“It’s a secret,” smiles Allen C Lou, when asked how many Taiwanese personnel are based in Hargeisa, capital of the unrecognised state of Somaliland in the Horn of Africa.
Taiwan is committed to recognising the de facto state and Lou is Taipei’s chief diplomat. But he is coy about just how substantial Taipei’s diplomatic delegation really is.
On social media and in conversation, he casually embraces the title of ambassador. Yet given the ambiguous political status of Somaliland, his host country, Lou is mindful to point out that his official title is merely “representative”.
But no matter the size of Taiwan’s presence in Somaliland, Taipei’s alliance with this unrecognised state has been steadily building since August 2020.
Allan C Lou, Taiwan’s representative in Somaliland.(Supplied: Edward Cavanough)
The decision to install Lou as its representative followed months of diplomatic setbacks for Taiwan as traditional allies, such as the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, began abandoning it in favour of China.
It was a bitter blow for Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-Wen, and her foreign minister Dr Joseph Wu. So much so that Wu offered to resign in recognition of this dire diplomatic failure. But instead, President Tsai ordered Wu to get creative. And he did.
Lou is seen a stalwart of Taiwanese diplomacy. At Wu’s urging, his job is to help Taipei usher in a new era of Taiwanese diplomacy in Africa.
“[Dr. Wu] instructed me to come here to establish relations with Somaliland,” says Lou, who had previously set up Taiwan’s embassy in the small Caribbean country of St Kitts & Nevis.
“Somaliland is his baby.”
I first met Lou inside his modest Taiwanese outpost in Hargeisa after passing local security — men dressed in United States Military Desert Storm-style fatigues with AK47s draped over their shoulders.
He is impeccably dressed, with greying, slicked-back hair and a Taiwan-Somaliland flag pin clipped to the lapel of his pressed charcoal suit.
Aerial view of Hargiesa, the capital of Somaliland (Supplied: Edward Cavanough)
In an empty conference room, he is enthusiastic about spruiking his work in this forgotten corner of Africa, nestled between Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
He opens a laptop, plugs in a projector and begins a well-rehearsed presentation. In the background, music begins to blare: “Isla Formosa, Taiwan will touch your heart.”
Over the past two years, the Taiwanese have been busy providing tangible support to this fledgling nation. Health clinics have popped up. COVID-19 assistance has flowed. The ground has been broken on sanitation projects.
After a devastating fire destroyed Hargeisa’s central market in April this year, Taiwan provided $US500,000 directly to the government — something unthinkable for any other foreign power, given Somaliland’s de facto status.
The burnt remains of a building in Waheen Market in Hargeisa.(Reuters: Muna Tosane)
But most significantly, Lou argues, Taiwan — and uniquely Taiwan — can help Somaliland realise its most elusive dream.
“Taiwan is the gateway to Somaliland’s recognition,” he says.
Yet it’s impossible to miss the subtext of Taiwan’s mission in Somaliland. As it battles to retain independence against China’s increasingly aggressive ‘One China’ stance, emboldened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Taipei’s gambit in Somaliland appears a last-ditch attempt for political relevance on a continent that has all but abandoned it.
Somaliland — a country of 3.5 million people with its own borders, government, currency and army — bears all the hallmarks of an independent nation.
But legally it “does not exist”.
Somalia descended into a brutal civil war in 1981. Between 1987 and 1989, its dictator Siad Barre, frustrated by his military’s inability to quash dissent in the Somaliland region, ordered the bombardment of Hargeisa.
With impunity, the Somalian Air Force raided the city, launching months of strikes from Soviet-era MIG fighter jets.
The conflict saw 200,000 ethnic Isaaqs — Somaliland’s dominant clan — executed or killed in what has become known as Africa’s Forgotten Genocide.
By 1991, Somaliland had declared independence over 300,000 square kilometres of north-west Somalia. Today, a Somalian MIG fighter jet downed by Somalilanders during the war stands on display in downtown Hargeisa — a constant reminder of the price of independence.
Soviet-era MIG fighter jet on display in Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa.
From this volatile history has emerged something unique: in a region suffering from conflict, Somaliland is a peaceful and stable democracy.
Sarah Phillips, a professor of global conflict and development at the University of Sydney, says following independence Somaliland continued to experience high levels of violence.
“But between 1991 and 1996 there was this ongoing series of clan-based conferences, trying to bring people together,” she says.
As neighbouring Somalia descended into bloodshed, Somaliland quietly patched together an intricate peace.
Travelling through Somaliland reflects that achievement. While foreigners must be accompanied by armed police when outside the cities, there is a casual feel to these arrangements.
Police checkpoints are manned by informally-dressed officers, who briefly check passing vehicles before ushering them through. Roadblocks are loosely tied rope, not fortified gates. On one occasion, my police escort slept on the ground using the shoulder of his loaded AK47 as a makeshift pillow.
A resident of Hargeisa in Somaliland(Supplied: Edward Cavanough)
This approach reflects the fact that the last major security incident occurred in 2008, when attacks by the Somalia-based Islamic insurgency group Al Shabaab killed 30 people.
For 14 years, the country has remained incident-free and has seen successive peaceful democratic transfers of power.
The unexpected success story has fascinated academics like Phillips, who argues that the lack of international assistance in those crucial early years of independence — rather than a wealth of foreign aid — helped the de facto state stabilise.
Phillips believes a key reason Somaliland’s peace-building initiatives worked was because they had to use their own money.
“They knew that when they were having these long clan-based peace conferences, you couldn’t waste time, you couldn’t waste money,” she says, noting these conferences required considerable resources to succeed.
“[The money] wasn’t coming in from the UN. It wasn’t coming in from the international community. It was locally generated.”
Over coffee in downtown Hargeisa, Dr Jama Musa Jama, the head of the Somaliland Cultural Center and an advisor to Somaliland Government, shares a similar view.
“[It] would have been more complicated to establish peace if we had the money, for example, that flowed into Somalia,” says Jama, who recently travelled to the United States to lobby for support for Somaliland’s recognition.
Dr Jama Musa Jama, head of the Somaliland Cultural Center, and an advisor to Somaliland Government.(Supplied: Edward Cavanough )
Phillips estimates only $US100,000 entered Somaliland during those crucial post-war peace negotiations, whereas some $US4 billion flowed into Somalia during the same period.
“People do see [the lack of foreign money] as having been not only an important factor in helping people come together without distraction, but [a factor in] allowing them to express what it means to them to be an independent Somaliland,” he says.
As more Somaliland expats return to their homeland, Hargeisa is experiencing a boom. Restaurants are popping up alongside new malls and office blocks.
It’s hard to know whether to write this story in a whisper or a shouting rage, writes Africa correspondent Sally Sara.
The city’s youthful population spend evenings discussing politics in Hargeisa’s countless coffee bars and foreigners rouse little attention from locals who are now accustomed to the adventure tourists, YouTubers and NGO workers who walk the streets.
Given Somaliland’s political stability and economic success, the calls from within for international recognition are growing louder.
Jama, 55, argues that, while his generation was content with achieving peace and stability, younger Somalilanders are looking for something more.
“The young are saying, ‘I was born in peace, I need much more than that … I need hope, a job, I need education, I need life, I need much more’,” he says.
“In order to create real hope, and start the country growing, that needs money. And given the lack of recognition, that money can’t be unlocked.”
Dr Nasir Ali from the University of Hargeisa says his work is impeded by Somaliland’s de facto status, that something as straightforward as transferring money is difficult.
“The lack of recognition is affecting the university’s day-to-day activities,” he says. “[Many] higher education institutions we work with must transfer funds to our bank in Djibouti, and then we have to transfer it a second time to Somaliland.”
Dr Nasir Ali, from the University of Hargeisa, and founder of the Institute of Peace.(Supplied: Edward Cavanough)
But Ali also acknowledges that Somaliland needs to strengthen its institutions in order to support recognition, noting the problems that faced South Sudan after it became independent in 2011.
He cites a “capacity gap” in Somaliland’s laws of governance and fears this will risk creating similar problems if an influx of foreign money follows the recognition as an independent state.
“If you have weak institutions, you will end up in conflict like South Sudan,” he says. “When a lot of wealth comes to your country, you will fight, because you don’t have the capacity in the institutions.”
Recently, foreign investment has begun to trickle in. DP World — a major Emirati developer — has been the biggest investor so far, committing $US1 billion into a project connecting the strategically significant Port of Berbera, on Somaliland’s Gulf of Aden coast, with Africa’s interior.
This investment has seen the once potholed road between Berbera and Hargeisa transformed into a modern highway, cutting commute times between the two cities in half.
Foreign investment is beginning to trickle in to Somaliland.(ABC News: Sally Sara)
“It will change the image of Somaliland and attract further investment,” Ali says.
Somalilanders are excited by the transformation of Berbera and see it as a blueprint for similar opportunities should the country achieve recognition — a goal which Taiwan, and its energetic man in Hargeisa, Allen C Lou, argue it is uniquely placed to help deliver.
Taiwan used to have a significant number of allies across Africa. But now only Eswatini — a tiny, landlocked country formerly known as Swaziland — is allied with Taipei in addition to Somaliland.
“We need each other,” says Lou, noting the Somaliland-Taiwan link offers “mutual assistance for mutual benefit”.
For Somaliland, the Taiwan relationship brings legitimacy, investment and contacts with pro-Taiwan members of the US foreign policy establishment.
But for Taiwan, the strategic foothold in Somaliland is just the beginning.
China has been increasing military pressure on Taiwan, which it claims as its own.(Reuters: Jason Lee)
Lou is cultivating diplomatic relations with 10 other African nations.
While none yet recognise Taiwan, Lou says he “encourage[s] the African countries to have their own ‘One China’ policy based on their interests”, which would allow nations like Ethiopia and Kenya to maintain political ties with China while expanding economic links with Taipei.
If Somaliland were to achieve recognition, its support for Taiwan would be a diplomatic win for Taipei, delivering it a second formal ally in Africa.
Taiwan has given $2 million to assist with upcoming elections in Somaliland. The hope is that bolstering Hargeisa’s democratic legitimacy will be key to selling Somaliland’s success story to the world and leveraging US support.
But while Somaliland’s democracy is vibrant, it remains imperfect. The day I arrived in Hargeisa, 14 journalists were arrested for reporting on a prison scuffle allegedly involving Al Shabaab sympathisers.
The arrests were condemned by international journalist unions and the UK’s representative in Somaliland.
However, many locals support the arrests; any suggestion that the country’s peace might be fragile is seen as offensive.
“We are willing to put aside everything, including doing something wrong … to maintain the peace,” Jama says.
Somalilanders are also reeling after the devastating fire that destroyed the country’s major economic hub in April.
The Waheen Market blaze is thought to have destroyed 2,000 businesses, with an economic impact of $US2 billion — the equivalent of 60 per cent of the country’s GDP.
Somaliland president Muse Bihi Abdi in 2018. (Reuters: Tiksa Negeri)
Prior to the fire, Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi led a delegation to the United States to build support for recognition.
But the scale of the fire recovery has now demanded the government’s full attention.
In the meantime, Lou promises Taiwan will continue to show support.
“We believe Somaliland will rise from the ashes like a phoenix,” he says.
Despite the setback, Jama, who accompanied Muse Bihi Abdi on his US tour, believes recognition is not just still on the agenda — but that it may be imminent.
“It will come,” he says. “It will not take 10 years. It will be much earlier than that.”
And with Taiwan feeling pressure from Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy — and wondering if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will embolden China — Taipei’s enduring support of Somaliland is guaranteed.