A breakaway, semi-desert territory on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, Somaliland declared independence after the overthrow of Somali military dictator Siad Barre in 1991.
The move followed a secessionist struggle during which Siad Barre’s forces pursued rebel guerrillas in the territory. Tens of thousands of people were killed and towns were flattened.
Though not internationally recognised, Somaliland has a working political system, government institutions, a police force and its own currency. The territory has lobbied hard to win support for its claim to be a sovereign state.
The former British protectorate has also escaped much of the chaos and violence that plague Somalia, although attacks on Western aid workers in 2003 raised fears that Islamic militants in the territory were targeting foreigners.
Although there is a thriving private business sector, poverty and unemployment are widespread. The economy is highly dependent on money sent home by members of the diaspora. Duties from Berbera, a port used by landlocked Ethiopia, and livestock exports are important sources of revenue.
The latter have been hit by embargoes on exports, imposed by some Gulf countries to inhibit the spread of Rift Valley Fever.
Somaliland is in dispute with the neighbouring autonomous Somali region of Puntland over the Sanaag and Sool areas, some of whose inhabitants owe their allegiance to Puntland.
Somaliland’s leaders have distanced themselves from Somalia’s central transitional government, set up in 2004 following long-running talks in Kenya, which they see as a threat to Somaliland’s autonomy.
Somaliland was independent for a few days in 1960, between the end of British colonial rule and its union with the former Italian colony of Somalia. More than 40 years later voters in the territory overwhelmingly backed its self-declared independence in a 2001 referendum.
Puntland, an arid region of north-east Somalia, declared itself an autonomous state in August 1998.
The move was, in part, an attempt to avoid the clan warfare engulfing southern Somalia. Nevertheless, the region has endured armed conflict, and grabbed the world headlines with an upsurge in pirate attacks on international shipping in the Indian Ocean.
Unlike its neighbour, breakaway Somaliland, Puntland says it does not seek recognition as an independent entity, wishing instead to be part of a federal Somalia.
The region’s leadership refused to take part in peace talks in Djibouti in 2008 that led to the formation of a new transitional federal government headed by a moderate Islamist PM, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, but later reluctantly recognised the new administration.
Sporadic fighting has broken out between Puntland and Somaliland over the ownership of the latter’s Sool and Sanaag regions, which are claimed by Puntland on the basis of ethnicity. Violence also accompanied a political power struggle in 2001 between rival claimants to the Puntland leadership.
Livestock herding and fishing sustain the people – many of them nomads – of the drought-prone region. The money sent home from overseas workers is an important source of foreign exchange.
Since 2005, the region has become famous as the hub of a burgeoning piracy operation in the seas around Somalia, particularly in the Gulf of Aden, where the pirates prey on key international shipping lanes to and from the Suez Canal.
The issue has achieved a high profile internationally, and several states, including the US, France, Britain and China, have deployed warships to the seas around Somalia to protect shipping.
Piracy has brought vast amounts of money into the region, leading to accusations that the authorities are turning a blind eye to the problem. Puntland’s leaders have frequently promised to curb the pirates’ activities, but with little apparent success.
It is widely viewed a socially acceptable and lucrative lifestyle, and has attracted former fishermen, ex-militiamen and technical experts.
Many in Somalia defend the attacks on foreign ships as a justified response to illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste along Somalia’s long and poorly policed coastline.
Puntland is a destination for many Somalis displaced by violence in the south; some of them attempt to make the sea crossing to Yemen.
The region’s coast was hit by the December 2004 Asian tsunami; more than 300 people were killed and thousands lost their livelihoods.
The territory takes its name from the Land of Punt, a centre of trade for the ancient Egyptians and a place shrouded in legend. But the location of ancient Punt is still a matter of scholarly speculation.