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Somaliland: A Pressing Need for Recognition
Despite its Relative Calm, Somaliland Risks being Drawn into the Somali Maelstrom
By FIONA MANGAN
THE INTERNATIONAL spotlight has returned to Somalia in recent months.
In the south, the Islamic Courts movement has rapidly overthrown the warlords and left the Transitional Federal Government cowering in Baidoa. Meanwhile, in the north of the country, democracy, stability and law-abiding calm have been quietly flourishing, despite being deprived of the world’s attention. This oasis of sanity — the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland — stands out in a region of Africa otherwise seemingly locked in a cycle of self-destruction.
The Republic of Somaliland has a peripheral existence as an unrecognized breakaway state in the northernmost tip of the country, along the border with Ethiopia. It declared its secession from Somalia in 1991, and in 15 years of independence Somaliland has developed into a peaceful democracy with all the symbols and internal dynamics of a state, but lacking the international recognition required for official statehood.
The government of Somaliland has repeatedly called on the international community to recognize the country’s existence and its own authority. This plea, largely unanswered, is gathering urgency.
For the first time in almost 16 years, a single force, the Islamic Courts movement, has the objective of full control of Somalia within its reach. While many of the courts are considered moderate, several extremist cells exist within its shadowy structure which raise legitimate concerns for the region and globally. Somaliland is now vulnerable to such extremist attitudes penetrating from the south.
The international community has implicitly acknowledged Somaliland’s stability by awarding it a growing proportion of development aid. This year the European Union directed approximately 70 percent of its aid allocation for Somalia to the north in an effort to reward progress in the region. Such investment is funneled through NGOs to avoid facing up to the issue of recognition. The UN also has a large presence in Somaliland, but despite outright engagement with the government, it has made no pronouncement on the issue of self-determination. “We work in conjunction with the Somaliland government but we still call it Somalia” observes a bemused Hargeisa-based, Somalilander and UN worker.
The issue thus falls to the African Union (AU). In December 2005, Somaliland’s application for membership of the AU was submitted by President Dahir Rayale Kahin. This request was scheduled to be discussed at the Seventh AU Summit held at the beginning of July in Banjul, Gambia, but somewhere along the line it was quietly dropped from the agenda.
Somaliland’s bid to separate from Somalia is the product of its different history. The Republic of Somaliland encompasses the former British protectorate of Somaliland and lies in the north west of Somalia, sharing borders with Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. In 1960 Somaliland was granted independence from Britain and spent six days as a sovereign state before opting to merge with the former Italian colony, Somalia, forming a single state.
Any post-independence illusions of harmony soon evaporated as the north found itself in a situation of political and economic isolation, which became further pronounced after a coup in 1969 that delivered the military dictator, Mohamed Siyad Barre to power. Resentment amongst northerners grew and opposition organized in the form of the Somali National Movement (SNM) in 1981. In response, Siyad Barre conducted a campaign of aerial bombardment and artillery shelling, killing civilians and reducing the north’s capital, Hargeisa, to rubble. In addition, the authorities carried out ethnic cleansing of members of the Isaaq clan, the dominant tribe in the north and the primary components of the SNM.
The overthrow of Siyad Barre in 1991 pitched Somalia into a state of anarchy, now infamous due to its portrayal in the book and subsequent film, Black Hawk Down. Throughout the south violence raged. Meanwhile, the Republic of Somaliland announced its independence and established peace using traditional clan-based methods of reconciliation.
Since declaring independence, the SNM military leadership has peacefully given way to successive civilian governments. Programs of disarmament and demobilization of SNM forces and clan militia have been a success and viable institutions of statehood are now in place. The state has adopted a bicameral model. The traditional clan elder system has been retained as the upper Guurti chamber, in combination with a democratically elected lower chamber, with an executive president. The democratization process was further entrenched by the first multi-party elections, held in September 2005, which were hailed by international observers as “a great example to the people of the Horn of Africa region”.
The Republic of Somaliland exists in a state of limbo, lying between factual and actual independence. Without de jure international recognition this de facto state is prevented from engaging in any substantial economic development. Should the Islamic Courts movement — the emergence of which has gripped and surprised Somalia — choose to progress northward it will undoubtedly be met with armed resistance from Somaliland forces but, in its current legal position, Somaliland does not have the right to defend itself and it is likely to be viewed as nothing more than further factional fighting in Somalia. The invasion of Somaliland by victorious Islamists would not merely mean the subjection of one faction to another – in Somalia, nothing new – but would mean the destruction of a functioning African democracy by a theocratic regime.
“We want to survive,” says President Rayale Kahin. “We are running from evil nations but we want to be with the good and peaceful nations. We are waiting for the international community to recognize us. We want no more than we deserve.”
Recognizing Somaliland’s independence will not open the floodgates for secessionist movements worldwide. Its claim is unique, hinging as it does on its separate colonial history, its brief period of independence in 1960 and the fact that it entered voluntarily into the combined state of Somalia.
To continue to ignore this stable and functioning democracy, which has stood alone for 15 years, is to condemn it to political isolation, the stagnation of its economic promise and, with current security concerns, an uncertain future.
Source: Journal of International Peace Operations