Somaliland: a window to the future

About the author
Jawahir Adam works as an international consultant with United Nations agencies, mainly on humanitarian issues. She previously spent sixteen years as a staff member of the World Bank.
A formal recognition of the self-declared independent state of Somaliland in the Horn of Africa would be just in principle and a boon to the region and the continent, says Jawahir Adam.

The news from Somalia is dominated by gloomy reports of war and refugees, guns and suffering. Few, if any, discuss the remarkable self-declared independent state of Somaliland. As the Union of Islamic Courts seeks Somaliland's unification with Somalia, international recognition of the territory's claim to independence is needed more than ever, to secure a rare African success story.

Somaliland was once an independent state: the former British protectorate achieved independence on 26 June 1960 and was immediately recognised by thirty-three countries including the United Kingdom and the United States. After five days, on 1 July 1960, Somaliland voluntarily joined Somalia, a United Nations Trust Territory under Italian administration, which itself had achieved independence that same day, and together they formed the Somali Republic.

At that time there was support in Somaliland to create a "greater Somalia" that would include a number of distinct territories with varying histories: the then British Somaliland; French Somaliland (now Djibouti); the former Italian-dominated Somalia (most of today's Somalia), the Ogaden (Ethiopian-controlled, the spark of war between the two countries in 1997, and now the fifth region of Ethiopia); and what came to be called the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya. These had all been created by the European colonial powers during the Berlin conference which partitioned much of Africa in 1884-85.

Somaliland and Somalia formed a union of the two independent territories through their elected representatives. Interestingly, however, the legal formalities were not fully completed, and the Act of Union, prepared by the legislative assembly of Somalia, was not sufficient to make the union legally binding. This means it remains without legal validity today. Furthermore, since the two territories had been individual colonial states for over sixty years, they had already grown independently, with distinct institutions, history and even culture.

Once partial unification was achieved, the territories' dissimilarities gradually became clear, though peace and stability continued until 1969, when a military junta led by Siad Barre, took over. His twenty-one-year rule was punctuated by crimes against humanity and massacres in Somaliland - which some observers say amounted to genocide - helping to provoke the collapse of the merger in 1991.

An overwhelming majority of the people of Somaliland voted, in free and fair elections, to withdraw from the union with Somalia, and declared an independent state on 18 May 1991. Somaliland has since implemented democracy with a multi-party system. It has also been stable and peaceful. Yet its request for independence has just about been ignored by the international community. Today, it is complicated further by the struggle for power between the Union of Islamic Courts (based in Mogadishu, and controlling much of the south of Somalia) and the transitional government (based in Baidoa). Will Somaliland have to be threatened by full-scale war for anything to happen?

Jawahir Adam is a public-relations and conflict-resolution specialist who now works for MHC International, Geneva

Also in openDemocracy about Somaliland:

-Peter Hurst, "Somaliland's democratic lesson"
(5 October 2005)

The case for recognition

The case for recognition is strong. There are three main justifications. First, Somaliland was recognised as an independent, sovereign state within the colonial borders that existed on 26 June 1960. (Though the issue of the border with Sool and East Sanag region, which is disputed with Puntland, has yet to be resolved and requires negotiation. It is certainly hurting Somaliland's quest for recognition.)

Second, Somaliland's case is not a cessation of a land area incorporated in a sovereign state, but a voluntary withdrawal from the union between two countries that were once separate sovereign states.

Third, there are international legal instruments that support Somaliland's quest for recognition. In particular, Somaliland satisfies the two critical elements of statehood:

  • Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933) defines qualifications for statehood as follows: (1) a permanent population; (2) a defined territory; (3) government and (4), capacity to enter into relations with other states
  • the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN general assembly in 1948, specifically declares rights of citizens to resist human-rights violations. This underpins the legitimacy of citizens' rebellion against oppression, such as the opposition which caused the collapse of the state of Somalia in 1991.

Unfortunately, the key players refuse to admit the possibility of statehood. One of them is the African Union (AU) - the successor to the Organisation of African Union (OAU) - based in Addis Ababa. The AU position is to respect the territorial boundaries that existed on independence from the European colonial powers: soon after the AU was formed, one of its first resolutions was to put a freeze on any kind of border alternations, declaring them "sacrosanct".

Ironically, that is exactly what Somaliland is seeking - respect for its borders that existed on its independence from the European colonial powers. Its pursuit of sovereignty is perfectly consistent with the African Union's position. Yet the AU's position with regard to Somaliland is contradicted by its consent to the separation of other African nations that were once united - Gambia and Senegal (joined in a "Senegambian Confederation", 1982-89), and Ethiopia and Eritrea (joined 1952-93).

The issue is one of practicality as well as principle. As the conflict between the Islamic Courts and the transitional government has developed in 2006, concern about the future of Somaliland has grown. In May, the International Crisis Group urged the African Union to examine Somaliland's situation. Its report, "Time for African Union Leadership", pointed out the urgent need for the AU's intervention in the dispute between Somaliland and Somalia and warned of the consequences of inaction. The ICG recommended, inter alia, that - pending a final resolution of the dispute - Somaliland should be granted interim observer status at the AU.

Also in openDemocracy, Andrew Mueller reports from a conference in The Hague of people from the world's unrecognised states:

-"Recognise us! The Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organisation"
(12 July 2005)

Africa's challenge

Somaliland has taken a number of steps that demonstrate all the attributes of an independent state. It has a functioning constitutional democracy where the president, the parliament and the local councils are elected through a process of fair and free elections. On 31 May 2001, 97% of Somalilanders voted for independence. It also has its own currency, passports, a vibrant private sector, functioning and profitable airlines, and excellent relationships with its neighbours.

The continuing denial of Somaliland's recognition by the international community could result in yet another catastrophe on the African continent. There are four possible scenarios:

  • civil war with the Islamists. If the latter advance north as far as Somaliland, this may result in an exodus of refugees, millions of internally-displaced people and the further destabilisation of the entire Horn of Africa. (At the same time, Somalilanders would fiercely resist an attempt to end their independence, as they did when they defeated Siad Barre's strong army)
  • continuing non-recognition of Somaliland's sovereignty. This would demonstrate the international community's denial of economic empowerment and development, and give an impetus to poor governance, corruption and instability in Somaliland. The current lack of recognition acts as an impediment to receiving international reconstruction and development aid, as well as to bilateral agreements with governments and the international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF
  • a combination of civil war and non-recognition that leads to a collapse in democratic government
  • recognition of Somaliland as a peaceful corner of Africa with one of the continent's few democratically elected governments.

The fourth, and my preferred, scenario would bring stability, prosperity and a vibrant state with much to offer. Its continuing progress on developing the private sector, democracy and human rights (particularly those of women) makes it a model for other African states.

The window of opportunity for recognition remains small. The dangers of a wider conflagration that would consume Somalia are being fuelled as the revolutionary Islamists receive support from Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other states, while the Somali government is aided by Ethiopia, Yemen, Uganda, and others. This is increasingly becoming a regional as well as a "domestic" issue.

Yet the core principle remains: Somaliland fulfils all the criteria that international law stipulates for the attainment of statehood. The international community, particularly the African Union, should no longer ignore Somaliland's quest for recognition. It is in the interest of Africa, as well as the rest of the world, to have an independent state that is stable and free of anarchy, with a viable economy and a functioning constitutional democracy.