Somaliland deserves international recognition

SOMALILAND’S FIRST stab at independence lasted less than a week. Pipers of the Royal Highland Fusiliers were ordered to play the new state’s national anthem at a ceremony in Hargeisa, the capital, marking the end of British colonial rule in June 1960. On discovering that it did not have one, the bandmaster cobbled together a medley of local folk tunes, and conducted it with brio. A day later, however, Somaliland’s parliament passed an act of union with Somalia, a former Italian colony to its south, and Somaliland officially was no more.

It was a catastrophic mistake. Within a decade the new Somali Republic had collapsed. Its president was assassinated by his bodyguards. A Marxist junta seized power, led by Siad Barre, a general-turned-dictator. He abolished democracy and wrecked the economy by nationalising nearly everything except camel herds. He also launched a disastrous war against Ethiopia. When the northerners rebelled, he bombed Hargeisa, killing thousands of civilians. As Somalia disintegrated into clan warfare, Barre refused to negotiate, saying: “When I leave Somalia, I will leave behind buildings but no people.” He was not far off the mark. By the time he fled, in 1991, the country had plunged into chaos from which it has yet to emerge.
Somaliland unsurprisingly wanted out. Its elders agreed to break away from the rest of Somalia in 1991 at a “Grand Shir”, or gathering of clans, held in a small town in the desert. Since then, Somaliland has become a functioning state in all but name, with 4.5m people on an area bigger than Florida. It has been largely peaceful. It controls its borders and its territory, unlike Somalia’s government, which controls little more than its capital city, and that only thanks to 20,000 foreign peacekeepers. Whereas Somalia has not held a direct election since the 1960s, Somaliland periodically votes for its president and lawmakers, even if polls are marred by attacks on the press and take place less often than they should.

Yet in the eyes of the world Somaliland remains part of Somalia. For longer than most of its people have been alive, its pleas for recognition as an independent state have been ignored. The world defers on this to the African Union, the continental arbiter. It, in turn, argues that Somaliland can win independence only with the consent of Somalia, which says no.

The obvious objection to recognising Somaliland is that redrawing maps is perilous. This is especially so in Africa, where borders thoughtlessly imposed in colonial times separate countless clans and ethnic groups from their kin. Untangling this mess would be so tricky that a consensus long ago emerged: leave the map as it is.

Once you start moving borders or creating new states for this or that group, others will demand their own homelands, too, and blood will surely flow. Witness Africa’s two newest breakaway countries, Eritrea and South Sudan, which have become a gulag state and a war zone. Were Somaliland to win independence, people in other bits of Somalia might try to break away, too, as would ethnic groups in Ethiopia, the regional power.

or all these reasons, Somaliland’s case will not prevail soon. Yet it deserves a hearing. It is not seeking to redraw borders from scratch, but to revert to old ones. Some 97% of its people supported independence in a referendum in 2001. Scottish and Catalan nationalists can only dream of such unanimity. Most Somalilanders have known nothing but self-rule and would never consent to reintegrate with their bloody, anarchic suzerain.

Meanwhile, denying them recognition imposes severe human costs. Somalilanders cannot travel freely, since few countries accept Somaliland passports. They are poorer than they should be, since their government does not have the status to make trade deals or borrow directly from the World Bank or the IMF. Statehood would help fix some of these problems.

Ideally, Somaliland’s separation should be achieved with the agreement of Somalia. For the time being this seems far-fetched. But Somalia should be encouraged to grant a divorce with promises of aid and debt relief from the donors who already bankroll its government and pay for the peacekeepers who prop it up. If, like an abusive spouse, Somalia refuses to let go, Somaliland should not be held hostage. Other countries should recognise it, and international organisations should treat it like a state.

Were Somaliland to win formal independence again, its road ahead would be hard. But the odds of flourishing would be much better this time. It now has not only a breezy national anthem but also a 30-year record of reasonably successful self-rule. To recognise that is to recognise reality.

Why Somaliland deserves international recognition

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Presidents Kenyatta and Muse Bihi

Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya) and Muse Bihi Abdi (Somaliland) at State House in Nairobi on December 14, 2020.


By Hashim Ngoma

Scholar in international relations.

Though a self-governing region of war-torn Somalia for three decades and more stable than the rest of the Horn of Africa country, Mogadishu and some foreign entities are yet to recognise breakaway Somaliland as a sovereign state. But that has not hindered it from making democratic gains, thus attracting foreign direct investment and catching the eye of the rest of the world.

Somaliland was a British protectorate from the late 1800s until 1960, when it merged with Italy-colonised Somalia. After the ouster of military dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somali National Movement declared independence for Somaliland with Hargeisa as the capital. The two regions are culturally and ethnically distinct.

Besides its own currency, the Somaliland shilling, and passport, Somaliland holds free, fair, timely and credible elections that have been observed and lauded by international partners like France, the United Kingdom, United States and European Union. Its constitution was overwhelmingly passed in a referendum in 2001.

Having never experienced terrorist activity since 2008, it has attracted foreign entities. An example is the Hargeisa Campus of Kenya’s Mount Kenya University. After it established its first post-war institution of higher learning, Amoud University, in 1998, it has over 10 universities and several colleges.

Global market

On infrastructure, a 400-metre quay and 250,000-square-metre extension at the Port of Berbera is nearing completion and will enable it to connect to global markets. Its location on the Gulf of Aden, near the mouth of Bab el-Mandeb, a key sea lane that attracts a third of the world’s shipping, has brought in trade and development deals.

The economy largely lies on livestock, the main export, and agriculture. With a gross domestic product of about $2.5 billion (Sh250 billion), most of it remittances from the diaspora, Somaliland has sustained itself without international funding.

Diaspora remittances apart, the government has striven to provide services amid limited provisions and contributions from NGOs, religious groups and a thriving private sector, such as water in Hargeisa and education, electricity and security in Berbera.

Notable strides in democratisation include registering over 1.3 million voters ahead of local elections, democratic elections since 2003 and peaceful transfer of power to the opposition Peace Unity and Development Party (Kulmiye) in 2010.

When last December President Kenyatta hosted Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi, they expressed their commitment to stronger relations.


That was to be achieved through expansion of bilateral trade, direct flights between Nairobi and Hargeisa and further collaboration in agriculture, livestock production, education and maritime transport, particularly in the Mombasa, Berbera and Lamu ports. Somaliland has a liaison office in Nairobi.

The fear that granting Somaliland self-determination from Somalia will spur secessionist movements is lame and ill-willed. Besides, its independence claim is consistent with a long standing norm of the African Union and its predecessor, OAU, that colonial-era borders should be maintained.

Mr Ngoma is a scholar in international relations. [email protected].

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Somaliland capitalising on Farmaajo’s foreign policy blunders of choosing to side with Abiy and Afwerki over Djibouti and Kenya.

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