The African Union (AU) is urged by international security experts to look into the situation of Somaliland, which last week celebrated its 15th anniversary as an independent but still non-recognized republic.

There are rising concerns about “an ever-increasing source of friction, and possibly violence” between Somaliland and Somalia, which will not recognize the breakaway state’s existence. The AU is called to prevent a new war, preferably by recognizing Somaliland.

The Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG) today published a new report – “Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership” – which reads as an open letter to the AU. The analysis examines the self-declared Republic of Somaliland as it on 18 May marked fifteen years since it proclaimed independence from Somalia. The north-western Somali territory, which was a British colony, has managed to establish a stable, democratic, and developing state in these 15 years, while southern Somalia remains ravaged by clans and warfare.


“If Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) expands its authority across the shattered country, the dispute over Somaliland’s status is likely to become an ever-increasing source of friction,” the security experts warn. Somaliland has reacted angrily to the TFG’s calls for the UN arms embargo on Somalia to be lifted so it could arm itself and has threatened to increase its own military strength if this happens.

African Union (AU)
Flag of the African Union

“For both sides, the issue of recognition is not merely political or legal – it is existential,” says the ICG’s John Norris. Most southern Somalis are viscerally attached to the notion of a united Somalia, while many Somalilanders – scarred by the experience of civil war, flight, and exile – refer to unity only in the past tense,” he added. For a generation of Somaliland’s youth, which has no memories of the united Somalia to which young Southerners attach such importance, Somaliland’s sovereignty is a matter of identity.

In December 2005, President Dahir Rayale Kahin submitted Somaliland’s application for membership in the AU. The claim to statehood hinges on the territory’s separate status during the colonial era from the rest of what became Somalia and its existence as a sovereign state for a brief period following independence from Britain in June 1960. Having voluntarily entered a union with Somalia in pursuit of the irredentist dream of Greater Somalia – including parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti – Somaliland now seeks recognition within the borders received at that moment of independence.

“Resolving Somaliland’s status is by no means a straightforward proposition,” the ICG analysis admits. There are four central and practical questions that needed to be addressed, it holds.

“Should Somaliland be rewarded for creating stability and democratic governance out of a part of the chaos that is the failed state of Somalia? Would rewarding Somaliland with either independence or significant autonomy adversely impact the prospects for peace in Somalia or lead to territorial clashes? What are the prospects for the peaceful preservation of a unified Somali Republic? What would be the implications of the recognition of Somaliland for separatist conflicts elsewhere on the continent?”

AU Urged To Prevent Somalia-Somaliland War
Photo by Yusuf Dahir (@yyusufd)

The AU has so far taken the application by Somalilander President Rayale seriously. Despite fears that recognition would lead to the fragmentation of Somalia or other AU member states, an AU fact-finding mission in 2005 concluded the situation was sufficiently “unique and self-justified in African political history” that “the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening Pandora’s box’.”

The AU fact-finding mission recommended that the AU “should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case” at the earliest possible date. On 16 May this year, President Rayale met with the AU Commission Chairperson, Alpha Oumar Konaré, to discuss Somaliland’s application for membership.

The ICG report noted the “notable progress in building peace, security, and constitutional democracy” by the Somalilander government, thus urging the AU to go forward with its process to consider membership for – and as such, recognition of – Somaliland. The Brussels group makes concrete recommendations for the way forward:

“The AU should appoint a Special Envoy to consult with all relevant parties and report on the legal, security, and political dimensions of the dispute and offer options for solutions within six months,” the ICG recommends. “Its Peace and Security Council should organize an informal consultation round with eminent scholars, political analysts, and legal experts. Pending final resolution of the dispute, Somaliland should be granted interim observer status at the AU,” it concludes.

“This dispute has gone beyond the stage where we can ignore it or wish it away,” says the ICG’s Suliman Baldo. “The challenge to the AU is not whether it should become engaged, but how,” he adds. If not, the ICG fears a situation of a dispute that suddenly becomes “a confrontation from which either side views violence as the only exit.”

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