Somaliland: On the Road to Independent Statehood?
J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.

In October, in my testimony to a House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health hearing on security in the Horn of Africa, I stated:

The most significant national interest at stake for the United States in this complex context is to prevent al-Qaeda (or another like-minded international terrorist network) from acquiring a new base and opening a new front in its war against us and our allies…

I would be remiss if I did not avail myself of this opportunity to raise the question of the remarkable reemergence of the Republic of Somaliland amid the ruin of Somalia and multiple conflicts wracking the Horn of Africa. With the collapse of the Somali state, the Somalilanders reasserted their independence and created a functional government, complete with all the accoutrements of modern statehood save, alas, international recognition…

Surely if America’s national commitment to support and strengthen democracy as a bulwark against extremist ideologies and terrorist violence has any real-world application, it is certainly the case here. The point I made at last year’s hearing on the expanding crisis in the Horn of Africa is even truer today: “The people of Somaliland have made their choice for political independence and democratic progress. While they have stumbled occasionally along the way, their efforts deserve encouragement through the appropriate economic, political, and security cooperation—which, in turn, will anchor Somaliland within America's orbit as well as international society.”

I make no apologies for constantly returning to this theme: it is to me incomprehensible that we continue to express concern about the state of democracy in the Horn of Africa while all but ignoring a New York-sized region that has held internationally-monitored elections for the presidency as well as national and local legislatures. Talk of mixed signals!

Last week, in its December 4th issue, the Washington Post carried a remarkable article by Ann Scott Tyson. Under the headline “U.S. Debating Shift of Support in Somali Conflict,” the piece notes that “the escalating conflict in Somalia is generating debate inside the Bush administration over whether the United States should continue to back the shaky transitional government in Mogadishu or shift support to the less volatile region of Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991” and quotes two anonymous Department of Defense officials:

“Somaliland is an entity that works,” a senior defense official said. “We're caught between a rock and a hard place because they're not a recognized state,” the official said.

The Pentagon’s view is that “Somaliland should be independent,” another defense official said. “We should build up the parts that are functional and box in” Somalia’s unstable regions, particularly around Mogadishu.

In contrast, “the State Department wants to fix the broken part first—that’s been a failed policy,” the official said.

In conclusion, Navy Captain Bob Wright, head of strategic communications for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) based at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, was quoted as saying “We’d love to [engage Somaliland], we’re just waiting for State to give us the okay.”

The next day, December 5th, the Bureau of African Affairs posted to the State Department website a five-bullet point “fact sheet” attempting to explain what passes as “United States Policy on Somaliland”:

· The United States currently engages the Somaliland administration and has provided assistance, for example to the election effort. Our policy on recognition is to allow the African Union to first deliberate on the question. We do not want to get ahead of the continental organization on an issue of such importance.

· As indicated in the full quote above, the United States continues to engage with the administration in Somaliland on a range of issues, most directly Somaliland’s continued progress towards democratization and economic development.

· In FY 2007, the United States provided a total of $1 million through the International Republican Institute to support training for parliamentarians and other key programs in preparations for the upcoming municipal and presidential elections in Somaliland. We expect to provide an additional $1.5 million in continued support for the democratization process in Somaliland following the elections.

· While we continue to engage with the Somaliland administration, we do believe that the African Union is the most appropriate forum to address the question of recognition of Somaliland as an independent state. We understand that Somaliland is pursuing bilateral dialogue with the African Union and its member-states in this regard.

· However, as the African Union continues to deliberate on this issue, the United States will continue to engage with all actors throughout Somalia, including Somaliland, to support the return of lasting peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.

On the face of it, the Foggy Bottom’s position seems reasonable enough: the United States does not want to be blamed for opening up a veritable Pandora’s Box by backing a secessionist attempt to redraw colonial-era boundaries in Africa which could cause a ripple effect across the continent; better to let the African Union make that call. However, the artful facade the diplomats put up to cover their geopolitical inertia is utterly mendacious, despite the truly diplomatic efforts of Somaliland Foreign Minister Abdillahi Duale to welcome the State Department’s positive comments about the country’s “continued progress towards democratization and economic development.

First, as I pointed out in this column nearly two years ago: “From 1884 until 1960, Somaliland existed within its current borders as the protectorate of British Somaliland. On June 26, 1960, Somaliland was granted its independence by the British Crown and was internationally recognized as a sovereign state. When, a week later, the United Nations trust territory that had been the Italian colony of Somalia received its independence, Somaliland joined it to form a united republic. The union, however, was troubled from the beginning…Amid the anarchy that ensued following Siyad Barre’s ignominious flight in January 1991, clan elders in Somaliland issued a declaration reasserting the independence that the northwestern region had briefly enjoyed in 1960.” There is no question of – much less precedent set for – redrawing colonial frontiers.

Second, the African Union (AU) itself has acknowledged the unique circumstances surrounding Somaliland’s quest for recognition. The official report of an AU fact-finding mission to the republic in 2005 led by AU Deputy Chairperson Patrick Mazimhaka concluded: “The fact that the union between Somaliland and Somalia was never ratified and also malfunctioned when it went into action from 1960 to 1990, makes Somaliland’s search for recognition historically unique and self-justified in African political history. Objectively viewed, the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a Pandora’s Box’. As such, the AU should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case.”

However, by punting the question to a body like the AU, which decides major political questions by consensus, while simultaneously continuing the delusional policy of recognizing the utterly ineffectual “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia, which asserts sovereignty over the entire territory of the defunct Somali Democratic Republic despite being unable to so much as control its putative capital, the State Department belies any pretensions of neutrality. The Africa Bureau knows very well that there is no way the phantasmal TFG will ever permit an AU consensus to be forged which recognizes the de facto Republic of Somaliland. Thus the State Department’s support for the fictional Somalia’s continued presence at international forums like the AU is fundamentally irreconcilable with functional Somaliland’s ever getting a fair hearing. So the only thing conceivably worse than the State Department being cynically duplicitous in its Somaliland policy is the possibility that its denizens don’t realize this and, hence, are criminally incompetent in their guidance of U.S. policy in the geopolitical sensitive Horn of Africa.

Fortunately, the TFG may not be a factor for much longer. Last week, its “president,” Abdullahi Yusuf, was hospitalized in Nairobi, Kenya, and had to cancel a meeting in Addis Ababa with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; should his condition worsen, that charade will be over. The meeting that did take place between TFG “prime minister” Nur Hassan Hussein and America’s top diplomat was farcical to anyone with historical knowledge of the region. The secretary said she hoped “Hussein will draw on his humanitarian background to facilitate delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid.”

What “humanitarian background” does Dr. Rice refer to? His role as police colonel under the brutal dictatorship of Muhammad Siyad Barre? His tenure as deputy head of the despot’s “National Salvation Court,” a military tribunal that sent thousands of regime opponents to their deaths? Or perhaps his leadership of the Somali Red Crescent Society where he “did well by doing good” – so well, in fact, that as Somalia descended into chaos and its luckier citizens fled, his children inexplicably found the capital to open a string of internet cafés and currency exchanges in Great Britain to meet the needs of their displaced countrymen? And while the secretary could only “encourage” the self-appointed TFG “to develop a timeline for the remainder of the transitional process by early January” in the hope of staging elections sometime in 2009, Somaliland has already held several sets of the internationally-monitored free polls, the most recent, the parliamentary elections of 2005, was observed and reported on by an International Republican Institute (IRI) delegation led by Ambassador Lange Schermerhorn, a former U.S. envoy to Djibouti who has also served as political advisor to the CJTF-HOA. (I served as an election observer with the ambassador in Nigeria earlier this year.)

The failure of the TFG should not be surprising. As I pointed out a year and a half ago, the pretender regime is little more than the product of a well-intentioned effort by the international community to conjure up yet another government for Somalia after the ignominious collapse the previous year of its previous attempt, the risible “Transitional National Government” (TNG), which went through four prime ministers and hundreds of cabinet members in three years before going bankrupt, having misappropriated millions of dollars in donor funds while governing nothing other than what was inside the confines of the four walls of “president” Abdiqasim Salad Hassan’s villa in nearby Djibouti. With even fewer prospects and, if it is possible, even less legitimacy than the TNG, the TFG’s leaders have little incentive to do anything other than leverage the international recognition which is their only real asset with which to enrich themselves.

One could hardly find a starker contrast to this than Somaliland. As former World Bank economist William Easterly, hardly someone who looks at Africa through rosy lenses, noted in his realistic, if somewhat pessimistic, volume, “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”:

In Somalia, the “international community” has sponsored fourteen rounds of fruitless peace talks since the collapse of the government in 1991, not to mention the failed UN/U.S. military intervention. Meanwhile, without outside intervention, foreign aid, or even international recognition, the breakaway Republic of Somaliland in the north of Somalia has enjoyed peace, economic growth, and democratic elections over the same period.

Thus, among the many others which could be adduced, there are five compelling reasons for the United States to abandon the bankrupt, State Department-driven policy of preferring self-appointed “leaders” of a failed construct to an effective government of a real country:

â–ª Counterterrorism. As the Pentagon has now publicly acknowledged (and as I suggested earlier this year), scarce resources would be better spent boxing in the troubled parts of Somalia, rather than vainly asserting the questionable claims by a clearly unpopular regime whose illegitimacy is actually a magnet for extremists. No less a figure than Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates declared last week while visiting Camp Lemonier that his “biggest concern for Somalia is the potential for al-Qaeda to be active there.” Formal ties with Somaliland would permit closer ties between U.S. military and intelligence personnel with their counterparts in the small country’s services. Access to Somaliland territory, including the onetime NATO installation at Berbera, would also expand the scope for counterterrorism and other operations by CJTF-HOA as well as the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) which will subsume it next year.

â–ª Regional stability. Far from being destabilizing, as I told Congress earlier this year, recognition of Somaliland would “show the countries and peoples of the sub-region our resolve to reward progress as well as give the lie to those who argue that our anti-terrorism and pro-democracy objectives are not subterfuges for an anti-Muslim agenda. (Somaliland’s population is almost exclusively Sunni Muslims and the shahâdah, the Muslim profession of the oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s final prophet, is emblazoned on its flag.)” Furthermore, U.S.-led diplomatic recognition of Somaliland would not only allow the country much-needed access to international institutions and finance for development of the country itself, but also spur regional integration and prosperity. To cite just one example, America’s close partner Ethiopia, whose cut-off from the sea is a factor in the border dispute with Eritrea which I discussed two weeks ago, would benefit directly from access to Somaliland’s 900-kilometer coastline along the Gulf of Aden.

â–ª Natural resources and economic opportunities. Earlier this year, I reported on mainland China’s play for petroleum resources in Somalia. Establishing formal ties with Somaliland would not only open opportunities for American firms to bid for similar concessions in that country, but also to invest in what could be a significant regional market. Conversely, ties with American commercial interests would also help anchor the strategically-placed country in the orbit of the United States as it joins the global economy. On the other hand, Somaliland’s considerable potential for economic and social progress is jeopardized not only by the maelstrom in neighboring Somalia, but also, as the AU has reported, by “the lack of recognition [which] ties the hands of the authorities and people of Somaliland as they cannot effectively and sustainably transact with the outside to pursue the reconstruction and development goals.”

â–ª Moral imperatives. As I previously argued, “Somaliland’s trajectory…has been nothing if not extraordinary, being characterized by both social stability and democratic politics—the northern region’s progress standing in stark contrast to the free fall of the rest of the former Somalia. And despite being cut off from international financial institutions, direct bilateral assistance, and other sources of development and investment capital—all for want of diplomatic recognition—the Somalilanders have rebuilt Hargeysa, which was leveled during the Siyad Barre regime’s brutal campaign against them, and resettled close to one million of their displaced citizens.” Somaliland has already had democratic presidential, legislative, and local government elections; even the State Department has acknowledged that its upcoming presidential and municipal elections are more than credible enough to deserve U.S. funding.

â–ª Global leadership. Despite some major faux pas of American foreign policy in recent years – both in substance and implementation – the world still defaults to looking to the United States to take the lead in critical arenas like the Horn of Africa. A number of governments, both African (including those of Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Zambia) and European (including those of Great Britain, Germany, and Sweden), have either entered into de facto relations with or at least made friendly overtures to the Republic of Somaliland. In June, the German federal parliament even passed a resolution calling upon Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government “to work towards mitigating dangers for Somaliland’s stability that may arise from the current Southern Somali scenario,” including “initiatives to advance the resolution of the question of an international recognition of an independent Somaliland.” However, nothing is likely to advance without American leadership or at least tacit approval – in any event, the opposite of the State Department’s passive attendance on the AU’s capacity-challenged policymaking and implementation processed (see my column last week on “The Challenge of Peacekeeping in Africa”).

At the very launch of this column series, I wrote: “Since the disintegration of the Siyad Barre’s oppressive Somali regime into Hobbesian anarchy and warlordism, the international community has staunchly defended the phantasmal existence of the fictitious entity known as ‘Somalia.’ Now, however, is the time for the United States to break ranks and let realism triumph over wishful thinking, not only recognizing, but actively supporting Somaliland, a brave little land whose people’s quest for freedom and security mirrors America’s values as well as her strategic interests.” If anything, that counsel is even truer today than ever before, as many of our military officers have now publicly acknowledged. The only question is whether or not America’s elected political leaders will have the vision and fortitude to finally instruct their unelected diplomatic mandarins on the real stakes: diplomatic, military, and economic.


J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).