Posted by: sean | February 27, 2007

The Somaliland question

Kristof has an op-ed about Somaliland, the part of Somalia that seceded from Somalia in 1991, in today’s Times. He argues that the US should recognize Somaliland:

The U.S. and other governments don’t recognize Somaliland, so the people here get next to zero foreign aid. And when the “country” was formed in 1991, it had been mostly obliterated in a civil war and was a collection of ruins and land mines.

Yet the clans and elders here formed their own government, held free elections and even established an international airline. Relying on free markets and a general exhaustion with violence, the people of Somaliland embraced tranquillity and democracy and searched for ways to make a buck.

Walk down the streets of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, and instead of gunmen you come across the thriving jewelry and financial market: scores of vendors, most of them women, are hawking millions of dollars worth of gold, precious stones and foreign currency out in the open air. (Don’t try that at home!) Continue down the street, and you see that Hargeisa has police cars, DHL service, cable television, orthodontists, a multitude of Internet cafes and traffic jams (including the horses and camels). There are public schools and hospitals — even a public library.

This is a conservative Muslim country, yet it is generally pro-American and tolerant. In the last election, more women voted than men. Women’s groups are fighting the traditional practice of genital mutilation, administered to 97 percent of girls here.

…[I]t’s time to recognize Somaliland as a nation. When a place does this well, we should hail it as a model, not shun it.

The case of Somaliland is a strange one. The Organization of African Unity and then its replacement, the African Union, have always been scared of opening a “pandora’s box” of secessionist claims in hte continent. As a result of this fear, the OAU Cairo Declaration, which made Africa’s old colonial borders inviolable, was penned in 1964. Since then, there has been the exception of Eritrea, which is fairly unique in that although it was part of Ethiopia, it was the coastal portion of Ethiopia that was colonized by the Italians, whereas the rest of Ethiopia remained more or less independent. Another looming exception is Southern Sudan, which, in a few years, will have a referendum on breaking away from Khartoum and the north of the largest country in Africa.

Somaliland was part of a larger area called Somalia, which was administrated by different European countries – Somaliland by the UK, Djibouti by France and the rest by Italy. In 1960, when British Somaliland gained independence, there was a dream of a greater Somalia, which would include what is now Djibouti, Somaliland and Somalia, as well as parts of Ethiopia and Kenya. The formerly British Somaliland merged with Italian Somaliland to create a federation, which was quickly dominated by the formerly Italian half, based out of Mogadishu. Technically, however, there was a brief window of time when Somaliland was an independent country, and this is how the current government is arguing that its independence does not violate the Cairo Declaration.

The International Crisis Group has a report on the Somaliland question, in which they give some background, ask some important questions and offer recommendations:

In December 2005 President Dahir Rayale Kahin submitted Somaliland’s application for membership in the AU. The claim to statehood hinges on the territory’s separate status during the colonial era from the rest of what became Somalia and its existence as a sovereign state for a brief period following independence from Great Britain in June 1960. Having voluntarily entered a union with Somalia in pursuit of the irredentist dream of Greater Somalia (including parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti), it now seeks recognition within the borders received at that moment of independence. Despite fears that recognition would lead to the fragmentation of Somalia or other AU member states, an AU fact-finding mission in 2005 concluded the situation was sufficiently “unique and self-justified in African political history” that “the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a pandora’s box'”. It recommended that the AU “should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case” at the earliest possible date. On 16 May 2006, Rayale met with the AU Commission Chairperson, Alpha Oumar Konare, to discuss Somaliland’s application for membership.

Somaliland has made notable progress in building peace, security and constitutional democracy within its de facto borders. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people have returned home, tens of thousands of landmines have been removed and destroyed, and clan militias have been integrated into unified police and military forces. A multi-party political system and successive competitive elections have established Somaliland as a rarity in the Horn of Africa and the Muslim world. However, the TFG continues strongly to oppose Somaliland independence.

…There are four central and practical questions:

* should Somaliland be rewarded for creating stability and democratic governance out of a part of the chaos that is the failed state of Somalia?;
* would rewarding Somaliland with either independence or significant autonomy adversely impact the prospects for peace in Somalia or lead to territorial clashes?;
* what are the prospects for peaceful preservation of a unified Somali Republic?; and
* what would be the implications of recognition of Somaliland for separatist conflicts elsewhere on the continent?


To the African Union:

1. Appoint a Special Envoy to consult with all relevant parties and within six months:

(a) report on the perspectives of the parties with regard to the security and political dimensions of the dispute;

(b) prepare a resumé of the factual and legal bases of the dispute; and

(c) offer options for resolution.

2. Organise an informal consultation for members of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) – modelled on the UN Security Council’s “Arria Formula” sessions – involving presentations by eminent scholars, political analysts and legal experts.

3. Pending final resolution of the dispute, grant Somaliland interim observer status so that both sides can attend sessions on Somali issues, make presentations and respond to questions from member states and generally be assured of a fair hearing.

I tend to agree that Somaliland should be rewarded for its advances in peaceful stability and democracy while the rest of Somalia continues to fester in a state of violence and instability. And while I agree that partition can be a messy affair and a slippery slope, Somaliland is already a de facto country, and even if the AU were to reject their request for membership, there isn’t really a Somali state for Somaliland to go back to.


  1. I am surprised that till now , after all that Somaliland has acheived, that it is not recognised. I am particularly dissapointed in the UK for not taking the initial steps, as a former colonial power of present day Somaliland. Italy, the former colonial power in Somalia, is very much opposed to the recognition of Somaliland and is sucessfully influencing the decision in the EU. Why is Britain not arguing this case on behalf of the Somalilanders? They know what we have been through. Somaliland war veterans fought for Britain in WW2. I think that the Western nations have no interest in Somaliland even though there is a call for ‘supporting democracy’ across the globe. I think the first country to recognise Somaliland would be its large landlocked neighbour, Ethiopia which needs a friend in the region and more importantly needs access to the sea via Berbera port in Somaliland as an alternative to the one it uses with Djibouti, which it has shaky relations with.

  2. […] Shabaab and the “transitional” government, as well as breakaway provinces Puntland and Somaliland, the latter of which has, without any outside help, established itself as a safe and stable […]

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