It has been nearly 13 years since the world recognized a new country as South Sudan won widespread recognition after a decades-long fight. The year 2024 might be young, but it could very well see the international community welcome a new country: Somaliland. The United States should be a the front of the queue with its recognition.
Somaliland’s story should be better known but both Somalia’s failure and the State Department’s lack of imagination have buried appreciation for the Horn of Africa’s best success stories. Black Hawk Down shaped most Americans’ perception of Somalia. The film memorialized the murder of 18 American servicemen during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. It was the deadliest battle for Americans since the Vietnam War and led President Bill Clinton to withdraw American forces providing humanitarian assistance to Somalia. Al Qaeda leader Usama Bin Laden subsequently declared that the rush “out of Somalia in shame and disgrace” showed US vulnerability.
For much of Somalia, peace remains elusive. The international community has pumped tens of billions of dollars into the country but regional warlords hold de facto power and the reconstituted army is unable to eradicate the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab, let alone even secure the four miles from Mogadishu’s international airport to the country’s equivalent of the White House. Fahad Yasin, a former Al Jazeera stringer who rose to be Somalia’s intelligence chief even worked with an Al Qaeda affiliate in his earlier years.
Not all of what the world today defines as Somalia fits that narrative of state failure, Islamist terror, and lawlessness. Somalia itself formed from the merger of two separate territories: British Somaliland won independence on June 26, 1960. All five permanent members of the UN Security Council recognized it. Five days later, however, Somaliland merged with the former Italian Somaliland to former the Somali Republic, with its capital in Mogadishu. It was an unhappy union worsened by Cold War-era dictator Siad Barre’s brutality.
It was against this backdrop of Somalia’s collapse that, in 1991, Somaliland reasserted its independence. Its logic was compelling: It entered into a marriage with Mogadishu voluntarily and so could divorce it voluntarily. The rest of the world disagreed, but Somaliland has governed itself as an independent albeit unrecognized country for nearly 33 years, longer than it was under Mogadishu’s control.
While Somalia descended into anarchy, Somaliland remained peaceful. I have visited the country five times at my own expense, including with my then-nine-year-old daughter and have also visited Somalia proper. While the international community pumped billions of dollars into unsuccessful efforts to organize one-man, one-vote elections in Somalia, Somaliland became the first country to secure elections with biometric iris scans; it has conducted one-man, one-vote elections for decades without demanding billions of dollars to do so. Peaceful transfers of power are the norm, with one elections decided by less than 100 votes among more than one million cast.
Businesses flock to Somaliland for its stability and transparency. The country hosts Africa’s second largest Coca Cola bottling plant, is a livestock hub for the Middle East, boasts a deep water port that rivals Djibouti’s, and has one of the highest penetration rates of mobile money. The newly renovated Berbera Airport, a former emergency landing strip for NASA’s space shuttle program, has one of the largest runways in Africa.
The country’s geopolitical orientation enhances its value. It is one of only two countries in Africa to recognize Taiwan over China. It has remained firm even as Chinese officials try to bribe its politicians with hundreds of millions of dollars and also as Beijing sought revenge by encouraging a Somali invasion and insurgency in Somaliland’s Sool region.
Many Western European and East African countries maintain offices or consulates in the country. Emirati and African airlines serve its capital. Somaliland would even welcome partnership with Israel, and it rejects reactionary states like Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, with few resources, Somaliland secured its 460-mile coastline. Unlike Somalia, Somaliland prevents piracy, terror safe-haven, and weapon smuggling.
The Pentagon and intelligence community have long wanted to partner with Somaliland and Congress called for closer ties in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, but the State Department refuses, fearing they might anger Mogadishu. Arguments about shifting borders are empty, given that international treaties defined Somaliland’s borders since its days as a protectorate and its brief period of independence. Rejecting Somaliland is contrary to American national security. A base in Berbera, for example, could allow Ospreys and helicopters to patrol the Bab el-Mandeb rather than force length naval deployments.
The State Department’s resistance, however, may now be futile. Ethiopia long joked that they would not be the first country to recognize Somaliland, but they would not be the third either. They have now changed their mind. In exchange for a long-term port lease, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has offered to recognize Somaliland’s independence. That Al Shabaab is furious should only reinforce to Washington that Somaliland is a good bet.
When the United States absconds leadership and a forward presence, the forces of altruism do not fill the vacuum; rather, in the Red Sea region and Horn of Africa, malign forces like the Houthis and al-Shabaab or Iran and Turkey do. Recognizing Somaliland can reverse a 33-year error, and restore security and moderation to a strategically important corner of the Middle East.
Michael Rubin is director of policy analysis at the Middle East Forum and is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.