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Somalia: Completing the Puzzle

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

Understanding Somalia’s Breakaway Entities


Kasper Veltman

Along the longest shoreline of Africa lies a state that does not often make the news in a positive manner. Often used as the primary example of a failed state, history has not been kind towards Somalia. Suffering under the reigns of the dictatorial Siad Barre regime from 1969 to 1991, the state was not set up for success. The power vacuum that followed from Barre’s demise led to a collapse of the state.

Groups that once lived under one flag were being driven apart. Multiple clans and entities declared that they were no longer willing to live under the flag of Somalia and decided to declare independence. The most notable secessionists being Somaliland, Galmudug and Puntland. The seceding movements were not Somalia’s only problem. To this day, Somalia has been dealing with the Al-Shabaab insurgency parallel to its civil war.

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has offered some much-needed pushback against Al-Shabaab, but a decisive victory does not seem to be in sight. Despite that, the Federal Government of Somalia is still pursuing a restoration of its de jure territory. Because of that strategy, it is important to understand the breakaway entities of Somalia. Not only are they a piece of the puzzle that is needed to solve the seemingly never-ending unrest in the country, but they are also key partners in tackling more international problems. For instance, help of Somaliland and Puntland has been a major contributing factor to the success of the international fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden.1

Who are the breakaway entities of Somalia?

Situated in the North-Western tip of Somalia, we can find Somaliland. Somaliland was one of the first entities to declare independence from Somalia in 1991. The aspiring state is bordering both Djibouti and Ethiopia. Its seat of power is in Hargeisa. Berbera, its main port, has the potential to become one of the most influential harbours within Somalia, because it provides to landlocked Ethiopia. Somaliland is home to a largely fairly elected parliament. Even though Somaliland was always seen as a beacon of democracy within struggling Somalia, the past years have seen some erosion of the democratic institutions.2

Their unilateral declaration of independence was fuelled by two different factors. Firstly, the region of Somaliland historically fell under a different administration. It used to be a British protectorate, where Somalia was an Italian colony. Secondly, the Isaaq clans of Somaliland felt that they were underrepresented in Somalia and that their size should warrant a state of their own. On the 18th of May in 2021, they will be celebrating their 30th anniversary of their independence. Even though this is one of the more stable and safe regions of current day Somalia, it is yet to be recognised by any other state.

One of the other large entities that tried to break away from Somalia is the region of Puntland. In 1998, political elites; clan elders and several influential business elites started a constitutional conference to provide services to the population of Puntland after the Somalian state collapsed. Puntland is situated eastward of Somaliland and has its power mostly concentrated around the tip of the Horn. Its capital Garowe harbours its own semi-autonomous government. Puntland is currently an autonomous state in the Federal Government of Somalia. There are current tensions between Puntland and Somaliland over disputed territory.

The final major breakaway entity was the state of Galmudug. Internationally this state does not come up much in security dialogue, but it still holds a powerful position within Somalia. As the most central state, just north of Mogadishu, it has a powerful location. Galmudug has however committed itself to the Federal Government of Somalia. In the process it did ensure its autonomy, now operating as a state within the federation. Galmudug closely operates with Puntland on matters of security, following several Al-Shabaab attacks with significant casualties.3 Historically, relations with Puntland have been more cold, with the federation ceding Galmudug territory to appease Puntland elites. The renewed security cooperation seems to have left that in the past, however. Galmudug is trying to maintain relative autonomy from the federation, but efforts by the federation to make them submit to them as a federal member-state seem to have been effective.

Somalia’s future?

Right now it is hard to tell what the coming years will bring for Somalia. The envisioned strategy is that all defector states within the de jure territory of Somalia will return power to the state they are trying to defect from. In this case that would be the Federal Government of Somalia, that took over the duties of the Transitional Federal Government in 2012. De jure territory meaning the legally set borders as recognised by the international community.

Getting all the states to submit themselves to the federation might be troublesome. Some of the defector states do seem to agree to the idea. The ruling parties in Puntland have stated that they are willing to enter in such a federation if their autonomy is secured. Galmudug has similar sentiments. Somaliland however, is considerably less enthusiastic. Perhaps rightfully so. For years many different parties and states have been involved in capacity building in Somaliland. Official delegations have visited Somaliland and Somaliland’s government officials have visited other states. Former Dutch secretary of state for Foreign Affairs Ben Knapen has for instance laid the first stone of the House of Elders in Somaliland in 2011.4

It seems to be contradictive to help increase capacity in Somaliland and Puntland and subsequently ask them to make themselves subservient to a federal Somali government. Especially since it has long been known that Somaliland in particular aspires to be its own state. Strengthening their government structures will then likely not get them to commit to a federal government. Context in this case is then key. Parties that supported state-building efforts in Somaliland, like the Netherlands, would largely profit from a stronger state-like entity in the region. As they deemed that such an entity would help in preventing the root causes of piracy. Which it ultimately did, as piracy numbers within the Gulf have seen a decrease over the past decade. Now, the strengthened states, are however less willing to fully commit to a federation.

In short, president Farmajo of the Federal Government of Somalia seems to have his work cut out for him to secure the goals that the federation wishes to achieve. Respecting all the individual breakaway entities and their political elites will be key in maintaining stability within the country.

For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Author

Kasper Veltman is a MA graduate in International Relations from Leiden University. During his master’s he followed the specialisation “Global Conflict in the Modern Era”, analysing rebel groups, insurrections and private warfare. Furthermore, he took a keen interest in the Horn of Africa, writing his thesis on Somaliland.


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