In order to understand Somaliland, it helps to turn to the esteemed pan-Africanist scholar Ali Mazrui.

By Seifudein Adem

The esteemed pan-Africanist scholar Ali Mazrui has resurfaced in contemporary discourse as Ethiopia and Somaliland signed a pivotal memorandum of understanding in January. Mazrui’s insights are currently being summoned—occasionally misquoted—within media and diplomatic spheres to substantiate diverse standpoints.

The essential query persists: What were Mazrui’s definitive thoughts on the Somaliland-Somalia dichotomy? Delving into his plethora of speeches, interviews, and writings reveals Mazrui’s intellectual tapestry, intricately woven with African and Islamic threads tailored for conflict resolution. His ultimate conception? A thriving Somaliland, mirroring Singapore in its affluence, distinct and separate from Somalia progressing towards its own identity as the “Malaysia” of Africa.

Ultimately, Mazrui believed that Somaliland’s claim to sovereignty is undeniable.

The union of nations, akin to marriage, necessitates reciprocal assent—just as its dissolution requires mutual agreement. Despite former Italian Somaliland’s reticence to sever ties, the bond with former British Somaliland ostensibly remains. Yet, if this alliance harbors abuse akin to domestic violence, should not such mistreatment justify the severance? In personal relationships, abuse warrants dissolution; the time is ripe to extend this principle to the inter-state domain. We must delve into the intricate dynamics between Somalia and Somaliland.

In 1960, the union of former British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland heralded the creation of the Somali Republic, a nascent nation symbolizing the aspirations of a fragmented Somali populace under colonial rule. This momentous event was seen as a precursor to the envisioned amalgamation of all Somali territories, including those in Northeast Kenya, the Ethiopian Ogaden, and the French-ruled Djibouti, into a singular Greater Somalia.

Women voting in elections in Somaliland in 2017
In Somaliland’s 2017 presidential election, women played critical roles as voters, poll workers, and political party agents, including these women, who lined up on November 13, 2017 to cast their ballots. (Jim Huylebroek, Creative Associates International)

Yet, as time unfolded, the promise of unity dimmed. The people of the erstwhile British Somaliland perceived a burgeoning disparity in treatment and opportunity, feeling increasingly sidelined by their compatriots from the former Italian-controlled region. Discontent fermented, eventually igniting separatist flames. The strife culminated in devastating air assaults by the central government upon Hargeisa, the heart of former British Somaliland. In a decisive response, this Anglophone territory proclaimed its autonomy in 1991, establishing the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, complete with its own democratic institutions and electoral processes.

However, the entity known as the “Republic” of Somaliland languishes in diplomatic limbo. Despite its self-governance, the international consortium, including the African Union and the United Nations, maintains its stance, viewing it within the territorial integrity of the 1960-formed Somalia. Although sympathetic murmurs resonate from the corners of Ethiopia and the Republic of South Africa, diplomatic recognition eludes Somaliland, leaving its sovereign status in the shadows of international legitimacy.

The self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland stands at a crossroads, seeking the camaraderie and support of global actors. Beyond the courtship of sovereign nations, its quest extends to influential international entities, distinguished African personalities, and global celebrities whose voices can echo in the halls of power.

History is replete with precedents of national realignments post-World War II, where countries have unfurled into separate entities—Senegal and Mali, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Czechia and Slovakia, Malaysia and Singapore, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the bifurcation of Sudan being salient examples.

Societal bonds, akin to personal relationships, are subject to the dynamics of unity and dissolution, often termed as mergers and demergers. A notable post-colonial fusion in Africa is the United Republic of Tanzania, born from the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1964. This alliance, orchestrated by the leaders Julius Nyerere and Abeid Karume, could be likened to an arranged marriage, with Zanzibar receiving a magnanimous dowry, granting it disproportionate representation relative to its size.

Yet, the sustainability of such unions is inversely proportional to the disparities and abuses suffered by the lesser partner. The case of Somaliland is a testament to this, where perceived inequities have strained the ties to a breaking point, challenging the notion that societal marriages, like their human counterparts, can endure indefinitely under conditions of imbalance and discontent.

The post-colonial era of the Muslim world has witnessed complex sociopolitical marriages and subsequent separations that mirror the most tumultuous of domestic relationships. Among these, the unions of British and Italian Somaliland, as well as East and West Pakistan, stand out for their particularly discordant dissolutions.

Outdoor market in Somaliland
Outdoor market in Somaliland. (Dan Sloan)

Initially, there was optimism in both instances—a faith in Islam to bind the diverse peoples of Pakistan, and a belief in a shared Somali identity to unite the clans of Somaliland. Yet, this idealism was eventually overshadowed by rising discrimination. In Pakistan, the Bengalis of the East faced increasing prejudice. Similarly, in the unified Somalia, those from the former British protectorate endured escalating marginalization.

The deterioration of these relationships was marked by the growing mistreatment of the weaker partner, ultimately erupting into outright violence and bloodshed. In the case of Pakistan, the presence of a significant and strategically interested neighbor, India, played a crucial role. Sensing the geopolitical turmoil, India supported the oppressed Bengalis, facilitating the emergence of an independent Bangladesh.

The parallels with Somaliland are poignant. However, without an equivalent external advocate, Somaliland’s path to recognition as a separate entity remains fraught and uncertain, reflecting the complexities of post-colonial statehood and the enduring struggle for self-determination in the face of historical unions gone awry.

Adjacent to the erstwhile Greater Somalia lies Ethiopia, a significant regional power whose approach to Somaliland’s bid for sovereignty has contrasted starkly with India’s intervention in East Pakistan during its crisis in 1971-72. Ethiopia has opted for a stance of empathy, refraining from military involvement and instead offering moral support to Somaliland’s cause.

Somaliland’s pursuit of international recognition might benefit from a comparative study with Bangladesh, which navigated the waters of global politics to secure its status as a nation swiftly. Initially, Islamabad vehemently opposed the acknowledgment of Bangladesh’s sovereignty, leading to Pakistan’s temporary exit from the Commonwealth when the UK extended recognition to Bangladesh. Eventually, Pakistan had to come to terms with the new geopolitical reality, allowing for its re-entry into the Commonwealth.

This historical context may provide valuable insights for Somaliland’s scholars and diplomats. Investigating the diplomatic tactics employed by Bangladesh and its supporters could reveal strategies that might accelerate Somaliland’s quest for international acceptance.

The idea of seeking membership in the Commonwealth of Nations, if direct admission is not feasible, could be a strategic starting point. Perhaps Somaliland could initially aim for the status of an Associate Member, which may pave the way for greater recognition.

The tales of the two Muslim countries, Pakistan and Somalia, and their eventual political dissolution, offer a somber reflection on the challenges of post-colonial state formation. As Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign entity distinct from Pakistan, the question looms: Can Somaliland assert its independence from Somalia in a similar vein? Furthermore, could the Commonwealth play a role in fostering Somaliland’s aspirations towards nationhood?

Dr. Edna Adan Ismail
Pictured: Dr. Edna Adan Ismail. (Facebook)

My visit to Somaliland in March 2006 was a source of inspiration, notably marked by the presence of a woman, Dr. Edna Adan Ismail, as Foreign Minister—a milestone that took the United States over two centuries to achieve with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Ismail’s linguistic prowess in English, French, Arabic, and Somali, alongside her management of a maternity hospital, underscored the region’s progressive strides.

The journey to Berbera, Somaliland’s principal port, unveiled its potential as a pivotal economic asset, not only for Somaliland but for Ethiopia as well—an ally whose affinity with the people of Somaliland runs deep. The Ethiopian representative in Hargeisa, though not an ambassador, played a significant role as a liaison officer, enjoying considerable popularity among the locals.

Lectures in Hargeisa provided a forum to debate the nomenclature of the aspiring state. Options ranged from maintaining the historic ‘Somaliland’—despite its colonial overtones—to adopting ‘The Republic of Northern Somalia,’ echoing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Alternatively, aligning with other Muslim nations, ‘The Republic of Somalistan’ was proposed, resonating with the ‘stan’ suffix of Central Asian countries.

Subsequent discussions in Addis Ababa with African Union officials delved into Somaliland’s prospects, affirming its importance on the African political landscape.

Since my return to the United States, the repercussions of my visit have been palpable, manifesting in a barrage of critical emails from unity proponents who accuse me of endorsing secessionism. My attempts to highlight Hargeisa’s tranquility as a model for Mogadishu were met with resistance, interpreted as scorn rather than constructive commentary.

This leads to pondering the future synergy between Somalia and Somaliland: is a rekindling of their relationship feasible, or have their paths irrevocably diverged?

Africa’s moral compass, shaped by a unique ethical code, is characterized by an inherent capacity for tolerance and a propensity to eschew prolonged animosity. This cultural trait is underscored by a remarkably short collective memory of hatred. Islam’s tenets of compensation and forgiveness over retribution harmoniously intersect with African principles advocating for a return to normalcy post-conflict, sans bitterness. The cessation of Nigeria’s civil strife, without vendettas or tribunals akin to Nuremberg, exemplifies this.

Even more telling are the stories of resilience and forgiveness among Africa’s most iconic figures. Ian Smith, after inciting racial tensions in Zimbabwe, was later accommodated in its parliament. Nelson Mandela, having endured 27 years of unjust imprisonment, chose reconciliation over retribution, famously engaging with the relatives of apartheid’s architects. Jomo Kenyatta, once vilified by colonial powers, led Kenya towards a pro-Western path, embodying his philosophy of ‘Suffering Without Bitterness.’

African societies engage in conflicts with fervor, defending their identities and values with a tenacity that can be ruthless. However, the aftermath of conflict reveals a remarkable ability to dissipate hate, a quality that might serve as Africa’s offering to global dialogues on tolerance.

Turning to Somalia and Somaliland, one wonders whether this African tradition of reconciliation might inform their future relationship. If forgiveness can be extended to former imperial colonizers, can it not also be extended internally, within the African family?

The historic separation of Malaya and Singapore provides an illustrative parallel. Initially a union post-independence, the two parted ways amidst emotional public sentiment. Yet, today, both nations stand as beacons of economic success, arguably achieving greater heights post-divorce than if they had remained united under a cloud of mutual discontent.

Somaliland, aspiring to emulate Singapore’s prosperity, and Somalia, potentially following in Malaysia’s footsteps, may yet illustrate that, within the African narrative, even a parting of ways can be a prelude to a future where each thrives independently, contributing uniquely to the continent’s tapestry.

Seifudein Adem teaches Global Studies at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan. He is also a Research Associate at Ali Mazrui Center for Higher Education Studies, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa.