According to Ali Mazrui, Somaliland must be recognized as a sovereign state
By Seifudein Adem (PhD)
The late, esteemed Pan-Africanist scholar, Ali Mazrui, has once again caught the attention of the media. This comes in light of the Memorandum of Understanding signed earlier this year by Ethiopia and Somaliland. Some individuals in the media and diplomatic circles have been invoking Mazrui, albeit sometimes inaccurately, to support their own stances. This raises the question: What did Mazrui actually say? In this article, Mazrui’s perspective on Somaliland, as expressed in his speeches, interviews, and newsletters, will be presented in his own words.
According to Ali Mazrui, Somaliland must be recognized as a sovereign state.
In the realm of international relations, the union between two countries typically requires mutual consent. The same goes for the dissolution of such a union. Since former Italian Somaliland has not agreed to the divorce, the marriage with former British Somaliland is expected to remain intact. However, what if this marriage involved instances of spousal abuse? In a marital union between individuals, domestic violence can serve as grounds for divorce. Shouldn’t partner abuse also be considered grounds for divorce in a marriage between states? Let us
There have been some issues between Somalia and Somaliland. For instance, in 1960, former British Somaliland and former Italian Somaliland joined forces to form the Somali Republic, or Somalia. This was intended to be the first step toward the reunification of all five components of the Somali people, who had been divided by imperialism. It was hoped that, eventually, the Somali people of Northeast Kenya, the Somali people of the Ogaden in Ethiopia, and former French Somaliland (now known as Djibouti) would also become part of Greater Somalia.
However, over time, the people of former British Somaliland began to feel discriminated against and marginalized by their counterparts from former Italian Somaliland. As relations deteriorated further, separatist sentiments started to grow within the former British sub-region. The conflict escalated, leading to air raids by the central government on Hargeisa, the regional capital of former British Somaliland. Ultimately, this English-speaking portion of the country seceded completely in 1991 and declared itself the Republic of Somaliland. Since then, they have established a functioning government and have successfully conducted democratic parliamentary and presidential elections.
Unfortunately for this nascent “Republic,” the international community does not recognize it as a legitimate state. The African Union and the United Nations still consider it part of the greater Somalia established in 1960. Although neighboring Ethiopia and the Republic of South Africa have expressed sympathy, they have not extended diplomatic recognition either.
The Republic of Somaliland is in dire need of friends and allies, primarily from other states. However, it also requires support from international organizations, prominent individuals from other African nations, and high-profile celebrities from various societies.
It is worth noting that there have been other instances where countries that were once united after World War II have since become separate entities. Examples include Senegal and Mali, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Malaysia and Singapore, Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as South Sudan and Sudan.
Societies, like individuals, can engage in marriages and divorces. In the context of societies, these are often referred to as mergers and the dissolution of mergers. One notable instance of a societal merger in post-colonial Africa is the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which created the United Republic of Tanzania. This merger was arranged by the respective presidents, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Abeid Karume of Zanzibar, in 1964. Arranged marriages are often seen as forced marriages, but in this case, Zanzibar received generous compensation. However, the representation of Zanzibar was disproportionate to the size of the two countries.
The sustainability of a societal marriage diminishes when the disadvantaged partner experiences abuse from the more dominant partner. In the post-colonial history of the Muslim world, two notable cases of such spousal abuse occurred in the marriages between former British and former Italian Somaliland and between East and West Pakistan.
The citizens of Greater Pakistan, created through the partition of British India in 1947, believed that Bengalis, Punjabis, Sindhs, and Baluchis could be united under the banner of Islam. Similarly, the citizens of former Italian and former British Somaliland believed that the various clans of the greater Somali nation could be united under the shared Somali identity and culture. However, over time, discrimination against Bengalis in East Pakistan and against former British Somaliland in unified Somalia escalated into abuse.
In the case of East Pakistan, neighboring India intervened on the side of the oppressed Bengali people, leading to the birth of Bangladesh as a separate country. In the case of Somalia, neighboring Ethiopia did not overtly support Somaliland but offered sympathy instead of military intervention.
Somaliland could learn from how Bangladesh gained international recognition more swiftly. Islamabad in West Pakistan strongly opposed international recognition of Bangladesh as an independent sovereign country. When Great Britain recognized Bangladesh and proposed its admission into the Commonwealth, Pakistan withdrew from the Commonwealth entirely. It took time for Pakistan to acknowledge the reality of Bangladesh and rejoin the Commonwealth. Somaliland scholars may find it valuable to study the strategies employed by Bangladesh and its allies.
If it proves difficult for Somaliland to gain admission to the African Union, why not lobby and strive for admission into the Commonwealth of Nations? If full membership is initially challenging, why not seek admission as an Associate Member? Two Muslim countries, Greater Pakistan and Greater Somalia, experimented with historical political marriages that ultimately collapsed. Bangladesh emerged as a separate country from Pakistan. Can Somaliland rise from its marginal status as a separate country from Somalia? Could membership in the Commonwealth assist in this process?
During my visit to Somaliland in March 2006, I was greatly encouraged by the fact that Somaliland had a woman serving as Foreign Minister. It took the United States over two hundred years to have a woman Secretary of State (Madeleine Albright) under the administration of Bill Clinton. Minister Edna Aden Ismail fluently spoke in four languages (English, French, Arabic, and Somali) and managed her own special maternity hospital when state affairs allowed.
I had the opportunity to travel to Somaliland’s second city, the Port of Berbera. When fully operational once more, the Port would be incredibly valuable not only to Somaliland but also to neighboring Ethiopia. From my interactions, the people of Somaliland seem to be the most friendly towards Ethiopians in centuries! I was introduced to Ethiopia’s representative in Hargeisa at the time, though his title was not yet “Ambassador” but rather “Liaison Officer for Ethiopia.”
In my lectures in Hargeisa, I also discussed potential names for the Somaliland Republic should statehood be achieved. They could retain the historical name of Somaliland, though the suffix “land” carries too colonial of an undertone. Alternatively, they could be called The Republic of Northern Somalia, similar to Turkey’s name for northern Cyprus. However, in solidarity with other Muslim nations, The Republic of Somalistan could also be considered, following the “-stan” naming convention used by countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and others.
On my return journey to the United States, I made an additional overnight stop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to consult with senior civil servants from the African Union regarding the future of Somaliland.
Since returning home, I have faced some political backlash for my visit to Somaliland. I have received hostile emails from those advocating for Somali unity, denouncing me for “legitimizing secessionism and tribalism.”
Since Hargeisa experienced peace while conflict plagued Mogadishu, perhaps Mogadishu could learn from Hargeisa’s success (with Somalis learning from fellow Somalis). Regrettably, this comment was taken as further offense.
What about the long-term relationship between Somalia and Somaliland? Is reconciliation possible once more?
In Africa’s ethical code, tolerance is partly manifested through the continent’s ability to move on from past conflicts. While Islam advocates for compensation and forgiveness as preferable responses to retaliation, Africanity encourages a return to normalcy without harboring hate The Nigerian civil war of 1967–1970 concluded without reprisals or an African equivalent of the Nuremberg trials. Ian Smith initiated a racial war in Zimbabwe but later sat in Zimbabwe’s parliament, criticizing the succeeding black regime. Nelson Mandela endured twenty-seven years under a white racist regime and emerged ready to engage in afternoon tea with Mrs. Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of apartheid. Jomo Kenyatta was imprisoned and denounced by a British Governor as a “leader unto darkness and death.” However, he emerged from detention and steered Kenya towards a pro-Western orientation that has persistently endured. Kenyatta even published a book titled “Suffering Without Bitterness.”
Africans fight passionately, sometimes ruthlessly, to defend their identities or values. Nevertheless, African cultures possess a limited capacity for retaining hatred. This characteristic could potentially contribute to Africa’s commitment to the principle of tolerance in the Global Ethic.
What about Somalia and Somaliland? How long will their memory of hate persist? If we can forgive imperial powers like Britain, Italy, and France, should we not learn to forgive each other?
Perhaps the most successful marriage and divorce in post-colonial history was the union and subsequent separation of Malaya and Singapore in the 1960s. After gaining self-rule, Malaya joined forces with Singapore to form Malaysia. However, the leaders of Singapore decided to withdraw from the union due to public fears and concerns.
Today, both Singapore and Malaysia stand as economic powerhouses in Asia. Their separation turned out to be a more successful story than a tense marriage filled with periodic disputes.
Perhaps one day, Somaliland will become the prosperous Singapore of the Horn of Africa, while Somalia evolves into a separate entity akin to the future Malaysia of Africa.
Seifudein Adem is a professor of global studies at Doshisha University. He is the author of Postcolonial Constructivism: Mazrui’s Theory of Intercultural Relations (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
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