In Africa, What Does It Take to Be a Country?
By Jeffrey Herbst
Friday, January 2, 2004;
At least a small part of the future of Africa is being played out
in Somaliland, the northwest portion of Somalia that declared its
independence in 1991. In its bustling but impoverished capital of
Hargeysa, the most striking contrast with most African cities is the
sense of order. Police -- who, given their salaries, are almost
volunteers -- stand in the hot sun and direct obedient drivers.
Money-changers sit on the side of the street with huge piles of cash
visible, waiting for customers.
Order is supposed to be the defining characteristic of a state,
but Somaliland is recognized by no country in the world as a
sovereign entity. Instead, the world insists on clinging to the
fiction that Somalia has a government that rules over a united
territory. Understanding why the world pretends that Somaliland does
not exist tells us much about the foibles of the international
politics of recognition.
Somaliland was a British protectorate during the colonial period.
In 1960, during the rush to decolonization, Somaliland was
independent for five days before joining with former Italian
Somaliland to create the Somali Republic. In 1989 the government of
thug-President Mohamed Siad Barre declared war on Somaliland because
of fears that the Somalilanders wanted to go it alone. Government
fighters, taking off from the Hargeysa airport, systematically
bombed the city, destroying just about every building. In an event
all but unnoticed by the international community, 50,000 people were
killed and approximately 500,000 of the population of 2 million
became refugees in neighboring Ethiopia.
For several years, strife and conflict continued, but Somaliland
persevered. Order was gradually restored and a government formed;
the refugees returned and embarked on a long process of rebuilding.
In 2001, 98 percent of voters opted in a free and fair election for
a new constitution that boldly proclaimed the case for independence.
Somaliland then had successful, internationally monitored, local
council elections in 2002 and a free and fair presidential election
in April 2003. The presidential election was most notable because
the ruling UDUB party, led by President Dahir Rayale Kahin, won by
only 217 votes out of almost 500,000 cast. The opposition party
KULMIYE challenged the tally but, in a moment of extraordinary
responsibility given Somalia's history of having weapons resolve
almost every conflict, eventually accepted the results. Somaliland
is planning parliamentary elections this year (the legislature is
currently appointed). At that point, it will have a far more
impressive democracy than most African countries.
One would think that the natural response of the outside world to
the extraordinary accomplishments of the Somalilanders would be
respect and recognition, especially because Somalia still does not
have a government and is still in absolute ruins a decade after one
of the most expensive humanitarian interventions in history. That is
not the logic of the Horn of Africa. About the only thing that the
southern Somalis can agree on is that they do not want Somaliland to
secede. The rest of Africa has not been of any more help. One of the
decisions that African leaders took at independence was to retain
the irrational boundaries they had received from colonialists,
because they could not think of anything better and because they
thought that any credence given to self-determination would cause
the continent to descend into chaos. The permanence of boundaries
has become a major asset for African leaders who do not have to
prove that they control their territories or even that they are a
legitimate government in order to be granted international
recognition and sovereign equality.
The Somalilanders made their own peace without the benefit of
international mediators and conflict resolution experts. Of course,
they still face extraordinary problems. Literacy may only be 30
percent; education for girls is left to Koranic schools; significant
parts of the government are corrupt; just about all men have weapons
at home and a good many of them spend much of their income and
afternoons chewing kat leaves, an addictive stimulant imported from
Ethiopia. In addition, the recent killing of an Italian nurse and a
British couple raised concerns across Somaliland that it is still
vulnerable to terrorist attacks from those who are determined not to
let secession go forward.
Nevertheless, recognizing Somaliland would be a strong signal to
the rest of Africa that performance matters and that sovereignty
granted in the 1960s will not be an excuse to fail forever. Few
regions of any African country actually want to secede; thus the
world could recognize the achievements and legal idiosyncrasies of
Somaliland without experiencing massive disruptions of Africa's map.
The Somalilanders, almost unanimously, ask what more they can do
when the international community continues to recognize Liberia,
Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of the Congo and other anarchic,
violent places as sovereign units. It is time to give them an
Jeffrey Herbst is chairman of the department of politics at