Praise of Somaliland
A Beacon of Hope in the Thorn of Africa
by Peter Tatchell
yearís civil war in Somalia has killed thousands of people and
created over half a million refugees. Democracy, the rule of law and
respect for human rights are almost non-existent in Mogadishu, where
war, banditry, corruption, hunger, illiteracy, disease and
unemployment are the norm. Somalia is a failed state that has failed
In contrast, the north-west breakaway region of the Republic of
Somaliland is an oasis of peace, stability and progress in the Horn
of Africa. Imperfect, but moving in the right direction, in May this
year the country celebrated its sixteenth anniversary of
Against all odds, and with little international recognition or aid,
the three million people of Somaliland have Ė largely by their own
efforts Ė begun to establish a secure, functioning democratic state
and a fair degree of economic stability and growth. This is a truly
remarkable achievement in a region of Africa that has long been a
byword for chaos, repression and war.
Somaliland, a former British Protectorate, gained independence in
1960 and became the first free Somali nation to join the United
In a unity move that most Somalilanders now deeply regret, the
country joined with the former Italian protectorate to the south to
form the Republic of Somalia.
Under the dictator Siad Barre, who seized power in a military coup
in 1969, the new nation was beset by brutality. Following the
collapse of his military regime and of the Somali state, Somali-land
declared independence on 18th May 1991.
Over the last decade and a half, the predominantly Muslim nation has
made the transition from an autocratic clan-based society, notorious
for its poor governance, conflict and human rights abuses, to a
peaceful and progressive multi-party democracy.
A referendum in 2001 led to the adoption of a new constitution.
Since then, Somalilanders have held successful elections for
President, the House of Representatives and local government. While
Somalia has not had a free election since the 1960s, Somaliland has
held three mandates since the turn of the millennium, each of which
has been declared free and fair by international election observers.
In contrast to the intestinal conflicts that bedevil Somalia and
many other African nations, Somaliland has found a way to negotiate
and resolve these rivalries peacefully. It has bought previously
hostile clans together in a pluralistic system that minimises
conflict by incorporating the clan elders into the advisory upper
Somalilanders have achieved an enviable peace, progressively
disarming and demobilising thousands of gunmen, while in Somalia
militias still run amok, looting, extorting and terrorising the
local population. Many of Somalilandís former clan fighters have
also been successfully incorporated into the disciplined national
army. And unlike many of her neighbours, the armed forces stay out
Moreover, Somaliland is country committed to the rule of law, upheld
by an independent judiciary. Discrimina-tion on the grounds of
ethnicity, gender or opinion is prohibited, and human rights abuses,
such as torture, are criminal offences. The right to protest is
protected by law.
Somaliland is not yet a fully-fledged democracy, and its unwavering
observance of human rights is still a long way off. Somaliland has a
multi-party system but only three political parties are allowed
under the constitution. Islam is the state religion, and while
non-Islamic faiths are tolerated, their promotion is prohibited.
Muslims are not permitted to renounce Islam, and the legal system is
based on Sharia law. Although rarely enforced with harshness, this
does nevertheless place inherent restrictions of the rights of
women. The female sex is poorly represented in public life and state
institutions, although the constitution does give women the right to
employment training and property ownership. Government corruption
and inefficiency are not as bad as in many other African nations,
but they remain a problem according to critics of the regime.
Somalilandís significantly improved record on human rights suffered
a setback earlier this year with the arrest of four journalists from
the independent newspaper Haatuf. They were only released at the end
of March, after being detained for 86 days on charges of allegedly
spreading false information and offending the President. This
worrying abuse of press freedom was, however, an exceptional
curtailment of what is nowadays a fairly open and free media.
Despite these flaws, Somalilanders have demonstrated, without any
pressure from the West, that a Muslim country can build a peaceful,
democratic state committed to upholding human rights. It is a model
for Africa and the Middle East.
Yet Somaliland remains unrecognised as a sovereign nation. While the
United Nations and the international community focus their attention
on the civil war in Somalia, Somalilandís achievement in building a
stable, harmonious nation is unacknowledged and unrewarded. Betrayed
by the Arab League and the African Union, it stands alone.
Instead of singularly condemning Africaís failures, isnít it time
the West did more to recognise and support its successes?
Sweden and Germany are moving towards diplomatic recognition, but
not Britain. Somaliland wants to join the Commonwealth but has so
far been rebuffed. This rejection sends all the wrong signals.
It is time Britain changed course. We should push the Commonwealth
and the European Union to recognise Somaliland as an independent,
sovereign state; and lobby the African Union, the Arab League and
the United Nations to do likewise. A modest increase in British and
EU aid and trade would go a long way to strengthen Somalilandís
economic base. Tackling poverty and unemployment, and improving
health, education and housing, would help underpin and enhance
Somalilandís development as a beacon in the region.
Over to you, Gordon Brown.