Somaliland, an independent state in the Horn of Africa, faces challenges like climate crises and regional conflicts but remains determined to gain recognition for growth and development.
By Natasha Matloob
Somaliland, officially known as the Republic of Somaliland is a self-declared sovereign state located in the Horn of Africa on the south coast of the Gulf of Aden. It is a de facto state that is, it has not been officially recognized by any of the states in the world. However, it has a working political system, state institutions, a military, and an economic system. Somaliland was the former part of Somalia. It gained independence from Somalia in 1991 after overthrowing Somali military dictator Siyad Barre.
A Brief History and Struggles of Somaliland
Somaliland has a deep history dating back to ancient times. It had been ruled by indigenous Somali tribes for centuries. The spread of Islam started in the region during the 7th century. Parts of Somaliland were ruled by the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century. It also remained under the occupation of Egypt during the early 19th century.
Road to British Occupation (1840-1960)
The Islamic empires of the region lost their control in the 1840s and the British Empire started occupying the territories. The British wanted to use the area as a link to the Suez Canal to facilitate trade and exports. Native leaders made different agreements with the English which paved the way for British colonization. Somaliland remained a British protectorate until 1960.
Merger with Somalia (1960-1991)
On 1st July 1960, the British declared complete independence for Somaliland. However, it remained independent only for five days and after that, it merged with present-day Somalia, an Italian protectorate at that time.
This merger received serious backlash from many in Somaliland as they were removed from public offices, government, and military ranks. In addition, then President Muhammad Siyad Barre started a violent campaign in the 1980s in which an estimated 50-100,000 people were killed and even more were displaced. Under his despotic rule, critical infrastructure of the land was also destroyed.
The dissatisfied groups wanted an independent state so that they could get the economic and social development they needed. A separatist group known as the Somali National Movement (SNM) was formed in the 1980s and it started the independence movement against mainland Somalia. SNM along with other insurgent groups ousted the military dictatorship of President Siyad Barre in January 1991 who had assumed power in 1969.
The SNM rebels refused to recognize the interim government led by another military group. On 18 May of the same year (1991), SNM declared the independence of Somaliland with the city of Hargeisa as its capital.
After the declaration of independence, SNM conducted a conference of all the clan leaders who in turn elected an interim leader for the newly made Republic of Somaliland. In 1993, multiparty elections were conducted that elected Abdul Rahman Ahmed Ali Tuur as the country’s first President.
However, the 1990s decade continued to be full of clan disputes and anarchy. In 2001, a constitutional referendum was conducted that got more than 97 percent of the votes. SNM, being a national independence movement, was dissolved and space for new political parties was created that represented diverse political ideologies.
Somaliland took almost ten years to frame its constitution which was officially approved in 2001. Constitutionally, the country is a democratic republic with a multi-party political system. Its legal system is a combination of customary law, Islamic law, and European-based statutory law. The system of government is based upon the principle of separation of powers. The power of government is distributed into three branches: Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary. Each branch of government works independently within the limits specified under the Constitution.
Unrecognized Status of Somaliland: Complex Geopolitical Factors
The government of Somaliland claims that it is an independent and sovereign state. All of its areas are culturally and ethnically different from those in mainland Somalia. Moreover, the government issues its currency and passports and claims to be more stable and secure than Somalia. Somaliland holds free and fair elections which are observed and even praised by international bodies such as the EU. Despite all these things, Somaliland is not officially recognized by foreign governments because of several geo-political reasons. Globally, the majority of nations refrain from acknowledging Somaliland’s independence due to a variety of factors.
- Within the European Union (EU), Italy staunchly opposes secession, primarily driven by its economic interests in southern Somalia and historical colonial ties. Furthermore, members of the traditional Somali elite often maintain close affiliations with Italy.
- Egypt supports the unity of Somalia to exert influence over Ethiopia, with which it competes for control over Nile water resources.
- Arab states generally prefer a united and robust Sunni Somalia in the Horn of Africa.
- The United States and most other EU countries are actively engaged in efforts to stabilize Somalia and view recognition of Somaliland as potentially detrimental to these efforts.
- Arguably, the most pivotal factor inhibiting recognition from African nations is the African Union’s (AU) unwavering commitment to preserving the continent’s colonial borders. The AU’s stance is rooted in the concern that altering these borders could trigger unforeseeable secessionist movements across the entire continent, potentially leading to unpredictable geopolitical dynamics.
Ongoing Challenges of Somaliland
While the absence of international recognition as an independent state remains a foremost and enduring challenge for Somaliland, the nation also grapples with a range of other issues, including:
Climate Change Issues
Somaliland is highly vulnerable to issues caused by climate change. It has been facing extreme drought and water shortage along with other East African countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. Currently, an estimated 7 million people have been suffering from extreme food shortages and hunger. In addition, 3 million livestock, which is the backbone of its economy, have also died.
Girls and women of Somaliland are hardest hit by the humanitarian crisis caused due to drought and food shortages. According to an estimate, 98% of women have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) in Somaliland. Thousands of women are living in precarious conditions in the camps for internally displaced people and are highly vulnerable to gender-based violence.
Poverty is another prevalent issue in Somaliland. More than 1 in 3 people in rural and more than 1 in 4 people in urban Somaliland have been living in poverty conditions. Rural poverty is more widespread and deeper than urban poverty. In rural Somaliland, 24% of households live in extreme poverty conditions.
Nearly 88% of Somaliland’s population lacks access to universal sanitation facilities. This is further complicated by the low rainfall, centralized pastoralist economy, and COVID-19.
Civil War with Somalia
Somaliland has had an ongoing conflict with Somalia since 1991. The foundation of conflict lies in Somaliland’s declaration as an independent state and Somalia’s claim on it as a part of its territory. 2018 was the last time when the conflict escalated into an armed clash. Again in 2023, the interference of the UK government in Somaliland led to violent armed clashes in which many people were killed.
In 2020, the UK, Denmark, and the Netherlands made four agreements with the government of Somaliland for oil exploration, developing critical infrastructure, and boosting economic growth in the region. However, Somalia has rejected the claims of British company Genel Energy for undertaking oil exploration in the region of Somaliland. Somalia’s oil ministry has made it clear to the West that it is the only institution legally authorized to give oil exploration rights to a third party and the UK’s interference in the region is a threat to the sovereignty of Somalia that would not be tolerated at any cost.
The Persistent Pursuit for International Recognition
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for the foreign relations of Somaliland with other states and non-state actors such as international institutions, and multinational corporations. Since Somaliland has not been officially recognized by any foreign state since its self-declared independence in 1991, the key objective of its foreign policy is getting international recognition from a maximum number of states. In addition, attracting foreign direct investment and acquiring economic aid from rich states and international financial institutions for development projects are also key foreign policy priorities. Currently, Somaliland is a member of only one international organization which is, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.
Diplomatic Presence in South Africa, Ethiopia and Ghana
Currently, Somaliland has official contacts only with a few states such as Ethiopia, UAE, and Taiwan. It has officially recognized offices in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Ghana that function as its embassies. These states are also pressurizing the African Union (AU) to give formal recognition to Somaliland.
Diplomatic Outreach to Europe
In Europe, Belgium, Sweden, France, and Denmark have diplomatic relations with Somaliland and it has an officially recognized diplomatic office in London as well. The UK, Denmark, and the Netherlands made four agreements with the government of Somaliland for developing critical infrastructure and fostering economic growth in the country.
De-facto engagements with the US
The US and Somaliland don’t have formal diplomatic relations but delegates from both sides have met many times in the past. It has also a de facto embassy in the US. The US policy stance regarding the recognition of Somaliland is to let the African Union (AU) decide the question of its status as an independent state. The US engages with the country regarding policy matters such as democratization and economic development. In the year 2007, the US provided aid worth $1 million through the International Republican Institution to support training for parliamentarians and other key programs in preparations for the upcoming elections of 2010 in Somaliland.
Engagement with UAE and Israel:
Israel was the only state that gave recognition to the short-term independence of Somaliland in 1960. As of 2010, Israeli officials say that they are again ready to recognize Somaliland. Somaliland expressed its support for the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel.
In conclusion, Somaliland’s journey as a self-declared independent state in the Horn of Africa is marked by a rich history, ongoing struggles, and persistent efforts to gain international recognition. Despite the challenges it faces, including climate-related crises and regional conflicts, Somaliland remains determined to secure its place on the global stage. Recognition from foreign governments could unlock new opportunities for growth and development in this dynamic region.
The author is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from National Defense University Islamabad. She works as a contributing writer at Technology Times and can be reached at natashamatloob737[at]gmail.com
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