Anyone who studies Somaliland’s peace and state-building trajectory will find that such a line of reasoning is at odds with the empirical evidence. Academia is the intellectual’s colosseum. It is here that great minds clash and battles of the mind fought. Serious critical scholarship should therefore always be welcomed and cherished.

By Jamal Abdi

Having reinstated its sovereignty in 1991, Somaliland has exhibited empirical sovereignty for more than three decades but continues to lack de jure recognition as no state has hitherto formally recognized its statehood. The arguments for and against an independent Somaliland are well known. The purpose of this short piece is, therefore, not to advance a discussion and assessment of these.

Rather, the burden of the present piece is to critically unpack and examine how the academic scholarship on Somaliland informs and potentially impacts the latter’s quest for recognition. It argues that a significant body of scholarship attributes Somaliland’s achievements to external factors, i.e., the ongoing quest for de jure recognition. By doing so, this scholarship denies Somaliland(ers) agency.


Quest for recognition: a disciplining force?

Anyone who has studied Somaliland will know that the academic scholarship on Somaliland is predominately produced by Western academics. Second, as will be seen momentarily, a significant body of scholarship denies Somaliland(ers) agency, reducing Somaliland’s successes to external factors. According to this literature, political and social leaders in Somaliland are seemingly incapable of acting wisely, pro-socially, responsibly, prudently, and providently independent of external factors moderating their behavior.

Martha C. Johnson and Meg Smaker (2014), for instance, write:

Commitment to independent statehood by the political leaders and a large portion of Somaliland’s population, including the business community, has helped the state secure financial support and has created pressure on political leaders to provide stability and democratic institutions as a means of securing recognition (Johnson & Smaker 2014 12).

They further assert that:

If Somaliland secures recognition, the people may no longer be mobilized by a shared goal, allowing internal divisions to reemerge. International recognition would no longer serve as a carrot encouraging politicians to moderate their behavior (Johnson & Smaker 2014 12).

We are, according to Johnson and Smaker (2014), asked to believe that international recognition is the ultimate goal in explaining democracy, peace, and stability in Somaliland. The quest for recognition is, in other words, the glue that has held Somaliland together. It moderates the behavior of politicians and puts pressure on them to democratize and generally adhere to ‘good governance’. Following this line of reasoning, Somaliland has not, for the better part of three decades, been peaceful, stable, and democratic because of the prudence and providence of civilians and political leaders but rather because of the quest for formal recognition.

Similarly, Rebecca Richards (2014) attributes peace, democracy, stability, and legitimacy in Somaliland to the latter’s ongoing quest for de jure recognition. As she rhetorically asks in the conclusion chapter of her book Understanding Statebuilding: traditional governance and the modern state in Somaliland:

How long can the political leaders continue to justify their actions based on the promise of recognition? How long can the state be held together on the basis that peace and political change are necessary for the ultimate goal? (Richards 2014 179).

Unless Somalilanders are predisposed to violence and anarchy, is it not plausible that peace has been kept independent of the quest for de jure recognition? According to Rebecca Richards, Somaliland is an unrecognized state conforming to external normative demands to secure recognition. In this view, adoption of democratic rule is merely a strategy.

As Richards puts it:

Because of its inability to access international structures and institutions that are reserved for sovereign states, achieving recognition of statehood has become a primary goal of the government in the territory, with the creation of a democratic state at the center of Somaliland’s strategy (Richards 2014 13).

If the democratic rule is an internal demand rather than an external demand, it becomes evident that Somaliland did not adopt democracy to please the so-called international community, questioning the cogency of Richards’ arguments.

In 1981, the Somali National Movement (SNM) published a manifesto entitled ‘A Better Alternative‘ in which they laid down their political vision for a post-Barre Somali society. Rather than reinstating Somaliland’s sovereignty, the stated objective of the SNM was to overthrow the Barre government and reinstitute democracy in all of Somalia. The SNM manifesto proposed that a post-Barre society should be governed by a hybrid regime, where the Xeer system would be elevated to the national level and where Somali institutions of governance should be included within the central state structure.

Thus, the idea of creating a hybrid government with a bicameral legislature consisting of an upper house of experienced and broadly respected moral community leaders (Guurti) and a lower house of representatives was conceived in 1981, while the decision to reinstate Somaliland’s sovereignty was made in 1991.

As Mark Bradbury notes, the National Charter, produced at the Borama conference, indeed:

Reflected much of what was proposed in the SNM’s manifesto for post-Barre government: a government built on Somali cultural values; the elevation of Xeer to the national level: and the incorporation of elders into a two-chamber legislature (Bradbury, 2008 100).

If not by adopting democratic governance, which was proposed a decade before the Declaration of Independence, how then did Somaliland conform to external normative demands as claimed by Rebecca Richards? The independence agenda is not universally supported in Somaliland, while democratic rule is broadly accepted. The question must, therefore, be raised of why those who do not support an independent Somaliland are not rejecting democratic rule?

Recall that we are, according to Richards, asked to believe that Somaliland transitioned to multi-party democracy to secure independence. If so, what incentivizes those who do not support the idea of an independent Somaliland?

Evidently, an undesired goal cannot constitute an incentive. How many of those currently opposing Somaliland in Las Anod (Laascaanood) have, for instance, made a case against Somaliland on the basis of multi-party democracy? If democracy is merely a strategy adopted to secure recognition, then only those who desire independence should be embracing democracy. Everyone else should be rejecting it.

Puntland has recently adopted multi-party democracy. A significant difference between Somaliland and Puntland is that the latter has not declared independence from the rest of Somalia and there is no credible evidence suggesting that it will do so in the future. If Puntland has adopted multi-party democracy independent of external pressures, is it then not plausible that also Somaliland adopted multi-party democracy independent of external pressures? A contention is indistinguishable from an opinion when it is not accompanied by evidence. There is hardly any evidence suggesting that multi-party democracy in Somaliland is, in any significant way, linked to the quest for de jure recognition.

Similarly, Sarah G. Phillips, in her award-winning book, When there was no aid, attributes peace in Somaliland to what she calls the ‘independence discourse’ which consists of two components: othering of Somalia and fear of ‘returning’ to violence. The so-called independence discourse is essentially a covert way of saying that peace in Somaliland has been kept because of the ongoing quest for de jure recognition. After all, there would be no ‘independence discourse’ without the desire to become an independent state.

According to Sarah G. Phillips,

Somaliland has not experienced large-scale violence since 1996 in part because of how the independence discourse structures the conditions under which political violence can occur. Courting violence is rendered illogical not only because it could easily spiral into war but also because returning to war dissolves the separation that the discourse constructs between Somaliland and Somalia on the basis of who is inclined toward peaceful behavior and who is not. If Somalilanders return to war, they become just as susceptible to violence as other Somalis (Phillips, 2020 16-17).

As will be seen shortly, Phillips’ model does not withstand scrutiny. First, members of the Dhulbahante community, led by Garaad Abdiqani, and the SNM made peace as early as 1989. Note that Ziad Barre’s troops were not ousted from Somaliland until January 1991.

Second, rather than seeking retribution against the communities that had supported the Barre government, the SNM invited all communities to peace and reconciliation negotiations upon ousting Barre’s troops from Somaliland. By attributing pro-social behavior in the post-independence period to what she calls the ‘independence discourse’, it appears evident that Phillips’ model has rather limited utility in terms of explaining pro-social behavior in the pre-independence period.

Third, the bulk of the population in Somaliland is under the age of 35 and has therefore no recollection of a predatory Somali state. How long can it credibly be postulated that peace in Somaliland is, partly, kept because of the othering of Somalia? Even Somalia, including the capital of Mogadishu, has come a long way since the chaotic and devastating violence of the 1990s, accentuating the essentializing nature of Phillips’ model.

Somaliland should not be recognized

We are, according to these leading ‘experts’, asked to believe that people in Somaliland cannot, by means of reason, choose democracy over authoritarianism, statehood over anarchy, peace over conflict, and unity over division independent of external factors. According to this line of reasoning, peace and stability in Somaliland are largely attributable to the latter’s ongoing quest for de jure recognition.

Consequently, the implicit policy proposal is that Somaliland should not be recognized as an independent state. Following the scholarship presently discussed, granting Somaliland de jure recognition is imprudent as the quest for recognition has, hitherto, proved fruitful in fostering peace and democratization.

Evidently, Somaliland continues to lack de jure recognition for a multitude of reasons, and it is both reductionist and simplistic to attribute Somaliland’s lack of formal recognition to the output of Western academics. That said, it is also rather naïve to assume that it plays no role at all. What appears certain is that models on Somaliland’s successes that are untenable, do sit comfortably with the historical record, and are at odds with common sense logic, certainly do not enhance Somaliland’s chances for securing de jure recognition.


That Western scholarship on Somaliland is often steered by unfortunate implicit assumptions, and obfuscating conclusions, can hardly come as a surprise. What is quite baffling, however, is that arguments and models that are devoid of evidence, and are at odds with common sense logic, are not challenged. It does, for instance, not require much effort to debunk the contention that multi-party democracy in Somaliland is the result of external normative demands.

Anyone who studies Somaliland’s peace and state-building trajectory will find that such a line of reasoning is at odds with the empirical evidence. Academia is the intellectual’s colosseum. It is here that great minds clash and battles of the mind fought. Serious critical scholarship should therefore always be welcomed and cherished. The scholarship does, however, become a form of oppression when the less powerful are silenced, denied agency, and assigned motives and properties by privileged and powerful Western academics who position themselves as objective experts.

In an unrecognized state such as Somaliland, this is indeed a matter of national security. As has been discussed in this short piece, Western academics are essentially telling the world that Somaliland is peaceful and democratic because it wants formal recognition. Unless this is true, what does Somaliland do to counter this narrative? It appears that there is not a single office in the entire state apparatus that deals with this issue. Moreover, the scholars that tacitly suggest that Somaliland should not be recognized are treated as royals upon arriving in Somaliland as objective researchers who are friends of Somaliland. I know of no other state that would tolerate this kind of attack on its reputation and soft-power.

About Jamal Abdi 

Jamal AbdiJamal Abdi Holds an MSc in European and International Relations from Linkoing University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Politics and International Relations at Keele University. His research focuses on peace and state-building in Somaliland. J. Abdi draws on theories and concepts from sociology, anthropology, and evolutionary game theory to understand peace and state-building in Somaliland. He can be reached at
Twitter: @JAbdi892

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