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Reflections On Somaliland & Africa’s Territorial Order
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- Reflections On Somaliland & Africa’s Territorial Order

Ian S. Spears

Review of African Political Economy No.95:89-98
© ROAPE Publications Ltd., 2003
ISSN 0305-6244

This article examines the arguments for and against reforming the African state system in order to create more viable and peaceful states. It argues that while such a process has the potential to be enormously disruptive, selective recognition of some ‘states-within-states’, such as Somaliland, does offer promising approaches to more effective governance and more viable and coherent states.


On 31 May 2001, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland conducted a referendum on its future. In what has generally been regarded as an accurate reflection of public sentiment, Somalilanders voted heavily in favor of independence from Somalia proper (Initiative and Referendum Institute, 2001). The results were perhaps not surprising. Since the early 1990s, Somaliland has essentially been a ‘state-within-a-state’; a political entity which had emerged out of a previously recognized territorial third world state but which lacked formal recognition from the international community. Indeed, Somaliland had already acquired many tangible features of statehood: government ministers and a president, a flag, an army, its own currency, vehicle licence plates and, perhaps most important, a sense of self. By comparison, Somalia-proper has continued to languish in political uncertainty. As Virginia Luling pointed out, Somalia outside of Somaliland had already become the prime example of a ‘collapsed state’, a ‘byword for anarchy’. Becoming ‘another Somalia’, she observed, was the outcome to be avoided by all other African states (1997:287).

This bifurcated outcome thus presents a contradiction to the recent apocalyptic literature which speculates on the prospects of state breakdown (Kaplan, 1994). While many of the existing territorial states in Africa remain fragile and prone to collapse, these conditions have not always given way to anarchy. In a few cases, the breakdown of large, arbitrary state units has given way to more coherent and viable (though, to be sure, not always more benevolent) political entities. The question remains to what extent these sub-units represent alternatives, which the international community should look to in a long-term effort to bring greater stability, security and development to peoples in Africa. In some cases, it may be time to abandon expectations that African countries can be recreated as they once were and consider other decentralized approaches for the longer term. Radical decentralization, the use of an interim status short of formal recognition, or even recognition itself should all be considered alternatives to Africa’s current state system.

Contrasting Views on Reforming Africa’s State System

Persistent violent conflict and economic insecurity in Africa has led a number of scholars and commentators to argue that it is time for the international community to reconsider its recognition of the existing African state system. The motive for reforming Africa’s territorial structure is the perceived need to rationalize dysfunctional state units, and in doing so, to alleviate the most relentless and violent conflicts. Many contemporary conflicts in Africa are assumed to result from the fact that incompatible ethnic groups have in effect been forced to live with each other because of an ongoing devotion to Africa’s arbitrary colonial borders. Africa’s economic difficulties are also attributed to the fact that Europeans colonized Africa not in order to create future viable sovereign countries but to serve their own European interests. The subsequent commitment to colonial borders was articulated in the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which repeatedly makes reference to the importance of maintaining Africa’s ‘territorial integrity’. .. ..1 In a recent editorial, however, one African scholar Makau Matua, contends that, if democracy is to be realized in countries such as Rwanda and Burundi, partition is necessary. This is because the dominant minority in each case, the Tutsi, will not allow its interests to be jeopardized by the implementation of majority rule. ‘Just like Kosovar Albanians and Serbs’, Makau Matua argues, ‘the Tutsi and the Hutu cannot live together or tolerate each other.’ He adds:

A real solution to the Hutu-Tutsi conflict … would be for a United Nations panel to redraw the maps of Burundi and Rwanda to create two wholly new states: one for the Hutu, the other for the Tutsi (Matua, 2000).2

Other scholars have echoed these sentiments and called for action to find ways to reduce conflict and reverse Africa’s political misery. Michael Chege has argued that, ‘Where a people’s allegiance to their own ethnic group supersedes that given to the state, it may be time to let them secede or fuse with another state. For what does a country benefit if it secures its boundaries yet suffers perennial bloodshed among its own people?’ (1992:153). While some commentators envision a redrawing of borders, others remain open-minded about the forms of political reorganization that might take place. Chege obviously sees secession as an option which must be considered but, in addition, he proposes federalism as a means of defusing autocratic power. Jeffrey Herbst also declares that alternatives to Africa’s existing state system must be considered, and proposes initiating this process by ‘publicly declaring that the international community is not blindly wedded to the current state system’ (Herbst, 1996/7:133). Indeed, Somaliland’s late President Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal expressed his own desire to achieve an ‘interim status’, short of recognition, from the international community so that it could, at least for the time being, qualify for financial assistance from international lending institutions (Hirsch, 2001).

While options short of independence are ultimately domestic affairs and therefore not necessarily the direct concern of the international community, there is a well-established reluctance to allow unrestricted redrawing of African borders. Historically, even some of the most prominent proponents of national self-determination have subsequently reconsidered such a policy when the sheer scope and risks associated with such an endeavor became apparent. American President Woodrow Wilson, for one, had reservations about the precedent that was being set when principles of national self-determination were applied outside of Europe following World War I. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Wilson acknowledged:

When I gave utterance to those words [that all nations had a right to self-determination], I said them without the knowledge that nationalities existed, which are coming to us day after day. … You do not know and cannot appreciate the anxieties that I have experienced as a result of many millions of people having their hopes raised by what I have said.3

Indeed, it is not always clear that substantive overall gains would be made in a general restructuring of the African state system. On the contrary, there are valid reasons to think that any sort of public declaration on self-determination would be enormously disruptive. In regions where competition over scarce resources is fierce, the creation of separate Tutsi and Hutu states, for example, would almost certainly reorient the conflict from one fought along ethnic lines to one fought along an even more narrowly-defined cleavage. In Rwanda, most of the participants in the 1994 genocide were Hutu but they were Hutus of a particular clan from a specific region – the Bushiru of Ruhengiri and Byumba. As Bruce Jones has noted:

The Habyarimana regime was in fact a clan-based northern Hutu regime that was as discriminatory against Hutus from southern Rwanda as against Tutsis (Jones, 1999:121).

Similarly, in Somalia, the fluidity of clan divisions complicates efforts to formalise new political boundaries to replace those of the original colonial divisions. When individuals are competing for a slice of a finite pie, critics of restructuring say, formalised division and redivision of states in an effort to reduce conflict may, in the end, be an exercise that merely perpetuates it.

Other practical problems associated with national self-determination and economic viability would also have to be considered in any formal territorial restructuring. Who would decide which states are deserving and which deserving states would be viable? Is a community which has been oppressed by its own government and which might be judged economically unviable less worthy of statehood than a similarly oppressed group which has a thriving industrial base? Would the possibility that most African states appear to be even less viable than other developing regions not invite accusations of a racist double standard? Would there not be an enormous reluctance by the international community to continually recognize new ever-more fragile and dependent states? As A.M. Rosenthal (1993) put it:

“The plain truth, never said out loud at the UN, is that countries have been admitted to membership that cannot or will not take on the minimum responsibilities that they owe to the international community and to their own people. The very act of independence can make countries dependents of the world.”

He adds that:

“the UN could save the world a great deal of grief if it used its rights of accreditation to create a flexible waiting period between application for membership and acceptance. If a test is required to drive a car, why not one to drive a nation?”
If the international community is to reconsider its approach to the African state architecture, it must be seen as a means to a tangible and realizable end: either to reduce the likelihood of violent conflict or to generate states which are more compatible with democratization and economic development. In short, given the upheaval that would undoubtedly accompany any major restructuring of the international system, the benefits must clearly outweigh the costs. To date, the experience of formally changing political borders has often been a violent process and the international community has, rightly, remained conservative on the issue of state recognition. Yet there is still a justifiable desire for flexibility. Rather than risk the kind of public declarations that Jeffrey Herbst calls for, there is a need to adopt a more piecemeal approach to any restructuring of the African state system. Some state entities, such as Somaliland, are empirically stronger than the juridically-dependent hosts from which they emerge and have served as ‘building blocks’ for state reconstruction. Given their potential viability in the longer term, these states-within-states need to be regarded as prospective candidates for some sort of new federal arrangement, special status or even formal recognition by the international community. Efforts to challenge their sovereignty may only undermine some of the most promising examples of political reorganization in the developing world. The result would be even more conflict.

To be Continued.

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