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  • Dr. Richard Quinlan

The Silence Concerning Somaliland

October 5, 2023

A forensic investigator brushes away soil from the top of a mass grave containing 17 bodies of Isaaq peopole buried 30 years prior [Image credit: VOA News]

The nightmarish violence perpetrated against the Isaaq people by then Somali dictator Siad Barre between 1987 and 1989 is well documented but is too often ignored as a byproduct of Cold War-era politics. Following Somalia’s defeat in the Ogaden War of 1977, Somalia’s war with Ethiopia, the Barre government grew frustrated with the support granted to Ethiopia by the Soviet Union and turned to the United States for aid. The Reagan administration supported Barre, starting a relationship between the United States and Somalia that continues today. Despite the death of Barre and significant shifts in American politics, there is a truth that remains: the American government seems willing to ignore horrific acts of violence in Somaliland.


Understanding the complexities of Somalia’s long struggle for stability is an arduous task, but comprehending the targeting of Somaliland is less complex; Somaliland exists as state within a state, and the violence in the area needs to be addressed firmly and clearly by the United States. Sadly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking on behalf of the Biden Administration, has elected to ignore the desperate cries of those targeted in Somaliland and this means offering indirect support for China. There is significant competition for oil between China and Taiwan in Somaliland and Ethiopia respectively. This economic situation places the United States in a challenging position, but rather than sternly speaking out against the targeting of the Isaaq people, the U.S. government has selected a path of silence. This tangled geopolitical landscape has only one readily identifiable ending, and that is the suffering and killing of unknown numbers of people in Somaliland.


The targeting of the Isaaq people in 2023 mirrors the bloodshed of the 1980s and could easily become another African genocide, and tragically another genocide widely ignored. Reports cited by the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention from the Turkish Anadolu Agency reported that violence in Somaliland’s eastern region of Sool and its capital city Laascaanood had wounded over 400 people and killed close to 100 by the spring of 2023. Terrible violence has only continued, and earlier this month a coalition of nations signed a statement condemning the violence. Among the Signatories were the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, the EU Delegation to the country, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Qatar, Russia, Sudan, Uganda, and the UK, but not the United States.


Somaliland gained independence in 1991 and has remained a relatively unscathed autonomous region within the cyclone of instability that is Somalia. It is often described as a safe and secure country for nationals and foreign visitors. However, Somalia has long been plagued by violence and instability, including ongoing struggles against the terrorist organization al-Shabaab. Following the disastrous departure from Afghanistan, the Biden Administration has deployed American troops as well as a significant amount of money to Somalia to fight al-Shabaab forces. However, the recent resurgence of fighting in Somaliland has not been condemned by the U.S., but rather, by a lack of condemnation, America seems to be acquiescing to forces resolute to destroy Somaliland’s right to exist. There is also a clear appreciation for the seriousness of this situation and the validity of claims of potential genocide, as embodied by a June 2023 UN Security Press release titled, “Security Council Press Statement on the Situation in Somalia”. As noted by American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin, the name of Somaliland was written in quotations, reflecting a lack of respect for the people facing imminent threat but even the nation itself. Language plays a fundamental role in predicting genocide, both the language used by perpetrators and that used by those observing. By disregarding the legitimacy of Somaliland, the United Nations, and by extension the United States, are issuing a message that any bloodshed in Somaliland is not to be regarded as significant, for Somaliland itself is merely a concept and not a geo-political reality. The UN statement devalues the people of Somaliland and constructs them as “the other” in a region of Africa that has long been saddled with suffering.

Somaliland sits on the brink of genocidal destruction, and this is a moment in which international leadership is desperately needed. The United States cannot waiver on the issue of preserving democracy within this fragile region of the world; the economic competition for oil between Taiwan in Somaliland and China in Ethiopia is an obvious backdrop for this fighting, but it cannot drive American foreign policy. The United States has been hesitant in its condemnation of other atrocities committed in Africa, including in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and the State Department and White House should learn from that very recent mistake. If real action is not taken, the Horn of Africa will again endure more bloodshed while world powers play with euphemisms and avoid making difficult but necessary choices.


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