Why is the current administration so stubbornly bent on propping up a sclerotic, untrustworthy regime in Somalia with little legitimacy and even less effectiveness?

by J. Peter Pham

Writing in this forum, Tibor P. Nagy, Jr. and Joshua Meservey made an eloquent case for why the agreement granting Ethiopia—the world’s most populous landlocked country—naval access on Somaliland’s 740-kilometer coastline “has the potential to benefit the entire Horn of Africa region, Egypt, and the security of the Red Sea.” If such is the case, why are some of the harshest criticisms of the deal coming from the U.S. government, with National Security Council director of strategic communications John Kirby describing the White House as “troubled” by it? The Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs also reiterated the State Department’s support for “Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Alas, the case is another example of the foreign policy bureaucracy entrenching policy that is not only decidedly not in America’s interests but also appears hopelessly detached from any political realism.


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Realpolitik must start with the facts. Somaliland was a British Protectorate that became independent on June 26, 1960 and received immediate recognition from three dozen states, including a congratulatory message from U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter. Five days later, the former Italian colony-cum-trust territory of Somalia received independence, and the two newly independent countries attempted a union that was so botched that it might have qualified for farce if the subsequent human toll had not made it tragic. As even the African Union Commission has acknowledged on two separate occasions, “The fact that the union between Somaliland and Somalia was never ratified and also malfunctioned when it went into action from 1960 to 1990 makes Somaliland’s search for recognition historically unique and self-justified in African political history. Objectively viewed, the case should not be linked to ‘opening a pandora’s box’” [italics in the original].

Since the de facto breakup between Somaliland and Somalia more than three decades ago, the two have gone along very different paths. Somaliland has largely succeeded in maintaining peace and security in its claimed territory and establishing a stable government based on one-person-one-vote elections. Unusual for the region, Somaliland’s incumbent presidents have been defeated at the polls, and the political opposition now holds the majority of seats in the legislature. Somalia, on the other hand, has undergone extended periods where its territory has been a haven for pirates and terrorists. Its so-called government can best be described as coopted, and the last election even approximating a “free and fair” contest with universal suffrage took place in 1969.

Given this context, there is no scenario remotely moored to reality under which the 5.7 million people in Somaliland—the majority of whom were born after Somaliland proclaimed its renewed independence in 1991 and have never lived under the “administration” of Somalia—would conceivably opt for a new union. Mogadishu’s claim to legitimacy could only be brought about by force, unleashing the conflict and bloodshed critics of the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal wish to avoid.

In fact, between the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship in early 1991 and the second term of the Obama administration, the United States did not recognize any government of Somalia until 2013. In 2010, a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court by then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan even went as far as to specify that while the United States supported “the efforts of the TFG [Transitional Federal Government] to establish a viable central government,” it “does not recognize the TFG as the sovereign government of Somalia.

Although the legal brief did not delve into detail, there were well-grounded strategic and international legal reasons for the United States’ position.

First, sovereignty carries with it not only rights but also obligations, many of which, notwithstanding the Obama administration’s 2013 facile recognition, the unelected regime in Mogadishu still struggles to meet in any meaningful sense. The Chief of the General Staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Field Marshal Berhanu Jula, underscored this point in an Addis Standard interview: “the Ethiopian military controls around 60 percent of Somalia’s land mass,” enabling the so-called government to stay in Mogadishu, and that “if the Ethiopian Army were to withdraw, [he] doubted that the federal government would remain.”

Second, while recognition of the ineffectual regime in Mogadishu adds little to the fight against terrorism, without it, the United States and other allies in the effort would have a freer hand.

Third, the extent to which the Mogadishu regime and its forces are themselves penetrated by terrorists and other extremists is a subject deserving separate treatment. Somalia’s cabinet includes ministers like Mukhtar Robow (aka Abu Mansur), onetime deputy leader of the Al Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab terrorist group (he left after losing a power struggle but has never renounced his ideological commitments) who once had a $5 million bounty on his head now rescinded at Mogadishu’s request. The security forces have also repeatedly proven susceptible to penetration and even cooptation by extremists. This past weekend’s attack by Al Shabaab gunmen on the SYL hotel in the most heavily fortified part of Mogadishu, close to the presidential compound, once again raised uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the regime’s security apparatus has been compromised.

Beyond its effectiveness, there is ample reason to be concerned about the Mogadishu regime’s diplomatic allegiances. While the representative of Somalia voted with the overwhelming majority of the United Nations General Assembly in 2022 to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, barely one year later, then-Foreign Minister Abshir Omar Jama traveled to Moscow to sign several agreements strengthening bilateral cooperation with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who promised to help “meet the material needs of the Somali army,” notwithstanding the UN arms embargo still in force on the country. China also considers the Mogadishu regime to be a key ally, especially given Somaliland’s strong ties with Taiwan, and Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has been quoted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry as pledging that, “Somalia firmly adheres to the one-China policy, remains an important strategic partner of China, and will continue to stand firmly with China and support China in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

All of this begs the question of why the current administration is so stubbornly bent on propping up a sclerotic, untrustworthy regime in Somalia with little legitimacy and even less effectiveness. Better relations with Ethiopia and Somaliland would contribute to regional security and prosperity.

Pulitzer-winning theater critic Walter Kerr once memorably dismissed an upstart actor as “suffering from delusions of adequacy.” Regrettably, the same can be said about the Washington bureaucracy’s dogged insistence on “one Somalia” when such an entity has not existed for more than three decades—a period now longer than the unhappy cohabitation between the former British Somaliland and Italian Somalia. Unfortunately, in the real world—where terrorism, conflict, and famine loom large over the Horn of Africa—such fantasies exact an all-too-heavy toll.

Ambassador J. Peter Pham, a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Senior Advisor at the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy, is a former U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel and Great Lakes Regions of Africa.