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.