At times Britain comes as part maiden aunt and part suitor, ever ready to chide and reproach when displeased and occasionally desperate to please, almost to the point of embarrassment. Blowing hot and cold with its advances it is little wonder that the various Somali territories sometimes feel decidedly non- plussed. A democratic advance made by Somalia is often lauded to the heavens, yet progress in Somaliland invariably receives polite and respectful acknowledgement. Little wonder than that some in Somaliland are beginning to tire of the UK’s diplomatic manoeuvres.
Many in Hargeisa feel that for all the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s warm words there is little real hope of any courageous move on Britain’s part, maybe the intellectual lock-in is just too strong. Diplomats just cannot help endeavouring to envision a world where states fall neatly into line, and this currently means a united and compliant Somalia – albeit one still shorn of traditional Somali lands that now form part of Ethiopia and Kenya. History can be so frightfully inconvenient, but as ever context is king. Somaliland’s suffering at the hands of the Mohamed Siad Barre regime continues to loom large and the FCO ignores this and its significance at its peril.
Realpolitik demands a new pragmatism, the world rewrites itself daily, something that the Brexit vote has brought home in spades, yet still an institutional myopia persists when it comes to Somaliland. Each year there is some fresh excuse for the FCO to appear displeased or to damn Somaliland with faint praise. If only the bright and not-so-bright young things at the British Foreign Office knew the damage that they do.
Such is the diplomatic merry-go-round that few diplomatic are in post much longer than the time it takes to get a handle on which Somali clan is which. Those who demonstrate any real aptitude for understanding the Horn of Africa are invariably moved on for fear they might actually initiate something meaningful. Formulaic diplomacy may well work in theoretical case studies, but in real life? Well, that is something else altogether.
Somaliland like the UK falls short on certain things, its democracy is imperfect. There are legitimate reasons to chastise Somaliland over human wrongs and it’s propensity of postponing elections. Then again if Britain was labouring under a devastating drought and famine I can say with certainty that voter registration and an election would come well down a civilian government’s list of priorities.
In the fullness of time there will be a realisation and acceptance that accepting Somaliland wish for self-determination and sovereignty is not an act of aggression towards Somalia, rather part of the healing process. Somaliland and Somalia will always have something of a shared heritage, in the same way that the UK and the Irish Republic do. There will always some who will be intent on fermenting discord, but Somalis are Somalis where ever they reside and they will not allow the politics of others to return them to a dark place that can only result in misery and death. Hence the need for pragmatism and an end to the megaphone diplomacy from Somali politicians that has more to do with appealing to local audiences than it does to reason. Somaliland and Somalia are perfectly capable of peaceful co-existence, and it would help if true friends of the region accepted this, rather than trying to an engineer a situation that flies in the face both of history and a sizeable number of Somalis.
There will come a time when certain countries will have the courage to defy the African Union and recognise Somaliland, when they do there will be a rush to follow suit. The UK is unlikely to do this prior to leaving the EU, but when it does there will be initial indignation and protest from Somalia and then after a few weeks things will return to normal. When it comes to Somaliland’s recognition, it is not a question of if but when. For the time being energies need to be expended helping all who are suffering as a result of the regional drought and famine. After all drought and famine care little for cartographical disputes, political borders or different flags. When it comes to offering assistance Britain is already in the vanguard of donors and is likely to remain so – all Somalis would do well to remember this.
Mark T. Jones
Experienced Advisor on Leadership, Organisational Development and African Affairs