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Review of Becoming Somaliland /Understanding Somalia and Somaliland, Culture, History, Society.


By Lionel Cliffe

Becoming Somaliland. Mark Bradbury. James Currey, Oxford, 2008. Pp. 271. ISBN. 978-1-84701-310 (pb). £12.95.

Understanding Somalia and Somaliland, Culture, History, Society. Ioan M. Lewis. Hurst, London, 2008. Pp. 139. ISBN. 978 1 85065 898 6 (pb). £16.99.

Both of these books cover aspects of the history and culture of the Somali people and deal with the fate of the independent state of Somalia forged from the coming together of the two colonies of British and Italian Somaliland in 1961 until its disintegration in 1991. But unlike most other books on the territory they both place special emphasis on the emergence of Somaliland as a de facto state after 1991.

The argument for such attention is put succinctly by Lewis:

(Somaliland’s) ultimately successful resolution of conflict by panels of local clan elders is a truly remarkable achievement… this process – crucially a homemade one, slowly unfolding from grass roots – proved incomparably more effective than the high profile top-down ‘peace process’ that has failed so miserably in southern Somalia. (p. 77).

This is a small handbook from an anthropogist who has been steeped in the society for half a century. It provides useful background for outsiders into the people, their culture and history, including an explanation of the structure and workings of clans in a society where they are so fundamental to understanding. But he also brings out the different means of livelihoods of livestock pastoralists and cultivators – equally vital to the dynamics. He provides an overview of the process of collapse in Somalia proper, but has a special place for bringing out the very different recent history of Somaliland, and also of Puntland.

Bradbury likewise provides a similar background on the Somalia people and the fate of the state of Somalia since 1991, but these two chapters are a short introduction to a much more detailed account in eight remaining chapters of events in Somaliland, and the social, economic as well as political transitions that have taken place. The processes he explores that form his agenda, include:

Since breaking with Somalia, the people of Somaliland have successfully managed a process of reconciliation and created a constitutionally based government and public administration that has restored law and order, overseen demobilisation and held three democratic elections. (p.4)

The building up many of the attributes of a sovereign state – except international recognition – has allowed other initiatives:

… without assistance from international financial institutions, people in Somaliland have built telecommunications and airline companies, universities, hospitals and money transfer businesses (providing a lifeline for the diaspora to contribute – LC). Outside of the urban sprawl,… the other half of the population continues the age-old life of nomadic pastoralism, herding camels, sheep and goats. For the past decade, the only guns visible on the streets of Somaliland’s cities are those carried by uniformed police or the occasional soldier … (p.4)

In offering this detailed account, Bradbury does not romanticise what has gone on or imply it is automatically sustainable. He acknowledges the long-drawn-out and often fraught steps in reconciliation, and occasional retreats into violence, and the shortcomings in the democratisation. He also points to threats from the vexed counter claims of Puntland and of a spill over of the latest rounds of violence in Southern Somalia. But this under-reported story is one of undoubted achievement, one that deserves to be more generally proclaimed as it does indeed “challenge the image of war, disaster and social regression that has been associated with this part of Africa since the early 1980s” (p. 1)

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 85-86]

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