Fixing Somaliland’s Recognition Problem
Earlier this month, the autonomous region of Somaliland fulfilled its decades-old objective of achieving international recognition as an independent and sovereign state. The region, which occupies Somalia’s northwestern territory and borders Ethiopia to the south, Djibouti to the northwest, and the similarly (but slightly less) autonomous region of Puntland to the east, declared its independence in 1991. A popular referendum several years later saw the declaration ratified by 97 percent of Somaliland’s voters. Now, finally, after years of pleading for international legitimization of its de facto independent status, Somaliland has achieved just that. Unfortunately, the recognition in which Somalilanders could now rejoice was not granted by the United Nations, the United States, or the European Union, but by the English city of Sheffield, heretofore much better known as host of the Steel City Derby and hometown of Def Leppard than for its assertive foreign policy.
But as ridiculous as it might sound, perhaps the international community should consider the merits of Sheffield’s decision and reappraise its collective approach to the issue of Somaliland’s claim of independence.
A year and a half ago, I sat inside the walls of a police station in the center of Somaliland’s capital city, Hargeisa. It was afternoon, and as one does in Hargeisa during the afternoon, I was enjoying a pleasant khat-chewing session. On that day, my fellow masticating shade-dwellers consisted of a small group of officers assigned to the station. Suddenly, a cheer erupted from the other side of the wall. Taking place in the adjacent Tima’ade Stadium, I was told, was a basketball tournament. My curiosity piqued, I wandered next door, and for an hour was treated to quite possibly the most unexpectedly enjoyable sporting spectacle I had ever witnessed.
As I watched the game, I was struck by just how many state-like qualities this non-state exhibited. The tournament that I was watching was organized by the Somaliland Basketball Federation, and brought together teams representing communities from across the would-be country. The police officers with whom I had just been sitting wore crisp and matching uniforms, and were part of a force that displayed a degree of professionalism that the international community should wish to export to the rest of Somalia. Somaliland has a full complement of government ministries. And it runs elections that, while under-resourced and certainly flawed, are not only democratic but also, crucially, perceived locally as much more legitimate than those in the rest of Somalia. Hence it is unsurprising that, regardless of my planned topics of discussion when meeting with locals, officials, journalists, and security forces, the one question to which each of my interlocutors sought an answer was simple: Why won’t the world recognize us as an independent state?
The Sheffield Council vote that extended that recognition came on the back of tireless advocacy, principally by the 8,000-strong community of native Somalilanders who now call the city home. And it was indeed a feather in the cap of those who have worked for years to achieve recognition for Somaliland. But it is, of course, purely symbolic. And it is a far cry from the acknowledgement of sovereignty by the United States, European Union, or United Nations that Somaliland desperately seeks and that remains as unlikely as ever.
There are a number of reasons why substantive international backing hasn’t coalesced in support of Somaliland’s independence from Somalia. Most immediately, Somaliland’s desire to separate is not associated with an ongoing violent conflict. Forces from Somaliland and Somalia did fight a series of battles amidst a larger pattern of internecine fighting that led to the fall of former strongman Mohamed Siad Barre. But for more than two decades, the quest for independence has been a peaceful one. Thus, the international community does not see recognition as a potential means of establishing peace.
Second, there is no obvious, direct interest at stake for external powers. We tend to think of borders as largely static, but the entire post-Westphalian world has been marked by regular — sometimes major, sometimes minor — changes in the alignment of boundaries that delineate one state from another. The involvement of an external power has been among the most common stimuli for such changes. Without Russia’s involvement, for example, the integrity of Ukraine’s borders would almost certainly have been more readily assured over the past few months. But there appears to be little interests-motivated appetite to lend support to Somaliland’s claims of independence.
Finally, there is some concern on the part of African leaders that the redrawing of boundaries would set off a domino effect across the continent, setting a precedent and emboldening rebel groups throughout Africa to pursue their own secessionist designs. The lack of such a consequence in the wake of South Sudan’s 2011 break from Sudan, however, exposes this argument as a tired canard. And yet despite growing acknowledgement of the argument’s hollowness, it remains an influential determinant of the African Union’s treatment of the issue of borders.
But there are real, compelling reasons that the international community should reconsider its stance on Somaliland’s independence. Observers from Wilsonian idealists to neoconservatives endorse to some degree the notion that principles of democracy, human rights, and peace and stability are in and of themselves worthy of forming the foundation of foreign policy decisions. They will see examples of them on prominent display in Somaliland — at least and especially when compared to the rest of Somalia. An official from the region’s interior ministry expressed this very sentiment to me: “You invaded Iraq to bring democracy and security, so why won’t you recognize our independence when we’ve already built democracy and security ourselves?”
Recognition would also facilitate direct security cooperation and support to political institutions, which are limited at present by the fear that they would undermine Somalia’s central government in Mogadishu. Somaliland is politically well-functioning and has a professional, disciplined body of security forces (especially compared to Somalia). Yet there is more that can be done to bolster protections against potential violations of human rights and further institutionalizing principles of democratic governance. Such efforts on the part of the international community would be aided by the possibility of circumventing Mogadishu’s fractious politics and exclusively working on the basis of direct bilateral relationships with Somaliland.
Finally, if we in the United States accept that it is in our national interest to support and strengthen stable, democratic, and peaceful countries in an otherwise troubled region — an argument that underpins a significant segment of American popular support for Israel — Somaliland deserves a similar treatment.
This will almost certainly be a central pillar of Somaliland’s nascent lobbying strategy in Washington. Even so, however, recognition by the United States and other prominent members of the international community remains a distant goal unlikely to be met. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. It would be premature to advocate for immediate recognition. There are pitfalls associated with such a policy, to be sure, not least of which is that it would create one more political challenge for Somalia’s government at a time when it is only now beginning to show any signs that it is capable of dealing with those already on its plate. But it is equally foolish to blindly refuse to consider recognition based on logic that is inconsistent and unproven at best.
Until then, however, Somalilanders can at least take solace in the practically meaningless but emotionally powerful gesture from England’s eighth-largest city.
John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks. A former United States Army officer, he has been featured in print and broadcast media in the U.S. and Canada. Follow him on Twitter @johnamble.