The African Union (#AUSummit2020) needs to engage in preventive diplomacy now, laying the groundwork for resolution of the dispute before it becomes a confrontation from which either side views violence as the only exit.
International Crisis Group Africa Report N°110, 23 May 2006
On 18 May 2006, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland marked fifteen years since it proclaimed independence from Somalia. Although its sovereignty is still unrecognized by any country, the fact that it is a functioning constitutional democracy distinguishes it from the majority of entities with secessionist claims, and a small but growing number of governments in Africa and the West have shown sympathy for its cause. The territory’s peace and stability stands in stark contrast to much of southern Somalia, especially the anarchic capital, Mogadishu, where clashes between rival militias have recently claimed scores of lives. But Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which is still struggling to overcome internal divisions and establish its authority in southern Somalia, also claims sovereignty over the territory, and the issue is becoming an increasing source of tension. The African Union (AU) needs to engage in preventive diplomacy now, laying the groundwork for resolution of the dispute before it becomes a confrontation from which either side views violence as the only exit.
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In December 2005 President Dahir Rayale Kahin submitted Somaliland’s application for membership in the AU. The claim to statehood hinges on the territory’s separate status during the colonial era from the rest of what became Somalia and its existence as a sovereign state for a brief period following independence from Great Britain in June 1960. Having voluntarily entered a union with Somalia in pursuit of the irredentist dream of Greater Somalia (including parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti), it now seeks recognition within the borders received at that moment of independence. Despite fears that recognition would lead to the fragmentation of Somalia or other AU member states, an AU fact-finding mission in 2005 concluded the situation was sufficiently “unique and self-justified in African political history” that “the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a Pandora’s box’”. It recommended that the AU “should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case” at the earliest possible date. On 16 May 2006, Rayale met with the AU Commission Chairperson, Alpha Oumar Konare, to discuss Somaliland’s application for membership.
Somaliland has made notable progress in building peace, security and constitutional democracy within its de facto borders. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people have returned home, tens of thousands of landmines have been removed and destroyed, and clan militias have been integrated into unified police and military forces. A multi-party political system and successive competitive elections have established Somaliland as a rarity in the Horn of Africa and the Muslim world. However, the TFG continues strongly to oppose Somaliland independence.
Peacemakers have so far opted to tackle the issues sequentially: first trying to establish a government for Somalia and only then addressing the Somaliland question. European diplomats warn Crisis Group that even raising the Somaliland issue at this time could destabilize the peace process in the South. This approach risks both sides becoming more entrenched and the dispute over Somali unity more intractable. If the TFG’s authority expands, the dispute over Somaliland’s status is likely to become an ever-increasing source of friction, involving serious danger of violent conflict. Somaliland has reacted angrily to the TFG’s calls for the UN arms embargo on Somalia to be lifted so it could arm itself and has threatened to increase its own military strength if this happens. The prospect of a return to the major violence of the late 1980s is neither imminent nor inevitable but it is genuine enough to merit urgent AU attention.
For both sides, the issue of recognition is not merely political or legal – it is existential. Most southern Somalis are viscerally attached to the notion of a united Somali Republic, while many Somalilanders – scarred by the experience of civil war, flight and exile – refer to unity only in the past tense. For a generation of Somaliland’s youth, which has no memories of the united Somalia to which young Southerners attach such importance, Somaliland’s sovereignty is a matter of identity.
Resolving Somaliland’s status is by no means a straightforward proposition. A vocal minority of Somalilanders, including some communities along the troubled border with neighboring Puntland (North East Somalia) and a violent network of jihadi Islamists favor unity. Some observers fear that, in the absence of a negotiated separation, the relationship between the two neighbors could potentially become as ill-defined and volatile as that which prevailed between Ethiopia and Eritrea prior to their 1998-2000 border war.
There are four central and practical questions:
- Should Somaliland be rewarded for creating stability and democratic governance out of a part of the chaos that is the failed state of Somalia?;
- Would rewarding Somaliland with either independence or significant autonomy adversely impact the prospects for peace in Somalia or lead to territorial clashes?;
- What are the prospects for peaceful preservation of a unified Somali Republic?; and
- What would be the implications of recognition of Somaliland for separatist conflicts elsewhere on the continent?
These questions need to be addressed through firm leadership, open debate and dispassionate analysis of the issues and options – not ignored, ostrich-like, in the hope that they will disappear. “The AU cannot pretend that there is not such an issue”, a diplomat from the region told Crisis Group. “The issue cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely. It must be addressed”. Somaliland’s application to the African Union offers an entry point for preventive diplomacy. The African Union should respond to Somaliland’s request for recognition by seizing the opportunity to engage as a neutral third party, without prejudice to the final determination of Somaliland’s sovereign status.
Hargeysa/Addis Ababa/Brussels, 23 May 2006