A Bright Spot in a Dreary Neighborhood

After having been in Somaliland, one of the world’s most advanced unrecognized countries, for well over three years I have thought much about what it means to be a state, to have your independence, to maintain your sovereignty and many related issues.

In short, Somaliland’s history breaks down like this. Somaliland (now) was known before as British Somaliland and as any astute reader may be able to understand from the glaring connotations it was a British colony. What is now the rest of Somalia (known together as Puntland and South-Central for those of us who work on and/or live in the territory of the former Republic of Somalia) was at the same time known as Italian Somaliland. In 1960 when independence movements were sweeping the world (in the US we just called them the civil rights movements, in Africa they were “real” independence movements), Both of the former colonies received their independence within 5 days of each other in the summer of 1960. British Somaliland was a stand-alone entity for five days, afterward it formed a union with the former Italian colony based upon the notion that all five of the Somali areas (modern-day Djibouti, eastern Ethiopia, Somaliland, the former Italian colony, and the North-Eastern part of Kenya) would unite to form a republic for the Somali people.

Things didn’t end up turning out as the Somali elites at the time had hoped. The French did not give up Djibouti until much later. Ethiopia and Kenya were worried about their hetergenous populaces and if they allowed the Somalis to break away each of the tribes or nations within their countries would demand similar treatment. The US wasn’t the only one in the 1960′s worried about Domino Effects.

The Northerners (formerly British Somalilanders, who currently identify as Somalilanders), though leading the push for unification with the South were mismatched and could not compete for their pro rata places throughout the elite of Somali society. They ended up being dominated in almost every facets of country-wide politics by (to them) outsiders and they were not given the opportunity to participate properly.

After a long series of events the Northerners formed a rebel group in the mid- / late-1980s (depending on how you classify “formed”) which was called the Somali National Movement. It was dominated by Northern elites, but its stated purpose was to overthrow the dictator of the time, Siad Barre. Again things did not turn out as the elites expected. The populace of the Northern tribes, after the SNM drove Siad’s forces (mostly) out of their region demanded that SNM “reinstate” the independence which the Northerners had gained when the British lowered their flags. The SNM leadership, reliant upon cash from the diaspora and the support of the local people for the continuation of their campaign against Siad, had no choice and complied with the demands of the people and “reinstate” their independence (alternatively known locally as “retract the unity with the south” or “declared independence”). That was 1991.

Since 1991, Somalilanders have done an amazing amount. They have developed a tri-partite governance system based upon a US model of independent executive with a bicameral legislature. They have a flag, currency, a national anthem, customs officials, defined borders, national monuments, and every other outward hallmark of a state.

But yet they have not been recognized as an independent, sovereign state by any entity in the world.

Meanwhile, South Sudan and Libyan rebels are being recognized by states and international organizations all over the world. Which begs the question why has this bastion of democracy and stability in an area much better known for pirates, terrorists, war lords, and downed helicopters not been given the diplomatic support of the “international community”?

Those fresh off the planes to Egal International Airport in Hargeisa will often ask that question to their drivers, fixers, or staff directly. And they answers they receive vary from Nile politics, to Jewish conspiracies, to cynical disenfranchisement. My own thoughts differ from all of those theories.

First the Libyan rebels situation is different, as explained in the link referenced above. This consortium of disparate groups is not trying to separate and form a new, unique republic but is trying to take over the entire country and overthrow a dictator (not dissimilar to the SNM’s original mission). The recognition given by the US, UK, French, and other big players in world politics is simply a recognition that they are the valid governing coalition for the entire geographical area and have the right to speak on behalf of the entire Libyan people. This shift from Qaddafi regime to the rebel regime is not terribly different than the diplomatic maneuverings which happened when Obama took over from Bush. Legally speaking at least. So that is a very different situation.

The South Sudan situation is much closer to the Somaliland situation, but it also has one very important difference. South Sudan fought a long, protracted war against the Bashir regime which resulted in a 2005 peace agreement. This peace agreement between the rebels now forming the basis of the South Sudan government and the Bashir regime allowed for the South to have a referendum vote on independence.

That is a substantial difference than the unilateral declaration by Somaliland of the “reinstatement” of its independence, at least diplomatically. Somaliland has yet to negotiate with the internationally recognized government down in Mogadishu the terms of its separation. Partially this is due to the animosity between the two. Partially this is due to the fact that no single entity has been in Mogadishu for very long with a sufficient amount of political power for Somaliland to be able to have anyone legitimate on the other side of such a bargaining table.

While the Transitional Federal Government has made great strides towards stability recently, they still only occupy half of their capital city and outside of that have very little ability to impose their will. So therein lies the crux of the problem for Somalilanders. They are steadily building their own country, and have an entire generation who know only Somaliland and nothing about the Republic of Somaliland, meanwhile their appeals to the international community have fallen on deaf ears and they have no one in Mogadishu that for the foreseeable future they will be able to negotiate with the terms of their separation.

There are an incredible amount of layers to this onion and in future posts I hope to have the time to peel this back a bit further, but for tonight this will have to suffice.

~ # ~