Recognition of Somaliland will stand as an affirmation of the international community’s commitment to democracy. It will also enhance the likelihood of Somaliland’s survival and, with it, the contributions it makes to international security.

By Ben Farley

Nearly 20 years ago, Somaliland, a Florida-sized region of northeast Somalia once known as British Somaliland, declared its independence from Somalia. In the years since, Somaliland has emerged as a stable, democratic state that provides a measure of international security in a region overrun with pirates and transnational terrorists. Yet, no state or international body recognizes Somaliland’s independence. Instead, the international community is content with the fiction that Somalia remains a unified state. Denying Somaliland’s recognition will likely result in its eventual collapse and the expansion of the chaos, instability, and international insecurity that characterizes Somalia. To prevent this eventuality, the United States should grant recognition to Somaliland.

Since declaring its independence in 1991, Somaliland has pursued an indigenous process of transformation from a militarized, post-conflict society governed by traditional clan structures to a representative democracy. Following the ouster of Siyad Barre, the longtime dictator of the Democratic Republic of Somalia, a series of conferences of the elders of Somaliland’s clans resulted first in Somaliland’s declaration of independence, then in a transitional charter establishing a presidency and legislature, and finally in a provisional constitution.* That constitution was approved by 97 percent of votes cast in a Somaliland-wide referendum in 2001.


Municipal, presidential, and parliamentary elections were held in 2002, 2003, and 2005, respectively. The first presidential election was notable both for its narrow margin — fewer than 100 votes separated the candidates — and for its lack of violence. It is also notable because the victor, Dahir Rayale Kahin, is not a member of the dominant clan of Somaliland. Presidential elections scheduled to take place in 2008 were repeatedly delayed until June 2010. That largely peaceful election was judged as meeting international election standards. More importantly, power was transferred peacefully from the incumbent to the victorious opposition candidate, Ahmed Mahmoud Sillanyo — a feat unmatched by any other state in the Horn of Africa.

As Somaliland’s democratic institutions have developed, so too have its contributions to international security. In the 1990s, Somaliland successfully disarmed and demilitarized its population. A nascent coast guard now keeps Somaliland’s waters free of Somalia-based pirates — despite the fact that the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and the waters off the coast of Somalia are three of the five locations with the highest incidence of pirate attacks in the world. Its police and judicial system have successfully broken up and prosecuted al-Qaida-linked terrorist cells. Recently, Somaliland arrested and prosecuted several Russians transporting guns to Puntland, a Somali region bordering Somaliland, in violation of the U.N. arms embargo on Somalia. Somaliland has even taken custody of transferred Guantanamo detainees.

The contrast with Somalia could not be starker. Somalia has been the subject of at least 16 reconciliation conferences, which have produced multiple interim or transitional governments. Both the United Nations and the African Union have deployed peacekeeping missions there in an effort to restore order, and the international community has expended millions of dollars to that end. In spite of all these efforts, no entity has exercised effective control over Somalia since Barre’s ouster 20 years ago.

Instead, an al-Qaida-linked militia, al-Shabaab, controls most of Mogadishu and the southern part of the country. Al-Shabaab is already responsible for one transnational terrorist attack — the Kampala, Uganda, suicide bombings during the World Cup — and has threatened additional such attacks. Al-Shabaab also reportedly shelters members of al-Qaida. At the same time, pirates based in Somalia ravage international shipping. According to the International Maritime Bureau, attacks attributed to Somalia-based pirates have increased steadily, from 111 in 2008 to 218 in 2009, to 219 in 2010.

[Recognizing Somaliland’s independence would not violate any international or regional norms governing state creation. State creation through secession is not prohibited in international law. State creation in Africa, however, is limited by the principle — enshrined in the charter of the African Union — that the borders inherited at decolonization are inviolable. Independence moves such as Eritrea’s recognized secession from Ethiopia and South Sudan’s ongoing split from Sudan have only been effected with the assent of the state from which those states have seceded. However, Somaliland is better viewed as the product of the dissolution of the Democratic Republic of Somalia than as a secession.

Dissolution occurs when the central government of a state formed through the merger of separate, independent states, ceases to exert effective control over one or more of those erstwhile independent states. The Somali Republic — later, the Democratic Republic of Somalia — was born from the merger of the then-recently decolonized states of British Somaliland and Italian Somalia. Though Somaliland was only an independent state for five days before merging with Italian Somalia, what is important for the purposes of dissolution is that Somaliland was a separate colonial possession from Italian Somalia and that British Somaliland achieved independence separately from Italian Somalia.

The Democratic Republic of Somalia ceased exercising effective control over both Somaliland and what is now Somalia during the civil war that culminated in the ouster of Barre in 1991. While no governing entity has been able to establish effective control over Somalia, Somaliland’s government has exercised exclusive, effective control over its territory for nearly 20 years. Importantly, because Somaliland has re-emerged, resuming the boundaries it inherited at decolonization, its independence does not offend the principle that Africa’s post-colonial borders are inviolable. In fact, Somaliland’s independence restores the frontiers of Somaliland and Somalia to their status at the moment of decolonization.

Recognition of Somaliland will stand as an affirmation of the international community’s commitment to democracy. It will also enhance the likelihood of Somaliland’s survival and, with it, the contributions it makes to international security. Finally, because Somaliland’s independence conforms to current international norms governing state creation, Western states will not set a new precedent justifying widespread African secession by recognizing Somaliland. It is time for the international community, particularly the United States, to do just that.

Ben Farley is a J.D. candidate at Emory University School of Law and the editor-in-chief of the Emory International Law Review. He has a master’s degree in international affairs from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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