Somalia – the name of a nation that immediately conjures the image of a war-torn failing state plagued by unimaginable violence, piracy and terrorism for over 30 years. And yet within this war-torn country exists a beacon of stability. Often out of the headlines, the breakaway region of Somaliland could be considered a taboo subject amongst national governments and most international organisations.
Somaliland, located in the North West of the horn of Africa has been de-facto independent from the Federal Republic of Somalia in 1991 but has yet to secure the recognition of any UN member states. Regarding itself as the successor state to the British Somaliland Protectorate which was ruled as a separate colony to Italian Somaliland until independence in 1960 when the two former colonies were merged; Somaliland serves as a beacon of stability in a turbulent region.
The traditional narrative of Somaliland’s declaration of independence in 1991, is that it was a direct response to the South’s descent into Civil War and the spread of Islamists. This narrative, while being broadly correct tends to omit the serious misgivings Somaliland had with the Federal State prior to the collapse of the Barre Regime.
Initially enthusiastic towards Somali nationalism and towards the impending merger with its Southern neighbourhoods, this optimism was quick to evaporate. Within a year of uniting with the southern provinces popular discontent in the North grew rapidly over the newly created Constitution, which was said to favour the South at the expense of draining the wealth of the North. In response to the perceived injustice of the Constitution, northern leaders encouraged a boycott of the referendum on the adoption of the new Constitution. Nevertheless, the Central Government in Mogadishu went ahead with its implementation without any changes. This led to further accusations that the South was ignoring the interests of the North and triggered those seeking to regain independence for the North into action. In 1961 a year after reunification, a group of generals sought to carry out a Coup D’état and restore Somaliland as an independent nation. The Coup failed and the Central Government responded with the further marginalisation of the North. Tensions simmered until the late 1970s and the 1980s when various rebel groups, (including some backed and financed by the Communist Derg Regime in neighbouring Ethiopia) took up arms against the Regime. Barre’s regime in Mogadishu responded by initiating large scale & indiscriminate bombardments of Northern cities, which cumulated in the Issaq Genocide. The Issaq Clan (the largest in Somaliland) was targeted in a systematic & state sponsor massacre that ultimately killed up to 200,000 Issaq’s and completely levelling the regions two largest cities. When the Barre Regime finally collapsed in 1991, leaders of the Somali National Movement rebel group were quick to capitalise on the descent of the South into Civil War and finally declare independence.
Since the Declaration was made, Somaliland has made remarkable progress in its development. In comparison to the South, Somaliland has managed to hold consecutive democratic elections; has a functioning economy and has managed to resist the influence of Al-Shabab and other terrorist groups.
Despite the initial declaration of impendence and the early years of self-rule for the state being controlled by a select group of military generals, the nation has made rapid and substantial progress in establishing a modern democratic nation. Since 2001 there have been six democratic and peaceful elections – including the peaceful transfer of power between different party’s. Another parliamentary election is scheduled for sometime later this year. The Somaliland Parliament has been noted for its stable structure that allows for mediation between conflicting groups and interests. In particular, the House of Elders, which is modelled on the UK’s House of Lord’s allows for traditional Clan Structures to be incorporated into a modern political model. In terms of security, it is this area in which Somaliland stands out from its neighbouring states. Unlike Somalia or neighbouring Puntland, Somaliland hasn’t suffered a terrorist attack since 2008 & piracy is almost non-existent along the section of coast under its control.
The economy in the country has also seen significant developments, despite the difficult circumstances the nation finds itself in. The most notable recent developments include UAE funded development in the Port of Berbera, the proposed development of transport & export links for neighbouring landlocked Ethiopia; and the potential development of oil exploration.
Despite the progress Somaliland has made in becoming a modern democratic state, it’s still yet to secure the recognition of a single UN member state. In legal terms, Somaliland complies with all expected international norms for becoming an independent state and de-facto functions as such. However as is well known in international relations, statehood is not determined by legality, but political acceptance from those members already inside ‘the club’. The primary obstacle in the way of Somaliland achieving this acceptance is regional. Other African states are extremely wary of excepting new borders and states in the Continent given a large majority of them possess their own separatist movements and the risk succession could create a precedent for the dismantlement of their own borders. Likewise, states from outside the Continent also tend to be cautious about the re-drawing of borders in Africa due to the fear it could create a violent domino effect whereby colonial borders collapse along ethnic lines. Even Somaliland’s biggest international backer – Ethiopia has so far refused to formally recognise the Nation’s independence given its own problems with Somali separatists and its preference for keeping Somalia weak and marred by uncertainty by ensuring internal divisions remain.
While over 20 years of continued apathy to the creation of an independent Somaliland doesn’t bode well for the administration in Hargeisa, recent developments signal a change to the status quo may occur soon, but whether this is through design or disaster remains to be determined. While having performed exceptionally well since 1991, Somaliland now faces significant challenges. Firstly, the security situation the country finds itself in is increasingly precarious. With the situation in Somalia’s Southern Provinces having deteriorated rapidly in recent months, there is now a real danger Al-Shabab could take over the whole country, providing a springboard for eventual designs on Puntland & Somaliland. Compounding this fear are reports that both ISIS and Al-Qaeda have managed to establish themselves within neighbouring Puntland, an area of which they previously had little to no presence. The risk of ‘domestic’ terrorism from within Somaliland held territory has also grown which some have put down to the nations emerging economic problems and lack of opportunity for its youth.
While as mentioned above Hargeisa has made significant steps in improving its economic progress in the last 20 years, the level of growth needed for the country to continue to improve has been hampered by its inability to gain international recognition. The economy is in need of modernisation with over 70% of GDP based on agriculture and the majority of the other 30% coming from remittances from those who have emigrated to countries like the UK. This is not a viable economic model long-term, especially as remittances are likely to dry up as emigrations consider themselves ‘more British’ or whichever state they have moved to than they identify with distant relatives back in Somaliland. Both infrastructure and diversification are desperately needed, but in order for this to be carried out the nation needs access to international finance, something at which is not presently possibly via institutions such as the IMF and World Bank or even through many aid mechanisms due to its status as an unrecognised territory. The difficulty in establishing a legitimate exchange rate for the nation’s currency also makes investment difficult despite the potential for energy exploration, tourism and modern agriculture in the Nation.
Adding to the woes above are heightened tensions between Somaliland and the neighbouring province of Puntland. In 2018 significant levels of clashes between the Somaliland armed forces and various Puntland militias occurred, both sides vying for long-disputed border areas. These tensions are yet to cease and have the potential to break-out into a full-scale conflict between the two parties, thereby shattering the last remaining beacon of stability within the region and opening up to exploitation by terrorist groups such as Al-Shabab.
The above concerns should prompt some international actors to reconsider their position vis-à-vis the recognition of Somaliland. If not for moral reasons, the importance of preventing the further collapse of states within the Horn of Africa for international security should serve as an impetus for some nations. Some however, have argued that Somaliland’s problem in gaining international recognition is actually that the nation is ‘too stable’. Unlike South Sudan, Eritrea and Timor-Leste which all experienced large-scale violence and chaos leading to their recognition as independent states, Somaliland’s order, democracy and relative calmness may have enforced the idea that a peaceful reconciliation with Mogadishu will eventually be possible, and therefore negate the need for diplomatic recognition as an independent entity.
If there is one single state that has the potential to change the fortunes of Somaliland for the better, its that of its former colonial power – the United Kingdom. The UK already possesses a relatively strong relationship with the breakaway region, being involved in training its forces to combat terrorism (alongside the US); donating £31 million towards aid and development in 2019; and having a large Somaliland expatriate community within the UK. The last point has helped Somaliland achieve recognition from a number of local authorities and cities within the UK including Cardiff and Sheffield, and even the devolved Welsh Senedd (Parliament) in 2006.
However, so far, the UK government has stopped short of recognising outright the state as de-jure independent. It can be argued however, recognition would be in the UK’s best interests for the region. By becoming the leading state in recognising state’s independence London would secure itself as a key stakeholder in the region. With interests in preventing more ungoverned territory emerging in which terrorists and pirates can use to their advantage, the UK should be stepping up efforts to ensure the stability of Somaliland. The strategic position of Somaliland in relation to the Gulf of Aden and Suez Straights is also notable, most oil and LNG exports heading to Europe pass through these choke points and given the instability in other parts of Somalia, as well as in Yemen, shipping is increasingly at risk of attack. While France, Japan, India, Italy the US possess naval bases in neighbouring Djibouti; and other such as Israel and Iran in Eritrea; the UK’s nearest base is in Oman. As shown by the capture of the British registered oil tanker the Stena Impero in the summer of 2019, the UK’s current maritime force in the region is not sufficient. These concerns have already led to the UK Defence Minister visiting Somaliland in 2019 with the aim of discussing the establishment of a British naval base within the country and increased funding and training for Somaliland forces. The UK is also wary of losing the initiative to recognise the country to rival players in the region. The UAE has already established a military base in the region and according to some sources in 2018 was close to officially recognising the country, but later changed its mind. Likewise, Russia has announced plans to open its own military base in the Port of Zeila, near the Somaliland – Djibouti border.
With the London hosting the first UK-Africa summit in January 2020, many analysists took the opportunity to highlight how far the UK had lagged behind in the new race for influence in the Continent. While France has been mostly successful at preserving its links for former colonies, and countries such as Russia, Japan, India and China have worked extensively to build links on the Continent; Africa has largely remained at the back of British diplomatic concerns over the last few decades. For some the recognition of Somaliland by London, if combined by significant economic, security and political support could boost the UK’s influence in the Continent.
Besides the material benefit to London recognition could bring, there also exists the moral argument. Somaliland has made great strides to become everything the West expects from a modern democratic nation from holding free elections and successful transfers of power, to the establishment of a working legal system based on the rule of law and the relative freedom of the press. This is a rare feat not just for the Horn of Africa, but for Africa as a whole. Of course, there remains more that could be done, but the current situation Somaliland finds itself in can’t help make you think that it is being punished for its progress.
Of course, there are significant risks for the United Kingdom should it choose to formally recognise the independence of the Hargeisa Government. The primary risk to London is that rather than increase its standing on the African Continent, the action could lead to significant blowback with traditional African partners such as South Africa and Nigeria who (mindful of similar independent movements in their own and neighbouring states), have made it very clear they support the territorial integrity of all of Somalia by Mogadishu. A break from African actors themselves runs the risk of the UK appearing to be acting in a colonialist manner, dividing nations to support their own interests. The move would also certainly lead to the complete severing of London-Mogadishu, although this is not a significant loss given the central government controls almost no territory outside the capital and UK-Somalia trade and UK-Somalia diplomatic relations are essentially non-existent. Turkey, a significant backer of the Somalia Central Government, with numerous military bases and personnel in the country could also provide another obstacle for London granting recognition to Hargeisa.
Despite the risk of angering other African nations, should the UK choose to recognise the formal independence of Somaliland, others are likely to swiftly follow suit. Numerous nations that have been rumoured to being close to recognising the independence of the country in the past including the UAE, Ethiopia, Israel and Taiwan who are noted as likely waiting for another nation to make the first move, unsure about the international reception their decision would have. The role of Ethiopia and Kenya who have both been keen to recognise an independent Somaliland in the past would be key in mitigating any condemnation by the African Union and coordination with both states would allow the UK to make Somaliland’s case better heard and understood. The decision being made by the UK would also likely gain the backing of the US, most EU members and the Commonwealth (of which the Somaliland government applied to join in 2009).
Overall, it is clear that despite the outstanding progress Somaliland has made since 1991; and the fact that it is de-facto independent in all areas have done little to secure de-jure recognition from the accepted players of the international system. The absence of large-scale conflict and deaths, the relatively peaceful existence of Somaliland have led some to believe it’s too well behaved for independent, with powers preferring to keep the status quo until an eventual solution is found for securing peace in the Southern Provinces of Somalia. However, given the situation in Somalia has continued to worsen over the last 20 years, it might finally be time for Somaliland to achieve recognition and reward for its progress. Much of this will depend on the actions of a few key powers namely: the formal colonial power the UK, the UAE and its main African backer of Ethiopia. Until then the people of Somaliland carry on, for them, their nation is already is country and they live in hope the rest of the world comes to recognise the same in the near future.