Another colonial border is causing conflict in Africa

Nearly 200,000 people have fled a city in Somaliland, where fighting has seen more than 150 people killed and a hospital shelled. The battle is over one group’s resistance to a colonial-era border.

8 March 2023

A Camel Corps patrol on the border of British Somaliland in the 1930s. (Photo: Bettmann via Getty)

  • Doctors Without Borders says “the human suffering of the violence is tremendous”
  • UK government does not officially recognise Somaliland but two former Conservative defence secretaries have interests in the region
  • Conflict around the city of Las Anod is another reminder that the legacy of empire casts a long shadow

It’s a familiar story. Lines on the map drawn by European colonisers carved up communities across Asia and Africa, putting minorities at the mercy of larger ethnic or religious groups. From India to Iraq, Sudan to Cameroon, millions have died in conflicts caused by arbitrary borders imposed on countries by imperial powers. 

The latest example can be found in Somaliland, a former British colony that unilaterally declared independence from neighbouring Somalia over thirty years ago. Praised by aid agencies for its relative stability but still internationally unrecognised, the country’s promising image is now threatened by an uprising in its eastern city of Las Anod.

In December, demonstrators there started waving pro-Somalia flags, defying the authority of Somaliland’s de facto government. They were angry at a lack of security, following the assassination of a local opposition politician. Somaliland forces – including a police unit once funded by the UK – responded violently, killing an estimated 20 people.

By January, Somaliland troops had retreated from the city as protesters took up arms. Their militia is drawn from the Dhulbahante, a clan that predominate in the area. The clan’s chief, Garad Jama Garad Ali, convened a meeting in Las Anod with representatives from three regions that make up the east of Somaliland (Sool, Sanaag and Cayn – the SSC). 

This coalition, which represents around 20 per cent of Somaliland’s territory, declared their wish to rejoin Somalia. It was a direct challenge to Somaliland’s president Muse Bihi Abdi. He comes from the country’s largest clan, the Isaaq, and ordered tanks and artillery to surround the city last month. 

Somaliand’s foreign affairs ministry has blamed the violence on “anti-peace militias allied with extremist groups”. This is an allusion to Al-Shabaab, but Garad Ali denies any link to terrorism. It is more likely that officials in Somalia have supplied some arms.

Whoever exactly is behind the fighting, the Red Cross says 150 people have died and over 600 others have been wounded. Civilian targets have been shelled. Doctors Without Borders said: “The hospital we support in Las Anod was hit during indiscriminate fighting for a fourth time in three weeks.” 

Djoen Besselink, a spokesperson for the group, explained that his colleagues were afraid to be in the hospital. “The human suffering of the violence is tremendous,” he commented. Although there is currently a delicate ceasefire, the conflict could escalate into a major humanitarian crisis. 

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says 185,000 people have fled. Some 89% of them are women and children. Around 60,000 have crossed into Ethiopia. “Exhausted and traumatised, they have arrived with very little, only taking what they could carry,” the UNHCR said. “Many of them have lost loved ones in the clashes or have been separated during flight.” 

The British government does not officially recognise Somaliland and is calling for dialogue. Overseas aid minister Andrew Mitchell told MPs this week: “The UK has been pressing for an urgent end to the violence in Las Anod…We will, with partners, continue to encourage talks between clan elders”.

Dreams dashed

The clashes come despite the inhabitants of this area having a shared language and faith – factors that once looked like Somalis could be a post-colonial success story. The Scramble for Africa in the 1880s had divided Somalis between British, French, Italian and Ethiopian empires. 

In 1960, after just five days of independence, British Somaliland rushed to unite with the former Italian-held territory, forming the Somali Republic. Other Somali regions were supposed to join soon, but a movement in parts of Kenya was ignored by the British and Emperor Haile Selassie was unwilling to split up Ethiopia. 

French Somaliland went its own way and became Djibouti. An attempt in the late 1970s by Somali dictator Sayid Barre to capture the Ogaden – Ethiopia’s Somali-majority region — ended in a disastrous defeat.

By the 1980s, many in the north had grown disillusioned with the idea of a Greater Somalia and began to want more autonomy from the south. The Isaaq rose up against Barre, whose forces (which included some Dhulbahante) responded with extreme violence.

Planes levelled the rebel’s main city, Hargeisa, in a 1988 bombardment so terrible it became known as the “Dresden of Africa”. Yet their resistance movement, the SNM, survived and declared Somaliland’s independence in 1991, reviving the British/Italian boundary. 

To them, this colonial-era border symbolised safety. A sanctuary from genocide, and a demarcation line that had the benefit of once being internationally recognised from when it was a British protectorate.


Although thirty years later almost no foreign states recognise Somaliland, the British government has given some of the strongest indications that it might do so. Under the last 13 years of Conservative rule, Britain has grown noticeably supportive of Somaliland. 

Andrew Mitchell began funding their security apparatus in 2011 and the UK is the only Western nation to open a “permanent office” in Hargeisa. Former UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson is even an honorary citizen. 

Last year he organised a debate in Parliament to encourage recognition of Somaliland. “The boundaries being proposed are exactly the same as those that were agreed between Britain, Italy, and Ethiopia,” Williamson said. “Somaliland is not asking for a change to the boundaries, as they are very much what was there in 1960.”


Gavin Williamson and the Somaliland massacre


Another ex-defence secretary, Michael Fallon, has his eyes on Somaliland. Fallon sits on the board of Genel Energy, an Anglo-Turkish firm exploring for two billion barrels of oil in the breakaway region – against the wishes of Somalia’s government. Genel Energy did not respond to a request for comment on whether the recent unrest could jeopardise oil exploration. 

Their hydro-carbon prospects lie close to the geo-strategic Gulf of Aden, a major international shipping lane. Liz Truss, when she was foreign secretary, ploughed up to £232m into Somaliland’s largest port, Berbera. The investment was made through British Investment International, the old Colonial Development Corporation.

While some MPs have been moved by stories of genocide from Somaliland refugees living in their constituencies, others are charmed by portrayals of their ancestors as loyal servants of empire. This message resonates with the likes of Tory MP Colonel Bob Stewart. 

He grew up in Aden, a British colony (now part of Yemen) that relied on meat supplied from Somaliland across the water. His nanny was from Somaliland and his father commanded “really good soldiers and decent men” from there.

A different tradition

These narratives about Britain’s colonial past are not just confined to the House of Commons. They are actually driving some of the current unrest in Somaliland. While the Isaaq-led authorities tend to play into a nostalgic view of empire, the Dhulbahante have developed a very critical stance towards British colonialism. 

They revere the Dervish Uprising of 1899-1920, when many of their clan fought for a Sufi poet called Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, who the British derided as the ‘Mad Mullah’. After decades of resistance, he was eventually defeated when the Royal Air Force launched planes from an aircraft carrier to bomb his defences. The Dervishes were routed not far from Las Anod, in one of the RAF’s earliest African raids. 

Although that uprising caused immense suffering for the Dhulbahante, it has become a legend for them in recent years. “Since Somalia collapsed in 1991 and the Dhulbahante lost out from the fall of Barre, they have had to reinvent themselves,” social anthropologist Dr Markus Hoehne from the University of Leipzig told Declassified

“Unlike in Britain, where the debate over our imperial legacy centres on statues and museum collections, in Somaliland it is driving violent confrontation”

“They started to get back to a very specific reading of history, while the Isaaq were doing something similar. The Isaaq said we have been British and we’ve never been like the rest of Somalia, so we are different,” Dr Hoehne noted. 

“The Dhulbahante said we were Dervish and we were anti-British. So both sides invented historical narratives which are opposing and are legitimating the contemporary political stances.” Hoehne emphasised that the Dervishes actually included Isaaq members, and the Dhulbahante cooperated with British authorities after the uprising ended in 1920. 

Yet what counts today, according to Hoehne, is how simplified versions of colonial history are being used by the warring parties around Las Anod. Unlike in Britain, where the debate over our imperial legacy centres on statues and museum collections, in Somaliland it is driving violent confrontation.

A mirage?

Such a conflict was not totally unforeseeable. From the outset, there were signs that some in Somaliland would resent leaving Somalia. At a meeting in the Foreign Office in 1991, a British diplomat asked an SNM representative in London how the victorious anti-Barre movement would “handle relations with the Northern minorities” – a reference to non-Isaaq clans in Somaliland.

The SNM delegate, Osman Hassan Ahmed, replied that they “considered all Northerners equal, without discrimination”, but felt the Dhulbahante clan “had benefited from Barre” and some had fought on his side. 

“The Isaaq were not seeking revenge,” Ahmed said. “But they would not accept back to the North those who had thrown in their lot with Barre. It would take time for wounds to heal.” He said “they could go to Las Anod, ‘a town created by the British in 1944 to give them a place of their own’.” Ahmed went on to describe another non-Isaaq clan in Somaliland, the Warsangeli, as the “lesser evil”. 

The slightly sinister tone of this discussion will not surprise those who believe Somaliland was always a project driven by one clan. At the last election in 2021, Isaaq candidates won nearly three quarters of seats in Somaliland’s House of Representatives. The International Crisis Group commented: “The results may thus harden widely held perceptions in Somalia and elsewhere that Somaliland is little more than an Isaaq-dominated clan entity.”

Those who support the Dhulbahante uprising in Las Anod ask whether the principle of self-determination applies to all the clans. It is an interesting question for British MPs to consider when discussing international recognition of Somaliland. 

Do they think the eastern border from 1960 is still viable, or should areas controlled by Dhulbahante militia be excluded? Somaliland’s UK Mission and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Somaliland did not respond to requests for comment.

This is a highly polarised topic – especially on social media – but Dr Hoehne thinks serious discussion of the proposed borders is long-overdue. He is reassured by a recent conversation with a high ranking Isaaq traditional authority. 

“He told me first we need a ceasefire. Then we can negotiate about all kinds of things,” the academic recalled. “He said it is obviously really clear that the Dhulbahante don’t want to be part of Somaliland, so we can find a way of letting them go.” 

However those negotiations pan out, the conflict in Las Anod is another reminder that the legacy of empire casts a long shadow.