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Why Eritrea Will Recognize Somaliland
Somaliland has been seeking recognition ever since it declared its independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991 without success. This is despite Somaliland’s meeting of all the requirements of nationhood under AU and international rules and conventions.
But any objective observer would have realized that recognition of new African states was simply not on the agenda at regional or global level.
And here is why. There are three main regional organizations that could take a lead on the recognition of Somaliland: The African Union (AU), Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the Arab League (AL). I think it is fair to say that none of these three regional bodies are renowned for their principled stances on issues affecting their members. All three are stuffed with dictators, monarchs, military rulers and one or two others who should really be standing behind a podium inside a courtroom in a small Dutch town rather than getting standing ovations in regional meetings in plush hotels.
It is no wonder they are petrified of change of any kind. Keeping the status quo is what they are all about so changing borders, rulers or systems of their members is viscerally opposed by most.
This left Somaliland with what is known as `The International Community’, which is a euphemism for Western Europe, America and Japan.
Somalilanders lobbied hard although their campaign was often unsophisticated and disorganized. They gained some sympathy from some countries in the EU but nothing more. The common refrain from the international community was “let Africa or Arabs, Muslims or whoever recognize you first and then we will see”. America was so focused on fighting its endless shadow wars against terrorism and since peaceful Somaliland have no known terror cells America wasn’t interested.
Somalilanders bitterly point to the fact that dozens of countries many of them with far less historical or legal claims to nationhood have been allowed to emerge in Europe. They were immediately recognized and lavished with aid and trade. Many came to the conclusion that the world was simply institutionally racist which on the face of it, is extremely hard to argue against.
But perhaps Somalilanders have been looking for recognition in the wrong places. They have been lobbying the wrong powers including their gigantic neighbor Ethiopia, which is now flush with power and influence since it was adopted by the US as their preferred partner in their war on terror. Ethiopia has Somaliland right where it wants: weak, unrecognized, malleable, bullyable if necessary but most of the time just ignorable. Why give it strength through recognition when you can manage the place far more easily by keeping things the way they are? After all sovereignty could mean Somalilanders defying Ethiopia on some regional issues where interests do not always converge.
For example many ordinary Somalilanders secretly sympathize with their brethren in the Ogaden region for despite known clan rivalries(some Somaliland clans and the Ogadeni clans are traditional foes) the spark of Somali nationalism or at least the sense of Somaliness remains a powerful thread linking all Somalis. A recognized Somaliland may not be so willing to hand over Ogadeni insurgents and may even give the Ogadens the succor and the strategic depth they need to wage a long war the way Sudan gave the Eritreans shelter from which to wage their successful guerrilla war.
And that is why Eritrea will be the first country to recognize Somaliland. The benefits for Eritrea are equaled only by the political and strategic discomfort such move will cause Eritrea’s enemies and foes in the region, which are many. Recognizing Somaliland will immediately break the regional `siege’ of Eritrea with enemies In Sudan and Ethiopia and tiny Djibouti making a bid for rendering Eritrean ports the most economically irrelevant in the region.
Isaias Afwerke will have a vital ally that borders Ethiopia overnight. He could use his presence in newly recognized Somaliland as another front in his war against Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi. Ethiopia will be caught in a huge dilemma. If they try to lobby the rest of Africa against Somaliland recognition they will be seen as existential enemies by the people of Somaliland with serious consequences for Ethiopia. If they fall in line and recognize Somaliland that will still give Eritrea the upper hand in the region because Somalilanders will always remember it was Eritrea that recognized them first.
Ethiopia ’s strategists and skilled diplomats are already scrambling to lobby the US and the EU and even Saudi Arabia to dissuade the Eritreans from making this bold regional move. It is unlikely it’ll work. It is probably a matter of months before Eritrea declares its intention before the counter-pressure builds up on it. We will watch this space.