With his unannounced trip today, Secretary of State John Kerry has become the first secretary of state to travel to Mogadishu, Somalia. Kerry’s visit will highlight the improvements that Somalia has witnessed in recent years, improvements which are largely the result of the African Union’s military mission to Somalia (AMISOM). Rather than leave a vacuum—which seems to be the Obama administration’s policy of choice in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and perhaps soon Afghanistan—AMISOM has worked to fill it. It hasn’t been easy: Al-Shabaab terrorists—radicals who have since sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda—have targeted AMISOM soldiers in Somalia and launched terrorist attacks in contributing nations like Kenya, Uganda, and Burundi.
Let us hope that Kerry’s trip to Somalia actually serves a purpose—highlighting greater American strategic investment in that country, for example—and is not simply motivated by a desire to rack up as many flight miles as possible, the metric unfortunately embraced by most recent secretaries of state in lieu of focused, strategic thought.
But, if Kerry really wants to do some good, he should go to Somaliland. Somalia hugs the horn of Africa. Loosely speaking, it sits like an upside down ‘L’ hugging the horn. The northern segment which sits astride the Gulf of Aden long maintained a separate identity. During the colonial era, the northern part congealed as British Somaliland, a British protectorate—while the Italians occupied the southern, longer segment alongside the Indian Ocean. It was only upon Somalia’s 1960 independence that the two portions united. (Somalia has long been clan-based, and so historians would be hard-pressed to suggest that Somalia was unified before the British and Italian interludes; the best resource to understand how Somalia and its clans work is the Naval Postgraduate School’s Anna Simons).
Even in the darkest days of Somalia’s civil war and its descent into state failure, Somaliland maintained its own identity and coherence. It never collapsed the way the rest of Somalia did. Indeed, Somaliland thrived as the rest of Somalia went through hell. Somaliland authorities built a functioning state, with security, functioning schools, transport, currency, industry, and communications. It has held a credible presidential election. Hargeisa, its capital, is thriving. In many ways, Somaliland has become the Kurdistan of the region—an oasis of relative moderation and success—largely ignored by the outside world, including the United States. Indeed, while U.S. diplomats have visited Somaliland (and the International Republican Institute has long done work in the region), those diplomats have faced reprimand if they so much as get their passports stamped.
Even if the old notion that Africa’s colonial borders are sacrosanct has broken down—the independence of South Sudan, for example—Somaliland independence would be consistent with respect for colonial boundaries, since a separate Somaliland historically has been more rule than exception. Eritrea, too, fell into the same category. And while Eritrea has become an authoritarian regime and largely failed as anything more than a giant prison camp for its citizens, Somaliland’s institutions are considerably stronger.
The idea is not to bless independence for the sake of being able to say “I did that,” even if the ego of statesmen and diplomats does play too often into the decisions of senior policymakers. In the case of Somaliland, however, it is simply a wise move. Somalia could still go either way, but Somaliland has become a bastion of stability and security. It denies space to Al Qaeda or Islamic State-affiliated groups. It seeks a pro-Western orientation and should not be shunned. With the failure of Yemen, putting all strategic eggs into the Djiboutian basket is not wise. There are emotional and historical cases for Somaliland’s independence, but there is also a national security case to be made. Somaliland’s citizens can make the former; let us hope this U.S. administration or next will do the latter. Mr. Kerry, you’ve already become the first secretary of state to visit Somalia. Why not cement your legacy by becoming the first secretary to visit Somaliland as well?