While Somalia falls into a protracted conflict, Somaliland builds an original and relatively democratic nation which is not rewarded with independence by the international community. In “Somaliland’s Struggle for Recognition Since 1991: External Actors and Dynamics,” Nasir Ali and Aleksi Ylönen discuss the quest of Somaliland for international recognition.

The authors remind us that the country did not manage to gain such recognition within international arenas, but consider that the existence of a state has to be evaluated through its concrete practices at the local and international levels. In this sense, Somaliland fulfills the objectives and legal criteria for statehood like the existing de jure states.

By Nasir M. Ali and Aleksi Ylönen


In 1884, the British took over the administration of the Somali coastal areas from Egypt. Following the first formal protection treaties signed with the clan leaders of the Isaaq, Issa, Gadabursi (commonly known as Samaron), and Warsangali, they established the British Somaliland Protectorate. While the British sought to secure Somaliland which was considered a strategic location across from the British-controlled Port of Aden,[1] the Somaliland leaders sought political protection.

On June 26, 1960, Somaliland gained independence from Great Britain. The following day, Somaliland legislators approved a bill to form a union with the Italian-administered Trust Territory of Somaliland upon the ending of the trusteeship. On July 1, 1960, the Somali Republic was founded on a voluntary union between the former British and Italian Somaliland. Following Somalia’s defeat in the Ogaden War (1977–1978), the central government’s legitimacy and authority became increasingly challenged.[2]


In the early 1980s, various armed opposition groups emerged, including the Somali National Movement (SNM) which drew its support from sections of the population in central Somaliland.[3]

In order to understand Somaliland’s aspiration to become an internationally recognized state, it is imperative to highlight the context in which the grassroots opinion forced the SNM to change its position toward independence. After initial success and the following near defeat, the movement re-strengthened in circumstances in which the military regime engaged in counterinsurgency that terrorized and annihilated civilian Somalilanders.

Meanwhile, the SNM benefited from diaspora remittances and the Somali rebels received external support from states, such as Ethiopia and Libya, interested in weakening the military regime. Benefiting from other armed opposition groups, notably the United Somali Congress, defeating the central government in 1991, the SNM gained control over Somaliland.[4] Subsequently, in the Burao Conference in April–May of the same year, persuaded by the clan elders, the new authorities in Somaliland changed their posture and declared independence from the rest of Somalia claiming the colonial boundaries it had inherited from Great Britain.

Since then, Somalilanders have managed to build and consolidate state institutions and a relatively democratic and human rights-conscious political system from the rubble and ruins of the civil war.[5] Having been a sovereign and partially recognized state before forming a union with former Italian Somaliland, its claim for recognition under international law is strong in part because the union was ‘imperfectly concluded’.[6]

Its historical claim based on the Organization and African Union (OAU) and African Union (AU) upheld principle of uti possidetis, respect for the agreed and demarcated boundaries arising from colonialism is equally strong, at least relative to the relatively new states in its neighborhood, Eritrea and South Sudan. What also speaks for rewarding Somaliland with international recognition is its track record of contributing to peace, security, and stability in the Horn of Africa.

This chapter deals with Somaliland’s attempts to gain international legal (de jure) recognition of its de facto statehood and the approaches of the regional and international actors toward its aspirations. The chapter shows how, despite the Somaliland government’s intense efforts of justifying recognition and pursuing it in bilateral relations and various multilateral fora, regionally influential states and global powers have remained reluctant to officially endorse Somaliland’s de facto independent statehood.

Justifying recognition

According to international law, some of the fundamental criteria for statehood are those set out in Article 1 of the Convention on Rights and Duties of States, also known as the Montevideo Convention. According to this convention, adopted in the Seventh International Conference of American States on December 26, 1933, the state as a person of international law should have: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states.[7]

In connection to those criteria, the question arising here is: does Somaliland fulfill the criteria of statehood to attain recognition from the outside world? A look at Somaliland reveals that it fulfills the Montevideo criteria for statehood. It has a permanent population of approximately 5 million consisting of the Isaaq, Dir, and Darood and their sub-clans.[8]

In the 1880s–1890s, Somaliland’s territory was defined in treaties between Great Britain and France, Italy, and 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 similarly to the boundaries of other colonial territories which later converted into independent and internationally recognized states.  Somaliland’s government institutions were created in the early 1990s to justify the self-declared independence and have functioned in a relatively democratic manner in a neighborhood of largely authoritarian states.

Finally, Somaliland has the necessary institutions in place and representation to pursue relations with other states. Although not officially recognized, it has representative offices in states in five continents and its passport has been recognized as a travel document by a number of countries. Somaliland, therefore, fulfills the Montevideo criteria, and following the declaratory theory of statehood, it already is a subject of international law without the need of official recognition.[9] Yet, the lack of recognition has continued to deprive Somaliland of the membership of the society of politically recognized states and the accompanying status and benefits.

Initially, after gaining independence from Great Britain in 1960, Somaliland was recognized by 35 states.[10] However, it almost immediately entered into a voluntary union with former Italian Somaliland upon the latter’s independence on July 1, 1960. One of the major drivers of the unification was the agenda of Greater Somalia which emerged among anti-colonial independence movements in Africa. Very early on, especially in the process of constitution-making, Somalilanders became disenchanted with the union which many saw to favor the clans inhabiting the south-central territories of the former Italian colony.[11]

Yet, at the same time, Somali politicians, in particular those from Somaliland, advocated for the unification of the Somali people extending to the territories of the neighboring states.[12] Consumed by strong Pan-Somali sentiment among sections of the political elite, post-independence Somali leadership strove to create an all-inclusive state by annexing Somali-dominated parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Largely an elite project, Pan- Somalism came to dominate public opinion within Somalia and led to strategies and policies that provoked open hostilities with neighboring states.[13]

As a result, one key argument for international recognition has been that Somaliland simply seeks to regain its lost independence of 1960. Since the union was voluntary, separation should also be permitted on a voluntary. However, apparently one of the prevailing views preventing recognition is that Somaliland’s separation in 1991 did not happen in the same conditions as the union in 1960 and that its unilateral declaration of independence is seen as illegitimate secession without consent from a central authority.

Still, one of the most commonly articulated concerns about Somaliland’s international recognition from the African States and some Western governments is that it would set a dangerous precedent by sanctioning a redrawing of the African map and cause entrenched instability in the system of states.[14] Although these arguments have been commonly used to deter secessionist movements in Africa and elsewhere, the international community has fully recognized two states, Eritrea (1993) and South Sudan (2011), in Somaliland’s neighborhood after its declaration of independence in 1991.

Seeking to overcome the apparent international hypocrisy and a likely double standard, Somaliland has repeatedly claimed it is neither violating the commitment of the OAU and the AU to the borders inherited from the colonial powers nor the OAU’s 1964 Cairo Declaration. However, since its withdrawal from the union following the collapse of the central government of Somalia in 1991, no single United Nations (UN) member nor international organization has officially recognized Somaliland as an independent state.

The recognition of states is a legal mechanism of differentiating between those entities considered legitimately as states and those deemed as illegitimate. It is a method of accepting certain factual situations and endowing them with legal significance,[15] while preventing non-state actors from automatically gaining full statehood despite fulfilling the Montevideo criteria.

As such, it seeks to maintain the special status of fully recognized states and serves as a deliberate disincentive for causing instability within and between states. Due to this, new states cannot automatically become members of the international community. Recognition is, following the constitutive theory of statehood, therefore seen as a requirement of international personality and a process in which the executive organs of existing states play a quasi-judicial role according to their interpretation of international law.[16]

To recognize a community as a state is to declare that it fulfills the conditions of statehood as required by international law.[17] In fact, a recognized state in the current international system exists officially within a network of relationships as it formally works with other states and international organizations. When the state is not recognized, such networks based on its official standing are missing and contribute to its fragility.[18]

In this sense, international organizations, such as the UN, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, in many ways indicate a concise and closed system of global governance which deals with internationally recognized states as its constituent units. Therefore, without recognition, the state is isolated in the global system and largely excluded from benefits accrued to recognized entities.[19]

At this level, the state does not have representation in other states and international platforms and forums where strategic issues affecting the state’s existence and survival are discussed. The absence of de jure recognition has had negative repercussions on Somaliland economically, socially, and politically. Yet, the lack of full recognition may not play a fundamental role in state survival.[20] Still, in the current international system, a state is unlikely to survive without connections and interactions with other state and non-state actors.

Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Somaliland policy and decision-makers and citizens to help Somaliland’s home-grown state institutions thrive and seek such international connections for state survival. Expressing their aspiration for recognition, Somalilanders often say: ‘We are independent, and we should have the same rights as other global citizens’.[21]

Still, arguably, the Somaliland government has failed to face the recognition issue critically and professionally. Successive Somaliland governments have largely failed to strengthen the state’s foreign policy office to draw increasing international attention and strengthen the recognition of Somaliland as an independent state.

Bilateral relations and multilateral fora

Arguably, under international law, sustaining a semblance of diplomatic relations, including meeting officials, maintaining representative offices, and accepting of travel documents, constitutes recognition between states. By engaging with states and international organizations, Somaliland has, therefore, ostensibly fulfilled the requirements for being an internationally recognized state. In fact, Somaliland has engaged in bilateral and multilateral engagements with regional and international actors for almost 30 years as a self-declared independent de facto state.

Since its withdrawal from the union with Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has interacted with both governments in the neighboring states in the Horn and with more distant regional and international actors mainly in the Arab world and the West. These engagements have ranged from bilateral relations to multilateral cooperation and covered a range of issues such as politics, economics, trade, development, and culture.[22] Somaliland’s foreign policy has been carried out under conditions of a changing global political landscape, from the collapse of the Soviet bloc to the United States’ (US) war on terror and the rise of China as a global power.

One of the criteria of statehood enshrined in the Montevideo Convention is the state’s capacity to enter into relations with other states. It is set out as a condition of statehood, but it might more properly be regarded as a consequence of statehood. Nevertheless, an important requirement of statehood is the capacity to enter into international legal relationships. This inevitably concerns the approach and response of other states and, in particular, raises the question of recognition.[23]

However, Somaliland has entered into formal and informal cooperative arrangements with a number of states and intergovernmental organizations.[24] In its neighborhood, it maintains strong relations with its long-time backer Ethiopia as well as Djibouti, both of which, along with Turkey, have a consulate in Somaliland. It also has representative offices in Kenya, South Africa, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom (UK), the United States, and most recently Taiwan, while maintaining a working and consultation relationship with international organizations such as the African Union, the World Bank, and the UN. Cooperation between Somaliland and its external partners has covered a range of issues, including security, trade, immigration, and development assistance.

However, reflecting the position adopted by states, the approach by multilateral organizations toward Somaliland has not been generally favorable to its aspirations for recognition. In this regard, Professor Mazrui argued that the AU should serve as a kind of court, providing Somaliland with an opportunity for a fair hearing of its case.[25]

At the same time, there are numerous resolutions against Somaliland, issued by international and regional bodies, such as the UN, the AU, the Arab League, and which emphasize the sovereignty and unity of Somalia. These bodies attempt to persuade the parties concerned particularly, Somalia and Somaliland, to discuss and resolve their differences.[26] The latest such attempt was the US-, European Union-, and Ethiopia-led initiative in mid-2020 which was interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis and the election preparation in Somaliland, Somalia, Ethiopia, and the US.

At the same time, there are no clear signs that the two parties can settle their differences related to a one- or two-state solution. In this regard, some Somali scholars argue that the impasse owes to the failure of the international community to accept the independence of Somaliland while others contend that the end of the Cold War undermined Somalia’s unity and territorial integrity and left a lasting effect.

However, arguably, international reluctance to come to terms with the international status of Somaliland begins in Africa. The UN and various Western donors have indicated that Somaliland’s broader prospects for international recognition hinge upon the reluctant AU.

Denouncing the Red Sea Council

Maritime security in the resource-rich Red Sea, one of the world’s primary shipping lanes, has been important for the great and regional powers since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The idea of creating a regional alliance around the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden dates back to 1972 when in a conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Yemen claimed ownership of natural resources in the Red Sea.[27]

The recent events, including Iran’s strengthening (2015–2018), the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in the war in Yemen (2015–), and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s marginalization of Qatar (2017–), have again drawn attention of the nearby Arab states which have become increasingly active, especially in the coastal Horn of Africa.[28]

In January 2020, Saudi Arabia again hosted a conference for a regional alliance on security with countries that face the Red Sea. The states sending foreign ministers in the conference included Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. The Saudi initiative, aimed at extending its influence and curb that of its main rivals in the region, led to the signing of an alliance among the states present.

Through the alliance, Saudis seek to prevent the expansion of indirect Irani influence through the Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen and limit Turkey’s footprint in the Horn of Africa. While Iran is currently not a player in the Horn, Turkey’s strong relations with Somalia since 2011, and to a lesser extent with Sudan, make it a formidable rival. Siding with Egypt and other rivals of Ethiopia, it also seeks to limit Addis Ababa’s dominance in the Horn.

The invitation of Somalia to attend was an attempt to weaken its alliance with Turkey and Qatar and woo it toward the Saudi camp. However, the conference excluded a key coastal state, the strategically located Somaliland. Inviting Somaliland would have watered down the attempt to woo Somalia, while Saudi influence in Somaliland has already been ensured through trade, educational and cultural organizations, and Somaliland’s partnership with its ally the UAE (see below).

Somaliland has since denounced its exclusion from the meeting and the accompanying collaborative plans to secure the Red Sea if its territorial integrity is not respected.[29] Somaliland’s position remains clear and it regards itself as one of the key stakeholders of the Red Sea politics which cannot be ignored.

External actors and recognition of Somaliland

In post-1991 Somalia, authorities, including the warlords, have consistently opposed any formal dismantling of the larger Somali State. Despite Somaliland having been an independent entity that voluntarily united with the former Italian colony to form the Somali Republic, the leaders in Somalia fail to acknowledge that Somaliland was a separate entity under different colonial power, with its own borders and different administrative tradition.[30]

Rather, laying basis for the Pan-Somali ideology that has driven nationalism and aspirations for ‘greater Somalia’,[31] the entire Somali-speaking region in the Horn is often regarded as one society divided by colonial powers and once unified should not be separated. This view, however, has little legal basis and is contrary to the commitment by the OAU and the AU to the inviolability of boundaries inherited from colonialism. This upholds Somaliland’s position as a former British territory with established boundaries. Therefore, as in the case of Eritrea and South Sudan, the independence of Somaliland would not create a dangerous precedent in terms of redrawing the African map.

However, the UN Security Council has adopted several resolutions supporting the unity and territorial integrity of Somalia. Any recognition extended to Somaliland is seen to jeopardize the state restoration efforts in Somalia. Somaliland remains as part of the geostrategic Horn region; therefore, its strategic location may offer a new opportunity by using its diplomacy and redesign the component of its foreign policy to overcome structural weaknesses present within it and meet the new challenges presented by a history of almost three decades of the unsuccessful foreign policy plus incompetent diplomats.

In many regards, the political dilemmas, gaps, and weaknesses that existed within policies and institutions, and left unchecked, could undermine the long-term success of Somaliland’s foreign policy goals. Generally, individual states and multilateral organizations insist that Somaliland’s recognition is an issue for Somalis and the international community should support the position of the recognized Somali government.

Despite conducting a fact-finding mission in 2005 in which it recognized the reality of Somaliland functioning as a state, the AU has failed to deal constructively with the Somaliland question and it shoulders much of the responsibility for Somaliland’s international isolation.[32] Many AU member states condition their possible recognition of Somaliland on its prior recognition by the Federal Government of Somalia similarly to the preceding cases of Eritrea and South Sudan. The sub-regional organization in the Horn of Africa, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has based its efforts on securing a united Somalia.[33]

Neighbors and regional actors

As well as international politics, geopolitical and geostrategic dimensions of Somaliland’s position in the Horn of Africa are important for the understanding of external actors’ approaches toward it. Despite its geostrategic position facing the Gulf of Aden and bordering Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia, the regional actors have never given special attention to Somaliland’s aspirations for recognition. But, it is a reality that Somaliland plays a significant role in both the security and stability of the region, sharing concerns about terrorism, piracy, and ethnic/clan conflict, among other issues, with its neighbors and more distant powers.

Ethiopia and Somaliland have maintained a strong strategic partnership originating in the 1980s. However, at the same time, Ethiopia has repeatedly expressed that it will not be the first country to recognize Somaliland. This political position has been justified by Ethiopia’s uneasy relationship with Somalia as it has been argued that Ethiopia would not want to face the implications of being seen as the state breaking up Somalia.

Yet, the internal weaknesses in federal Somalia and changing political landscape in Ethiopia have their implications for the rest of the sub-region. As a result, Ethiopia plays a key role in Somaliland’s strategic importance, while Somaliland’s strong relations with Ethiopia give it leverage in the sub-region. These relations were further cemented in early 2018 when Ethiopia partnered with the UAE and Somaliland government to develop and operate the Berbera Port accompanied by a free zone,[34] while improving the Berbera Corridor.[35]

This was strongly denounced by Mogadishu as a violation of Somalia’s territorial integrity. But soon after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali ascended to power and Ethiopia has since sought to accommodate Mogadishu which has been seen in Hargeisa as a policy shift toward Somalia.

At the same time, Ethiopia has sought to reconcile between the two parties without success. This has created some suspicion in Somaliland-Ethiopia relations, but the two continue to maintain strong ties amounting to trade and investment of millions of dollars per annum.[36] While Somalia remains one of the top trading partners of Ethiopia, Somaliland makes much of Somalia’s share due to its strong link with Ethiopia.[37]

The Berbera development has leveraged Somaliland’s position in regional affairs and increased its economic importance to Ethiopia. Somaliland’s relations with Djibouti have been volatile. Djibouti hosted the foundational conference for the Transitional National Government (TNG) in 2000 and played a crucial role in influencing the selection process of the new legislature. This, in turn, convinced the international community to commit to maintaining one Somalia.

Since then, Djibouti has continued to publicly defend the unity and territorial integrity of Somalia where Djibouti troops are part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping forces. The collapse of the central government in Somalia and Somalia’s perpetual weakness has benefited Djibouti and elevated its strategic role in regional politics, while recognition of Somaliland could challenge its position.

Djibouti has capitalized especially on Ethiopia’s need for sea access and China’s aspirations toward Ethiopia, but after the souring of its relations with the UAE in 2015 Somaliland struck a deal with the UAE’s DP World in Berbera.[38] It is believed that the Berbera Port, 135 nautical miles southeast of Djibouti, is the principal contender of Djibouti’s port which had monopolized Ethiopia’s import-export activities since the end of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. This has complicated Somaliland’s efforts for international recognition.

Middle East states

Somalia, being a Muslim country and a member of both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference, and having long historical connections to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, continues to draw the attention of the Middle East states. Some dominant Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, as well as Turkey and Qatar, have supported the unity and territorial integrity of Somalia.

While Qatar has been heavily involved in Somali politics since the Somali National Reconciliation Conference in Djibouti, Turkey entered in Somalia in 2011 and the UAE and Saudi Arabia intensified their engagement, especially after the onset of the Saudi-led intervention in the war in Yemen in 2015 and their rift with Qatar in 2017. Qatar continues playing a significant role in supporting the leadership of the government of Somalia, while the UAE has sided with Somaliland, especially after the DP World’s investment in the Berbera Port.

Meanwhile, Egypt has been preoccupied with the hydropolitics of the Nile River and to maintain its privileged position, while Ethiopia has assumed an increasingly active role in taking advantage of the Blue Nile waters it largely controls. In the context of growing confrontation with Ethiopia, Egypt has sought to influence the politics of some of the countries in the region, for example, Somalia and Sudan.

Since Ethiopia announcing the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2010, Egypt has sought to partner with Sudan but Omar al-Bashir government (1989–2019) was more inclined to work with Ethiopia on the issues of the Blue Nile. However, Egypt has never stopped its efforts to halt Ethiopia’s ambition to complete the dam and some implied that it might be fueling the current unrest in Ethiopia.

In July 2020, Ethiopia started filling the GERD reservoir without a binding agreement on the Nile waters, which led the US to partially suspend aid to the country and Egypt to rally support in the Horn and send a high-ranking delegation to Somaliland in July 2020 to discuss bilateral issues. This has led Ethiopia, which has for long seen itself as the bulwark against Arab encroachment in the Horn, to suspect Egypt’s intention to establish a military base in Somaliland.

Turkey has been involved in Somalia since President Erdogan’s 2011 visit following a famine in the county.[39] Turkish engagement has been characterized by economic, military, and development cooperation, with investment in the Mogadishu port, the airport, and hospitals.[40] Moreover, Turkey established its first-ever military base overseas in Mogadishu, built its largest embassy in the country, and has operated the seaport and the airport of Mogadishu.[41] Although seeking to mediate between Mogadishu and Hargeisa, Turkey has not been viewed as a neutral actor due to its intimate relationship with the federal government.

The UAE’s involvement in Somaliland has resulted in pressure for its international recognition by the Gulf States. However, while the way the two sides cooperate and interact implies recognition, the UAE has been reluctant following it through. This is likely due to fears of going against the political inclinations of its principal allies, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, as well as the Arab League in which Somalia is a member.

Western countries

Since 1991, the international community has largely neglected Somaliland. This is even with the understanding that it is a center of stability in the sub-region, survived a civil war (1994– 1995), and built a relatively democratic political system which is one of a kind in its neighborhood and in the wider Muslim world. However, one of the potentially positive outcomes of this neglect has been that Somaliland has escaped an outside intervention and has had time for state-building. Yet, at the same time, the neglect has meant a lack of funding from the international community while Mogadishu receives funding bilaterally and multilaterally. In part, these financial flows have been made available by Somalia’s international recognition.

Many of Somalia’s donors are Western states or Western-dominated multilateral organizations. A number of Western countries, which also support AMISOM, have either been silent or sent mixed messages about the possibility of recognition of Somaliland. Some, while insisting that the issue should be settled within Somalia or the AU, have pushed the Somaliland case to the latter. The AU, however, has continued to be hesitant to deal with the case of Somaliland despite its 2005 Fact-Finding Mission report[42] which emphasized that Somaliland as a state entity does not violate the OAU and AU principle of uti possidetis, namely the African commitment to borders demarcated during and inherited from colonialism.

Somaliland works with the Western states on different fronts including the global war against terrorism, combating piracy off Somalia’s coast, and human trafficking.[43] These actors, as well as neighboring Ethiopia and Djibouti, have realized that Somaliland’s autonomy and free decision-making strengthen regional stability and security. Arguably, this is why they have not been particularly interested in putting pressure on Somaliland to reunite with Somalia. This is despite the obvious observation that boosting regional security would require an increasing collaboration and commitment with Somaliland in terms of supporting its institutions and democratic governance. Yet, such support has been largely left to non-state actors.

Asian actors

Since the mid-2000, China has rapidly become a major actor in the Horn of Africa. However, it has heavily invested in a partnership with Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Sudan, which has steered it away from Somaliland. In the first week of July 2020, the Somaliland government and Taiwan disclosed that they had established diplomatic ties and mutual representative offices would be inaugurated. This declassified information sparked wide criticism and condemnation both from Somalia’s Federal Government and the People’s Republic of China.

In response, Chinese representatives in Somalia approached Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi and offered development assistance in exchange for Somaliland ceasing to pursue relations with Taiwan. Later in August, the Chinese attempted again to sway Somaliland leadership and convince President Bihi with an apparent offer for a representative office in Hargeisa and roads and airport development.

During the official visit of the Chinese delegation to Somaliland, Somaliland’s newly appointed ambassador to Taiwan reached Taipei and received a state reception, while in a few days later after the departure of the Chinese delegation, the Taiwanese Representative Office in Somaliland was inaugurated with the presence of key ministers from the Somaliland government and other dignitaries.

As a result, China’s ostensibly aggressive diplomatic approach including promises for loans has at least initially failed[44] in the context in which Beijing has strongly positioned itself on the side of Somaliland’s regional rivals Somalia and Djibouti. Somaliland’s position is that any collaboration with China will require official recognition and support in international fora, although the officials agreed to continue discussions, and invitation was extended to Somaliland officials to visit China.

In the US, the White House National Security Council appreciated Taiwan’s move and Somaliland’s reluctance toward China. Although it is plausible that the US Administration has encouraged Taiwan to establish ties with Somaliland in order to shake up China’s strong position in the Horn, the move shows how Somaliland has moved toward a more proactive approach in its foreign policy.

While the US role may be more or less significant, especially because until recently it has sought to convince Somaliland on the importance of one Somalia, this does not diminish Somaliland’s emboldened approach to widen its foreign relations as it seeks full international recognition. However, the Somaliland-Taiwan engagement has indicated that some of the US allies are ready and to an extent able to challenge China’s overwhelming influence in the Horn which the US itself seems increasingly inclined to do.

The new Somaliland-Taiwan relations have a moderate effect on the political dynamics in the Horn. The reaction of China and Somalia shows that Taiwan’s engagement strengthens the international position of Somaliland. This is also likely to strike a deeper wedge between Djibouti and Somaliland in their competition to provide for the leading economy in Horn, Ethiopia.

Conclusion: toward a more effective foreign policy strategy

At the end of the Cold War, Somaliland was one of the countries that adopted multiparty democracy as a political system in an attempt to gain international recognition from the Western states. However, this effort has not borne fruit due to the majority of states seeking to guard Somalia’s unity. Although Somaliland has demonstrated progress on several fronts, the lack of clear and strong foreign policy strategy and diplomatic leverage have continued to undermine its efforts to win de jure recognition.

As a result, clear and concrete foreign policy objectives are needed to frame the diplomatic effort to tackle the long-standing isolation of Somaliland. This should include clear recognition of the geopolitical realities and dynamics, and take into account geostrategic considerations as essential elements for informing strategic calculations that determine foreign policy formulations.

Somaliland authorities should seek leverage by an improved understanding on the political landscape of changing dynamics in regional and global politics. Actively taking advantage of opportunities provided by external parties, such as Taiwan, the UAE, and Egypt, they should further increase Somaliland’s exposure through coherent foreign policy and diplomatic efforts also toward their more powerful allies to convince those engaged with Somaliland of the cause for international recognition.

Concrete foreign policy objectives with increasingly professional, skilled, and influential diplomats should overcome past and current deficiencies and play an important role in the pursuit of international recognition.

As the case of Somaliland-Taiwan relations has shown, assertive and offensive diplomatic effort is likely to bear more fruit than the defensive approach of the past. Any such foreign policy formulation and practice needs to draw on the collective voice of the people in Somaliland and the influence of the diaspora, especially in the targeted key states. Also, intensifying the engagement for recognition in the regional and international fora should form part of the foreign policy strategy.

Finally, Somaliland remains as part of the geopolitically and geo-strategically important Horn of Africa. Its strategic location between the Gulf of Aden and Ethiopia and the increasing foreign interest in the area offers an opportunity to use a well-calibrated foreign policy and diplomatic approach to overcome structural weaknesses, strengthen the international position, and, above all, work more effectively towards gaining official recognition.

About The Authors

Nasir M. Ali is the director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Hargeisa, Somaliland. He holds a Ph.D. in peace, governance, and development from the United Nations-University for Peace in Costa Rica and has over a decade of experience in teaching, research, and policy analysis.

Aleksi Ylönen conducts research for the Center for International Studies (CEI-IUL) at Iscte-Instituto Universitário de Lisboa. He holds a Doctorate Degree in International Relations and African Studies from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (2011) and is a member of Grupo de Estudios Africanos. His works on politics and peace and conflict issues in the greater Horn of Africa have been published in various books, journals, and other scholarly and policy outlets.


[1] Woodward, Peter. 2002. The Horn of Africa: State, Politics and International Relations. 2nd edition. London: I.B. Tauris, 26.

[2] Omar, Mohamed O. 1992. The Road to Zero: Somalia’s Self-destruction. London: HAAN Associates.

[3] Schoiswohl, Michael. 2004. Status and (Human Rights) Obligations of Non-Recognized De Facto Regimes in International Law: The Case of ‘Somaliland’. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers; Meredith, Martin. 2006. The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. Great Britain: The Free Press.

[4] Gilkes, Patrick. 2003. “National Identity and Historical Mythology in Eritrea and Somaliland.” Northeast African Studies 10, no. 3: 178; International Crisis Group. 2006. Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership. Africa Report No 110. Addis Ababa/Brussels/Hargeisa: International Crisis Group.

[5] On the originality of Somaliland regime, see the chapter of Markus Hoehne in this volume.

[6] Boise, Marija. 2016. “A Shadow on Tomorrow’s Dreams: Somaliland’s Struggle for Statehood.” Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Workshop, Lewis & Clark Law School. vi.

[7] Convention on Rights and Duties of States adopted by the Seventh International Conference of American States, December 26, 1933. See also Crawford, James. 2006. The Creation of States in International Law. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] The main sub-clans include the Habar Awal (sub-divided into Isse Musa and Saad Musa), Habar Jeclo, Garhajis (sub-divided into Eidagalle and Habar Yunis), Arab, and Ayub within the Isaaq, the Issa and the Gadabursi (commonly Samaron) within the Dir, and the Warsangeli and the Dulbahante within the Darood.

[9] Carroll, Anthony J., Rajagopal, B. 1993. “The Case for an Independent Somaliland.” American University Journal of International Law and Politics 8, no. 653: 677.

[10] ICG. 2006. 4.

[11] Lewis, I. M. 2002. A Modern History of the Somali: Revised, Updated, and Expanded, 4th edition. United Kingdom: Long House Publishing.

[12] Dualeh, Hussein A. 2002. Search for a New Somali Identity. Nairobi, Kenya.

[13] Krennerich, Michael. 1999. “Somalia.” In Elections in Africa: A Data Handbook, edited by Dieter Nohlen, Michael Krennerich, and Bernhard Thibaut, 803–816. New York: Oxford University Press; Mazrui, Ali A. 2008. “Conflict in Africa: An Overview.” In The Roots of African Conflicts: The Causes and Costs, edited by Alfred Nhema and Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, 36–50. Oxford: James Currey.

[14] Human Rights Watch. 2009. Somaliland: ‘Hostage to Peace’ – Threats to Human Rights and Democracy in Somaliland. New York: Human Rights Watch.

[15] Shaw, Malcolm N. 2004. International Law, 5th edition. New Delhi: Brijbasi Art Press.

[16] Lauterpacht, H. 1944. “Recognition of States in International Law.” The Yale Law Journal 53, no. 3: 450–451.

[17] Hillier, Tim. 1999. Principles of Public International Law, 2nd edition. Great Britain: Cavendish Publishing. 97.

[18] Ali, Nasir M. 2020. The Implications of State Fragility on Migration in Somaliland: 1991 to 2017. Doctoral thesis, United Nations-Mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica. 113.

[19] Ibid.

[20] For example, states such as Kosovo, Palestine, and Taiwan have survived although not having been recognized by the whole international community.

[21] Ali, Nasir M. 2020. 17.

[22] ICG. 2006. 11.

[23] Hillier, Tim. 1999. Principles of Public International Law, 2nd edition. Great Britain: Cavendish Publishing. 96.

[24] ICG. 2006. 11.

[25] ICG. 2006. 21.

[26] Adam, Hussein M. 1994. “Formation and Recognition of New States: Somaliland in Contrast to Eritrea.” Review of African Political Economy 21, no. 59: 21–38.

[27] Volterra, Robert, G. 2020. “Formation of a New Arab-African Council Signals the Deepening of Regional Cooperation over Waterways.” Mondaq, August 4,, accessed on October 31, 2020.

[28] Ylönen, Aleksi. 2020. “Engaging Arab Powers: The Changing Regional Political Environment and Regime Agency in the Coastal Horn of Africa.” In Beyond History: African Agency in Development, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution, edited by Elijah Munyi, David Mwambari, and Aleksi Ylönen, 63–80. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

[29] Somaliland Government. 2020. “President Bihi Says No Red Sea Coalition Without Somaliland.” SaxafiMedia, July 22, accessed on October 31, 2020.

[30] Duyvesteyn, Isabelle. 2005. Clausewitz and African War: Politics and Strategy in Liberia and Somalia. New York: Frank Cass. 37–39.

[31] On ‘Somali unity’, see the contribution of Abdurahman Abdullahi in this volume.

[32] Pijovic, Nikola. 2013. “Seceding but not succeeding: African International Relations and Somaliland’s lacking international recognition.” Croatian International Relations Review (CIRR), no. 68: 5–37.

[33] Jhazbhay, Iqbal. 2007. Somaliland: Post-War Nation-Building and International Relations, 1991–2006. PhD Thesis. Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand,

[34] In December 2019, Somaliland and DP World launched the Berbera Economic Free Zone. This Zone will help the economic growth of Somaliland and will accelerate the economic integration of the region.

[35] Ibid., 1.

[36] Workman, Daniel. 2018. Ethiopia’s Top Trading Partners, ethiopias-top-trading-partners/, accessed on September 20, 2020; Salem Solomon. 2019. “Trade Project Builds Somaliland’s Economy.” Leaders Seek More, trade-project-builds-somalilands-economy-leaders-seek-more, accessed on September 20, 2020.

[37] Asnake, Kefale. 2019. Shoats and Smart Phones: Cross-border trading in the Ethio-Somaliland Corridor. DIIS Working Paper 2019: 7. Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies. 5.

[38] Cannon, Brendon J. 2017. “Ethiopia, Berbera Port, and the Shifting Balance of Power in the Horn of Africa Rising.” Rising Powers Quarterly 2, no. 4: 7–29; Vertin, Zach. 2019. Red Sea Rivalries: The Gulf, the Horn, & The New Geopolitics of the Red Sea. Doha: Brookings Doha Center.

[39] For more developments on Turkey in Somalia, see the contribution of Jędrzej Czerep in this volume.

[40] Stearns, Jason, and Sucuoglu, Gizem. 2016. Turkey in Somalia: Shifting Paradigms of Aid. Johannesburg: The South African Institute of International Affairs.

[41] Asiedu, Michael. 2017. Turkey-Africa Relations: Spotlight on Somalia. Istanbul: Global Political Trends Center, Istanbul Kültür University. 1; and Meester, Jos, and van den Berg, Willem. 2019. Turkey in the Horn of Africa CRU Policy Brief between the Ankara Consensus and the Gulf Crisis. The Hague: Clingendael Institute.

[42] African Union. 2005. “Resume: AU Fact-Finding Mission to Somaliland (30 April to 4 May 2005).”

[43] ICG. 2006. 21; and Kaplan, Seth D. 2008. Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing. 127.

[44] Shattuck, Thomas J. 2020. “China-Taiwan Competition over Somaliland and Implications for Small Countries.” Accessed on August 28, 2020.

Further readings

Ahere, John R. 2013. The Paradox that is Diplomatic Recognition: Unpacking the Somaliland Situation. Hamburg: Anchor Academic Publishing.

Bradbury, Mark. 2008. Becoming Somaliland. Oxford: James Currey.

Lewis, Ioan M. 2011. Understanding Somalia and Somaliland: Culture, History, Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

Renders, Marleen 2012. Consider Somaliland: State-building with Traditional Leaders and Institutions. Leiden: Brill.

Schoiswohl, Michael. 2004. Status and (Human Rights) Obligations of Non-Recognized De Facto Regimes in International Law: The Case of ‘Somaliland’. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Routledge Handbook of the Horn of Africa

Published March 31, 2022, by Routledge
The Routledge Handbook of the Horn of Africa provides a comprehensive, interdisciplinary survey of contemporary research related to the Horn of Africa.

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