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Book Review: The Country That Does Not Exist

Reviewed by Muhumed M. Muhumed (Khadar)

Gerard Prunier (2021). The Country That Does Not Exist: A History of Somaliland. London: Hurst. 279 pages.

The country that does not exist: a history of Somaliland is a lucid, compelling, and instructive book that proffers a distinctive account of the history of Somaliland – an unrecognized state in the Horn of Africa that has been de facto independent and separate from Somalia since 1991. The author of the book, prof. Gerard Prunier, an illustrious French historian, is by himself a revered authority in the history of the Horn of Africa and does not exclusively rely on external observations but, sometimes, offers a first-hand account of the events in the book. The book does not confine its analysis into the last thirty years of Somaliland’s ‘non-existence existence’ but covers pre-colonial and colonial periods, the 1960 merger of Somaliland and Somalia and its aftermath, the history of the Somali National Movement (SNM), and its decade-long war with the Barre regime, and the rebirth and progression of today’s Somaliland.

The book is organized into eleven chapters. Chapter 1 examines the pre-colonial history of Somalis, the clan system, the arrival of the colonial powers, and the genesis of the greater Somali nation-state dream. Prunier argues that Somali nationalism was based on cultural homogeneity with (overlooked) underlying differences: “The Somali not only invented their nationalism but they inflated it, calling for the ‘reunification of all Somali territories’ (which had never been unified) and the ultimate creation of a ‘Greater Somalia’” (p. 8). This chapter also provides a brief history of each of the five Somali territories that existed in the colonial era.

Chapter 2 focuses on the 1960 merger of Somaliland and Somalia and how it failed and led to a military coup and later civil war. Prunier contends that the 1960 union had no legal basis – “So, even though nobody had refused any unification document, nobody had signed one either (or either of the two prepared), leaving the merging of the two colonies as a de facto move, without international or constitutional basis” (p. 21). In this chapter, the author also underscores that the 1977-78 Ethiopia-Somalia War had a momentous impact on Somalis in the sense that it not only shaped the future of Somalia but also that of the Greater Somali Nation-State dream; Prunier writes, in a subsequent chapter, that “1978 had been a reality check for the pan-Somali worldview. But the worst was not the military defeat, but the dream’s ideological collapse” (p. 115).  

Chapter 3 through Chapter 7 explore the history of the Somali National Movement (SNM); SNM’s decade-long war with the Siad Barre regime in the Cold War context, and the 1988 atrocities committed by the regime in the Northern Regions (Somaliland). Prunier details how SNM poorly fit in the Cold War context referring to it as the “odd man out” (p. 58); and maintains that it stood out, survived, and eventually won the war because of these reasons: it enjoyed the support of the Isaaq clan family and underpinned by the “‘Anglo-Somali’ political culture of former colonial Somaliland” (p. 62); “It was supported by a Marxist power but never turned ‘communist’” (p. 62); “it fought a Western-supported dictatorship but without turning anti-Western” (p. 62). As far as the Anglo-Somali political culture is concerned, Prunier writes that “In many ways – politically, legally, philosophically – the SNM had a (partly) British history” (p. 81). Revisiting the crimes against humanity committed by the regime in Somaliland in the late 1980s, the author contends that it is difficult to escape referring to these crimes as genocide and cites a source that stressed that “Genocide is the only word for it” (p. 103).

Chapter 8 through Chapter 10 investigate the collapse of the Somali State, the breakup of the North and South, the rebirth of Somaliland and the aftermath – internal fighting in both sides, the humanitarian crises and the invasion and intervention of foreign countries, and the UN efforts in Somalia, and peace-building and state-building in Somaliland.

Chapter 11 probes how Somaliland survived in the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s primarily from “a centralist threat from whoever was in control of Mogadishu and internal Islamist subversion” (p. 195) as well as from “stagnation and decay” (p. 196). Due to the absence of international recognition for three decades, the author speculates what the future holds for Somaliland and in light of the recent UAE investments and economic cooperation highlights that “Strangely enough, having now become a satellite of the United Arab Emirates might provide a way out of this quandary” (p. 213).

The book has a number of exceptional merits. To start with, the way it analyzes Somali nationalism and the Great Somali Nation-State dream is uniquely spectacular – here the reader will find a very critical interpretation and narrative that is not so common in the literature on Somalis. Secondly, the author examines the nature and history of SNM in a way that Somalilanders (including the movement’s founders and leaders) can hardly do – impartial, comprehensive, detail-oriented, and broader in the sense of taking the regional politics and the Cold War, among other things, into account.

The book is nearly impeccable in spite of otherwise corrigible mistakes. For instance, the author writes: “Since the SYL [Somali Youth League] was largely ‘southern’, it created a British Somaliland branch called the Somali National League (SNL) in Hargeisa” (p. 10). Well, while SYL had once a branch in British Somaliland, SNL had never been a branch of SYL but was a separate organization, which was the largest and most powerful party in British Somaliland. When discussing the foundation of SNM and the early activities in the Gulf countries, Prunier rights, “The man who brought all of them together was Engineer (later Colonel) Mohamed Hashi” (p. 44). Here, the author confuses one man with another: two men who were both involved in the early days of SNM: Eng. Mohamed Hashi Elmi who later became the Mayor of Hargeisa and the Minister of Finance (he is still alive) and Col. Mohamed Hashi Dirie “Lixle”, a military colonel who was later killed in the war. The remaining few errors are related to the Somali clans – listing a clan and one of its sub-clans as equal or getting someone’s sub-clan wrong – which there is no reason, whatsoever, to blame the author.

About the Author

Muhumed M. Muhumed (Khadar) is the author of two books: “Kala-Maan: Bilowgii iyo Burburkii Wadahadallada Soomaalilaand iyo Soomaaliya” in 2018 and “Dhaqaalihii Jamhuuriyadda Soomaaliyeed, 1960-1991” in 2022, and a number of scholarly articles. He is a researcher based in Hargeisa, Somaliland and he can be reached at: baadilmm@gmail.com

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints of the Somaliland Chronicle, and its staff. 

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Notice: This article by Somaliland Chronicle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Under this license, all reprints and non-commercial distribution of this work is permitted.

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