Somaliland - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Somaliland: the Bradt Travel Guide

The history of Somaliland is patchily – and in some cases poorly – documented, and by comparison to the rest of eastern Africa the region has been somewhat neglected by archaeologists and other researchers. Paradoxically, however, it is a country of great historical interest, with coastal trade links to Ancient Egypt and the other great classical civilisations, and an interior scattered with intriguing rock art sites, mysterious cairns, and other monuments of a complex pastoral society that might date back 10,000 years.


The initial omens were inauspicious. In January 1992, less than a year after secession, fighting broke out between different Isaq subclans in Burao as a result of the caretaker President Abdurrahman Ali Tuur trying to reorganise the former rebel forces into a proper army. Further unrest occurred two months later at Berbera, following the fledgling government’s attempt to impose customs and taxes on the country’s most important port.

More than 1,000 fatalities were recorded in the two incidents and the port at Berbera closed for six months as a result. Fortunately, however, the clan elders, tired of the ongoing killing, persuaded the government to attend the Grand Conference of National Reconciliation that opened in Borama on 24 January 1993, led by a committee of 150 elders from several different subclans.

One of the most truly remarkable events in Africa’s recent political history, the Grand Conference was a think tank that endured for four months, and involved more than 1,000 participants. Foremost among its consensual achievements were the creation of a bicameral parliament wherein a non-elected House of Elders could keep check on the elected House of Representatives, and the formulation of a national charter that required the government to draft a proper constitution within two years.

The Borama conference inspired a series of similar events elsewhere in Somaliland – most critically in the fractious Sanaag region – and it led to practically every last subclan being co-opted into the rebuilding process. Crucial to the success of the Grand Conference was the appointment of Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal as President of Somaliland in its euphoric wake.

Egal was a broadly popular choice for this post, thanks to a long and chequered political career that had already included a period as an anti-colonial firebrand in the 1950s, various ambassadorial and ministry posts including a five-day stint as Prime Minister of Somaliland prior to the 1960 merger, and two years as Prime Minister of the Somali Republic in the build-up to the 1969 coup – not to mention two periods of detention totalling 13 years under Siad Barre. And while Egal failed in one of his primary aims, the gaining of international recognition for Somaliland, his achievements were manifold. They included the disarmament of almost all rebel groups and the restoration of peace to the northwest; a trend of economic stabilisation, then growth, through the establishment of bilateral trade agreements with several countries; the introduction of organised customs and tax collection; the creation of reasonably effective government ministries, as well as a central bank, a civilian judiciary and a functional civil service; and the forging of a strong and disciplined police force from the region’s various rebel groups.

He also oversaw the institution of other trappings of normalisation, for instance the creation of a national currency and national flag. Despite this, inter-clan violence claimed several thousand lives over the cusp of 1994–95 and it persuaded some 180,000 Somalilanders to flee back across the border to Ethiopia. The catalyst for this unrest was a dispute over control of revenue generated by Hargeisa airport, a national asset and justified source of central revenue that a local subclan gad long regarded as its own tribal possession. After the government took control of the airport in March 1995, the fighting spread to Burao, a hotspot between two powerful Isaq subclans, and this short but bloody civil war did immense damage to Somaliland’s emerging administrative structures and recovering economy, as well as undermining its case for recognition as a sovereign state. However, differences between the government and other warring factions were eventually resolved in a national reconciliation conference held in Hargeisa between October 1996 and February 1997.

Delayed by the 1994–95 fighting, a temporary constitution was adopted in February 1997, when the National Communities Conference re-elected President Egal for a second term with a 70% majority. A full constitution was unveiled in May 2001, and went to a public referendum, which returned a 97% vote in its favour. President Egal died at a military hospital in South Africa on May 2002, aged 73, while still in office.

His unfinished term was completed by the relatively youthful Dahir Riyale Kahin, who also won the country’s first fully fledged presidential elections on 14 April 2003, representing the United Democratic People’s Party (UDUB).

Held in September 2005, the first full election for the House of Representatives saw UDUB take 33 seats, while the rival Peace, Unity, & Development Party (KULMIYE) and Justice & Welfare Party (UCID) took 28 and 21 respectively. Following the 2003 and 2005 elections, Somaliland, by any standards, could claim to be a fully-fledged democracy, albeit it one still unrecognised by the rest of the world a full 15 years after secession.

Subsequent years have seen the country’s modest economy and low-key government flourish in the face of occasional adversity, much of it related to its relationship with the remainder of the former Somali Republic. Since the late 1990s, the eastern border area has been the subject of an ongoing dispute and occasional outbreaks of violence between Somaliland and self-governing Puntland.

The most serious dispute to date occurred on 15 October 2007, when the Somaliland faction of the Dhulbahante clan attacked the inland city of Las Anod, deposing the ruling Puntland faction of the same clan, with an estimated death toll of 30 people. Further fighting occurred on 15 May 2010 when troops from Somaliland and Ethiopia wrested control of several villages in the Sool region prior to the election, leaving at least 13 people dead. And an isolated incidence of violence rocked the normally safe capital Hargeisa on 29 October 2008, when simultaneous suicide bombings of the Ethiopian consulate, the presidential palace, and a UNDP office killed at least 30 people. No group has ever taken responsibility for the bombings, but they are generally thought to have been the work of Al-Shabaab, a militant southern Somali insurgency group with links to al-Qaeda.

The presidential election of June 2010, held after two years of controversial delays, saw the incumbent President Kahin fall to Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo of KULMIYE, who took 49.6 % of the vote as opposed to his main rival’s 33.3%. The outgoing Kahin immediately congratulated Silanyo, con!rmed that he would stand down, and the transition was completed on 27 July at a swearing-in ceremony attended by o&cials from Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. Whatever the future for Somaliland might hold, with this peaceful presidential transition, in the aftermath of a multi-party election widely deemed to be ‘free and fair’, Somaliland has demonstrated a political maturity that has eluded many recognised African countries in the 50 years since independence. One senses that it can only bode well for the future of this young and unrecognised nation.

Natural history

With its largely arid climate and recent history of civil conflict, Somaliland may not seem the most promising destination for wildlife enthusiasts. But while it is true it lacks the densely grazed savannah reserves characteristic of east Africa or the lush forests that swathe the Congo Basin, and that many large mammal species have been hunted close to extinction over the past century or so, Somaliland still supports a surprising amount of medium-sized mammals and other wildlife.

It is also a highly rated destination for birders, thanks to the presence of several Somali endemics (that is, species found nowhere else in the world), and several near-endemics and other birds with limited distribution. Many of its more interesting mammals can be seen quite easily while driving through the scrubby badlands that separate its main urban settlements, but there are also a handful of more specialised wildlife destinations, the most alluring being the remote and scenic Daallo Forest Reserve on the escarpment between Erigavo and Maydh.


Somaliland supports a relatively limited selection of large mammals, certainly when compared to the likes of Ethiopia or Kenya, and many safari icons – most notably perhaps elephant and rhino – became extinct during the course of the 20th century.

Reptiles and amphibians

The predominantly hot and arid climate of Somaliland is arguably better suited to reptiles – cold-blooded creatures dependent on external heat sources to maintain their body temperature – than to perhaps any other vertebrate class. No figures are available for Somaliland specifically, but around 225 species have been recorded in Somalia as a whole, about 15% of which are endemic to the country.

As might be expected, however, the country supports a rather low diversity of frogs and other amphibians, since the life cycle of most species is at least dependent on standing water. The total number of amphibian species recorded in Somalia stands at a mere 30, including three endemics, but it seems reasonable to assume that several of these are restricted to the two major perennial river systems that run through southern Somalia, and would be absent from Somaliland.


Somaliland doesn’t compare to Africa’s finest birding destinations in terms of avian diversity, thanks largely to its relative aridity and unvaried habitats. Nevertheless, most of the 720 bird species recorded in Somalia occur within Somaliland’s confines, and because it remains relatively poorly known in ornithological terms, new species are frequently recorded by visiting birders.

Somaliland is also of great interest for the presence of at least nine of the 12 birds regarded to be endemic to Somalia, along with a large number of near-endemics and other dry-country species with a limited distribution elsewhere. It is also worth noting that half of these Somali endemics would practically be Somaliland endemics were the country’s sovereignty to be recognised.

Marine animals

Although Somaliland supports a rather small volume of large terrestrial animals, the offshore waters of the Gulf of Aden, and its protective fringe of coral reefs and islands, support a prodigious wealth of marine life. These areas remain undeveloped for tourism at the time of writing, but it is hoped that things will change following the recent creation of two new offshore marine parks with a combined area of 80km2, together with the opening of a dive shop in Berbera.

People and culture

Somaliland is populated almost entirely by the Somali, who form the dominant ethnic group in the Horn of Africa. The regional total of 15–16 million Somalis is divided between Somalia (whose total population of nine to ten million is divided more or less evenly between Somaliland, Puntland and Somali proper), eastern Ethiopia (home to 4.5 million Somalis), Kenya (home to almost one million Somalis) and Djibouti (350,000 Somalis). In addition, at least one million Somalis live outside of Africa, the majority of them in Yemen, but also in North America and Europe.


According to legend, the common ancestor of most if not all Somali clans was Irir Samaale, a name which possibly derives from the phrase soo maal – literally ‘go and milk’ – in reference to the almost exclusively pastoral lifestyle of his descendants. DNA studies suggest that the Somali share close ethnic links with the Oromo of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, and that the two groups share a mixed African and Middle Eastern ancestry going back perhaps 5,000 years, when it is known that an element of trade existed between the Somali and Arabian coasts of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Arts and music

For the outsider, the creative and performing arts scene in Somaliland can be a tough nut to crack. During the war and following two decades of recovery, cultural life suffered greatly as most Somalilanders were engaged primarily in meeting more basic needs. Accordingly, the number of people engaged in creative pursuits is very small, and venues in which to showcase their work are almost non-existent. There are no live music venues, museums, galleries or café exhibitions, and the national theatre in Hargeisa is only now being rebuilt, 20 years after it was bombed into the ground.

As a result, the majority of live performances take place either in private homes (along with much of Somali socialising), or at weddings – one of the few occasions at which Somalis really let their hair down! However, unless you know someone who has offered to take you along, you’re not likely to be invited in off the street to join the festivities, as Somalilanders tend to be somewhat reserved with outsiders until they get to know them well. Nevertheless, as life continues to improve in the present climate of stability, music and arts are bound to be an integral part of Somaliland’s quest to define its nascent national identity. And for those with an interest, there is a rich heritage of creativity – it just takes a little digging to find it.

Visual arts

The visual arts in Somaliland tend to exist almost exclusively for commercial purposes. Any shop or restaurant worth its salt will have a brightly painted mural out front replete with smiling fish (on a plate), larger-than-life medicine bottles, lopsided bananas, cheeseburgers (whether or not the menu actually features cheeseburgers is irrelevant), serene-looking camels, plates of pasta, floating forks, and whatever else they may or may not sell! These splashes of colour go a long way towards improving the sometimes lacking aesthetics of Somaliland cities.

The artists-for-hire behind these festive advertisements travel the city working for commissions, with some pursuing non-commercial art on the side. You’ll see stalls around the city that act as the base for many artists and feel free to stop at any of these and see what kind of work they have in stock. A few do more tourist and souvenir-oriented fare (landscapes, camels, etc) in addition to their standard repertoire of sodas and sambusas.

If you see a business or restaurant that particularly catches your eye, give it a close inspection as nearly all the murals are signed with the artist’s name and mobile number. It takes a little negotiation, and likely a Somali speaker to help arrange things on your behalf, but it’s possible to arrange a commission of your own if you plan to spend more than a few days in town. Even the country’s best artists work this way. Check out the MiG jet in downtown Hargeisa – there’s a number on that too. Somaliland doesn’t yield much in the way of souvenirs, but with a little effort you can go home with a one-of-a-kind piece of art, purchased directly from the artist.


While poetry is without question the premier art form in Somaliland, there is also a music scene, albeit a small one. If you’re arriving from elsewhere in Africa, the Somalilander approach to music is a drastic change. Gone are the maxed-out amplifiers and distorted speakers on every corner and in every car – in Somaliland you’ll have ample opportunity to hear yourself think. This stems from Somaliland’s deeply-held conservatism. Certain schools of Islamic thought prohibit music, and while it is by no means forbidden in Somaliland, music plays a much smaller role than in neighbouring countries. The music that you do hear, however, tends to be local. The ubiquitous Western pop so difficult to escape elsewhere is largely absent here – farewell 50 Cent and sayonara Snoop Dogg.

Today, due to music’s frowned-upon status among Somaliland’s more conservative elements, those in the business of selling boom-boxes have taken a clever step to prove their Islamic bona "des – keep your eyes out for ‘Islamic Stereo’ stores dotted around town. These places are fully stocked with the latest speakers and music players, ostensibly for the purpose of listening to Koranic recitations –with bass boost. Music is still very much enjoyed in Somaliland, only it is done so with a touch of discretion. Given this relative absence of Western music, Somali and Somalilander music is widely listened to, and for the casual observer can be broken down into the following styles.

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