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Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the Republic of Somaliland’s proclamation of independence. There was an enormous party in the capital city of Hargeisa, but no outside diplomats attended. In fact, not a single government has recognized the state since it broke away from Somalia in 1991, and so legally, Somaliland is still part of Somalia. As Somalilanders will tell you, however, it isn’t. The problem is that no one listens.
Somaliland is stuck in a unique bind—the international community has pledged not to recognize the area as a state until the African Union does. The AU fears that Somalia's other breakaway states might follow suit and that this could influence other African regions to do the same. Therefore, it has refused to make the call. So Somaliland is stuck in legal limbo, but it has nevertheless found a way to persevere. Whether it can thrive depends on what happens next.
In the quarter century of self-declared independence, Somaliland has created its own currency, passports (which are not of much use outside of Ethiopia and Djibouti), bureaucracy, police force, and military. Unlike other parts of Somalia, Somaliland’s streets are relatively orderly, and its central government functions. Since 2003, Somaliland has held a series of democratic elections that have resulted in peaceful transfers of power. At this point, the country is perhaps more politically mature than other African countries that have enjoyed independence for 50 years or more.
Notwithstanding all of Somaliland’s successes, 25 years of unrecognized statehood has begun to show its wear. Its fragile economy survives on the $1 billion it receives from Somalilanders living abroad and its livestock trade with nearby countries. The country is ineligible for aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As a result, the government in Hargeisa gets by on a tiny budget of about $250 million a year and relies on the support of local clan elders to provide legitimacy to its rule, as well as financial help from humanitarian organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector. With so much money being channeled outside the government, the government has a hard time providing services and crucial infrastructure. And that makes it even harder for it to prove its efficacy and legitimacy to the populace.
These challenges have not yet undermined Somaliland’s relative peace and stability. This is due in large part to Somaliland’s centuries-old clan system and its conservative interpretation of Islam. There is a chance, however, that the area’s good fortune may soon change. Poverty and unemployment are rampant. Thousands of men sit in the streets to sip sweet Somali tea and chew qat, a mild narcotic plant, to pass the time since they are unable to find work. Joblessness has hit young people the hardest, making them potential targets for radical Islamists.
Somalilanders know that their country’s economy needs to diversify to survive and develop. Opportunities, however, are hard to come by. World powers treat Somaliland as though it were a likable, albeit illegal, breakaway state. This makes it difficult for the central government to create partnerships with other countries, which limits its growth potential.
“We are doing all the right things that the West preaches about, but we continue to get nothing for it,” Osman Abdillahi Sahardeed, Somaliland’s minister of information, culture and national guidance, told me. “This is a resilient country that depends on each other—we’re not after a handout but a hand up.”
The international community has made it clear that the AU is responsible for recognizing Somaliland’s independence. But the AU hasn’t proven itself to be a particularly efficacious organization, nor is it sympathetic toward secessionists. The AU tends to respect colonial borders in order to avoid a full onslaught from independence-seeking separatists. In the case of Somaliland, though, its borders follow colonial lines. The region was a British protectorate for 75 years before it gained independence on June 26, 1960. In fact, Somaliland has also existed as a sovereign nation (even if only for five days) before it united voluntarily with the former Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic. Locals argue they retain the right to dissolve their union, too.
So far, Mogadishu has won out and Somaliland has stayed within the country in the eyes of the world. Mogadishu’s bureaucrats and the international community fear that recognizing Somaliland’s independence would embolden other secessionist provinces, such as Hiranland, Jubaland, and Puntland, to break away as well, leading to the Balkanization of Somalia, as well as further instability in an already volatile region. They also fear that the creation of a new state in the region might reignite regional tensions with Ethiopia and Kenya, countries that have considerable ethnic Somali regions. There’s also a risk that Somaliland’s secession could sharpen hostilities within Somalia’s northern and southern regions. This could make current (and ineffective) negotiations between the governments of Somaliland and Somalia impossible to continue. And last, there is the fear that Somaliland would suffer from the same tumultuous fate as South Sudan or Eritrea, two countries that have failed to thrive after gaining independence.
There are also few lobbyists to argue for Somaliland in the international arena. By contrast, the South Sudanese independent movement had advocates in Washington and elsewhere. The conflict in Darfur grabbed the world’s attention, which helped galvanize a movement to intervene in the conflict. But Somaliland hasn’t had as much success promoting its message abroad. Advocates definitely exist and come from some surprising places: the English city of Sheffield recognized Somaliland in 2014, and the Welsh city of Cardiff followed suit in 2015. Both cities have sizable Somaliland communities who lobbied their city councils successfully. But these victories are a long way from meaningful state-to-state recognition. Few countries want to be the first to throw their weight behind the country’s independence movement for fear of breaking ranks with the international consensus.
Somaliland’s resolve remains strong despite its hardships. The Somali civil war turned 90 percent of the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa to rubble. The city is now home to upward of 800,000 people and offers a thriving mishmash of traditional local markets alongside modern, diaspora-funded office blocks and malls.
For all of Somaliland’s independent success, international recognition would help it stay on its feet. Recognition would allow the government to borrow money from international markets. This would help enhance the region's basic services, such as electricity, gas, water, and trash collection. Hargeisa could also use the money to fund state schools, universities, and hospitals in cities and towns across the country. Today, these institutions are often built through private donations. Having the territory’s international boundaries legitimized would embolden its ability to police border regions and could help counter the movement of al Shabab and other terror groups. And last, recognition could help Somaliland finally differentiate itself from Somalia, a country that still struggles to overcome years of violence and the lack of a functional central government. This would help make foreign investment all the more attractive and might even help bring tourism to the country.
International recognition would also have downsides, of course. In the absence of international aid, Somaliland has developed a lean, efficient, entrepreneurial culture. It has also managed to avoid the often debilitating financial burdens that come with such loans as well. Somaliland’s budgets might swell with foreign cash if the country received international loans, throwing off the balance that Somalilanders have maintained for 25 years.
There is also a more existential issue at play. The goal of recognition dominated Somaliland’s culture for a quarter of a century. This struggle helped unify the country’s political elite. Once it is over, it is possible that sectarian fissures—which have hampered Somalia’s success—might emerge soon after.
“The aspiration for recognition has occupied a dominant and permanent position in [Somaliland’s] political discourse,” Rakiya Omaar, a lawyer and chair of the Horizon Institute, a consultancy firm that works on strengthening the capacity and self-reliance of the state's institutions, said during an interview.
That Somaliland has built itself up from scratch in the face of adversity and obscurity is undeniable. But herein lies part of the problem. Recognizing Somaliland might also mean conceding defeat on rebuilding Somalia itself. Acknowledging the success of this breakaway state could serve as an admonishment for the international community’s attempts to reconstruct Somalia as a whole. It would dispel the notion that successful states are formed only through UN mediation efforts, summits, and interventions. And that might be a bitter pill for world leaders to swallow and would strike a blow against the self-important think tanks and humanitarian organizations of the world.
Another independence day came and went in Somaliland, with its political status unchanged. There is scant mention in the international press about the country’s example of how peace, democracy, and good governance can be achieved without favoring sectarian governance over common sense. Somaliland, which is clinging to its peace and self-enhancement, deserves more credit and support for what it has achieved over the past 25 years. Even if the rest of the world has done little to help it.