One of the few African countries to have enjoyed democracy and stability for more than 30 years, Somaliland is not yet recognized by the international community. Why?

By Robert Kluijver

Thirty years ago, while Somalia descended into civil war, the northwestern part of the country seceded. It declared itself independent under the name of Somaliland. Since then, this country has built a state, a democratic order, its own currency, and an economy. He has mostly known peace, unlike neighboring Somalia.

Somaliland, half the size of France, is populated by three to four million people. It commands a strategic position on the southern shores of the Gulf of Aden, one of the major areas of global maritime transit.


For thirty years, this country has been seeking diplomatic recognition, as a good neighbor and respecting international rules. However, it is not recognized. Why?

Somaliland, African Democracy With 30 Years Of Isolation
Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, on September 16, 2021. Eduardo Soteras/AFP


Somaliland was first, since 1887, a British protectorate. In 1960 he was seamlessly integrated to independent Somalia which was formed after Italian colonization and tutelage. For two decades, everything went well, even if the country, with the exception of the capital Mogadishu, stagnated and suffered from a lack of development.

Video caption: Somaliland: the African exception (Arte, October 5, 2021).

But, in the 1980s, the military regime of Siad Barre began to purge itself of clans that the dictator no longer trusted, among others the family of clans Isaaq, the majority in Somaliland, going so far as to bomb the regional capital, Hargeisa, as well as Somaliland’s second city, Burao, and fill mass graves with thousands of civilians purged in genocidal campaigns. This is why, as early as 1991, the chiefs of the Isaaq clan seized the opportunity of the civil war which inflamed Somalia and proclaimed the independence of Somaliland.

They forged ties with the other Somali clans inhabiting the territory – belonging to the Dir and Darood clan families – to extinguish local conflicts. Long talks between the inhabitants, financed by the diaspora, the traders, and the population, forged a State, which at the end of the 1990s was endowed with a constitutional democratic electoral system. In the meantime, the economy has been rebuilt on new foundations.

Somaliland, African Democracy With 30 Years Of Isolation
The livestock market at Aynabo. Robert Kluijver, Provided by the author

A growing economy

Somaliland is not endowed with mineral wealth, and it hardly rains there, which severely limits agriculture. The country mainly exports goats, sheep, camels (raised by nomads and intended for slaughterhouses in the Gulf), and a little aromatic gum (myrrh and frankincense). But its economy is mainly based on business, thanks to the good connections of the Somaliland diaspora in the Gulf countries, in the West, and elsewhere. The country also aims to ensure a greater share of commercial transit towards Ethiopia, which would like to reduce its dependence on the port of Djibouti.

A visit to Hargeisa (which is easily organized, I encourage you) shows a city gripped by real estate fever, financed by telecom companies, money transfer companies, and commerce.

Cafes are open until the wee hours; it is one of the safest capitals in Africa. There are art centers, luxury boutiques, designers, and plenty of beauty salons as well as a bustling market. The city is becoming better and better integrated into transport networks and trade of the Horn of Africa.

Somaliland, African Democracy With 30 Years Of Isolation
The center of Hargeisa. Robert Kluijver, provided by the author

A functional, albeit not ideal, democracy

In what appears to be a unique case, the state of Somaliland rests on real popular foundations because, having access to no international support, not even from a neighboring country, the state was formed by a social contract uniting most (but not all) of the country’s inhabitants. The effort to create the state and its institutions was supported by the population until the 2000s when international aid began to flow to Somaliland institutions. It is precisely the lack of international support for the formation of this state that has made it so democratic.

To be able to participate in the contemporary interstate system, Somaliland’s leaders opted for a state based on law and multiparty electoral democracy. The President and members of the National Assembly are elected by the population in electoral processes that have already seen several peaceful transitions between governments – which is rare in the region. Behind this democratic façade, there is a power-sharing agreement between the major clans, based on the principle of alternation. In June 2021, the ruling party lost the elections to within a seat of Parliament; he accepted with little protest. President Muse Bihi must now cohabit with the opposition in parliament, which will perhaps lessen his authoritarian tendencies.

Let’s be clear, Somaliland is not a shining example of democracy. There are journalists in prison for criticizing the government, and educated youth seek to flee the country for the lack of freedom and opportunities for growth. Finally, the non-Isaaq populations of the East and West of the country, that is to say about a quarter of the population, feel that they are underrepresented in Hargeisa. The Darood population of the eastern third of Somaliland is also claimed by neighboring Puntland, where the Darood are in power.

Puntland is almost as autonomous as Somaliland but considers itself a member state of the federal state that formed in Somalia in 2012. There have been several armed confrontations between Somaliland and Puntland. But compared to its neighbors in the Horn of Africa – including Puntland, a hotspot for Somali piracy and a terrain of operations for Al-Shabaab and the Islamic State – Somaliland looks like Switzerland.

Somaliland, African Democracy With 30 Years Of Isolation
Hargeisa market, November 10, 2019. Dave Primov/Shutterstock

Unrecognized country

Somaliland’s secession was never accepted by Mogadishu. But from 1990 to 2009, there was effectively no Somali government and the current one is weak. From all points of view, the international community should recognize Somaliland. There are historical arguments: the country has now been independent for as long (thirty years) as it was united with Somalia. But there are also legal arguments: according to the Montevideo Convention, the country ticks all the boxes: a determined territory, a permanent population, a government, and the ability to enter into international relations.

There are also security reasons: piracy, the Islamic uprising, and the ongoing instability that Somalia is experiencing have never taken root in Somaliland. Why does the United Nations and the rest of the international community want to put this country back under the yoke of the corrupt government of Mogadishu, which remains entirely dependent on its foreign support? The federal state, even after Somaliland returns to the Somali fold, is likely to be swept away by an Islamist uprising, as was the Afghan government.

Finally, there are moral reasons: this country, so “good student” for thirty years, a liberal democracy which manages to maintain itself despite its isolation, does it not deserve to be rewarded with international recognition? Isn’t that, precisely, an example to set up, a model to follow for encouraging democracy in Africa?

It is often said that the African Union does not want to recognize Somaliland for fear of opening the “Pandora’s box” of secessionist claims in Africa, but in 2005 a commission of inquiry of this institution decided that Somaliland deserved recognition.

A European ambassador told me one day in Hargeisa that Somaliland was not recognized because nothing obliged foreign powers to do so. What could compel them? A war, he replied, like those that preceded the recognition of Eritrea (in 1993) and South Sudan (in 2011). If Somaliland provokes a regional conflict that calls for the intervention of foreign powers, the country will eventually be recognized, he assured me.

This is an unhappy prospect, which gives the impression that the community of States is a playground where the same band of friends has reigned for a long time. If they don’t want to recognize you, your behavior won’t change anything. You have to provoke a real crisis so that they look into your fate.

Somaliland, African Democracy With 30 Years Of Isolation
Frantz Fanon University, Hargeisa. Robert Kluijver, provided by the author

A phantom existence

But it should also be noted that the country is doing rather well despite its non-recognition. The problems are multiple: the Somaliland passport is only recognized by Ethiopia, local banks and businesses cannot open lines of credit and Somaliland cannot participate in any regional or international forum.

However, the country does not suffer disproportionately: its citizens and traders have found roundabout ways to participate in international life.

Above all, the government wants to be recognized in order to be able to borrow on the world markets. However, there is no reason to think that the Somaliland government will engage in more prudent financial management than other African countries. Indeed, foreign money does not carry any social obligation and allows the authorities to enrich themselves or finance their favorite projects, counting on future generations to pay the debt. For now, Somaliland may be the only non-indebted country on the planet; his government must subsist above all thanks to the taxes which he manages to levy.

It is true that the authorities also benefit from humanitarian and development flows from abroad. This has allowed an autocratic consolidation of the clans in power since independence, even if the lack of recognition sometimes prompts the country’s authorities to turn against the United Nations. But these flows pale in comparison to the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars the government could borrow from the IMF or the World Bank if Somaliland were recognized.

All in all, therefore, it is perhaps preferable that Somaliland not be recognized. This forces the government to behave more democratically and maintain social consensus, which, in turn, ensures peace. These effects of the non-recognition of Somaliland speak volumes about the international order…

Robert Kluijver

Robert Kluijver

Researcher at the Centre for International Research (CERI), Sciences Po

Robert Kluijver is a researcher at the Centre for International Research (CERI) specializing in the Horn of Africa. He was a news analyst in Somalia from 2016-2018 and is currently completing a Ph.D. in state-building in Somalia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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