Date Posted: 11-Nov-2003


Somaliland's pursuit of independence

Greg Mills

The comparative democratic and economic success of the self-declared state of Somaliland is a far cry from the collapsed regime in war-torn Somalia that ostensibly rules it. Greg Mills reports on the breakaway state's quest for autonomy.


The potholed runway and derelict MiG fighters at Hargeysa airport reveal both the extent of Somaliland's poverty and the violence of its recent history.

Although formally unrecognised the international community, Somaliland has made considerable progress in nation building over the past decade, and has challenged the conventional wisdom of maintaining African borders in spite of state failure.

Following the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in Somalia in 1991, Somaliland split from the Somalia union and declared itself a sovereign state. Since then it has functioned as a separate state and has established bilateral relations with a number of countries, including Ethiopia and Djibouti, as well as an aid relationship with some members of the EU.

Somaliland provides a stark contrast to Somalia, which is heavily armed, ungoverned and with clans both disunited yet ascendant. Somalia's porous borders and undefended coastline make it a prime concern for US policymakers in the war on terrorism. According to a UN report published in November, the 2002 terrorist attacks on a hotel and an Israeli aircraft in Kenya were planned and prepared in Somalia. The UN report produced evidence linking regional terrorism to the disintegration of the Somali state and alleges that the Kenya attacks were carried out an Al-Qaeda cell, some members of which may still be at large in Mogadishu. Another group, Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (Islamic Unity), an indigenous Somali Muslim organisation that had its assets blocked after being placed on the USA's Office of Foreign Assets Control list in 2001 and identified as having ties to Al-Qaeda, has also aroused concern.

In comparison, Somaliland is an example of an Islamic democracy in which traditionalist clan elements coexist with democrats through the Guurti (House of Elders) and the 82-member lower house. This hybrid system was the product of several years of hard bargaining between the clans before peace was established throughout the territory in 1996.

Furthermore, Somaliland provides a stable bulwark against radical Islamist elements. According to Abdillahi Mohamed Duale, the Somaliland minister of information: "Islamic fundamentalists have been curbed in Somaliland and cannot operate and play games." Or, in the words of President Dahir Riyale Kahin: "Fanatical Muslims are not a threat here and if they are, we will fight them."

Despite its successful functioning as an independent state, Somaliland lacks de jure status, and its existence is disputed by the transitional national government in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Furthermore, the African Union has given Somalia's seat to the transitional national government in spite of the fact that its rule extends to little more than north Mogadishu, its mandate to rule has expired and it has unsuccessfully pressed Somaliland to participate in the current, year-long unity talks in Nairobi - the 14th incarnation of the ongoing Somali parley. The UN has followed suit, allowing the transitional national government to represent Somalia (including Somaliland) in the General Assembly. One opposition Somaliland politician said: "The UN is the biggest enemy of secession. It treats us like offenders as committing a crime against international law. They seem to believe if they deprive Somaliland of development, then we will have to go back to Somalia."

Despite the pressure, this is not an acceptable option. Sheikh Ibrahim Yusuf Madar, the chairman of the Guurti, observed: "This will not happen even if Somaliland does not get recognition for 100 years." Muhammad Abdillahi Muhammad, governor of Berbera, the territory's main port on the Red Sea, commented: "We can never be one after the last 30 years of conflict."

The case for independence

The main obstacle to Somaliland's independence is not legal, but political, and relates partly to African states' fears of opening a Pandora's box of secessionist and irredentist claims if Somaliland is recognised. However, as long as Somaliland is left on the sidelines of statehood, it will face difficulties in maintaining its economic and political momentum - although another failed state in the region is in no one's interests, making the case for formal recognition a powerful one.

Somaliland meets the generally accepted criteria for statehood: it has a permanent population of two million within a defined territory, is able to defend itself, its largely agrarian and pastoral economy is self-sufficient, and it has the capacity to enter into relations with other states. This is more than can be said for a large number of states that are currently recognised. Indeed, if some of Africa's other poorly performing states had existed at any other period of time in African history they might have fallen apart. In Europe, weak states routinely failed, very few have not experienced boundary changes in the last 100 years, and a large number of states have changed since the end of the Cold War. Yet Africa and the greater international community cling to the notion that, somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, the current configuration of all African states can work.

Most, but not all, existing boundaries are widely accepted contemporary African communities, and in the case of Somaliland, a strong legal argument exists for its recognition as a distinct colonial territory.

Legal justification for Somaliland's independence lies in its distinct British colonial character. Eritrea was allowed to break off from Ethiopia at the end of the Ethiopian civil war in 1993 on the basis of its colonial distinctiveness. If anything, Somaliland has an even stronger case on these grounds, since it was not only a separate colonial entity but, albeit briefly, an actual independent state with formal international relations for five days in 1960 (see box).

The price of delay

The legal and political arguments about whether the self-declared and unrecognised Somaliland is and should be an independent state will continue for as long as Somalia does not function as a state - which is the scenario for the foreseeable future. But the recognition issue consumes the government, and deflects attention from other key priorities.

Somaliland faces tremendous economic challenges. Livestock has accounted for as much as US$175m (or 90%) of annual export earnings, although this has been severely hit the ban on exports to Saudi Arabia, reducing this source of income as much as 70%. Remittances from expatriate Somalilanders through hawala money transfer agents is the most important source of income, estimated at $300m annually. Foreign aid from international organisations and donors is constrained the non-recognition issue, amounting to perhaps $40m per year, half of which is from the UN and its various agencies. This offers little succour for a government whose annual budget is just $18.9m and on which the demands are great. For example, it will cost $7.5m alone just to resurface the Hargeysa airport runway, let alone attend to the myriad of health, education, water and other soft and hard infrastructure issues. Nearly half of the current budget is consumed salaries for the 15,000-strong police and military, a critical consideration in keeping the peace keeping the militias in.

However, de jure independence will not be a panacea, and recognition may well have a distorting impact on the economy if large amounts of aid flow into an environment where there is little capacity on the ground. Also, the search for recognition has also been a unifying, nation-building issue in a country with a history of violent clan divides and differences. Recognition, put simply, will not be a cure-all for every social and economic challenge. In particular, Somaliland society is blighted the impact of chat, a barbiturate leaf chewed virtually the entire male and increasing sectors of the female population. Imported mainly from Ethiopia, as much as $150m is spent on the drug annually, although its social and familial impact and effect on economic productivity is much greater.

Regional resistance

Somaliland officials are being pressured to remain unified within a single Somalia from a number of directions. Firstly, as long as it does not function as a unified government, Mogadishu is in no position to give its blessing to a separation.

There are pressures from further afield, however. Italy, as the former colonial power in Somalia, now heads up the European Commission's interests in the Horn of Africa and is pushing for unification. The EU has invested heavily in the peace talks for Somalia held in Mbaghathi, a suburb of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, which are rumoured to have cost $7-8m over the past year. This cost and the drawn-out peace process reflects the increasing complexity and number of factions battling it out in the south, from just three in 1993 to more than 50 today. Progress at Mbaghathi is also hindered personal ambitions, notably between the man in the ascendancy, Abdullahi Yusuf, the president of the Puntland territory within Somalia, and Abdiqassim Salad Hassan, the outgoing president of the transitional national government. Raqiah Omar, an analyst for Africa Rights, said: "Nairobi is a waste of time, reinforcing and giving legitimacy to the warlords giving them a platform and visibility and allowing them to manipulate the situation."

More positively, Hargeysa found its own formula for peace, political transition and development, and indigenous accomplishment outside the boundaries of the 'peacemaking industry'. It is also largely free from international assistance and conflict resolution specialists. This approach, which has stood it in good stead, also offers an important model to other African countries and external actors of what is required to win the peace - something that those seeking to assist Somalia in particular might learn leaving the clans to the south alone.

Arab states have also been unwilling to endorse independence, according to both Somaliland and Ethiopian officials. These states fear the impact of a break-up on their own politics and the removal of an Arab counterweight to orthodox Ethiopia in the region. Egypt, according to these sources, is setting the tone of the diplomatic offensive against recognition, reflecting its concerns over the politics of the Nile and offering a check on Ethiopia, where the river has its origins. Tekeda Alemu, the Ethiopian state minister for foreign affairs, said the issue also apparently provides Cairo with "a cheap way to fly the Arab flag given the political problems in the Middle East". More importantly, the lack of Arab support for Somaliland's cause makes it unlikely that the USA and/or the UK, the former colonial power, would risk damaging their ties with the Middle East deepening ties with Hargeysa.

Muted support

Somaliland's cause requires a diplomatic champion, which is proving hard to find. Those African states that favour recognition of the status quo, such as Ethiopia, are reluctant do so out of fear of the impact on regional political relationships and the worry that their lead might undermine the Somalilanders' African cause. Their support for independence is entirely understandable: Ethiopia has much to gain from continued stability in Somaliland on its northeastern border. Elsewhere, Nigeria, despite the Islamic connection, would be reluctant to pick up the cudgels on Hargeysa's behalf given its own experience with Biafran secession. In the circumstances, Somalilanders have looked to South Africa, Senegal and Kenya for diplomatic support, which until now has not been forthcoming in terms of recognition.

For Hargeysa, it is clear that apart from the psychological boost of formal diplomatic status, there is much to gain from increased investment, trade and aid flows once its status is legally confirmed. Money would probably flow into the refurbishment of Berbera's port and airport (built originally the Soviets during Siad Barre's time), political impediments to livestock exports to the Gulf could be more easily overcome, and there are also some gem mining and offshore oil prospects.

Furthermore, while the nascent democracy is succeeding, there is division within the de facto state. Following the return of political parties in 2000, and the 2001 referendum on a new constitution and independence - which were approved 97% of the electorate - the December 2002 local elections were followed the staging of presidential elections on 14 April 2003. The election was won incumbent Kahin, who received a scant, competitive majority of just 80 votes in 500,000 cast. Legislative elections are scheduled for 2005.

The question of Somaliland's independence has wide implications for Africa beyond short-term politics and technical arguments. Prudent governments in Africa and elsewhere would seek to monitor the situation closely and in situ, and would encourage and facilitate economic and infrastructure development. A stronger, stable and democratic Somaliland is in Africa's best interest. In President Kahin's words: "There are two stories on the ground - a success story and a failure. Why is the international community running after failure and not giving the same attention to success?"

BOX: The birth of Somaliland

The Somali Republic was formed out of a merger in 1960 between the former British Somaliland to the north and Italian Somalia. This was supposed to be a first step in a pan-Somali dream including other kin in Kenya (Northern Frontier District), Djibouti and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.

For five days before the merger took place, Somaliland existed as an independent state. Many in the north opposed the union, and their opportunity to challenge it came with the collapse of the Siad Barre government in January 1991. At that time, Somalia represented the best (and perhaps only) example of a collapsed state, with a complete absence of central authority.

One response to this collapse was the creation of a separate political and economic entity in the north in the geographic site of the former British sector. The Somali National Movement (SNM), formed in 1981, had fought a fierce war with Barre's force from 1988. Barre's airforce and artillery levelled Hargeysa from the city's airport, resulting in some 50,000 deaths - an act Somalilanders portray as "genocide". With the collapse of authority in southern Somalia, the SNM declared the dissolution of the union and the restoration of Somaliland as a sovereign state on 18 May 1991.

Dr Greg Mills is the National Director of the SA Institute of International Affairs and has (with Jeffrey Herbst of Princeton University) co-authored a major study on Africa, New Order in Sight? (December 2003) for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies .

2003 Jane's Information Group