While news reports and other featured stories in the media on Somalia continue to seemingly rotate between topics related to terrorism, political instability, drought and humanitarian crises the story of Somaliland and its success in building a flourishing, if still somewhat fragile, the state remains largely overlooked and often underappreciated by the international community.
The Republic of Somaliland which declared independence in 1991 as local clans attempted to insulate their region from the violence engulfing Somalia following the collapse of the Siad Barre regime has nevertheless continued to focus on building its own institutions while making great progress in the areas of security and economic development. However, it would be mistaken to believe that it is this success alone that drives pro-independence sentiment among the people of Somaliland. Instead, there are also a number of historical factors that must also be considered.
Leaving to one side the frequent accusation that the Republic of Somaliland is a ‘one-clan project’ which fails to survive even a surface level examination, the declaration of independence by Somaliland has at its roots not only the historic experience of colonialism in the region which left its marks, Somaliland being administered as a British Protectorate while the rest of Somaliland was under Italian occupation, but also the experience of the period of the 1980’s when the Siad Barre regime unleashed a genocidal campaign of violence against local clans. It was this later experience in particular which left the towns and infrastructure destroyed and a large proportion of the population killed – as many as 200,000 persons – or displaced that should be understood as the action that irreparably broke the bonds of union between Somaliland and other regions of the country despite the remaining common cultural, linguistic and religious ties still shared with them.
Despite this devastation and the inter-clan conflict fueled by Siad Barre and his regime before its collapse the period of 1991-1993, Somaliland started efforts by local clans that resulted in a number of conferences that ended conflict over public assets such as the Port of Berbera as well as ended in agreement over political representation and power-sharing. Even the outbreak of a new conflict that that lasted from November 1994 to October 1996 failed to result in Somaliland joining the rest of Somalia as a failed state but instead was brought to a conclusion via a new reconciliation process that established the basis for a new hybrid political system that would be a unique blend of customary law and multi-party democracy.
Despite this rocky start, today Somaliland enjoys levels of peace, security and stability that stand in stark contrast to that enjoyed by people living in other regions of the former Somali state. This achievement , which has been made possible due to the establishment of schools, medical facilities, security forces and governance structures that are found lacking in these other areas, should be considered all the more remarkable due to the fact that they have been achieved with little or no assistance from the international community. To the disappointment of the government and people of Somaliland the international community continues to recognize the Mogadishu-based ‘Federal Government of Somalia’ as having sovereignty over its territory despite its own inability to hold or govern large swathes of South-Central under its own authority; this should also be said to include the regions of Puntland, Galmadug, Jubaland and others over which it has limited influence and operate in a state of semi-independence themselves. What aid and technical assistance that has been provided to Somaliland has been obtained largely to the tremendous efforts of government ministers, representatives of local non-government organizations and members of the diaspora living in the West. Nevertheless, what assistance has been received has seen Somaliland become far more resilient to efforts by groups such as al-Shabaab, the so-called ‘Islamic State’ and other violent extremists as well as pirates who have been unable to establish bases or make any significant inroads in building support among the local population.
Given the clearly demonstrated return on even this limited investment it is therefore somewhat surprising that some Western governments have not sought to increase the level of their engagement with the government of Somaliland or local civil society organizations. One such example of which I can speak with of personal experience would be that of the government of Australia which despite having expressed a expressed a keen interest in broadening and deepening Australia’s relations on the African continent has nevertheless failed to take advantage of recent opportunities to increase cooperation with the government of Somaliland in the areas of counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and anti-smuggling operations. This is not to say though that the governments of all Western nations have also failed to seize the opportunity to work closely with Somaliland in these areas.
There can be no doubt that of the nations that have given support to Somaliland that the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Norway as well as the European Union have been the most willing to engage and work effectively with government, local security forces and civil society organizations. The support that these donors has provided has played an important role in improving the political stability, security and economic development of Somaliland which in turn has made the country attractive enough to attract investment by companies such as Coca Cola, Western Union and Dubai World. Other foreign companies including Genel Energy, DNO and others are also now looking to invest in Somaliland across all sectors of the local economy.
This engagement by both foreign governments and companies has also helped Somaliland to continue building close working relations with neighboring countries such as Djibouti and Ethiopia. As a result of this major trade and investment opportunities have emerged Somaliland has seen a surge in interest by airlines such as Ethiopian Airlines, Emirates Airlines, Fly Dubai and Air Djibouti with offer or are in the process of arranging daily flights to and from Hargeisa to other major cities in the Horn of Africa and Gulf States. With such growth in aviation traffic it is likely that other major regional airlines such as Kenyan Airways will also soon seek to expand their operations into this market as well.
Still, despite this increasing level of engagement by both regional and foreign governments there remain two major sources of opposition to them recognizing Somaliland’s independence; the African Union and the internationally backed Mogadishu-based Federal Government. In both cases the primary argument against recognition rests upon the long-standing principle of opposing the break-up of African states – with the obvious recent exception for South Sudan due to strong support from the United States – as well as a fear that it would further undermine the ability of the Federal Government to exercise influence and control over other regions that also have semi-independent administrations.
What these and other objections raised against recognition of Somaliland’s independence is that the country is not only already in a state of de-facto self-rule free but that there is overwhelming support within the local population that runs across clan lines for maintaining this current state of affairs for reasons some of which have already been mentioned above.
It is therefore evident that the international community is quite willing to provide limited support to Somaliland in order to help build the necessary institutions to benefit from the peace and stability that they provide but still remain committed to a false hope that it can resurrect the Somali state that died with the collapse of the Siad Barre regime; indeed for the majority of the people of Somaliland that state died for them in the 1980’s when they suffered from its campaign of genocide that targeted their communities. This of course also fails to recognize that the Federal Government on which these hopes rest upon has continually failed to exercise effective authority beyond the capital Mogadishu or that its very existence continues to rest upon the presence of praetorian like force provided by the African Union.
A reasonable solution to this stalemate over the status of Somaliland would be for the African Union and the wider international community to provide at least a form of semi-recognition like that enjoyed by the Palestinian Authority. The awarding of such a status while not undermining a commitment to the continued territorial integrity, illusionary as it is, of the former Somali state would then allow Somaliland to become a member or at a minimum a recognized observer of the World Health Organization, United Nations, African Union as well as other forums and international conferences. This would then allow the question of Somaliland’s independence to be deferred until such a time as the Mogadishu-based Federal Government, or any successor administration is successful in establishing its rule over the whole of South-Central Somalia and negotiations can then be held regarding the question of reunification. There would also then be no need for the international community to continue supporting the seemingly never-ending series of talks between authorities from Hargeisa and Mogadishu which although well intended nevertheless have little realistic chance of success.
The de-facto recognition of Somaliland as a state living side-by-side with Somalia with an understanding that its future status will be determined through peaceful negotiation at some future point in time would be of benefit not only to the peace and security to both countries but also the whole of the Horn of Africa region. This would also help avoid tensions or even conflict that may emerge when, but perhaps more accurately put ‘if’, a stable federal Somali state is re-established.
Whether the international community chooses to extend even a limited recognition of Somaliland’s independence or to continue in its failed efforts to encourage a reunification with what is still a failed state it is important that the hopes and aspirations of Somaliland’s 3.5 million citizens are taken into full account. It is the people of Somaliland that deserve full credit for the success and progress enjoyed by their country over the past 25 years and it is their hopes and aspirations that should be taken into full consideration by the international community regardless of what decision is finally reached concerning the recognition of their country.
Ultimately, the credit for the success of Somaliland cannot be placed on anyone or even a collection of actors but rather is born out of the efforts of people who for the past 25 years have been denied the full economic benefits that a recognition of the independence of their own country would bring.