The most important and underreported success story of the last two decades in the volatile Horn of Africa may be the emergence of Somaliland. Located in the north of Somalia, Somaliland first declared independence in 1960 (before it merged with Italian Somaliland to become Somalia) and again in 1991 following the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre’s military government. Then, in May 2001, its independence was asserted again through a nationwide referendum that saw 97.1% of the population voting in favour of autonomy.
Since then, with a population of around 3.5 million, Somaliland has held free elections, drawn up a constitution, and enjoyed relative peace and stability, all without the help of heavy foreign aid. And on 18 May, the people of Somaliland celebrated the 23rd anniversary of their independence.
However, despite these achievements, Somaliland has struggled to gain diplomatic recognition as an independent state. The West, for example, is reluctant to recognise Somaliland as a sovereign state before members of the African Union (AU) do so, while the AU reiterates that one of the founding principles of the organisation was to respect the borders inherited from colonialism.
However, even under this pledge, the AU's argument to deny Somaliland sovereignty appears to be invalid. After all, on 26 June 1960, the territory, which had been British Somaliland, gained independence as the State of Somaliland. It was only a few days later, on 1 July 1960, that Italian Somaliland also gained independence and then united with the State of Somaliland to become the Somalia we know today.
Indeed, in 2006, an AU fact-finding mission declared Somaliland’s status to be “unique and self-justified in African policy history,” and insisted that “the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a Pandora’s box’. ”
Furthermore, even if the AU did pledge to respect colonial borders, surely there is a way to allow Somalilanders today to decide their own political fate. If the UK can agree to hold a referendum over Scottish independence, why can't Somaliland be afforded the same opportunity?
Earlier this year, Somaliland agreed to take part in Turkish-brokered talks with the Somali government. However, it seems obvious that the two sides will not be able to agree on their future relationship through such means. Mogadishu still clings to the fiction of Somaliland being a region under its own authority even though the government struggles to govern at all, while Somaliland sees itself as autonomous and is keen to stay out of the chaos in Somalia.
Furthermore, relations between the two sides are somewhat hostile. In the 1980s, when Somaliland secessionists were engaging in a bitter battle to break away from Somalia, the US-backed Somali dictator of the time, Siad Barre, used brutal military force to bomb the civilian population into submission. The conflict saw 50,000 civilians lose their lives and major towns like Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa were heavily bombarded. With remarkable resilience and determination, the people of Somaliland slowly recovered from the devastation of that war, and today Hargeisa is a city reborn. However, relations between Somalia and Somaliland never fully recovered.
In denying Somaliland the right to decide its own political future, the international community ignores the territory's rebirth, its success in eradicating the piracy and repression that once characterised it, and its testy relationship with Mogadishu.
Somaliland's lack of diplomatic recognition also undermines the progress and stability it has enjoyed in recent years and prevents it from exploiting its rich coal and oil reserves since foreign energy companies are unable to trade directly with unrecognised territories.
Describing the reasoning behind Somaliland’s vote for nationhood, President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud ‘Silanyo’ writes: “From 1960 to 1991, we gave unity a chance. It failed disastrously. We have now forged again our own future. We deserve the chance to fulfil our ambition.”
Indeed, the people of Somaliland deserve a chance to decide their own political future for they can no longer tolerate years of uncertainty about their status as a nation. And Somaliland’s move for independence is grounded in the same principles as the declarations of autonomy by British and French-owned colonies in Africa in the 1960s.
23 years after Somaliland declared its self-autonomy in the aftermath of Siad Barre's fall, it is time the US, European Union and Africa do the right thing and accept the only viable and sustainable solution: an independent and sovereign Somaliland.
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For further reading around the subject see:
|Keeping it in the Clan: Somaliland’s Tribal Turn under Silanyo||Negotiating Peace in Somalia: Somaliland's Perspective||Crude Findings: the Forgotten Factor in the Fall and Fall of Somali Piracy|