In every election in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, a question re-emerges: will its democratic, multi-party elections – which present a stark exception in the region and across Africa more broadly – bring about long-awaited international recognition?
A de facto state with no recognition
The municipal and parliamentary elections at the start of June this year were won by opposition parties and coincided with the 30th anniversary of Somaliland’s declaration of independence. Despite this, although treated as a de facto state by many, it has never achieved international recognition.
For instance, Britain, Turkey, the UAE, Ethiopia and Djibouti have opened up consulates in the country. Thailand has gone further, exchanging full diplomatic recognition with Somaliland. This may be seen as part of its attempt to alleviate its isolation in Africa, imposed by China.
The complex history behind Somaliland’s independence bid
There are various political, historical and legal dimensions to the issue of Somaliland’s independence from Somalia. These have roots in the formation of the nation-state in the Somali region from the early days of colonisation. The colonial administrators laid foundations for a modern state in this region in the 1940s, establishing local councils headed by tribal leaders.
“The colonial administrators laid foundations for a modern state in this region in the 1940s”
Historically, the region had no centralised form of rule: tribal and Islamic authorities ruled in different parts of the land before European colonisation. Even with the arrival of the colonial powers, no unified central rule was established over all of the historic Somali lands because the colonialists were intent on dividing the land into five parts.
France and Britain both wanted to control the transport routes in the Horn of Africa in order to secure the Suez Canal. Italy on the other hand wanted a colony similar to the British colony of Kenya, in order to show its European peers that it was one of the great colonial nations.
This colonial equation led to the ‘British Somaliland Protectorate’ being established under British rule, while Italy colonised South Somalia and France controlled what is present-day Djibouti. Ethiopia and Kenya divided western Somalia and what was later called the North-Eastern Province of Kenya among themselves.
“The concept of a state in its nationalist format didn’t crystalise until independence at the start of the 60s”
However, the concept of a state in its nationalist format didn’t crystalise until independence at the start of the 60s. At that time, Somaliland – the first of the historic Somali territories to gain independence – hastened to unify immediately with South Somalia.
This had remained under Italian rule until the end of World War II, after which it became a “trust territory” administered through the United Nations Trusteeship Council. The two territories quickly formed a united nation-state. They aspired to gather all five parts of the Somali territories, a hope symbolized by the Somali flag which has at its centre a five-pointed star.
The colonial legacy: a state doomed from the start
The fragile Somali nation-state suffered multiple structural and geopolitical problems from the outset. One issue concerned the borders of the state as they appeared in regional and continental charters.
Somalia never accepted the colonial borders drawn for it upon its establishment, in contrast to every other state in the continent except Morocco. It has therefore refused to sign any of the regional contracts aimed at preserving them. The reason behind this is that Britain parcelled off parts of historic Somalia as gifts to the neighbouring lands (present-day Ethiopia and Kenya) during its colonial administration and the borders drawn preserve this historic theft.
From the start, this situation sparked recurring conflict over two of Somalia’s historic provinces which officially lie within the sovereignty of Kenya and Ethiopia. This situation led to the deterioration of Somalia’s economic and military capabilities and formed a formidable obstacle in the way of peaceful relations with its neighbours.
The borders were not the only problem of the new state.
The newly formed national elites failed, alongside others, to establish solid foundations upon which to build a nation. Tribal and regional conflict flared up as various factions and individuals tried to seize positions of authority. Numerous coup attempts were also mounted, aiming to break up the unity, like the coup of 1961 which was led by officers from the northern region (Somaliland) – one year after unification. These events heralded the demise of the nation-building project.
As the Somali state entered the grip of military rule, tribal divisions became further inflamed. In 1977 Siad Barre plunged the country into a devastating war with Ethiopia, suffering a crushing defeat which spurred Somalia’s descent into civil war.
The regime was faced with all-out war in the northern region, and bombarded the cities mercilessly – Hargeisa (the capital of Somaliland) has been often referred to as “the Dresden of Africa”, a reference to the German city Dresden which was heavily bombed by Britain and America in 1945 during World War II.
“Britain parcelled off parts of historic Somalia as gifts to the neighbouring lands during its colonial administration and the borders drawn preserve this historic theft”
Somaliland’s bid for independence came to the fore as a natural response to the above events and the effective collapse of the Somali state.
Since declaring independence in 1991, Somaliland has attempted to fulfil the criteria deemed necessary for a modern state and has requested to join the international community, arguing that it is based within the borders of the previous “British Somaliland Protectorate” which was granted independence on 26 June 1960. It united just days later on 1 July 1960, with the ex-Italian Somali colony. Thirty-one years later, it demanded this voluntary unification be cancelled when it declared independence.
Somaliland has put forward numerous justifications for independence. It argues that Somalilanders have always been denied the right to governmental representation in the unity government. They also point to the legal loopholes which accompanied unification which technically render it illegitimate from the very beginning.
But Somalilanders acknowledge that however strong the justifications, it won’t necessarily entail the success of independence. Furthermore, Somaliland has not been given official recognition by any state or international body in the world despite having fulfilled the necessary prerequisites for the founding of a state according to the Montevideo Convention of 1933.
This includes four criteria: permanent resident population, defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. The argument for independence posits that it has fulfilled these measures. However, and as is made clear by many other examples in the world, fulfilment of these measures won’t grant automatic recognition as an independent state, Somaliland is a stark example of this.
Ambivalence from the international community
The international community’s position on Somaliland’s bid for independence is ambivalent. While praising the stability of its democratic political model it nevertheless refuses to recognise it as a state. This is the opposite approach to that taken with cases like South Sudan and Eritrea, where the international community and continental bodies (like the African Union) intervened on the side of secession.
At the same time, the world shows no enthusiasm for forcing Somaliland to reunite with Somalia, as with other cases where the international parties intervened on the side of the “mother state”. This was the case with Biafra in Nigeria in the late 60s when the African Union considered Biafra’s secession declaration a threat to African interests.
The same happened with the Comoros islands when Mohamed Bacar appointed himself president and declared the independence of Anjouan in 2008. In response, the African Union intervened militarily alongside Sudan, Tanzania and Senegal, with logistical support from Libya and France: ending the secession attempt.
Western priorities, in particular those of the United States, lie in restoring a functioning state in Somalia, combatting terrorist organisations there and getting rid of non-state actors on the Somali political scene. The US and the other western forces have passed the matter of Somaliland’s independence to the African Union.
“The recent elections, hailed as free and fair, justify holding a popular referendum to determine the fate of the region”
New approach needed
The African Union refuses to budge from its traditional stance: a rejection of secessionist movements in Africa. It needs a new approach to the issue of Somaliland, taking into consideration its legal, political and historical complications. It even sent a fact-finding delegation to the region in 2005, and its report recommended the right of Somaliland to recognition as a state. However, the report has not been followed up at an official level.
If the African Union refuses to intervene when it comes to sovereignty changes on the continent, and the same lack of action is shown by other international actors to push the two sides towards a final settlement, then this conflict will continue.
Some international lawyers have suggested that if this is the case Somaliland could head to the highest judicial body in the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, as happened with Kosovo. It is likely that if this happens, its case will be accepted.
The recent elections, hailed as free, fair and democratically run by the international and African delegations which came to monitor them, justify the holding of a popular referendum to determine the fate of the region. Doing so could offer a solution to the chronic crisis in the Horn of Africa which has lasted over three decades.
Suhaib Mahamoud is a Somali writer and researcher based in Doha, Qatar. He writes for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister publication