Last week we went to Somalia as American tourists. We stayed only a night, but that was plenty of time to wander unescorted through the local market, explore the town in a battered Toyota station wagon, and even head out into the desert to admire some ancient cave paintings.

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It might seem an odd choice of a vacation spot, given that Somalia, so long synonymous with “failed state,” appears to be growing ever more dangerous. The insurgency against the American-backed Ethiopian occupation persists, and just last week it was reported that a particularly radical group has launched a campaign to murder relief workers, who are there trying desperately to avert an oncoming famine.


Indeed, we were able to travel safely to Somalia only because of a peculiar but important technicality: The world makes no distinction between the Republic of Somaliland, the autonomous and self-governing territory that we visited, and the rest of Somalia to its south.

Since declaring independence in 1991, Somaliland has achieved a level of peace and stability beyond the wildest dreams of the quasi-government in Mogadishu. Yet remarkably, throughout the many years, the international community has funded, fed, and sought vainly to stabilize Somalia, it has studiously ignored the peaceful and democratic polity to Somalia’s north.

This is not an oversight but a conscious policy decision: No country on earth will recognize Somaliland as a peer. The African Union has occasionally “studied” the issue, but its members are loath to endorse what would amount to secession from one of their own.

The United States and many European states have said they will defer to the African Union’s policy – despite their willingness last year to proactively promote the controversial independence of Kosovo.

Tourists In Somaliland
Photo by Yusuf Dahir

With the world averting its eyes, the remarkable achievements of Somaliland have gone unnoticed. In one of the world’s most dangerous and unstable areas, it has managed to establish peace and stability and gone on to develop a unique democratic regime that incorporates both direct elections and formal roles for traditional clan elders. It has established a legal system that carefully balances local tribal custom, Islamic jurisprudence, and Western constitutional tradition. While democracy’s reputation is precarious throughout much of the Muslim world, this devout country has held elections on its own initiative and at considerable cost to its national reserves.

The international community’s approach to Somaliland not only ignores these accomplishments; it might actually destroy them.

Laas Geel, Somaliland
View of painted rock art on a rock face taken with a fish lens and showing at least four cows and four human figures distributed throughout the face of the shelter. Cows and human figures are distributed along the rock face, depicted upright facing right or left, and infilled in different colors (red, orange, white) usually combined. The cows are represented as humpless, with curved or lyre-like white horns (sometimes with reddish tips) and prominent udders. Most of the necks are depicted rectangular, abnormally wide, and either blank or infilled with red and white stripes, either straight or wavy. Human figures are interspersed throughout the cows, between the legs or near them, depicted upright facing front with arms outstretched. They are infilled in white and red, and wearing white shirts and red trousers. Laas Geel, Somaliland.
Born digital. © TARA/David Coulson

Without formal recognition, Somaliland cannot enter into trade agreements with other countries and is unable to exploit the natural resources under its earth and its Red Sea port of Berbera. It struggles to attract foreign investors willing to operate in an “ungoverned” area. It can’t even receive normal development aid from donor countries and agencies, because they cannot channel aid through an unrecognized government. Instead, the people of Somaliland receive only a portion of the aid designated for “Somalia.”

The situation has left Somaliland underdeveloped and desperately poor, with the government often unable to provide even the most basic public services. Of no less concern, the durability of its democracy has recently come into question, with scheduled presidential elections delayed until next March. (The official explanation was that the authorities in this nation of nomadic goat herders needed more time to register voters.)

Somaliland Taiwan New Friend And African Beacon Of Democracy
Hargeisa, the capital city of the Republic of Somaliland

It’s hard to know which is more improbable: that an impoverished country in a chaotic but strategically important region would develop its own fragile democracy, or that the United States would deliberately ignore its requests for assistance.

In the absence of Western political and economic engagement, Somaliland is pursuing investment and support from China and Gulf countries. Such support might be enough to ensure Somaliland’s survival and eventual growth, but it will crowd out America’s chance to win the gratitude of a potentially valuable ally in a very troubled area.

From the journalist who took us to lunch to the guide who took us to the cave paintings, the people we met in Somaliland were welcoming, hopeful, and bewildered by the absence of recognition from the West. They were frustrated to still be overlooked out of respect for the sovereignty of the failed state to their south.

“Every member of Parliament in Mogadishu gets a salary paid mostly by U.S. and EU funds,” one Somaliland official told us. “And every one of them is a killer. If you kill enough people, you are called a warlord and you get invited to conferences. Meanwhile, I was elected by thousands of votes in a free election, but the international community does not consider us a country. They should be rewarding democracy, not killing.”

Peter Buttigieg is a management consultant in Chicago and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. Nathaniel Myers is a political analyst in Ethiopia.

Tourists In Somaliland
Pete Buttigieg on a pre-graduation trip with his Harvard buddies. Nathaniel “Nat” Myers is to his immediate left.

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