Poets, writers and bloggers have recently been on the receiving end of political crackdowns in the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Surges often occur around elections, and most recently due to assertive nationalist rhetoric ramped up by Somaliland and Somalia and regional insecurity.
Somaliland declared itself an independent state in 1991 after the collapse of the Somali following the overthrow of military dictator Siad Barre. The international community regard Somaliland as an autonomous region of Somalia. They don’t recognise it as an official state.
The arrest earlier this year in Somaliland of Naima Qorane (27) highlights the fragility of the situation between Somaliland and Somalia. Although a Somalilander, the poet is a rare outspoken activist for unity between the two regions. Much of her poetry addresses the lost unity of Somalia.
Qorane also holds a Somali passport and lives in Mogadishu. Her arrest in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, followed reports of death threats due to her “Somalia Unity” cause. Three months later, she was found guilty of bringing the nation or the state into contempt. Qorane was sentenced to three years in prison.
There was an international outcry about her deplorable detention conditions as well as allegations of maltreatment. Following the media coverage, and appeals by her father, she was released on 7 May by presidential pardon.
In both Somaliland and Somalia arrests of dissenters have surged since 2017, as new administrations seek to consolidate authority. In Somalia key opposition figures report assassination attempts in a tense political and security environment.
Arrests surge amid deteriorating relations between Somaliland and Somalia. This is due in part to increased bilateral engagement and foreign investment in both countries. Somaliland, with a 3.5-million population, has all the trappings of a state. It has a fully functioning army, government, and foreign investment is coming in.
But the lack of formal international recognition leaves it increasingly insecure in relation to the larger Somalia, which has a population of 10.8 million, and has secured sizeable aid flows since 2012. The 2017 election of Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed in Somalia and renewal of the aid compact has pushed the country to assert its territorial claims as the government seeks to consolidate authority and spearhead state-led reconstruction.
The two regions’ conflict over irreconcilable visions of the state and new alliances have increased hardline policies. New administrations on both sides have seized these in order to build internal legitimacy given the zero-sum nature of politics.
Accusation and counter accusation
Somaliland often accuses Somalia of interfering in its internal political affairs. It claims that Somalia uses Somalilanders in Mogadishu to mobilise dissent back home.
Qorane’s case was therefore not that unusual, but the harsh sentencing was. Somaliland’s new president, Muse Bihi Abdi has responded with increasingly heavy-handed tactics towards political dissent.
TV journalist, Mohamed Digaale was arrested in February 2018 for interviewing the newly-elected Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
On April 16, author Mohamed Kayse Mohamoud was sentenced to 18 months for “insulting the President’s honour”. Mohamoud referred to Abdi as a “local” president. Ten days later a traditional elder Osman Burmadow was sentenced to five years for attending a ceremony in neighbouring Puntland. Like Somaliland, Puntland is also a self-declared independent state. It’s in northeast region of Somalia.
Unlike Qorane, they were detained for much longer.
Qorane’s arrest and imprisonment indicates a more hardline policy by Somaliland towards cross-border movements to and from Mogadishu. The restrictions will have political as well as financial implications for the small state. Somalilanders frequently travel for business and employment.
A hardening of boundaries also risks further marginalising key groups that support (conditionally) Somaliland’s national agenda. It will reinforce the growing perception that politics in the region is not consensual.
In the immediate term, this doesn’t bode well for talks with Somalia. Armed conflict in the disputed region between Somaliland and Puntland has worsened.
Somaliland had suspended talks with Somalia in March after it rejected a USD$422 million port agreement. The deal was signed between Ethiopia, Somaliland and DP World, a United Arab Emirates logistics port company. The agreement included plans for a UAE military base in Somaliland’s Berbera port regionally.
The indefinite postponement of talks is not unusual. Since commencing in 2013, talks have been frequently postponed over the slightest provocation.
Signal to dissenters
In Somaliland, Qorane’s arrest was both a signal to political dissenters and a cautionary message to Somalia. It also served in Somaliland to unify the people behind the national agenda in a period of transition while justifying the suspension of rights and dialogue. This is a common political tactic used in times of political crisis.
As relations worsen between Somaliland and Somalia, both administrations are becoming less tolerant of ambiguity regarding territorial and national allegiances. This has implications in the immediate term for conflict as well as prospects for more constructive engagement.