By Matthew Gordon
On May 18, the people of Somaliland celebrated the 30th anniversary of their decision to unilaterally declare independence. Like the 29 such occasions before it, the jubilant fanfare was tempered by a cloud of formal diplomatic exclusion. The government of this self-ruling republic in the Horn of Africa has yet to be recognized by any United Nations member state, despite offering functional, peaceful and inclusive leadership to its citizens.
However, this time feels different. While Somaliland’s final status remains in limbo given its existence within the internationally recognized territory of Somalia, geopolitical conditions have changed, opening up unprecedented political and economic opportunities. As great power competition heats up between the United States, China and Russia, and as the Gulf Arab states race to outmaneuver rivals like Turkey and Iran for influence in East Africa, Somaliland’s strategic location—with its 860 kilometers of coastline along the Gulf of Aden—is beginning to seem like a bigger prize than the traditional Somali center of gravity, Mogadishu.
At the same time, international patience with the state-building mission in Somalia is wearing thin. Fourteen years after African Union troops embarked on the latest attempt to move Somalia beyond permanent “statelessness,” and nearly one decade after the international community recognized a Mogadishu-based government, Somalia has hardly made progress on finalizing a constitution, institutionalizing popular elections and assuming control over its own security. Instead, its signature achievement—the formation of federal member states—has failed in its three main objectives: It has neither prevented authoritarian tendencies from reemerging from the center, nor depoliticized interclan competition, nor facilitated the settlement of substantial power- and resource-sharing arrangements.
Currently, the donor community is dealing with the aftereffects of the unilateral term extension that Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed—popularly known as Farmajo—tried to engineer amid a political standoff with his opponents over delayed national elections. This latest impasse has been overcome for now, as the central government and the federal member states hammered out an agreement in late-May to hold elections within two months. But despite this short-term achievement, Somalia’s larger progress will likely continue to be held hostage by the country’s corrupt federal and regional powerbrokers, who don the legitimacy conferred upon them by the international community while working to advance their own interests, using the threat of violence as their trump card. The cycle will continue, burning through international aid funds in the process.
Things do not have to be this way, however, and Somaliland is proof of this. Formed not through international design but through the bottom-up, experimental evolution of indigenous politics, this “island of stability,” as a 2007 headline in The New York Times put it, offers a model of an alternative path for Somali governance. Last week, Somaliland held its latest round of parliamentary and local elections, a tradition of democratic governance with a two-decades history. And the government has long served as a reliable partner for Western governments in their efforts to maintain security in a volatile region.
Yet while much has been made of these achievements among journalists, think tank analysts and academics, their implications continue to be treated as a sideshow to the fanfare and political drama of Mogadishu. The prevailing wisdom among world powers calls for addressing the most serious and imminent threats first—in this case, the lawlessness and terror that pervades southern Somalia, where the militant Islamist group al-Shabab controls large swaths of territory—and only then moving on to less pressing issues like Somaliland’s final status. For now, Somaliland has been told to bide its time and stay the course.
The trouble is, the Somaliland question cannot be put off much longer. The government has not sat idly by as its people suffer from widespread unemployment and the ravages of climate change. Instead, it has sought out patrons and investors, such as the Emirati logistics giant DP World, which has committed $442 million to upgrade the port of Berbera. Somaliland also signed an agreement with the United Arab Emirates to host a military base—before reportedly pulling back from it in September 2019, opting to turn the partially built facility into a civilian airport instead—and has entertained other suitors desiring a military presence on its territory.
These developments have been celebrated in many quarters, particularly within Somaliland, but ominous signs linger. Major investment deals like the one with DP World have largely bypassed the country’s democratic institutions, raising concerns about corruption while strengthening the autocratic tendencies of Somaliland’s ruling elite, including President Muse Bihi Abdi and his allies. And while great power competition does not seem likely to destabilize Somaliland anytime soon, it does risk entangling the small nation in webs of dependency and foreign influence.
So far, the firmly entrenched social contract on which Somaliland was founded, based around informal intercommunal negotiations and consensus-based politics, has largely resisted these tendencies, providing foundations of accountability and ensuring that electoral processes remain on course. The government’s decision to halt construction of the Emirati military base and repurpose it for civilian use is likely, in part, the result of these pressures. However, unchecked inflows of foreign resources and military build-ups present opportunities for Somaliland’s leadership to bypass mechanisms of accountability, raising the real danger that the entire fragile edifice on which Somaliland is built could unravel. The increased tendency of the country’s leaders to resort to arresting journalists and political opponents underlines how force has at times come to replace dialogue within Somaliland’s politics, exacerbating social divisions in the process.
The last thing the international community wants right now is another headache in the Horn, with Ethiopia’s descent into civil war compounding existing volatility in Somalia and Sudan. Somaliland has in many ways served as a linchpin of stability in the region, limiting the extent to which various national conflicts feed off each other, but it needs support to continue playing this role. Without a concerted and proactive approach to Somaliland from the rest of the world, the country risks being swept up in the vicissitudes of a volatile region.
This will require a shift in policy on the part of major donor governments like the U.S., U.K. and the European Union. For starters, they should prioritize engagement with Somaliland, in particular by finally jumpstarting a bespoke diplomatic process by which Somaliland might have its case for independence heard and adjudicated. This would be superior to the current approach to the Somaliland question, which relies on a moribund dialogue between it and the Mogadishu-based government. While on paper offering an opportunity for local actors to work out their differences, in reality, the process has trapped Somaliland in directionless discussions dictated by the pace of a disingenuous Somali leadership.
A 2005 African Union fact-finding mission to Somaliland, whose report advised the continental body to pursue “a special method of dealing with this outstanding case,” could point toward an African-led blueprint for a way forward. This could include, as the International Crisis Group proposed in 2006, the African Commission’s nomination of a special envoy tasked specifically to resolve the dispute over Somaliland’s status, whose consultations and findings would be reported to the AU Peace and Security Council to pursue further.
To foreground Somaliland is not to abandon Somalia’s recovery, but rather to inject new life into it. By taking the onus of deciding Somaliland’s status away from the government in Somalia and presenting the Somaliland people with an opportunity to decide their own fate, the international community will provide new benchmarks for what legitimate and credible Somali politics should look like. This will place newfound pressure, expectations and layers of accountability on the floundering governing elite in Mogadishu, forcing them to prove their fitness to govern rather than presuming such a preordained right. They need no longer be treated as the “only game in town.”
After opening a diplomatic process through which to adjudicate and manage Somaliland’s final status, it will then be up to Somalia to prove to the Somaliland people that they are better off together, thus incentivizing political change within Somalia in order to win hearts and minds. It will also show average Somalis that another kind of politics is possible, one based on a social contract between communities rather than through external imposition. In the short-term, it will open diplomatic space for Somaliland to better support international efforts to fight piracy and terrorism, while enabling Somalilanders to lend their locally led peacebuilding experience to Somalia.
After 30 years of slowly growing in stature and ambition, Somaliland is now too well-established to ignore, and its people are as devoted to self-determination as ever. The international community can choose to embrace this reality, and ensure Somaliland has a smooth entry into the formal international system, including peaceful future relations with Somalia. Or it can maintain its hands-off approach, gambling that the conservative status quo holds and does not engulf this rare gem of liberal democracy within the tempests that surround it. The choice remains open, for now, and the future of all Somali people hangs in the balance.
Matthew Gordon is currently completing his doctorate in politics and international studies at SOAS, University of London. He has a decade of experience working on Somaliland and Somalia, including as a diplomatic adviser to Somaliland’s Foreign Ministry and as a specialist on local governance with the U.N. Development Program and the Rift Valley Institute.