Piracy and the Narrative of Recognition: The View from Somaliland

by Jatin Dua

Mural in Hargeisa (Photo: Jatin Dua)

I met Admiral Ahmed Osman at his office, essentially a small house, tucked away behind the imposing compounds of various Somaliland ministries in Hargeisa. After he introduced me to some of his staff, we sat down for an interview. But before I could even ask a question, the admiral started quizzing me: “Do you know where we are?” “At the Coast Guard headquarters in Hargeisa,” I replied, slightly puzzled by this line of questioning. Irritated with my insufficient answer, he asked again, “Tell me more, where are we?” Unaccustomed to impromptu geography quizzes while conducting fieldwork, I hesitated, nervously anticipating a premature end to our interview. After a brief pause, I replied, “We are in Somaliland.” Upon hearing this, the admiral’s scowl relaxed, and with a smile he said, “Yes, we are in Somaliland. We are not in Somalia.”

As Somali pirates become international news, this sense of exceptionalism is central to the role of counter-piracy in Somaliland’s effort to manifest their independence. Somaliland’s counter-piracy initiatives fit within a broader project of state recognition, a project that took shape in the aftermath of Somalia’s Siad Barre regime.

The Republic of Somaliland

On May 18, 1991, at a meeting of the Grand Conference of Northern Peoples in Burco, leaders of the Somali National Movement (SNM) and a number of elders of northern Somali clans announced their decision to “withdraw from the union that had joined the colonial territories of Italian Somalia and the British Somaliland Protectorate in 1960” and proclaimed the formation of a new state: the Republic of Somaliland.1 The strongest of Somalia’s various insurgent movements, the SNM had been formed in London in 1981 by a group of Isaaq emigrants from northern Somalia as an oppositional group to the increasingly oppressive military regime of Mohamed Siad Barre. In 1982, the SNM began armed hostilities against Mogadishu by launching attacks from Ethiopia. The Siad Barre regime, in an increasingly desperate bid to hold on to power, responded to the insurgency with a series of harsh and devastating counter-insurgency measures, including the final stand of an aerial bombardment of Hargeisa that destroyed almost the entire city. In the aftermath of the overthrow of Siad Barre, the SNM was able to consolidate power in the north and declare Somaliland independence.

Today, Somaliland continues to function as a self-proclaimed state despite a lack of official recognition, which has not stopped Somaliland from developing all the trappings of statehood that are shared by many postcolonial African states. Enjoying relative stability (notably marked by the successful electoral transition in 2010 that peaceably brought current president, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo, to power), economic growth fostered by diasporic investments, and a thriving maritime economy centered on the port of Berbera, Somaliland is seen as a success story by many in a region otherwise bereft of success stories.

The emergence of piracy off the coast of Somalia in the western Indian Ocean has had some unforeseen consequences for Somaliland, including the engagement of various international bodies, such as the United Nations, with Somaliland qua Somaliland. Since 2008, the government of Somaliland has been defined as a stakeholder in UN-led counter-piracy operations and been a beneficiary of various forms of “capacity-building” assistance, including resources for developing a judicial and policing system to handle piracy prosecutions. Unlike Puntland, Somaliland does not have any known pirate bases, and according to the International Maritime Bureau, there were no pirate attacks off the Somaliland coast in 2010.2

Somaliland taxi (Photo: Jatin Dua)

Counter-Piracy and State Recognition

I travelled to Somaliland in January 2011 to interrogate the absence of piracy and to better understand the dynamics of state recognition. Driving through the bustling, yet dusty capital of Hargeisa, I observed everything from the offices of the ministry of justice to livestock flying the tricolor of Somaliland. Billboards across town prominently displayed the face of the president, while “newspapers” (often no more than hastily photocopied sheets of paper) featured stories on cabinet reshuffles, presidential trade visits to China and the Middle East, and various plots by neighbor and rival Puntland to undermine Somaliland’s national sovereignty.

In interviews and conversations, people across the spectrum of society proudly highlighted Somaliland’s lack of piracy and singled out the Coast Guard as an example of successful policing. So when finally, after much patient waiting and networking, I found myself being quizzed by the Coast Guard admiral, I was incredibly relieved to discover that I had stumbled upon the right answer and managed to clearly distinguish between Somaliland and Somalia.

Sitting in his office, surrounded by maritime charts and navigational maps of the Horn of Africa, Admiral Osman in his crisp white naval uniform spoke admiringly of his 600-strong Coast Guard and their attempts to police the 530-mile coastline of Somaliland. Established in 2005, with support from the United Kingdom, the Somaliland Coast Guard consists of twelve bases spread along the coastline between Djibouti to the north and Puntland to the south, which share five to seven working boats at any given time. The Coast Guard’s annual budget of US$200,000 stands in stark contrast to the approximately $2 billion expended each year by the international maritime coalitions patrolling the Gulf of Aden.3 Pointing to this huge financial discrepancy, the admiral noted, “In spite of this difference in budget and the challenges that face us since we are not a recognized navy, we have managed to arrest about eighty-five pirates and many illegal fishermen as well as arms and human traffickers.”

Coast Guard boats (Photo: Jatin Dua)

To underscore the successes of his Coast Guard, Admiral Osman recounted a number of successful operations, including the recent arrest of a group of “businessmen” from Mogadishu who were caught while attempting to buy boats and engines in Berbera in order to start up a piracy operation in Somaliland. In all the admiral’s narratives, pirates were cast as outsiders, coming from Puntland or parts of south-central Somalia, whose attempts to infiltrate Somaliland or recruit Somalilanders for piracy operations were thwarted by the Coast Guard working in conjunction with various local communities.

Piracy, or its absence, like the relative peace in Somaliland, was portrayed as symptomatic of an essential difference between Somaliland and Somalia. The admiral explained this difference with a “culturalist” frame, as emerging from the divergent colonial histories of Somaliland and the rest of Somalia: as a former British protectorate, Somaliland had developed a distinctly “British” respect for law and order, whereas an Italian influence, specifically the “mafia element,” had made south-central Somalia more prone to violence and rackets like piracy. But the historical record belies this culturalist framing. The British influence and interest in Somaliland were limited to protecting sea lanes to India and ensuring food supplies for the port of Aden. Interventions in native affairs rarely extended beyond setting up a few schools and giving scholarships to a small section of the population for higher education in England.

While the admiral’s culturalist framing does not seem to enjoy wide currency, the notion of Somaliland exceptionalism is fairly prominent throughout the region. As a former SNM fighter turned politician explained to me:

The absence of piracy and the success of the Coast Guard fit seamlessly into this narrative as further proof of Somaliland exceptionalism, which is almost always framed as evidence of the need for formal recognition and statehood. Another official in the admiral’s office in Hargeisa, Commander Ahmed, asserted, “We don’t have any pirates in Somaliland. The government is protecting us from pirates so we can get recognition.” From ministers to fishermen, this idea that the government “protects us" from pirates was echoed in a common refrain that piracy is not profitable to Somaliland, what is profitable is recognition.

The linkage between piracy, Somaliland exceptionalism, and a desire for recognition was further highlighted over the time I spent in the port city of Berbera and other coastal towns and villages. Historically a major entrepôt connecting the northern Somali regions to the wider Indian Ocean world, Berbera today is home to a semibustling port. Along with Bosaso in neighboring Puntland, it serves as a hub of the highly profitable livestock trade, and the revenues it generates are a significant source of income for the government of Somaliland.4

Half-sunken ships in the port of Berbera
(Photo: Jatin Dua)

Additionally, in a region where the main sources of protein are camel and other livestock, Berbera is one of the few places to procure seafood, so on my arrival I made my way to a waterside cafe. Over some delicious grilled snapper, I looked out in the direction of the port and observed some half-sunken ships. I jokingly asked my dining companion, a fishmonger, if pirates were responsible and was told that those boats are a reminder of what Siad Barre did to Somaliland and why it is so important for Somilanders to have their own state.

Gazing at the ships, I was reminded of a war memorial in Hargeisa’s city center that has become one of the most visible reminders of that bombing. The memorial consists of a Somali Air Force fighter jet erected over a mural that depicts in gruesome detail the consequences of the aerial bombardment and a plaque that promises to never forget. The half-sunken ships in the harbor are the sea equivalent of that memorial and continue to remind a generation of children who are growing up as Somalilanders of the importance of Somaliland as a viable state project.


Hargeisa war memorial (Photo: Jatin Dua)

Counter-piracy has emerged in Somaliland as a form of protection that is deeply tied to the project of state recognition, but as a collaboration between government and society, counter-piracy also has a flip side that became apparent during the course of my research. Many, especially those in economically marginalized coastal communities, have come to understand recognition as a panacea. As a village elder near Berbera explained to me, “If only we had a state, we would have ice so that our fish would not spoil. Once we have a state, it will guarantee refrigeration for all fishermen.”

While it is true that recognition would bring with it access to developmental assistance and other forms of aid, it seems fairly far-fetched to think that all of Somaliland’s problems, including the lack of ice, would disappear if only it were recognized as a nation-state. From the vantage point of the Somaliland coast, where most basic infrastructure is nonexistent, especially roads, it is hard to imagine much, if anything, changing regardless of the official status of recognition. Yet, it is in some of these coastal communities that the idea of state recognition as a solution to economic depravation seems to hold the most sway, and it is also here that this narrative can come easily undone and upset the precarious balance of Somaliland.

At the end of my time on the coast, I sat outside at a Berbera cafe savoring some more fresh fish before making the journey back inland. I was watching the sky turn hazy pink over the Red Sea at dusk while chatting with a young fisherman, who was telling me how recognition could help set up a vibrant fisheries sector in Somaliland. Deciding to be provocative and slightly jaded by this unbridled optimism, I asked Abdi, “What if nothing changes once you become a state?” Without a pause he replied, “In that case my friend, maybe then I would like to become a pirate.”

  1. Mark Bradbury, Becoming Somaliland: Reconstructing a Failed State, African Issues (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 2.
  2. International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships Annual Report: 1 January – 31 December 2010 (London: International Chamber of Commerce, January 2011).
  3. Oceans Beyond Piracy, The Economic Cost of Maritime Piracy (Louisville, CO: One Earth Future Foundation, December 2010), http://oceansbeyondpiracy.org/cost-of-piracy/economic.
  4. The Brenthurst Foundation has identified five major sources of income for the Somaliland government: (1) livestock farming and exports, (2) remittances/money transfers, (3) telecommunications, (4) port/customs charges, and (5) a tax levied on the khat industry. See Christopher Clapham, Holger Hansen, Jeffrey Herbst, J. Peter Pham, Patrick Mazimhaka, Susan Schulman, and Greg Mills, African Game Changer? The Consequences of Somaliland’s International (Non) Recognition (Johannesburg: Brenthurst Foundation, June 2011), http://www.thebrenthurstfoundation.org/a_sndmsg/news_view.asp?I=118058&PG=288.