Somalia and Somaliland

politics and culture — By on March 8, 2007 at 7:55 am

There is a fascinating article in yesterday’s NY Times about the differences between Somalia and Somaliland, which shows some of the ways in which culture and history can influence societies.

If you’ve never heard of Somaliland, don’t worry. It’s likely that many people have never heard of the place, since no one recognizes it a country even though it declared its independence in 1991, holds democratic elections and produces its own money and passports. The story is particularly interesting because Somaliland today is a functioning society with little of the violence or lawlessness that pervades Somalia.

Both regions are dominated by a tribal culture and populated by a series of clans and subclans. 

In a sparsely populated nomadic society, where many people live far from government services, clan elders are traditionally the ones to reconcile differences and maintain social order.

In Somalia, these groups have spent years fighting each other for power or pledging allegiance to different warlords.  In Somaliland, though, the government has been limited to just three political parties in “an attempt to create parties based on ideology, not tribe.”  Moreover:

The Somali National Movement … set up the guurti, a council of wise men from every clan. … The leaders also turned the guurti, whose 82 elders are appointed by their respective clans, into the upper house of Parliament, “Somaliland’s senators,” as people here like to say.

The guurti in Somaliland can strike down laws passed by the elected House of Representatives, though the representatives can override the guurti with a two-thirds vote. It is a mix of tradition and modernity, Western-style democracy meets Somali-style politics.

So why the stark differences in how the two lands are now governed?

When the colonial powers sliced up the Horn of Africa in the 19th century, the British got Somaliland and the Italians got Somalia. While the British relied mostly on clan chiefs to govern, the Italians created an entire Italian-speaking administration and imported thousands of people from Italy to farm bananas, build cathedrals and teach the people how to pour espresso.

One result was that Mogadishu, along the southern coast, became a major commercial hub and one of the most beautiful cities in Africa, but its traditional systems of authority were weakened. … The British, on the other hand, never invested much in Somaliland, leaving it poor and dusty but with its traditions more or less intact.

Another lesson, perhaps, in the need to understand and work with, not against, local traditions.

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