In this week’s In-Depth story, Matthew Gordon breaks down the latest updates in Somaliland’s quest for international recognition:
By Matthew Gordon
Since early February, Somaliland, a small self-declared republic in East Africa, has found itself engaged in open conflict along its borders. In Las Anod, a town in the territory’s southeast, local protests broke out in December 2022 over increased insecurity. They eventually escalated into an armed confrontation after the Somaliland army cracked down violently on the unrest.
Some traditional leaders from Las Anod’s Dhulbahante clan called for the town to renounce Somaliland’s authority altogether and instead rejoin Somalia, from which Somaliland officially declared independence in 1991. In the resulting crossfire, an estimated 100,000 people have reportedly fled to neighboring Ethiopia, with the international community expressing concern over the mobilization of armed forces and its humanitarian impact on civilians.
The scale and potential spillover effects of conflict has brought this fledgling nation of around 4 million people to the world’s attention like never before. For the first quarter century of its existence, Somaliland, which emerged in 1991 from the ruins of the collapsed Somali state, built a reputation as a de facto independent government that lacked legal international recognition.
Despite establishing credible foundations of democratic governance through the pursuit of bottom-up state-building, Somaliland found its achievements largely overlooked and unrewarded by the rest of the world. The international community instead focused its energies on rebuilding a unified Somalia, ruled from Mogadishu that incorporates Somaliland within its federal structure.
Over the course of the past decade, however, Somaliland’s fortunes have drastically and irrevocably changed. As the region’s geopolitical landscape has begun to cleave into rival spheres of influence—with increased competition between the United States and China, and among the Gulf states—Somaliland’s government has leveraged its strategic location and natural resources, presenting itself as a potential economic focal point for lucrative trade routes.
In particular, when neighboring Djibouti—the region’s premier logistical hub and destination for foreign military bases to date—began to fall out with countries such as the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates by cozying up to China in the mid-2010s, Somaliland sought to position itself as an alternative safe harbor.
As a result, hopes that engagement with foreign powers and investors in terms of economic integration and military cooperation will translate into formal recognition have grown, as increased international clout leads to better standing as an independent actor. Evidence of the efficacy of this approach is the United States’ recent National Defense Authorization Act, whose unprecedented provisions regarding Somaliland include granting it more explicit direct bilateral engagement with U.S. aid and security agencies.
Unfortunately, what the ongoing developments in Las Anod show is that things are never so straightforward. While increased financial and diplomatic opportunities have enhanced Somaliland’s international profile, they have also created their own sets of winners and losers—not only transforming the stakes of political power and statehood, but unsettling the fragile balance of intercommunal relations that has ensured Somaliland’s stability up to this point.
In this sense, the unfolding events in Somaliland cannot be primarily blamed on external interference, whether from terrorist groups or China, as the Somaliland government and its international sympathizers have portrayed them. Instead, they are part and parcel of tensions that Somaliland’s approach to statehood have catalyzed.
Any international response to the situation in Las Anod, then, cannot merely aim to calm tensions or pacify local actors, but must equally work toward a sustainable, equitable solution to Somaliland’s credible claims to self-determination, one that better incorporates the interests of Somaliland’s marginalized communities than is currently the case.
Somaliland’s Evolving Recognition Campaign
Before its recent rise in prominence, Somaliland’s path to recognition had long rested primarily on legal and moral claims. Regarding the former, Somaliland’s founders traced the legitimacy of its claim to independence to the territory’s history as a distinct colonial entity from what is now recognized as Somalia.
Indeed, the Horn of Africa’s Somali territories never existed as an undivided political whole but rather developed as a patchwork of five separate entities. What we refer to as present-day Somalia was formed in July 1960 from the voluntary union of two of these five Somali political entities: a former British protectorate encompassing present-day Somaliland and a former Italian dependency that comprised present-day south and central Somalia.
As a result of this unusual origin story, today’s Somaliland nationalists convincingly link these discrete colonial borders, and this past status as a pre-union independent state, into a narrative of dissolved union, rather than secession. By this logic, the declaration of Somaliland’s independence in 1991 merely follows in the footsteps of other failed conglomerations—such as the Senegambia Confederation between Senegal and Gambia from 1981 to 1989, or the United Arab Republic, which comprised Egypt and Syria from 1958 to 1961—representing the dissolution of a failed political marriage and a return to the original, pre-1960 borders of the Protectorate.
These appeals to a legal right to self-determination dovetail with a moral one: the right for a people suffering under the yoke of domination and genocidal violence to be freed from their oppressors. Although the Somali union of 1960 initially commanded support across most Somali constituencies, conditions soon soured for the people of Somaliland, particularly following the military coup led by Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre in 1969. As Somalia became engulfed in wars with its neighbors and subsumed under a centralized system of security and patronage, certain out-of-favor clans—such as the Isaaq that makes up the majority of today’s Somaliland—found themselves marginalized and oppressed under Barre’s increasingly authoritarian dictatorship.
Organized attempts to resist these conditions were met with a centrally directed campaign of extermination, in which, from 1987 to 1989, between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians were massacred and entire cities in Somaliland were reduced to rubble. The Somalian state itself crumbled in 1991 under the weight of dwindling legitimacy. For Somalilanders who lived through such dark times, the declaration of a Somaliland republic in 1991 was a moment of liberation, not solely from a particular regime, but from the totality of the political arrangement that had countenanced their victimization.
The Emergence of an Independent State
Following the collapse of the Somalian state, Somaliland went on to build a political system that initially promoted peaceful coexistence, freedom of expression, and economic self-sufficiency, which eventually coalesced into a multiparty democracy. In the context of its emergence from oppression, an independent Somaliland state is thus seen by many of its citizens, particularly its Isaaq core, as the victim’s just redemption for a dictator’s past crimes, one that should be recognized and supported by the world, not denied.
Moreover, these achievements have not only benefitted the people of Somaliland, but the international community more generally. For instance, deeply rooted peace and democratic legitimacy has protected Somaliland from vulnerability to terror and piracy, by promoting cooperation between communities and authorities in rooting out potential threats. Meanwhile, the territory’s security services have proven credible partners to their Western allies when it comes to regional security initiatives.
That Somaliland continues to be denied recognition as a state has come to be seen by its inhabitants less as an oversight, and more as an injustice.
This corner of the world is thus arguably much safer and calmer than would be the case without Somaliland’s contributions, which Somaliland’s representatives believe speaks to its credentials as an equal party among the community of nations. But despite living up to the values of liberal internationalism and meeting the baseline conditions and duties of states as laid out in guiding international treaties, Somaliland continues to be denied recognition as a state, something that has come to be seen by its inhabitants less as an oversight, and more as an injustice.
Though Somaliland’s achievements contributed to its incremental acceptance as a practical diplomatic partner to the United States, United Kingdom, and others on matters of mutual interest, until recently there seemed little prospect that such cooperation might translate into a fundamental drive to rethink the territory’s status.
While a long-standing global reluctance to redraw national borders certainly contributed to this impasse, it cannot explain why Somaliland—whose case was considered “historically unique and self-justified in African political history” by a 2005 AU fact-finding mission—has failed where Eritrea and South Sudan succeeded. For this, it’s important to look at the balance of global political interests, particularly the widespread satisfaction with the status quo among influential actors, both in the West and the region, regarding Somaliland’s status.
Reckoning With Geopolitical Interests
There has been little appetite in the Horn for the re-emergence of any strong, centralized Somali political entity with full sovereign control over its territory. In fact, the liminal condition of both Somaliland and Somalia—the former functional but unrecognized and the latter dysfunctional but deemed diplomatically legitimate—provides the governments of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti with a permissive environment to influence local leadership struggles, stave off military and economic competition, and intervene militarily within their neighborhood, with little legal or geopolitical pushback.
Indeed, whereas a united Somalia was a formidable regional power during the Cold War, today its various fragmented entities have seen their political fortunes heavily determined by surrounding governments. Interventions within Somalia as part of various African peacekeeping missions have thus been more about establishing buffer zones and spheres of influence, in order to contain and suffocate terror threats emanating from Somali territories, than it has been about fundamentally reconstructing the state capacity of any local political administration.
Western powers have similarly gotten most of what they wanted from Somaliland without having to resort to the diplomatically risky and onerous step of sponsoring recognition. The U.S., U.K., and European Union have taken for granted that Somaliland’s stability and security could be maintained in its current quasi-state form. They have also taken for granted that the country would remain a reliable international partner on matters of practical concern—such as terrorism, piracy, and migration—so long as low-level Western aid and engagement remained forthcoming.
In fact, in certain diplomatic circles, the future reward of recognition has been treated as a useful disciplining tool, a carrot to dangle in front of Somaliland at moments when its political system veered off its democratizing, securitizing course.
In short, by maintaining ambiguity on the question of Somaliland’s status and deferring to either the Somali people or African states on the matter, Western governments have managed to have it both ways: They retain functional ties to Somaliland while avoiding rocking the boat in Somalia, where the prospect of Somaliland’s exit is seen as an existential threat to efforts to reintegrate a divided people. However, such an approach has ultimately proven shortsighted, with contests between various Somali entities over Somaliland’s borders and authority emerging regardless of the territory’s ambiguous status, as shown by the latest Las Anod conflagration.
Over the past decade, however, with both the onset of the Arab Spring and the ramping up of competition over spheres of influence between the U.S., China, and Russia, the diplomatic status quo regarding Somaliland has been upended. Powers such as the UAE, Qatar, and Turkey have expanded their military and commercial presence throughout the Horn, as the Gulf of Aden and Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which each run along the territory’s coast, became more strategically salient. As a result, Somaliland has leveraged its favorable geographic position to build alliances with diplomatically influential and cash-rich regimes.
In this vein, the monumental decision by Emirati logistics giant DP World to invest $442 million into enlarging Somaliland’s Berbera Port—as well as the flirtation of the UAE, U.S., and others with establishing a military base along the nation’s coastline—has allowed Somaliland to position itself as a future player in regional trade, while building up a cohort of potential patrons with a substantial geopolitical stake in its success. As Michael Walls has argued, the recent news indicating potentially significant oil deposits along Somaliland’s border with Ethiopia only multiplies the cards the Somaliland government can play in favorable international negotiations.
The Perils of Acting Like a State
Somaliland’s highly admirable but largely unsuccessful moral quest for self-determination by a formerly victimized community has therefore recently been superseded by a story of realpolitik maneuverings and the flexing of newly accumulated geostrategic leverage.
This narrative arc has in many ways been mirrored in the trajectory of Somaliland’s domestic political development. Having emerged and matured during a time of international isolation—the two decades following Barre’s ouster in 1991—Somaliland’s underlying political system was stitched together through a complex and multilayered web of interclan compromises, in which traditional leaders, acting through cultural rather than military influence, negotiated settlements of forgiveness, reparation, demobilization and decentralized self-rule as the basis for peaceful coexistence.
These horizontal, reciprocal relations were not the product of visionary leadership or ideological coherence but rather reflected the power dynamics and socioeconomic conditions of the time. As several observers have documented, nonrecognition lowered the political spoils to be gained from violent competition, incentivizing cooperation between communities. Meanwhile, a relative balance of power between armed groups ruled out the imposition of rule and necessitated the inclusive consent of all influential stakeholders.
Somaliland’s leaders required the buy-in of their constituents to fulfill the resulting peace agreements and to provide the tax revenue and personnel to build the resulting political institutions, thereby instilling vertical relations of accountability to complement the horizontal interclan ones. Even those communities uninspired by Somaliland nationhood, which remained hopeful of the recovery of a unified Somalia, have until today enjoyed the practical benefits of peace, stability, and economic reconstruction that this political compromise brought.
Since the declaration of independence, however, Somaliland’s leaders, in cooperation with its international partners, have over time sought to institutionalize state-based modes of governance to replace this clan-based system. In certain areas, this has achieved success, such as the country’s much-vaunted electoral system, which is not only popularly credible but regularly yields open contests and meaningful transfers of power.
At the level of the underlying social structure, on the other hand, the centralization of decision-making and the expansion of security services have facilitated the concentration of power and resources among an increasingly narrow political-business oligopoly. As a result, despite the regular positive press that Somaliland’s democracy has received, the territory’s democratic system has become increasingly unresponsive and unstable, serving mainly as the highly fractious ground on which elite power struggles play out.
As the central government has become stronger, it has become less constrained by the imperatives of consensus-building and power-sharing, and more likely to turn to force as a solution to discontent. This dynamic is currently on display in the conflict in Las Anod. As Abdifatah Ismael Tahir, a research associate at the Global Development Institute, argues, the Somaliland political system once offered the local Dhulbahante clan practical peace dividends, such as stability, economic opportunity, and the power to negotiate political “space” for local initiatives. In contrast, “the current administration has shifted from this approach” to a “more centralized and repressive one,” as the government’s power and self-confidence have expanded.
In other words, the government previously relied on inter-communal cohesion, bought through political buy-in, to demonstrate the “unity” and “territorial integrity” of Somaliland. Now, however, it has increasingly turned to the demonstration of force and the suppression of dissenting voices to demonstrate its sovereign credentials, as its recent bellicose rhetoric of refusing to “back down or surrender to any aggression” suggests.
For Immediate press release. pic.twitter.com/YX8Mq8pRyI
— Somaliland National TV (@SLNTV) March 2, 2023
Somaliland’s increasing integration into the global political economy has only served to exacerbate these trends. The influx of Emirati funds, and the opportunities for elites to benefit from the contracts associated with this increasingly vast logistical network, have gradually freed the ruling party from the constraints of local accountability. At the same time, foreign government training and funding of elite military units have increasingly enabled government officials to hide behind a fortress of armed protection.
However, the more the Somaliland government strengthens itself vis-à-vis its population, the more it comes to be seen as a threat by competitors—be they Mogadishu; the neighboring Somali federal member state of Puntland; regional powers, such as Djibouti and Ethiopia; unsympathetic clan leaders; and even the Somali Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab. It is no surprise, then, that Somaliland currently finds itself facing off against a convergence of these forces arrayed against it in Las Anod. And the future likely promises a growing trend of military escalation centered around contested borders, resources—particularly oil—and control of logistical and trade networks.
Lessons From This Journey
At the heart of Somaliland’s quest for independence, then, is a paradox: The closer it advances toward international recognition, the further it strays from the original conditions that made its moral and political case for self-determination so compelling. In riding roughshod over reciprocal interclan relations and deliberative means of governance in the name of proving its statist credentials, not only has Somaliland’s political system become more unstable, but it has increasingly replicated the interclan inequalities and divisions that inspired the quest for self-determination in the first place. This speaks to an underacknowledged peril of “acting like a state”—something that aspiring movements for political autonomy generally see as a prerequisite for international acceptance.
Somaliland has often been lauded for performing the basic attributes of self-governance, from issuing its own currency and passports to operating modern bureaucratic institutions. But where the Somaliland government has truly sought to mimic its sovereign counterparts is in its coercive control of territory and borders, the assertion of the supremacy of government writ, and the suppression of pockets of anti-Somaliland public sentiment, such as the crackdown in Las Anod. As a consequence, however, it has found itself falling into the trap of its Somali predecessors, by militarizing what had once been civilian politics.
In many ways, this is unfortunate, as what has long set Somaliland apart from secessionist cases such as Eritrea and South Sudan is that its political system was established on truly peaceful, civilianized foundations. In Eritrea and South Sudan, insurgent leaders and revolutionaries were immediately converted into government officials upon independence, with little attention paid to demobilization. Unsurprisingly, then, the former descended into military autocracy and the latter into recurrent civil war almost immediately. In contrast, Somaliland’s early armed factions ultimately ceded political direction to traditional and business leaders, blending back into society thereafter.
Despite the regular positive press that Somaliland’s democracy has received, the territory’s democratic system has become increasingly unresponsive and unstable.
But having avoided this pitfall at the outset, Somaliland is currently falling prey to it by political design, for instance by electing a former military commander, Musa Bihi, as president for the first time in the autonomous region’s history in 2017. Bihi’s current tenure has been characterized by an uptick in the persecution of journalists and opposition figures, repeated election delays, and recurrent armed flare-ups in the territory’s eastern regions.
These trends have been facilitated by an international community that has failed to offer Somaliland a viable peaceful avenue to advance its quest for independent statehood. Actors such as the U.K., U.S., and EU, despite their longstanding engagement, have distanced themselves from any legal or diplomatic adjudication of Somaliland’s case, whether through procedures available to the African Union or the United Nations.
And their stated support for dialogue between Somaliland and Somalia over their future relations have regularly faltered at the first sight of intransigence and noncooperation—particularly by Mogadishu, which holds most of the diplomatic cards. Instead, international involvement in resolving controversies related to Somaliland’s status have been reactive and temporary, seeking to restore order in the aftermath of unrest, with Ethiopia’s current mediation efforts in the Las Anod controversy only the latest example.
Within this diplomatic vacuum, in which matters of democratic legitimacy, moral worthiness, historical justice, and consensus-building are accorded no weight, all that remains is force. It is no surprise, then, that rebel movements within Somaliland and conflict between Somaliland and Puntland over their shared border have proliferated as a means to settle rival political claims on the battlefield, rather than through political dialogue.
It was equally inevitable that, without international guarantees protecting its self-governance, Somaliland would seek out military allies, becoming embroiled in regional rivalries—such as between the UAE and Qatar, or between the U.S. and China—in the process. Furthermore, with the situation in Ethiopia showing that regimes can get away with perpetrating mass violence with little international accountability so long as they are victorious, it is likely that Somaliland will take international protestations regarding its actions in Las Anod far less seriously.
It is therefore time for international actors to throw their weight behind a region-wide dialogue that goes beyond the current crisis and aims to arrive at a solution to Somaliland’s unique case, by addressing head-on the tensions arising from its independence bid.
Such a process should establish clear criteria for how political legitimacy and representation is to be determined, so as to discourage the use of force and the military occupation of territory as viable political strategies. It requires the buy-in of all international actors engaged in the region in order to de-escalate destructive foreign competition and instead promote cooperation toward regional peace and stability, particularly for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden commercial shipping routes.
As historical developments have shown, however, any process must expand beyond political elites, who have often used such political forums to consolidate their authority and press forward a vision of Somaliland that is increasingly exclusive. Instead, a broad range of stakeholders—from traditional leaders and businesspeople to academics and youth movements—who have more to gain from a resolution than the divisive status quo, must be given space to think through what self-determination, statehood, distribution of power, coexistence and “Somaliness” means in this turbulent but hopeful region. Only then will they be able to make good on the promise of what Somaliland has achieved to date.
Matthew Gordon is a visiting fellow at the Center for Conflict Studies at the University of Marburg, whose research focuses on the relationship between peacebuilding and state building. He has a decade of experience working on Somaliland and Somalia, including as a diplomatic adviser to Somaliland’s Foreign Ministry and as a specialist on local governance with the U.N. Development Program and the Rift Valley Institute.
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