The Las Anod Conflict Brings Back the Dark Memories of Late 1980s Somalia

Garaad Jama Garaad Ali returns to Las Anod after 15 years in exile | Photo: Warsan Media FB Page


Las Anod, the capital of Somalia’s Sool province, has lately been a major talking topic of Somalis everywhere, and not for good reasons. The city has been on the receiving end of months of intense fighting between local rebel forces and the Somaliland administration.

Historical context

Las Anod was pre-independence, a British colony. This province and its surroundings are where the famous anti-colonial Dervish movement was born. Before the Dervishes were militarily subdued in the early 1920s, and the British conquered the rest of the region by force, the native clans of Las Anod had been at war with the British colonists for over two decades. What needs to be stressed here is that unlike some other Northern tribes, clans in Las Anod never signed a treaty that rendered their territories a British protectorate.

After the civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, the SSC (Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn), became a contested zone by newly formed two polities: Somaliland which unilaterally declared secession from the rest of Somalia and Puntland, a now federal member state of Somalia. Somaliland based and continues to base its claim over SSC on colonial borders, while the latter on clan affiliations with SSC communities.

It’s known that Las Anod elders signed a “peace treaty” with Somaliland early on, but later were more involved in the formation of Puntland. Las Anod itself was under the rule of Puntland until 2007. It was later that year when Somaliland militarily captured the city and ruled it ever since. However, Las Anod and SSC communities in general, never consented to separating from Somalia. 

Root causes of the current conflict

This conflict has been brewing for a while, and what we are seeing now is a mere eruption of a pent-up resentment against Somaliland. 

The crisis’s fundamental cause is the ideological mismatch between unity and secession. Given that these regions’ communities were known to be staunch nationalists and have contributed to the independence of the country, seceding from the rest of Somalia was never an option for them. Secondly, Somaliland’s rule over the region came through military means, not the community’s consent. The locals viewed Somaliland as occupiers. Thirdly, these communities did not partake in Somaliland’s referendums in which breaking away from Somalia was constitutionalised. 

Moreover, Somaliland never earned the community’s trust as it didn’t bring developmental projects into the region nor manage its security properly as insecurity festered in this region during their reign.

Somaliland chooses to respond with brute force

Since the beginning of the resistance, the Somaliland administration vowed to subjugate Las Anod by force. They shelled the city to smithereens, killing hundreds of civilians, whilst also displacing over 185 thousand residents. In one particularly painful case, a mother and her 7 children were all killed as a result of the indiscriminate shelling. Due to severe trauma, the father also lost his sanity and is presently held in a mental health facility in Garowe, Puntland. Somaliland’s own speaker of parliament, Abdirizak Khalif who hails from Sool, termed Somaliland’s actions in Las Anod as a “gruesome genocidal campaign”. 

The administration’s insistence on continually branding the SSC elders and local rebel forces “terrorists” when there is no proof of it, burned any remaining bridges. To this day, Somaliland’s government continues to call the locals of Las Anod terrorists.

Bihi; a carbon copy of Barre

In 1988-1989, Somalia’s then authoritarian regime carried out a barbaric military campaign against the residents of what is now known as Somaliland who were seen as restive by the regime. Major cities such as Hargeisa and Burao were bombed aerially and shelled for prolonged periods of time. Countless numbers of civilians were killed and displacement was rife. Somaliland’s current president, Musa Bihi, was a high-ranking officer in SNM, a rebel group established by Northerners to save their community from President Mohamed Siad Barre and his so-called Revolutionary Council. 

The irony is, Bihi, a victim then, is an aggressor now, and has taken a leaf out of Siad Barre’s book. Although the scale of raids and number of casualties were significantly higher in 1988, the key tenets remain the same; oppressing, demonising, and aiming to crush and lord over the opponent. Bihi’s justification for shelling and killing civilians is that he’s “safeguarding Somaliland’s territorial integrity”. In Barre’s case, he was “safeguarding the country’s unity”. Bihi labelled the locals of Las Anod terrorists, Barre did exactly the same in the 1980s. Bihi blames the Las Anod uprising on a host of forces, be it terrorist groups, Puntland, the Federal Government of Somalia, and Liyu police, an Ethiopian paramilitary force. Barre blamed the Northern uprising on foreign forces as well. Simply put, Bihi is a loyal disciple of Barre, a figure loathed in Somaliland, and is treading on a well-trodden path.

The Federal Government’s indifference

Since this conflict commenced, the Federal Government’s response has been underwhelming. Apart from a press conference held by the Interior Minister in which he welcomed Las Anod elders’ plea to place their region under Somalia’s rule, and sending a plane carrying medical supplies, no concrete steps were taken. 

A way forward

Somalis are familiar with conflicts such as this. The aggressors tend to refuse listening to voices of reason and waste many human lives and resources in their bid to try and come out victorious. But if history is any indication, the opposite of that is always true. The victims, often the locals, end up prevailing but at the cost of thousands of lives perishing in the process. 

The solution to Las Anod’s problems is straightforward, let the locals decide their fate, as trying to force them into anything other than their wish will never work. 

If Somaliland can secede from Somalia and can’t be forced back into the union, SSC by the same token, deserves the right to pursue self-determination. If the Somali republic’s unity isn’t sacred, a colonial border isn’t.

Mediation efforts led by Somalis and/or non-Somalis should be welcomed by all parties to avoid the loss of more lives. An Ethiopia-led mediation has, by the looks of it, collapsed. But the voluntary introduction and arrival of elders from the South to help subside the conflict, is a breath of fresh air. A Somali-led and owned reconciliation process could go a long way in bringing about an end to the Las Anod bloodshed.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of this publication

Osman Aidarus
Osman Aidarus
Osman Aidarus writes about Somali history and occasionally opines on the monumental day-to-day social issues that arise in the country be it politics, economy, or security.

Somalia: Is the Climate Crisis a Hoax?

In the middle of endless debates and opposing opinions on the climate crisis, one question persists: is it all just a hoax?

Foreign Interference Threatens Somalia’s Economic Diversification

In discussions concerning Somalia, it has become cliche to preface with an acknowledgment of the country's enduring struggle with prolonged conflicts spanning the past three decades.

Somali Public Discourse: A Cesspool of Intolerance and Hatred

Since the beginning of the Sool region conflict and the signing of the infamous MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland, the discourse surrounding Somaliland’s independence has reached unprecedented levels of polarization among Somalis.