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AFRICAN Game Changer? The Consequences of Somaliland’s International (Non) Recognition

This study report is based on a series of field trips to the region conducted by the Brenthurst Foundation over several years, most recently in Somaliland in June 2011.

The publication of this Paper coincides with two important anniversaries this week in the history of Somalia/Somaliland: the (short-lived) independence of British Somaliland as the State of Somaliland on 26 June 1960, and the unification with Italian Somalia to form the Somali Republic five days later on 1 July 1960.

This Paper considers how recognition – or continued non-recognition – will affect Somaliland’s prospects for peace and stability as well as the interests of the international community. It also asks whether there is an alternative to full recognition, and what a strategy to achieve recognition might look like. It argues that Somaliland’s recognition should not threaten a ‘Pandora’s box’ of secessionist claims in other states. Instead, recognition offers a means to positively change the incentives for better governance, not only for Somaliland but also in south-central Somalia.

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The Paper’s authors acknowledge that recognition would not fully address Somaliland’s myriad challenges, such as the threat posed by Al-Shabaab or the territory’s deep-rooted social and economic problems. Nevertheless, recognition of Somaliland would, they argue, illustrate that African borders, far from being sources of insecurity, can be a source of stability and enhanced state capacity. In that respect, the recognition of Somaliland would be an African game changer.

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Executive Summary

This Discussion Paper considers the case for Somaliland’s formal recognition following the recent 20th anniversary of its declaration of independence (18 May 1991) and in light of the secession of Southern Sudan. Based on a series of field studies in the region over several years, most recently in Somaliland in June 2011, this paper focuses not only on the options for Somalia and others in this regard but considers the vital question: How will recognition – or continued non-recognition – affect Somaliland’s prospects for peace and stability as well as the interests of the international community? It also asks whether there is an alternative to full recognition, and what a strategy to achieve recognition might look like.

The Paper argues that recognition of Somaliland would be the most cost-effective means to ensure security in an otherwise troubled and problematic region. Moreover, at a time when ‘ungoverned spaces’ have emerged as a major source of global concern, it is deeply ironic that the international community should deny itself the opportunity to extend the reach of global governance in a way that would be beneficial both to itself and to the people of Somaliland. For Africa, Somaliland’s recognition should not threaten a ‘Pandora’s box’ of secessionist claims in other states. Instead, it offers a means to positively change the incentives for better governance, not only for Somaliland but also in south-central Somalia.

The Paper’s authors acknowledge, however, that recognition would not resolve all of Somaliland’s problems, or the region’s. Indeed, the Paper explains that recognition may, for example, exacerbate tensions with both Al-Shabaab, committed as the Islamist organization is to the notion of a united Somalia, and with neighboring Puntland.

Recognition might also diminish the link of accountability between Somaliland’s democratic government and its people, as the government may be tempted to be more responsive to international partners, with their potentially significant aid packages, than to the people. And nor should the recognition question obscure the deep-rooted social and economic problems in Somaliland that will need constant and continued attention.

But whatever the benefits and costs to Somaliland, regional states, and the international community, recognition would illustrate that African borders, far from being sources of insecurity, can be a source of stability and enhanced state capacity. In that respect, the recognition of Somaliland would certainly be an African game changer.

Read the paper here

This report was prepared by

Professor Christopher Clapham (Cambridge University, UK),

Professor Holger Hansen (Copenhagen University, Denmark),

Professor Jeffrey Herbst (Colgate University, US),

Dr. J Peter Pham (Atlantic Council, US),

Patrick Mazimhaka (Chair: Brenthurst Foundation Advisory Board, and former deputy chair of the African Union Commission, Rwanda),

Susan Schulman (independent film-maker, US), and

Dr. Greg Mills (Brenthurst Foundation, South Africa).

It is based on several research trips to the region, including in Somaliland from 13–17 June 2011. The team is grateful for the insights of several anonymous reviewers, including one who suggested the ‘game-changing’ title.

About the authors 

Christopher ClaphamChristopher Clapham

Professor of African Studies, University of Cambridge


Holger HansenHolger Hansen

Professor, Copenhagen University, Denmark


Jeffrey HerbstJeffrey Herbst

Former President and CEO of the NEWSEUM, USA


J Peter PhamJ Peter Pham

Vice-president at the Washington-based Atlantic Council


Patrick MazimhakaPatrick Mazimhaka

Chair: Brenthurst Foundation Advisory Board, and former deputy chair of the African Union Commission, Rwanda


Susan Schulman

Freelance Photographer, US/UK

Susan SchulmanSusan Schulman is an award-winning video/photojournalist. Originally trained as a fine artist, Schulman moved from her native New York to London in 1990 and worked as a filmmaker and editor before turning to photo-journalism full-time in 2000 and video in 2008.

During the past twelve years, she has chronicled many of the world’s forgotten tragedies, from the horrors of childbirth in Sierra Leone and child soldiers in Sudan to the wretched plight of gold miners in the Amazon Basin. Through her characteristically frank and humane perspective, she has also captured soldiers and citizens caught up in some of the decade’s major conflicts, most notably from the frontlines of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Her work has been featured in the world’s foremost print and visual media, including The New York Times, The Financial Times, Architectural Digest (France), PBS, BBC and Channel Four.


Greg Mills

Director, The Brenthurst Foundation

Greg MillsDr. Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, established in 2005 by the Oppenheimer family to strengthen African economic performance. He holds degrees from the Universities of Cape Town (BA Hons) and Lancaster (MA cum laude, and Ph.D.), and was, first, the Director of Studies and then the National Director of the SA Institute of International Affairs from 1994-2005.

With Brenthurst he has directed numerous reform projects in African heads of government, including Rwanda (2007-8), Mozambique (2005-11), Swaziland (2010-11), Malawi (2012-14, and again 2020/1), Kenya (2012 and 2020), Lesotho (2008; 2019-20), Liberia (2006/7), Zambia (2010; 2016), Zimbabwe (2009-13), Ghana (2017), Ethiopia (2019-20), Nigeria (2017-18), and almost continuously at various levels of government in South Africa from the Foundation’s outset.


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