Ethiopia’s Somali region, though these claims appear overstated. The Dhulbahante is, in fact, getting money, equipment, and fighters primarily from allied Darod/Harti clans in Somalia. However, Puntland President Said Deni did commit to rapidly “liberating” Las Anod, making the conflict’s future uncertain. Clan elders from Somalia are pushing for ceasefire negotiations, but elites in Hargeisa may push back against meaningful involvement from Somali actors, making it difficult to forge a truce. The Dhulbahante has said they will end the fight if Northern Somalia removes its soldiers from all Dhulbahante-inhabited regions. Still, Northern Somalia says it is only willing to reposition its forces 30km outside Las Anod and will not withdraw from all the territory occupied by the Dhulbahante.

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