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Published On: Sat, Sep 17th, 2016

Somaliland’s Sovereignty – Why Professor Woodward is Wrong to Advise Caution

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Somaliland’s Sovereignty – Why Professor Woodward is Wrong to Advise Caution

There was an article which appeared in the Australian journal “THE CONVERSATION” on 9th September 2016 titled “Somaliland wants to secede – here’s why caution is necessary” penned by Peter Robert Woodward, Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Reading.  Both the Professor’s impressive academic credentials and the equally impressive list of partners and funders of THE CONVERSATION (i.e. The Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation [ CSIRO], various Australian universities, Victoria State Government, Commonwealth Bank of Australia et al) attach a certain weight and credibility to the piece as evidenced by the fact that it has been reprinted by various news outlets within and outside Africa as a learned op-ed on Somaliland’s quest for international recognition of its sovereignty.

Professor Woodward’s piece, as is evident from the title, seeks to outline the principal reasons that the international community should view Somaliland’s recovery of its nationhood negatively.  This is his opinion and he certainly has every right to voice it – that is not the issue.  What is at issue, however, is the veracity, logic and consistency of the arguments he presents to support this opinion, and this piece seeks to critically examine these factors. The first issue to examine regarding the piece lies in the title itself, i.e. the statement “Somaliland wants to secede…”.

The simple fact is that Somaliland recovered its nationhood in 1991 when the Somali National Movement (SNM) evicted the Somali National Army from its territory and a national conference of the clan elders of all the clans represented in that country declared the recovery of Somaliland’s sovereignty and simultaneously the union with the ex-UN Trust Territory to the south (i.e. Somalia) null and void.  This decision was ratified in a public referendum in 2001 wherein the Constitution of Somaliland, which has the reinstatement of the country’s sovereignty as its first article, was affirmed by 97% of the voters. In addition, no government or other authority in Somalia, legal or clandestine, has exercised any power or control over Somaliland territory since the eviction of the dictator’s army in 1991.

Thus, the first statement in the title – that Somaliland wants to secede – is factually incorrect since Somaliland has dissolved its union with Somalia de facto and de jure. This is not a mere debating point, but a critical foundation for the arguments put forward in the piece regarding the advisability of the proposed secession.  The fact that Somaliland has been an independent, functioning state in control over its territory and population; with representative government (both local and national); with separation of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary for over a quarter of a century somewhat gives the lie to the phrase “wants to”.  Somaliland has established peace, reconciliation and representative government for its overwhelmingly young population, the vast majority of which have never known union with Somalia, and in fact view such an eventuality with outright hostility.

The second fallacy in the title is contained in the word “secede”.  Secede, with respect to political usage of the term, usually references the withdrawal of a territory or region from a nation-state of which it has always formed an integral part.  It is not commonly used with respect to independent, legal entities that agreed to unite to form a new nation-state.  For example, the short-lived United Arab Republic (UAR), formed by the union of Egypt and Syria in 1958 was dissolved when Syria withdrew from the union and reasserted its sovereignty in 1961.  This withdrawal of Syria from the ill-fated union with Egypt was not seen as a secession, but as a reassertion or recovery by Syria of its national status.  Also, the recent referendum in Scotland was not characterised as one on Scottish secession, but as one on Scottish independence in recognition of the fact that Scotland was an independent nation before it voluntarily united with Britain to form the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.

Somaliland, like the examples of Syria and Scotland with respect to the UAR and the Kingdom of Great Britain respectively, voluntarily united with ex-UN Trust Territory of Somalia on 1st July 1960 (when the said territory gained its independence) to form the Republic of Somalia.  The State of Somaliland had gained its independence from Britain some five days earlier on 26th June 1960, and had been recognised by the UN and some 35 countries including Britain, USA, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  To delve further into the history of the region, the British Somaliland Protectorate was established as a politico-legal entity in 1888 with the signature of treaties of protection between the Somali clans inhabiting the territory defined in the said treaties and Great Britain, while Italian Somaliland was established with similar treaties of protection between Italy and the Sultanates of Hobyo and Majerteen in 1888 and 1889 respectively.  In 1908, Italy enacted a basic law to unite all of the parts of southern Somalia into an area called “Somalia Italiana” and the Italian colony of Somalia was established, whereas in Somaliland the treaty of protection remained in force with minimal British interference in Somali domestic matters, under the colonial doctrine of ‘indirect rule’, until independence in 1960.

Thirdly, the piece misstates the principle underlying the objection of the AU and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), to secessions from member states as follows.

“The most frequently heard argument against secession is that granting the right to one country invites others to take the same step….This, the argument goes, would put at risk the internationally recognised system of post-colonial states in Africa.”

In point of fact, the issue of the territorial integrity of the nation-states of modern Africa, which were determined by European colonial rulers based upon factors which had nothing whatsoever to do with the imperatives or wishes of the African inhabitants of the continent, was debated in the early 1960s immediately after the creation of the OAU.  It was proposed that national borders be redrawn to accommodate ethnic, tribal and linguistic affiliations, which were ignored by the colonial boundaries, and so create more culturally homogenous (and therefore more politically stable – it was assumed) nation-states.  After much debate, this proposal was rejected in favour of retaining the existing colonial borders in order to avoid interminable and wasteful political turmoil as fractious and competing claims for sovereignty based upon tribal, ethnic and linguistic affiliations were presented and disputed.  Thus, was established the OAU/AU principle of the inviolability of the colonial borders.

What Professor Woodward, and many others, fail to realise in their simplistic analysis of Somaliland’s case for independence is that Somaliland is in fact applying this AU principle of the inviolability of the colonial borders, since these very borders divided the Somali people among five political territories: the British Somaliland Protectorate (Somaliland), the Italian Colony of Somalia (Somalia), French Somaliland (present-day Djibouti), the Somali Province of Ethiopia (present-day 5th Province of the Ethiopian Federation) and the NFD (present-day North Eastern Province of Kenya).  The fact is that there was no Somali Republic until Somaliland and Somalia, as two independent countries, chose to unite in what was envisaged as the first step towards the creation of Greater Somalia which would include all the above-mentioned five territories.  In addition, there are serious legal deficiencies with respect to the union of the two countries which further buttress Somaliland’s reassertion of its sovereignty and weaken the position of those that maintain the validity the failed union.

Somaliland united with Somalia through an Act of Union which simply merged the legislatures of the two countries to create the Somali Republic on 1st July 1960 – the   day the ex-Italian colony obtained its independence from the United Nations on whose behalf Italy had been administering the country.  The Act of Union was to be ratified by a new constitution to evidence the new Republic and adopted through a nationwide plebiscite encompassing both Somaliland and Somalia.  The new constitution was put to a vote in July 1961, and it was ratified by large majority in the ex-UN Trust Territory, but was rejected by an equally solid majority in the ex-British Protectorate, due to dissatisfaction over the terms of the union in the Protectorate.  Thus, the Act of Union was never ratified by the people of Somaliland, effectively rendering the Act of Union ultra vires.  No remedy to this gaping hole in the legal establishment of the Somali Republic was ever subsequently attempted, leaving many legal scholars and Somalilanders to question the legality and validity of the union itself.

Fourthly, the piece makes much of the problem of border disputes between the new state and the country from which it “seceded” as a negative factor, citing the examples of Abyei in South Sudan and Badme in Eritrea.  A glaring error here is that the piece states that

In 1988 there was an issue over Badme, a small town near the Ethiopian border which Eritrea claimed was theirs.

In fact, the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea over Badme was in 1998 and not 1988.  The fact that the piece then goes on to equate this “dispute” with the 1977/78 war between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Somali-populated eastern 5th Province of Ethiopia leads one to conclude that this is not simply a typographical error, but contains a fundamental misreading of these two wars.  The former is a dispute between two belligerent states over a border town that both sides claim – there is no ethnic conflict underlying the dispute since the people which inhabit not only Badme but the region within which it is located are ethnic Tigray which are represented in both countries.

It is also a fact that the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia is documented, as are nearly all other African borders, through reference to colonial maps which laid out the respective possessions or territorial protections of the European imperial powers.  Thus, after the International Court of Justice at The Hague adjudicated on the war (ruling that Eritrea started the border war) the Eritrea–Ethiopia Boundary Commission, a body founded by the UN, ruled that Badme belongs to Eritrea in 2002.

By contrast, the Somalia-Ethiopia War of 1977/78 is an ethnic, religious and cultural dispute which had endured over centuries (at least since the time of Ahmed Gurey in the 15th century), and in which imperial politics played a prominent role in the modern era as Britain ceded this Somali-populated territory to Haile Selassie in 1948 in recognition of his support against fascist Italy during World War II. Also, the 1977/78 war between Ethiopia and Somalia predated the re-establishment of Somaliland’s sovereignty by some thirteen years, so the relevance of this war to Somaliland’s recovery of its nationhood is a mystery that the piece doesn’t even deign to establish.  The fact is that Somaliland has never claimed any portion of Ethiopia’s 5th Province and in fact relations between Somaliland and Ethiopia are very close, with Ethiopia extending to Somaliland the status of an independent country, albeit unofficially, and allows it to maintain an “embassy” in Addis Ababa.

Finally, the piece argues that the economies of Eritrea and South Sudan have suffered greatly because of their separation from Ethiopia and Sudan respectively, and thus intimates a similar fate for Somaliland.  The fact is that both these new states have suffered economically not because of their separation, but because of self-inflicted wounds which their erstwhile rulers (and new friends) have exacerbated, if not encouraged outright.  In the case of Eritrea, the ELF/EPLF government that came into power to popular acclaim after independence, chose a path of regional belligerence, domestic autocracy and international isolation instead of economic development and representative government.  In the case of South Sudan, after the untimely death of the unifying and charismatic figure of John Garang, the ruling, political elite of the new country devolved into competing gangs for the economic spoils of office which have divided along tribal lines between President Kiir and Vice-President Machar.  This descent into tribal warfare which has condemned the tired and destitute population of that country to murder, mayhem and despair has been fomented and manipulated for gain by neighbouring countries (including Sudan) and nefarious, corporate interests including international oil companies, mining & mineral companies and arms suppliers, not to mention foreign powers.

By contrast, the piece makes no mention of the fact that Somaliland has established a vibrant and growing economy with no foreign investment and very little in foreign aid. This has been achieved due largely to two principal engines of growth – remittances and investment from a large diaspora which is estimated at around US$600-700 million per annum; and livestock exports to the Arabian Gulf (principally Saudi Arabia) which generate around US$250-300 million per annum.  This lack of foreign aid and international debt has forced the Somaliland Government to maintain relatively tight fiscal control due to low tax revenues, while private sector investment in all sectors, i.e. industry, trade and services, has flourished.  It is interesting to note that Somaliland’s status as an unrecognised country has necessitated public sector frugality coupled with a vibrant and creatively entrepreneurial private sector that some observers cite as a potentially alternative model for economic development.

In conclusion, and with all deference to Professor Woodward, one has to conclude that his piece contributes little to a learned examination of the “secessions” of Eritrea and South Sudan, while his admonitions for caution with respect to Somaliland’s quest for international recognition for the recovery of its sovereignty are based upon little or no knowledge of the country’s history, the merits of its case for international recognition or its achievements during the last quarter century.

It is important to point out that independence (or “secession” in Professor Woodward’s formulation) is never “granted” as he posits, but rather is won by people seeking self-determination.  The people of Somaliland undertook and successfully fought a decade-long War of Independence against the largest standing army in tropical Africa; they endured a calculated and well documented campaign of genocide by the Siyad Barre’s military dictatorship; and they established peace and reconciliation in their war-ravaged and devastated country after recovering their sovereignty.

During the last 25 years, they have patiently rebuilt their lives and their country as the world ignored them and their achievements to shower untold billions upon the warlords and carpetbaggers that claim to lead successive “governments” in Mogadishu which are not only established in foreign capitals, but have to be maintained in their own capital by foreign forces.  The people of Somaliland have regained their nationhood and they will never surrender it again – that is a simple, irrefutable fact – the question is when the world will accept this reality and enable them to contribute to the solutions for ending the conflicts of their region and the uplifting of its peoples.


Ahmed M.I. Egal

September 2016


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