Puntland’s Security Offensives and the Growing City of Galka’yo

The most recent version of the ever-changing and always excellent Wikipedia map of the political situation in Somalia shows the internationally recognized Federal Republic of Somalia controlling roughly half of the country, with most of the rest falling either under the power of the Islamic Emirate of Somalia, closely aligned with the Al-Shabaab radical Islamist Group, or that of  the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. What the map fails to adequately convey is the fact that several of the regions that acknowledge the Federal Republic are actually fully autonomous political entities. Polities such as Puntland support eventual Somali reunification, but tense relations between the country’s different autonomous regions make such a scenario unlikely, at least in the short run. Puntland and neighboring Galmudug, for example, have tussled over a number of issues, although the two governments did agree in 2011 to “cooperate on security, economic and social matters.” Yet in July of this year, the airport in the important city of Galka’yo came under mortar shelling, which the Puntland-based management blamed on “a local armed militia from Galmudug state.”

The situation in Galka’yo, a regional metropolis of more than half a million people, is complicated by the fact that city is divided between Puntland, which controls the urban core to the north of the airport, and Galmudug, which controls the suburbs to the south. Overall, the city has prospered since the fall of the Mogadishu warlords to the now-defunct Islamic Courts Union in 2006; money and resources that previously flowed to the Somali capital of Mogadishu now remain in the region. According to a 2011 article in Africa Review:

Hotels, guest houses, supermarkets, restaurants, and new office blocks for NGOs and the government compete in height with the newly-erected, tall minarets of the mosques. The city [of Galka’yo] also boasts of social services like hospitals, schools, police stations and petrol stations. Even the former Somali army barracks in the city has been renovated and is kept in good condition.

Tensions between Puntland and Galmudug, however, are not the only threats to Galka’yo’s stability. The Puntland government had been widely been seen as acting in concert with pirate captains; a January 2012 BBC report claimed that the Puntland economy overall had reaped substantial benefits from piracy. More recently, however, Puntland has apparently been taking on the pirates of its coastal strip, and at some cost. The reach of the pirates evidently extends well inland. On August 13, Garowe Online reported that:

Puntland forces repelled an attack by armed pirates on the Galkayo central jail station early Sunday afternoon. Pirates equipped with automatic guns attacked the Galkayo central station in a bid to forcefully free fellow pirates who were apprehended in a raid by Puntland security forces that netted over 40 people related to insecurity in the region.

More recently, Puntland security forces have also taken on Al-Shabaab insurgents who seek to destabilize the region and impose their own exceptionally harsh version of Islamic law. On August 23, Shabelle News reported that the Puntland military had “detained dozens of armed men carrying explosives, whom the officials are accusing to have links with Al Shabaab militants and are now being held at a prison northern Galka’yo.”

Puntland’s military is evidently relatively well run and well equipped. Even its paramilitary division, the Puntland Dervish Force, controls its own battle tanks (T-54/T-55) and armored personal carriers.


Puntland: Not in the Land of Punt

By naming their state “Puntland,” the leaders of autonomous northeastern Somalia evoke a storied history. The Land of Punt was a key trading partner of ancient Egypt from roughly 2,500 BCE to 1000 BCE. Punt provided rare goods for the Egyptian elite, including aromatic gums (especially myrrh and frankincense), gold, ivory, and wild animals. Expeditions to Punt excited the ancient Egyptian imagination, evoking adventure and exoticism. But around 1000 BCE connections were lost, after which the Land of Punt faded into legends, its exact location lost.

Scholars have long sought to locate the Land of Punt. Ancient Egyptian sources show that it was reached by sailing down the Red Sea. Most studies point to the southern Red Sea-Gulf of Aden region, including the adjacent highlands on either side of the waterway. The southwestern Arabian Peninsula, however, is hard to square with Punt’s export of ivory and other animal products. An African location is thus suggested, probably in Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Somaliland. Note that modern Puntland lies at the extreme margin of the general area hypothesized as the possible Land of Punt.

In early May 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that scholars are honing in on Punt’s location through the genetic analysis of mummified monkeys. Baboons, say the researchers, “were among the most important commodities brought back to the pharaohs from Punt, but until now no one has known where those baboons came from.” Matching ancient and modern baboon hair samples indicate that the Land of Punt was probably situated in modern Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.

The autonomous state of Puntland, it appears, is not located in the same place as the ancient Land of Punt. Puntland is not alone in being misplaced from its namesake. Several African countries are named for illustrious kingdoms that were situated elsewhere. Modern Ghana is far from the medieval Ghana Empire, which was in modern Mali and Mauritania. The original Benin, famed for its bronzes, was located in Nigeria, not Benin. The modern state of Benin, however, officially derives its name not from the former kingdom but rather from the bight: the country formerly known as Dahomey fronts on the stretch of the Atlantic called the Bight of Benin (“bight” generally meaning a curved coastline).

Somaliland Vs. Puntland

Somaliland’s lack of international acknowledgment is a frustration, but it poses no threat to the breakaway state. Similarly, the fact that Somalia claims Somaliland means little, as Somalia’s official government cannot even control Mogadishu. Somaliland’s security is enhanced by its good relations with its bordering countries, Djibouti and Ethiopia. But Somaliland does face external threats. The hard-core Islamist group al-Shabaab controls vast reaches of Somalia’s former territory, and has designs on the rest. A more intensive struggle pits the Hargeisa government against the autonomous state of Puntland, which controls northeastern Somalia. The boundary between Somalia and Puntland is hotly disputed, provoking a small war in 2007 and 2008. Puntland currently encompasses a sizable swath of land that Somaliland claims, antagonizing the two entities.

Unlike Somaliland, Puntland does not claim independence. Its elected government rather portrays itself as running an autonomous region that will eventually be reincorporated into a federal Somalia. Founded in 1998, Puntland has been noted for its competent government, well-run by Somali standards. Increasingly, however, it is gaining infamy for its pirates. Although Puntland’s government denies the connection, outside observers claim that it battens on protection payments; a recent StrategyPage headline reads “Pirate Paradise Persists.” Some estimates claim that 60 percent of Somali piracy is based in Puntland, which was reportedly responsible for some 35 maritime attacks during the first four months of 2010.

The territorial conflict between Somaliland and Puntland stems from the geographical misalignment of clans and colonies. Somaliland’s sovereign land claims are based on those of the former British Somaliland, the rest of Somalia having been under Italian colonial rule. Somaliland’s government has roots in the British system, but it is more fundamentally based on the clan structures of the Somali people, its dual nature being foundational to its success. Somaliland is closely linked with the Isaaq (Ishaak) clan, which spills into neighboring Ethiopia but is little represented elsewhere in Somalia. The eastern reaches of former British Somaliland, however, belongs to the Darod clan, which dominates Puntland. Thus far, the Darod have kept the Somaliland government from controlling its eastern territorial claims.

The segmentary nature of Somali lineage groups adds another layer of complexity. The Darod clan may dominate Puntland, but that does not mean that all Darod subclans have an equal of share of power. In 2007, disenfranchised members of one Darod subclan declared their own autonomous region of Maakhir, located in the eastern part of the former British Somaliland (see map above). Almost immediately, Maakhir and Puntland started to fight. Environmental issues figured prominently. Fearing desertification, Maakhir banned charcoal burning; Puntland responded by offering military protection to the profitable trade. Puntland also sponsored mineral prospecting by an Australian firm in Maakhir’s territory. As Maakhir was weakened by attacks from Somaliland, it reconciled with Puntland. In 2009, Maakhir ceased to exist after rejoining Puntland.

Despite their conflicts, Somaliland and Puntland do share common concerns. In particular, both are threatened by al-Shabaab. In late 2008, synchronized suicide bombings in both states killed at least 24 people. In May 2010, Puntland security forces arrested a group of alleged al-Shabaab weapons smugglers headed to the region’s main commercial city. If Puntland and Somaliland continue to fight, Islamist militias could be the main beneficiaries.

Somaliland’s independence bid raises intriguing questions about African political geography and the legacy of European colonialism, which will be explored early next week. In tomorrow’s post, we will look briefly at the historical evocations currently in use in the Horn of Africa.