Review: “Becoming Somaliland” – Mark Bradbury

Someone on Facebook recommended Mark Bradbury’s “Becoming Somaliland” to me because I study ethnic and separatist conflicts. I thought it would be interesting to read about Somaliland, a place I know little about besides that it declared independence from Somalia and has remained relatively peaceful while the rest of Somalia has been rife with violence and warlordism.

In this book Bradbury provides a comprehensive history of Somaliland and the origins of the Somali National Movement. According to Bradbury, Somaliland is distinct from southern Somalia in a number of ways. First, during the colonial era, the British had very little interest in Somaliland, and governed the territory (from India) through a system of indirect rule. This enabled Somalis maintain their traditions and customary laws. When the British did intervene more directly, such as in the war against the Dervish uprising of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, this united Somalis against a common enemy. In contrast, southern Somalia was directly ruled by the Italians, and was later incorporated into Italian East Africa. Tens of thousands of Italians settled in southern Somalia, and thousands of Somalis were forced to work in Italian plantations, construction, and other industries, including the construction of the Mogadishu Cathedral. Traditional Somali social relations, including customary law and conflict resolution, consequently broke down in southern Somalia. Second, British Somaliland was briefly internationally recognized as an independent state, before agreeing to unify with southern Somalia to form the Somali Republic in 1960. The fact that Somaliland agreed to unify has fostered a sense that it should be allowed to leave the union. Thirdly, under various Somali governments, the northerners were often discriminated against and marginalized in favour of southerners, especially those from Mogadishu. This helped create a separate national consciousness in the north. Fourth, the brutal oppression of northern Somalis by Siad Barre’s regime, including the bombardment of Hargeisa and the massacre of tens of thousands of Issaq, helped unite northern Somalis behind the Somali National Movement (SNM). Fifth, the SNM, the main opposition movement in northern Somalia, was a popular movement dependent on the support of the people, especially those in the refugee camps in Ethiopia. This  helped foster (not always successfully) a sense of democracy and accountability within the SNM. In contrast, the main anti-government movements in the south, such as those by General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, Osman Atto, etc., were predatory and dominated by a single leader. Finally, since the north had always been marginalized and discriminated against by regimes in Mogadishu, when Barre was overthrown there was little to fight for control over. Agricultural land was minimal, state institutions were non-existent, 90% of Hargeisa was destroyed, etc. This helped to mitigate the factional infighting between rival warlords that occurred in southern Somalia.

Although Bradbury offers an excellent history and political analysis of Somaliland, he offers little else of value in the book. Most of the book is Bradbury trying to build a case for the recognition of Somaliland’s independence by pandering to Western imperialist interests. In page after page Bradbury tries to “sell” Somaliland to Western imperialism by highlighting Somaliland’s stability and comparatively well developed democracy, the fact that nearly everything is privatized in Somaliland, the merger of wealthy business interests and the state in Somaliland, and the windfall profits made in Somaliland by wealthy Somali investors in Djibouti. These are hardly convincing arguments for the average reader (and certainly not for me).

What was really disappointing to me about this book is how Bradbury never examines the lack of recognition of Somaliland from a theoretical perspective. If, as Bradbury writes, Somaliland is a politically stable, neoliberal paradise, I would be interested in reading why Western states refuse to recognize it, rather than why they should. Why do Western states recognize Somalia, which has been in a near constant state of civil war since the 1980s, and whose government has to be externally financed and imposed by force, but not neoliberal Somaliland? What’s the catch?

Final analysis: I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you’re really interested in Somaliland.  

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