In May 1991, Somaliland emerged as a self-declared independent state in the aftermath of the failure and subsequent collapse of Siyad Barre’s Somalia. Although ethnically and linguistically Somalilanders are undistinguishable from their counterparts in Somalia, the republic of Somaliland has achieved an important distinction: while Somalia remains fundamentally anarchic, with no substantial national government to speak of, Somaliland is conversely peaceful, democratic, and remarkably safe by comparison. The de facto state held successful national elections in 2003 (presidential), 2005 (parliamentary), and again in 2010 (presidential). International Election Observers, along with Domestic Observers, participated in monitoring each of these processes, concluding that elections were substantially free and fair. Nevertheless, Somaliland remains internationally unrecognized and is considered under international law to be a province of non-functioning Somalia.
On November 28, 2012, Somalilander’s once again went to the polls to participate in district level elections. Representing seven political parties, nearly 2,400 candidates – including 140 women – contested 379 positions across the country. In addition to selecting district-level policymakers, the elections carried national significance: of the seven competing parties, the three that received the most votes became the only three political parties legally capable of contesting elections in Somaliland for the next decade.
Somaliland has a strong legal claim to full international recognition. In addition to the historical claim deriving from its formerly sovereign status and its capacity to govern effectively in an extremely fragile region, it fulfils the ‘Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States’ requirements for statehood: a permanent population, a defined territory, and a government with the capacity to defend and represent itself. Additionally, it held a referendum in 2001 in which some 97 percent of voters supported independence. On the ground, it is a state that palpably exists, and any scheme for reattaching it to Mogadishu is fanciful. Moreover, there are obvious regional precedents set by the separation both of Eritrea from Ethiopia and of South Sudan from Sudan. The fact that the issue remains unresolved after nearly 25 years is due, at a formal level, the (AU) claims that the republic of Somaliland failed to meet the criterion set by the African Union (AU), which states that ‘the government of the “parent” state must agree to the split’. But the (AU) forget that before the failed union, when the republic Somaliland gained its independent from the “British Protectorate” many countries and the UN recognized Somaliland as a state, consequently Somalia never been nor will ever be the parent state of Somaliland. Furthermore for much of this time, Somalia has had no government, and none of the extremely fragile regimes claiming to govern in Mogadishu have had any interest in acknowledging a right to secede that would undermine their own complex clan alliances.
A De Facto State?
While Somaliland’s prospects for international recognition may appear to be brightening, full statehood is unlikely to be achieved in the near future owing to the political calculations of relevant international actors, who calculate that recognizing Somaliland’s independence provides fewer benefits than clinging to the prospect of Somali unity while engaging in back-door cooperation with Somaliland. So far, the African Union has remained hampered by its members’ highly conservative approach to “territorial integrity” (a term that approaches surrealism with reference to Somalia), while Western countries and donors’ successive attempts to reconstruct a single Somali government through a series of “peace conferences” have proved more wasteful than effective at fostering the emergence of stability in the Horn of Africa.
In conclusion Somaliland’s government has established an impressive degree of control over the territory and population to which it legally claim. In addition to increasingly warm ties with the United States, it is clear from the above analysis that Somaliland’s authorities engage in a wide array of direct relations with regional governments, the European Union, agencies of the United Nations, and private corporations. This is more than enough to conclude that the government of Somaliland, as a de facto authority, may engage in foreign relations and could be held legally responsible, for example, in cases involving foreign investment. There is however no official designation reflecting Somaliland’s “intermediate” sovereignty, though this observation alone could bolster Somaliland’s economic prospects and thus the viability of its governing system.
Nimo Osman Abdi
The author has obtained BA in LLB from University of Hargeisa, MA in International Relations from University of Hargeisa (UoH). She can be reached at: email@example.com