Much of its success is driven by a lack of dependence on anyone, but now Somaliland must balance war and great power jockeying in the region.
Written by Michael Horton
The unrecognized but independent Republic of Somaliland is a rare success story in that part of the world. Yet, the impressive progress the country has made across multiple fronts could yet be imperiled by growing regional instability.
In neighboring Ethiopia, a country that had made great economic strides, civil war threatens to permanently fragment that nation. In Sudan, the government has fallen to yet another coup. At the same time, Sudan is also engaged in low-level hostilities with Ethiopia over a contested border. To the south of Somaliland, in Somalia, the terrorist group al-Shabaab gains more ground by the day.
The Horn of Africa is perennially unstable, but the current period of instability outside of Somaliland looks like it will be prolonged and particularly violent. But inside, the country of 3.5 million people has successfully held multiple internationally monitored competitive democratic elections followed by peaceful transitions of power. Despite the challenges posed by the world’s responses to COVID-19, Somaliland’s most recently held parliamentary elections without incident in May 2021 (the majority party lost).
Over the course of the three decades, since it declared its independence from Somalia, Somaliland has slowly, but steadily, built out its institutions and economy. It has made significant gains in the areas of governance, education, the environment, and counter-terrorism. Somaliland has done this with little outside aid and in the face of efforts by the United States and other nations to stubbornly ignore such gains. The lack of large amounts of outside aid and interference may be one of the reasons for Somaliland’s success. Rather than having “solutions” imposed on it by outside powers, its institutions have developed in organic ways that are best suited to its societal contexts.
Somaliland-driven development and the lack of large amounts of aid have combined to produce institutions that are resilient rather than brittle and dependent. However, there are limits to what a nation can achieve without the clarity and predictability that accompanies recognized nation-state status. Somaliland is now pushing up against these limits.
For example, the country is struggling with youth unemployment that was in excess of 70 percent before the Covid lockdowns. Somaliland is also grappling with several hundred thousand refugees from neighboring countries. The civil war in neighboring Ethiopia has already resulted in large numbers of additional refugees crossing into Somaliland. As the war worsens there, which is likely, the inflow of refugees will increase further. A large influx, including displaced persons from Ethiopia’s ethnic Somali region, has the potential to overwhelm Somaliland’s chronically underfunded institutions.
At a time when Somaliland is grappling with that fallout, it must also navigate heightened competition between regional and global powers. Somaliland and Somalia are both viewed by China, Russia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates as the eastern door to Africa’s vast natural resources. All of these nations are competing with one another for influence and access to the Horn of Africa.
So far, Somaliland has tried — and largely succeeded — in pursuing a foreign policy that balances these competing interests. In July of 2020, its government agreed to exchange ambassadors with Taiwan in defiance of China. Going against the wishes of Beijing is rare among the most powerful nations and companies and rarer still among those with little power. Somaliland’s decision was driven by its determination to continue to chart its own course and a desire to maintain good relations with the United States and the United Kingdom. Its current government, led by President Muse Bihi Abdi, could not be clearer about its desire for an abiding and mutually beneficial relationship with Washington.
However, the leader of Somaliland’s opposition party, Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi, has questioned the Bihi administration over its ties with Taiwan. Abdirahman cited Beijing’s willingness to commit vast amounts of money to regional development. The logic of Adbirahman’s argument is sound and will undoubtedly appeal to some Somalilanders when he runs against President Bihi in the 2022 presidential election.
China, which has run circles around the United States in Africa and Latin America, routinely uses loans and investments to entangle developing countries in a web of debt that China then uses as leverage. Investment and loans are both parts of China’s successful soft power foreign policy in much of the developing world. However, Somaliland’s current government and many of its citizens are aware that the aid and loans offered by China will come at a high price. Due to Somaliland’s relationship with Taiwan, it is unlikely that China will fully recognize it. In turn, most Somalilanders are also keen to protect their hard-won democratic form of government.
The pressures that Somaliland faces will only increase in the months and years ahead. The ramifications of the possible dissolution of Ethiopia as a cohesive state will reverberate across the Horn of Africa. Somaliland, like other Horn of Africa nations, will be hard-pressed to insulate itself from the fallout from the fragmentation of Africa’s second-most populous country. Ethiopia’s civil war is also occurring at a time when developing and developed nations alike face rising energy costs and food inflation, as well as ongoing economic disruptions resulting from responses to COVID-19. Such challenges will test every country in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
More than ever, Somaliland deserves and needs international recognition for the great strides it has made to establish a democratic and durable government. The United States has an opportunity to solidify its relationship with a nation that has a proven record of adhering to the values and forms of governance that it supports. However, the window on this opportunity is likely to close. At some point in the near future, circumstances and necessity will force Somalilanders to choose aside. Aid from China may prove more convincing than empty rhetoric from Washington.
Michael Horton is a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. He has written for numerous publications including West Point’s CTC Sentinel, The National Interest, Jane’s Intelligence Review, The American Conservative, The Economist, and The Christian Science Monitor. Horton has completed in-depth field-based studies on a range of subjects and issues related to security and development in the Middle East and Africa for the public and private sectors. He has briefed senior members of the U.S. National Security Council, the U.S. State Department, the British Foreign Ministry, British Ministry of Defense, as well as members of the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress.
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