Somaliland and the Great Powers

As China’s presence has expanded into the Horn of Africa, Somaliland has opted to distance itself from Beijing and presented itself as a democratic ally of the West – and Taiwan. On March 17, 2022, three Republican Congressmen introduced a bill titled the “Somaliland Partnership Act,” requiring the American Secretary of State to submit annual reports to Congress on assistance provided to Somaliland and conduct a feasibility study on establishing a security partnership with Somaliland. The goal is Washington’s recognition of the territory “as a separate and independent country.” This piece examines Somaliland’s emergence as a de facto state, an entity that has gradually acquired “empirical sovereignty,” but not “juridical sovereignty.”


The COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges to Somaliland. The self-declared
independent territory in the Horn of Africa is not internationally recognized as a sovereign
state. Much has been said about how Somaliland’s status of nonrecognition affected its
economic and health situation during the pandemic. Given Somaliland’s ineligibility for
assistance from international financial institutions or bilateral aid from donor countries,
aid earmarked for Hargeisa is routed through the government of Somalia in Mogadishu.
Tensions with Mogadishu, however, combined with border closures and travel restrictions,
have made foreign aid even more scarce. In January of this year, Somaliland Foreign Minister
Essa Kayd visited Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, pleading for direct
assistance from Western states. Kayd told reporters, “Ninety-eight percent of [the aid] is
going to Somalia, and perhaps 2 percent is reaching Somaliland.” 1 He also claimed that
last summer, Mogadishu delivered COVID vaccines to Somaliland just days before their
expiration date, dropping the shipment on the border between the two jurisdictions. Kayd
added that Taiwan then stepped in to provide COVID 19 vaccines for Somaliland after the
expired delivery was discarded.2 Somaliland established relations with Taiwan in July 2020.

When the Berlin Conference took place in 1884 and 1885, France had established a foothold
in present-day Djibouti, Britain was controlling the northern coast of Somalia, and Italy had
conquered the area south of Cape Asir to the border with Kenya. By 1936, the Italians had
consolidated their holdings in Italian East Africa including Jubaland in the far south. In
1960, British- and Italian Somaliland united to create the independent Republic of Somalia.

(In 1977, French Somaliland would gain independence as the Republic of Djibouti.) For
some months in 1960, Somaliland was an independent state, but the parliament voted
to join former Italian-ruled Somalia. In 1961, a national referendum was held wherein a
majority of northerners (of present-day Somaliland) voted against unification, but a majority
of Southerners voted in favor. Northern army officers would subsequently launch a rebellion
to gain Somaliland independence which quickly quelled. Tensions continued to simmer
between North and South. In 1969, Siyad Barre, a major general of the gendarmerie, came
to power through a coup and overthrew the Somali Republic. As Somalia turned into a
Marxist autocracy, Barre’s would prove heavy-handed, especially towards the north.
In the early 1980s, a group of exiles from Northern Somalia, primarily members of the more
prominent Isaaq clan formed the Somali National Movement to oppose the Barre regime.5
As other opposition groups appeared in the northeast, northwest, and south (United Somali
Congress), a civil war erupted that culminated with the overthrow of the Barri government
in 1991. Somaliland proclaimed its independence that same year. Three decades later,
Somaliland has yet to gain international recognition. Still, it has the trappings of a Weberian
state, including a bureaucracy, an army, a currency, and perhaps most improbably, an
electoral democracy. As one study published in the Review of African Political Economy
put it, “Somaliland has many of the attributes of a state, with a constitution, a functional
parliament and government ministries, an army, a police force and judiciary, and many of the
symbols of statehood, such as a flag, its own currency, passports and vehicle license plates.
Furthermore, although Somaliland has been unable to secure international recognition,
there is a creeping informal and pragmatic acceptance of Somaliland as a political reality.”

Political scientists have argued that Somaliland’s “ineligibility for foreign assistance” and
Hargeisa’s need to collect tax revenue locally necessitated “revenue-bargaining” between
state officials and societal actors, which in turn produced inclusive, representative, and
accountable institutions. This argument, advanced by Nicholas Eubanks, claims that
the rise of democratic institutions in Somaliland thus supports the classic thesis about
state formation in medieval Europe, whereby a representative state emerged as a result
of negotiations between authoritarian state officials in need of revenue and societal
actors who agreed to taxation only in exchange for greater government accountability. 7
Numerous studies have found revenue bargaining and demands for greater accountability
in less developed countries, including Ghana, Senegal, and Mauritius.8 This, however, does
not mean taxation will inevitably lead to accountability: Africa abounds with examples of
states that extract local revenue and are highly exclusionary. (As Carles Boix has shown, a
particular kind of authoritarianism emerges in countries rich in natural resources (like oil),
which state elites can monopolize, as opposed to states where the property regime is
more mixed and based on mobile assets.)9 Thus, in this argument, foreign aid can reduce a

state’s reliance on tax revenues, impeding the development of institutions of accountability.
State-building in Somaliland has been deeply implicated with the development of a tax base.
Somaliland receives a small amount of aid administered by NGOs and development
agencies, but this revenue does not accrue to the government.10 As Eubanks recounts,
Somaliland’s government was initially unaccountable and exclusionary. The turning point
was when the new government tried to take over the port of Berbera by force, and met
armed resistance from the clan controlling the area. That confrontation would lead to
negotiations and national peace conferences: the private sector agreed to provide much-
needed investment, and in exchange, the government began establishing checks and
balances and representative institutions.
Somaliland has since rebuilt northern cities ruined by civil war, and improved the economic
situation such that average income and infant mortality rate are higher in Somaliland than
in southern Somalia. 11 Moreover, since 1997, Somalia has held presidential, parliamentary,
and district local elections (with a new Constitution ratified in 2001 with broad public
support.) In 2009, Human Rights Watch would describe Somaliland’s achievements as “both
improbable and deeply impressive.” As the report stated: “Somaliland has done much
to build the foundations of democratic governance grounded in respect for fundamental
human rights…There is a vibrant print media and an active and independent civil society.
Somaliland has accomplished these things primarily on its own, in one of the world’s most
volatile regions. All of this stands in marked contrast not just to the chaos in Mogadishu,
Somalia’s capital, but also to the records of governments across the Horn of Africa.” 12 This
school of thought suggests that if Somaliland were to gain international recognition and
access to foreign aid, that could undermine the social contract underpinning the country’s
fledgling democracy. Yet international recognition has become a priority for Somaliland’s
leadership, who has signed strategic and infrastructure agreements with Ethiopia and the
United Arab Emirates (the latter has signed a contract to manage the port of Berbera for 30
years), 13 and established representative offices in Washington and Taiwan.


The rise of China, the COVID pandemic and the consolidation of Somaliland democracy
seem to have accelerated Hargeisa’s push for international recognition. Sympathizers
in Congress are seeing Somaliland not simply as a democratic oasis in a region
dominated by authoritarian regimes,14 but also as a bulwark against Chinese influence
in East Africa. “Somaliland has stayed faithful to democracy when hardly anyone
noticed,” said Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation. “We need to be
clear eyed about the competition we’re in with the Chinese Communist Party… Almost
alone in Africa [Somaliland] has been immune to Beijing’s overtures and threats.”15
Another think tank specialist wrote, “Recognizing Somaliland’s independence would
enable the U.S. to hedge against further deterioration of its position in Djibouti, which
is under Chinese sway.” 16 Djibouti, since 2002, has hosted the American military
base of Camp Lemmonier; in 2016, China built a base in this East African nation.
In 2020, Somaliland and Taiwan set up representative offices in each other’s capital cities,
irking the governments in Beijing and Mogadishu. China would go on to accuse Taiwan
of “fanning the flames” and “harming others.” Kayd would retort that Beijing could not
dictate his country’s political alliances: “We were born free and we will stay free. We will
run our business the way we want. China cannot dictate, no other country can dictate.” 17
(As China has expanded to Africa, Taiwan has lost support on the continent, with only
Eswatini (Swaziland) having full relations with the island.) As Mogadishu has signed bilateral
agreements with Beijing, Somaliland has distanced itself from China, 18 and, stressing its
democratic credentials, sought to cultivate support in conservative political quarters in the
U.S. and Britain. Meanwhile, Western organizations that monitor and democracies have
observed that Somaliland’s electoral system needs to be more inclusive. A recent report by
the International Crisis Group hailed Somaliland’s parliamentary and local elections held in
May 2021 as a “milestone,” showing “the strength of Somaliland democratic culture,” but
underlined the complete absence of woman from parliament, and called for greater efforts
to include women, under-represented communities, and to open dialogue with the restive
eastern regions.
Somaliland’s recent diplomatic charm offensive seems to be paying off. In England, the
Conservative MP Gavin Williams has called for Somaliland’s independence, stressing
Britain’s ties to the territory, saying, “Our nations have long historic ties, and now it is time
to make history together.” Republican and thinktank support notwithstanding, the Biden
administration ha smade clear it has no plans to recognize Somaliland. American officials
worry that recognizing Somaliland would jeopardize Washington’s relations with Mogadishu,
undermining efforts to contain al-Shabaab. Recognizing Somaliland would also violate
the African Union’s 1964 resolution (that called on African states to respect their inherited
borders) 19 and set a dangerous precedent, inspiring other regions to break away. As former
diplomat Cameron Hudson explained,They’re doing an end run around the African Union
and around their own home region trying to get Washington to give them what they can’t
get locally,” adding That would be sort of like the African Union recognizing Puerto Rico
as the 51st U.S. state before the U.S. does.” 20 As the war in Tigray, Ethiopia drags on, and
Somalia struggles to assert control over its territory, and China continues to expand into
Africa, Washington and London’s calculus could change, and Somaliland’s independence
could come to be seen as a strategic asset. In such a scenario, the African Union’s norms
and resolutions would not figure prominently in the Great Powers’ calculations.

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