Recognizing Somaliland is more a case of affirming postcolonial boundaries rather than redrawing them

By Kurt Shillinger

For the 14th time in as many years, the international community is attempting to restore the central government to Somalia, which descended, into clan-based fragmentation, statelessness, and violence following the ousting of the Siyad Barre military regime in 1991 and has yet to re-emerge.


The new administration of President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed is the product of more than two years of complex negotiations among rival groups hosted by neighboring Kenya. Although the African Union (AU) has pledged thousands of regional peacekeepers to help the new government settle, prospects for its success are slim. Conceived and constituted in exile, the Ahmed government was met with varying degrees of praise and violent protest during its first foray into Somalia in early March 2005.

This followed the killing of BBC producer Kate Peyton, who traveled to Mogadishu in February to prepare stories on the new government’s arrival. Those with vested interests in the status quo, including neighboring Ethiopia, remain powerful and exercised. Tellingly, Ahmed and his prime minister did not venture into the strife-torn capital.

At the same time, with much less fanfare, the secessionist province of Somaliland in the northwest was preparing for bicameral parliamentary elections to be held on 29 March 2005. While the south has festered, Somaliland has quietly and persistently demobilized its rival militias and erected the structures of statehood without external assistance. It has an elected president and a constitution that survived the death and succession of a head of state and has drawn substantial inflows of aid and remittances to help rebuild its infrastructure devastated by a decade of civil war with the Siyad Barre government prior to 1991.

It now boasts reconstructed airports, ports, hotels, power plants, and universities—but it remains unrecognized by the international community. Recognition, as the varying fortunes of both Somalia and Somaliland demonstrate, is not a prerequisite for statehood but, in the case of the latter, may well consolidate the process of nation-building at a crucial time both for Somaliland and a world fighting global terrorism.

As the preeminent British anthropologist, I M Lewis noted in 2004, “the overall achievement so far is truly remarkable, and all the more so in that, it has been accomplished by the people of Somaliland themselves with very little external help or intervention. The contrast with the fate of southern Somalia hardly needs to be underlined.”1

Prior to the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, diplomatic attempts to restore order in Somalia were driven by desires to limit the potential for drug trafficking and regional destabilization caused by outflows of arms, banditry, and refugees into neighboring states. The events of 9/11 added a new, more urgent dimension to international engagement in a region that had already experienced the devastation of terrorism.

The key question since then, set against the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was whether the absence of state security structures would enable terrorist organizations to set up bases inside Somalia. For reasons that will be explored below, it has not quite worked out that way, but the 2002 hotel bombing in Mombasa on the Kenya coast illustrated Somalia’s potential as a staging ground for terrorist activity and punctuated the region’s overall vulnerability.

Given Somalia’s location at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East, its susceptibility to conflicting destabilizing interests from Ethiopia and the Arab Peninsula, and the Muslim identity of its people, it is time to rethink how to solve the country’s enduring crisis in the context of global terrorism. Despite the exhaustive debate, the Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. In recent weeks, they have carried out a spate of attacks in Kenya peace talks on Somalia failed to convincingly resolve the key question of whether to pursue a federal or unitarian solution in a patch-quilt political landscape of rival clan-based factions.

A better solution is partition. Although it runs contrary to the AU’s commitment to territorial integrity, recognizing Somaliland is consistent with the imperatives driving global counterterrorism. Emotively, the international community would be supporting the democratic aspirations of a Muslim state—a central pillar of the Bush anti-terror “Liberty Doctrine.”

Strategically, recognition would give the West expanded influence over 900 additional kilometers of coastline in a key transit zone of the Arab Peninsula and enable the international community to bolster regional security at a time when, according to the accumulated evidence of the different risks posed by failed and weak states, Somaliland is arguably becoming more vulnerable to exploitation by radical Islamist organizations the more it develops.

Bush Doctrine, Failed States, and Global Security

Recasting his central foreign policy doctrine for an age of terror in his second inaugural address in January 2005, President George W. Bush stated that

it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. . . America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.

Two immediate and correlative assumptions are implicit in this approach: that state repression promotes social radicalization, which in the current international security context poses threats to prosperous and peaceful nations; and that democracy is a universal and thus universally adaptable aspiration that, when realized, is the ultimate antidote to forms of ideological discontent that underpin transnational terrorism.

From these assumptions, three critical questions arise. First, how are states or regimes determined to pose risks to global security serious enough to prompt foreign intervention? To put it differently, the selective application of force or coercion since 9/11 suggests that not all tyrants are regarded as the same, and some may even be acceptable. Saddam Hussein was overthrown on the premise—a false one, it turned out—that he was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction; Kim Jong Il is known to have nuclear weapons but is still in power.

So is Robert Mugabe, who has neither long-range weaponry nor the desire to acquire them, but has dismantled the democratic edifice of Zimbabwe and suppressed popular aspirations through violence.

Second, how are ‘democratic movements’ identified and legitimated? The history of foreign meddling in the domestic affairs of far-off nations is troubled and inconsistent. Both Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the world’s top terrorists, were once clients of Washington. Post-9/11, what interests—and whose—shape the process of helping “others find their own voice” and indeed determine which voices emerge?

Third, what forms of external “soft” engagement are implied by Bush’s pledge, and how should they be weighed against the prevailing “rules” of regional politics? The war on terrorism has many fronts—Central Asia, Indonesia, North Africa, and the Horn as well as the Middle East. Effecting “regime change” through force as in Afghanistan and Iraq is neither logistically possible nor internationally justifiable.

It follows, then, that “preemption” can utilize and, indeed, requires many means. These questions are most relevant and problematic with regard to dysfunctional states, where poverty and poor or repressive governance can give rise to radicalization.

Before 9/11, such states were regarded primarily as regional problems, incubating threats such as disease, refugee flows, environmental destruction, drugs and arms trafficking, and so on. But the 2001 attacks convulsed thinking about the intersection between faltering states and security in the context of global terror, and it has taken a few years for both analysis and policy to unpack the question—indeed, to differentiate the relationship between terrorism and collapsed, failed, and weak states, respectively.

Two studies in 2002 illustrate the importance of clarifying those distinctions. John J. Hamre and Gordon R. Sullivan argued that ‘[O]ne of the principal lessons of the events of September 11 is that failed states matter—not just for humanitarian reasons, but for national security reasons as well. If left unattended, such states can become “sanctuaries for terrorist networks with global reach.”2

The Bush administration, meanwhile, concluded that “the events of September 11, 2001, taught the U.S. that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states.. [P]overty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.”3

More time has shown that the distinction between collapsed states, of which Somalia is the most glaring example, and weak states—such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, and Pakistan—matters deeply and has important implications for policy.

As Ken Menkhaus shows in his excellent analysis of Somalia and terrorism, failed states lack the physical and financial infrastructure that terrorist organizations need to operate and are therefore unsuitable as havens, whereas weak states provide both the tools and the cover in a relaxed security environment:

Terrorists, like mafias, prefer a weak and corrupt government rather than no government at all. In the Horn of Africa, weak states such as FIFA World Cup, Mohamed is hoping to celebrate different nationalities in Edmonton. So far teams include players from Somaliland, Jamaica, Fiji, Kenya and Tanzania are much more likely bases of operations for al-Qaeda. They feature sprawling, multiethnic urban areas where foreign operatives can go unremarked; corrupt law enforcement agencies which can be bought off; and a rich array of Western targets.. [A] collapsed state such as Somalia is more likely to serve a niche role as a transit zone, through which men, money, or materiel are quickly moved into the country and then across the borders of neighboring states.4

Similarly, Greg Mills concludes that the weakening of

state functions manifests in a number of interrelated ways, including the alienation of sectors of society and the emergence of an alternative, anarchic counter-culture; the related inability to provide basic security functions and extend other state functions to the majority of its citizens; and the state’s vulnerability to external influences, both state and non-state. . . . The weak nature of the African state and the corruptibility of the African political class have, over time, made it a soft target for terrorist groups.5

Thus, determining which states pose the greatest risk to international security in relation to terrorism and defining measures of effective intervention requires more than simply identifying tyrants, mobilizing coalitions of force, and orchestrating elections. Fledgling, faltering, and nominal democracies present equal or greater threats in terms of the exploitable advantages they provide to terrorist organizations.

And while geography matters, it is not a limiting factor—a point underscored by Libya’s ongoing material support for Mugabe. In this regard, countering terrorism by strengthening democracy must involve addressing the structural and causal elements of weak governance, the risk to investors, and social radicalization: corruption, constitutional imbalance, political exclusion, social exclusion (health and education), economic exclusion (trade), monetary mismanagement, and resource depletion.

Recognizing Somaliland Forward Step In Countering TerrorismSomalia and Somaliland

Prior to colonialization, Somalis organized themselves on the basis of a singular national identity. One of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, divided into a matrix of clans and subclans spread across some 400,000 square miles of the Horn, they speak just two common and intertwined languages—Somali and Arabic— and are almost all of them Muslim.

In the latter half of the 19th century, they were partitioned by the French, British, Italians, and Ethiopians, a process that introduced a political element to Somali identity and over time created a tension of definitions of nationhood that endure today.

The modern state of Somalia—at least geographically—is an experiment in joining two distinct historical entities: Italian Somalia in the south and British Somaliland in the North. In 1940, the Italians captured the north and combined the country, but the merger lasted only seven months before the British recaptured their protectorate.

Five years later, the Italians lost much of their grip, and British control extended deep into the south. The to-ing and fro-ing continued until 1950 when Italian control was formally reestablished and the original boundaries reaffirmed under a 10-year plan overseen by the United Nations.

Over the course of the next decade, a series of local elections and drafting of a constitution paved the way for independence in 1960—first for Somaliland on 26 June and then, five days later, for Somalia. Each side was recognized separately by the UN, including each of the five permanent members of the Security Council, according to their colonial boundaries.

Unification became both a preoccupation and a source of enduring division. Although the two entities joined within the year, it was a tense marriage marked by deep-seated clan rivalries. During the next three decades, northern dissent was repeatedly crushed by the military regime of Mohamed Siyad Barre in Mogadishu. When that government was finally overthrown in 1991, the south descended into factional fighting—and the north “seceded.” Since then, the two parts have followed dramatically different paths.

While the international community launched one peace process after another to try to restore a central government in Mogadishu, factional fighting—much of it foreign-backed—carved deep ethnopolitical furrows across the south.

In the north, meanwhile, stakeholders engaged in the lengthy process of demobilization, reconstruction, and nation-building. In the course of three national congresses, an interim national charter was drafted, a bicameral parliament was established, comprising an elected house of representatives and a nominated house of clan elders, and a president and vice president were voted in by congress delegates.

In 2001, the people of Somaliland ratified the new constitution in a nationwide referendum with impressive unanimity. Foreign-observed local elections followed in 2002, and when President Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal died during a trip to South Africa, peaceful succession followed through the ballot box, in line with the constitution, in which the victor emerged with a razor-thin 280-vote margin. The 29 March parliamentary elections marked the last step in creating a fully popularly elected government.

How does that position affect the two Somali entities vis-ä-vis terrorism? Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, Washington listed Somalia as a potential target in its war against terrorism and froze an estimated $500 million in foreign assets held by Somalia’s al-Barakat bank and money transferring company.

But as Menkhaus observes, “Somalia is less than ideal as a safe haven for al-Qaeda for several reasons”: one, the mono-ethnic nature of Somali society makes it harder for foreigners to blend in unobserved; two, there is an absence Of Western targets; three, the south lacks the financial, physical, and communications infrastructure required by modern terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda; four, the prevailing lawlessness poses a threat to terrorists as much as to anyone else, and fifth, the lack of state control over security would enable U.S. special forces based in neighboring Djibouti to mobilize within Somali territory faster and with fewer legal restraints.

Rather, two points are of greater and more realistic concern: one, the rise of al-Ittihad and al-Islah, respectively radical and progressive Somali Islamist movements that either espouse anti-Western violence or are prone to manipulation by those who do; and two, evidence that terrorist cells are using Somalia as a staging point for operations elsewhere in the region.

According to UN Security Council assessments, those behind the December 2002 bombing of a hotel in Mombasa and attempt to bring down an Israeli airliner in the Kenyan port transferred material through and acquired missiles in Somalia.

No such activity has yet been evidenced in Somaliland, but it is arguable that the territory is becoming more attractive to foreign terrorist organizations the more developed it becomes. Somaliland’s political progress has attracted a steady inflow of funds. The U.S. Congress allocated $9 million in 1997 for government and military salaries.

The same year, the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development launched an $18 million project to improve communications links between the port of Berbera and other regional ports. The EU has funded road construction, the Italians waterworks, and the International Development Bank education.

The British company Digital Exchange Projects, meanwhile, was contracted to rebuild Somaliland’s telecommunications systems. The list goes on. In 2001, for example, the Great Wall Chinese Oil Company announced plans to sink offshore oil wells and the Somali Diaspora sent an estimated $250 million annually to Somaliland to offset low forex reserves. Currently, the Bank of Somaliland is pursuing ties with more established regional and German financial institutions.6

As the earlier discussion about failed and weak states indicated, Somaliland’s development trend is also putting in place the very tools— banking systems, telecommunications, and transport links—that foreign terrorist organizations require in a tenuous security environment.

Recognizing Somaliland Forward Step In Countering Terrorism
1948 Somaliland Protectorate Map

Notions of Territorial Integrity

Article Four of the Constitutive Act of the African Union states that “the Union shall function in accordance with the following principles: (b) respect of borders existing on achievement of independence.” This rule, carried over from the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African States, has and remains the fundamental stumbling block in Somaliland’s quest for statehood.

In January 2004, a delegation from the British Parliament’s Select Committee on International Development conducted a visit to Somaliland. Upon their return, MP Tony Worthington questioned in a parliamentary debate British and international resistance to breaking from the sovereignty principle. He said:

There is an understandable paranoia about changing old colonial borders in Africa because of the fear that the habit may spread to other countries. Somaliland is a rare exception, however; it wants to return to its old colonial boundaries at the time of independence. The longer the world ignores the achievement of Somaliland in creating stability and democratic institutions, the greater the risk that wilder elements will take over.

Although the country has been governed by a moderate form of Islam since it declared independence, there is always the possibility that it will give way to a form of Islam that plays into the hands of those trying to stimulate terrorism, and there is tension in the country as a result.7

There is broad international sympathy for this argument, but there is also a kind of stasis akin to penguins on an ice bluff: no one wants to jump first. Washington, according to U.S. diplomats in the region, wants one of the African heavyweights—South Africa, Nigeria, Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia, or Senegal—to nod first. But Ethiopia, for one, has also stated that it would follow but won’t lead an international movement for recognition.

The impasse is curious, and time will tell whether it may also be costly. Three points weaken the argument that recognition risks setting a precedent in Africa.

First, as Foreign Minister Edna Adan Ismail argues, echoing the comment by Worthington, in the 44 years since it gained independence from Britain, Somaliland “neither resigned from our membership in the UN nor given away our sovereignty to anyone, we still claim ownership of our independence and that of our membership in the UN.”8 Recognizing Somaliland, then, is more a case of affirming postcolonial boundaries rather than redrawing them.

Second, seen as an international rather than exclusively African issue, the principle of separation is already well entrenched. Recent examples include the peaceful and internationally recognized “Velvet Divorce” of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.9

Third, Africa already has the precedent for partition set by Ethiopia and Eritrea, which was based on almost identical issues as those between Somalia and Somaliland.10 As part of a comprehensive peace settlement between those two countries, a UN boundary commission determined the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2002 based on historical and colonial maps. The European Union immediately endorsed the decision.

From legal, technical, and diplomatic perspectives, therefore, recognition of Somaliland is neither as problematic nor precedent-setting as claimed, nor is international resistance as strong as suggested by the unanimous failure so far to do so.

Recognizing Somaliland Forward Step In Countering TerrorismStrengthening Somaliland, Countering Terrorism

In Somalia today, the mild narcotic shrub khat is as common as AK-47s. Once chewed primarily by men for occasional recreation, the drug is now consumed daily by broad segments of the population, including women and, ominously, the heavily armed young boys and youths aligned to various factional leaders.

At the peak, 150 flights ferried the drug into Somaliland from neighboring states every day. Shortly after his election in 2002, President Dahir Rayale Kahin called for a decrease in inbound khat flights and banned all overland shipments. As Mills observes:

If enforced, this would likely provoke a political backlash in a nation where unemployment is high and a fragile—if impressively nurtured—peace has drawn into government warring militias and clans.

Like the global drug problem, dealing with khat requires breaking a pattern of helplessness and addiction through offering better economic prospects. 11

Somaliland is a fragile entity in a fragile region with large Islamic populations—all demonstrably susceptible to radicalization. Despite the various developmental initiatives, a relatively strong livestock export sector, and the generous inflow of annual remittances, unemployment hovers at destabilizing highs.

The eastern border, meanwhile, although clearly defined and recognized at independence in 1960, has been the subject of increasing dispute with the adjacent Somali region of Puntland, which makes ethnic-based claims to the two easternmost Somaliland provinces of Sanaag and Sool.

Steven Simon has observed that in the current atmosphere of militancy and antipathy in much of the Muslim world, “Islam’s warm embrace of the West is too stark a reversal to expect in the foreseeable future. However, it is feasible to lay the foundation for a lasting accommodation by deploying the considerable economic and political advantages of the United States and its allies. 12

In Somaliland, the West has an opportunity to broaden the terms of global counterterrorism strategy—to balance with carrots a policy meted thus far with sticks. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has dedicated himself to tackling Africa’s developmental challenges in 2005. He holds the chair of the G8 in the first half of the year and the EU in the second. Both groupings will debate initiatives to double aid, cut debt, boost investment, combat disease, and improve governance on the world’s poorest continent.

Emerging from these discussions should also be clearly defined recommendations for recognizing Somaliland through the UN. Politically, recognition would send a powerful signal to the Muslim world that internally driven aspirations toward secular democracy will be acknowledged and supported.

Economically, strengthening Somaliland’s nascent democratic institutions and underwriting its path toward viability will go some measure toward depriving radicalized elements of a potential recruiting ground, just as a stronger state and improved governance will assist in reducing the volatile cocktail of endemic poverty, social alienation, radicalization, and terrorism.

Withholding recognition from Somaliland runs contrary to the West’s rhetoric about standing shoulder to shoulder with aspiring democracies. But the question is more urgent than that. Given what has been learned after 9/11 about the broader security ramifications of weak states in an age of terror, it may be dangerous. If the West fails to assist a Muslim people striving to build their own safe, prosperous, and, critically, democratic state, they may well end up looking for— and finding—other patrons.


(1) I. M. Lewis, “As the Kenyan Somali ‘Peace’ Conference Falls Apart in Confusion, Recognition of Somaliland’s Independence is Overdue,” London School of Economics, 20 March 2004.

(2) John J. Hamre and Gordon R. Sullivan, “Toward Postconflict Reconstruction,” Washington Quarterly 25 (Autumn 2002).

(3) National Security Strategy document dated 19 September 2002.

(4) Ken Menkhaus, “Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism,” Adelphi Paper 364, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2004

(5) Greg Mills, The Security Intersection: The Paradox of Power in an Age of Terror (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2005), 237-9.

(6) See the chapter on Somali in Africa South of the Sahara 2005 (London: Europa Publications, 2005), for a fuller digest of assistance inflows into Somaliland in recent years.

(7) For the full debate on 4 February 2004 in the House of Commons, see

(8) Taken from comments presented at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg on 3 February 2005.

(9) The author is grateful to Dr. Chris Alden of the London School of Economics for discussions on this point.

(10) See the final report of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission for detailed historical background.

(11) Mills, 81.

(12) Steven Simon, “The New Terrorism,” in Henry J. Aaron, James M. Lindsay, and Pietro S. Nivola, eds., Agenda for the Nation (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), 425.

About the Author

Kurt Shillinger is a research fellow specializing in security and terrorism in Africa at the South African Institute of International Affairs, Johannesburg.

The Royal United Services Institute Journal, April 2005 150(2):46-51

Published online: 30 Oct 2009


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