You Think You Know Somalia? Meet Somaliland


When people think of Somalia, they think of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down. They think of South Park’s “Somalian Pirates We” episode. They even think of (sigh) Pirates of the Caribbean. What they don’t usually know is that Somalia has three extremely different regions, and that one of those regions is a fully functional unrecognized state.

The first region, Somalia, is the southern half of the former Italian Somaliland colony. This is the area most people think of, with Mogadishu and Islamic warlords and perpetually failing transitional governments (we’ll see about the new government formed in August 2012 in a few years). The tip of the country, to the north of the old Italian colony, is Puntland. Puntland is autonomous, governing itself with a central government, but it is not seeking independence.

The third section is Somaliland, the former British colony part of Somalia. It is a fully functioning state in all but name. They have an innovative legislature, a successful democratic system, an army and navy, and a presidency that has gone through several peacefully transfers of power. Sure, it is poor, but it conducts itself better than most states at its level of development. Its current development is actually being held up by the lack of recognition, as it cannot gain access to international loans or support for its currency.

Somaliland fits the definition of a state: it is a politically unified group of people that share a territory. Plus, it handles its own national defense – dealing with pirates and disarming militant tribal groups – effectively. It provides for public goods, and enables the private sector to do so when it cannot afford to. It has a strong shared history and common identity; they were a separate colony from the rest of Somalia, they were once before their own independent recognized country for a week in 1960, and they fought together against the dictator Siad Barre through the 1970s and 80s. Finally, it acts like a state on the world stage, with a foreign minister and multiple foreign delegations that have traveled to the U.S., Ethiopia, the UK, and elsewhere seeking recognition.

So why isn’t this nation recognized by any government or intergovernmental organization in the world? Mostly, they are all holding off for the regional IGO, the African Union (AU) to recognize them first. There are two reasons that the AU cites for not recognizing Somaliland: that it goes against the tradition of respecting original borders, and that it will encourage other unrecognized nations to try to attain statehood.

First, not recognizing Somaliland goes against the tradition of respecting original borders. OK, I should explain a bit. No African state wants anyone to reexamine their old colonial borders, even though those borders are often arbitrary and cut through traditional ethnic lines. Why not? Because their colonial borders are overreaching, and if the borders are reexamined, the current states will lose more territory to new countries than they would gain. However, Somaliland and the rest of Somalia were separate colonies. They were even separate countries for a brief time before voluntarily uniting. When the united country concentrated all power in the south, then was taken over by a dictator, Somaliland decided they wanted out of that union. They then had to fight a war to get out, which they won. Now the international community won’t recognize that independence.

As to the other point – that it will encourage other unrecognized nations to try to attain statehood – Somaliland’s situation is a unique one. As explained above, their history and the completeness of their national institutions make their case a hard one to duplicate. Even then, what about when Eritrea and South Sudan gained independence? Besides, this is a classic slippery slope argument; they’re the ones with the power to decide exactly which states are recognized, so even if it is a slippery slope, they’ve got pretty solid climbing spikes to stop the slide.

This is not to say there is no reason we should be cautious in supporting recognition. Vast cash flows will flow through the country as aid and loans pour in after recognition. Many theorize that this will strain the democracy and create incentive for factions to seize power in the government. I believe they can take it, however. They have surprised the West before with their tenacity. The Somaliland people have gone through extremely close elections, reluctant lame ducks, tribal divisions, armed militants, and piracy over the last 20 years without losing touch of their democracy. Let’s not doom them to failure before we give them a chance.

If I can suggest something to you, the American people, it is to pay attention to what is happening in Somalia. It is a complicated and fascinating area, and it deserves attention. Oh, and part of it happens to be a huge Al-Qaeda stronghold (ah, so now you pay attention).