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If  any  one  cause  unites  just  about  every  Somalilander,  it  is  the  quest  for international  recognition  of  their  country.  And the case for this status is exceptionally solid, as outlined below.

The international community has indicated repeatedly that recognition of Somaliland is to be determined by the African Union (AU). At the outset of Africa’s modern era of independence, that same AU (then the OAU) set out guidelines agreeing that any re-negotiation of the continent’s borders, despite their being arbitrary 19th-century colonial creations, would open up a Pandora’s Box of tribal, ethnic and linguistic rivalries. As a result, the hastily drawn borders of the colonial era still define the political map of Africa today. Somaliland clearly fits these guidelines, and its divorce from Somalia has many precedents in post-independence Africa.  Somaliland  was  a  British Protectorate,  with  boundaries  approximating  its  present  ones,  for  a  full 75  years  prior  to  gaining  independence  on  26  June  1960.  It  was  also  a sovereign  state,  albeit  one  of  less  than  a  week’s  standing,  on  1  July  1960, when  it  voluntarily  united  with  the  former  Italian  Somaliland  to  form  the Somali Republic. As such, it surely retains the right to dissolve that union, as it did by declaring unilateral independence on 18 May 1991.

The problem is that the AU doesn’t take kindly to secession movements. This is, after all, an organization that includes any number of states whose corrupt,  greedy  leadership  has  long  exploited  or  ignored  its  own  ethnic divisions,  and  who  know  that  redrawing  their  own  country’s  boundaries would diminish their power and wealth. In that context, certain parties view recognition of secessionist Somaliland as having the potential to launch the AU down a slippery slope. Better by far to prop up the unelected status quo in Mogadishu, and pontificate about ‘how to put Somalia back together’, as if the cartographic integrity of a political entity that existed for a mere 30 years is inviolable.

The advantages of recognition barely need itemizing.  It  would,  for instance, grant the Somaliland government the legitimacy to borrow money from international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, to enhance basic  service  delivery  such  as  electricity,  gas,  water,  telecoms  and  rubbish collection, and to fund state schools, universities and hospitals. It would also legitimize the territory’s international boundaries, an essential starting point for policing border regions in this unstable corner of the world. And, given that Somaliland is still officially part of war-torn, piracy-riddled Somalia, the positive media exposure associated with international recognition would do wonders for its global image, attracting plenty of interest from potential tourists and investors.

Though often downplayed or ignored, recognition has its possible downsides, too. Economically, as a legitimate inheritor state to the Somali Republic,  Somaliland  risks  being  burdened  with  a  portion  of  the  massive debt accrued under Siad Barre – effectively repaying money used to arm the very force it fought against prior to secession. And having accomplished so much without recourse to the aid money that forms a staggering percentage of  many  developing  countries’  budgets,  one  might  question  whether Somaliland’s  bare-bones  efficiency  would  benefit  from  a  budget  swollen with international loans, grants and the like.

Recognition of Somaliland is bound to antagonize the rest of the former Somali Republic.  For  one,  were  it  to  be  recognized  in  accordance  with AU  policy,  that  would  mean  resurrecting  the  old  borders  of  the  British protectorate,  which  includes  areas  currently  controlled  by  Puntland,  a self-governing  state  already  embroiled  in  an  ongoing  border  conflict with Somaliland. As for the insurgent Al-Shabaab, which controls much of southern Somalia, while it currently appears to view its breakaway neighbour as a secondary enemy (after the likes of Uganda, Burundi and the AU Mission in Somalia), global recognition of Somaliland might well make it a primary target for terrorist attacks.

More obtusely, one of the factors that has steered post-1991 Somaliland along the path of accountability is the desire to demonstrate its suitability for recognition by being ’better’ than Somalia proper.  Somalia has war? Somaliland has peace. They’ve got pirates? We have a coastguard. They’ve got foreign mercenaries? We have tourists. They have sectarianism and anarchy? We have multiple parties and free elections. So, what happens when the goal of recognition, with so many hopes, dreams and aspirations pinned to it, is finally attained? One need only cite Somalia in the 1960’s – its long -awaited independence and unification giving way to the atrocities of the Siad Barre regime – as a reminder of what can happen when unifying causes give way to sectarian interests.

Lest there be any confusion on this point, international diplomatic recognition for Somaliland is a goal we fully support. Since the mid-1990s, shortly after it declared independence, this unheralded country has managed to get so much right, when so much around it has gone so terribly wrong. These efforts, made in adversity and obscurity, clearly deserve international acknowledgment and support.  But recognition will bring risks as well as rewards,  and it would be tragic for the accomplishments of the past two decades to be erased by the unforeseen consequences of the very thing Somaliland has so earnestly sought.

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