Have you heard of Somaliland? It has been de facto independent for 30 years, and they have taken great strides to pursue democracy, free speech, and free-market ideas. Because of this, the U.S. should recognize Somaliland as an independent country.
In practice, the territory is not now, nor is likely to be, a part of Somalia. Acknowledging that reality would allow Washington to create more effective policy in an important and contested region.
In addition, a strong relationship with an independent Somaliland could potentially benefit the U.S., as we try to hedge against Chinese influence in the region.
In this episode, Heritage Foundation expert Josh Meservey joins us to explain.
Clip: Somalia has been racked by instability and violence since the overthrow of the military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre more than two decades ago. But one region has managed to avoid much of the chaos. Somaliland has been independent since it broke away from Somalia in 1991. Since then the region has formed its own democratic government and started its own currency. Somaliland’s biggest industry is selling livestock mainly to Arab countries, but the region’s economy is also dependent on money sent home from migrants who are working overseas. Despite being independent from Somalia, the international community still does not recognize Somaliland as a sovereign state.
Doescher: Somaliland. Have you heard of it? I know you’ve heard of Somalia. In fact, after the famous movie Black Hawk Down, we were all aware of the serious instability within the region. But after Somaliland chose to declare independence from Somalia, they drew a line in the sand and relative peace and stability ensued, again in a very challenging region. But as noted above, the 4.5 million Somalilanders have no official recognition on the world stage.
Even though they’ve basically been an independent nation for 30 years, with peaceful transitions of power and an emphasis on free speech, press, and markets. But without formal recognition, it makes it difficult to acquire foreign loans, aid, and investment. Now we’re all aware that many nations in Africa, including the ones surrounding Somaliland, have become increasingly dependent on Chinese investment. But Somaliland stands out from the nations surrounding them. Here’s the Somaliland foreign minister on China.
Clip: China cannot dictate who Somaliland can have relations with. The foreign minister of the breakaway region said on Friday.
Clip: Somaliland is a sovereign country again. We were born free and we will stay free. And then we will learn our business the way we want it. China cannot dictate. No other country can dictate who we are going to give.
Doescher: Now with the growing threat of China and their belt and road initiative throughout Africa, which we’ve covered on Explains at great length, we see that now more than ever, it is crucial for the US to recognize Somaliland as a nation and work alongside them to push back against China. Now we had the distinct honor and privilege to sit down with the President of Somaliland Muse Bihi Abdi. He gave us a vision for a potential future of the US and Somaliland working together toward a more prosperous future.
Muse Bihi Abdi: We share the same values, but you didn’t know that. We know the history of the United States of America. We know there are political pacts. We know they’re democrats, but the American people don’t know about Somaliland. So we are going to explain what’s Somaliland: a country at the horn of Africa, have 140 kilometers of the real sea coast, no pirates, no terrorists in our country, free elections, free media, free market, booming and vibrant free market.
Doescher: But casting a vision is only the start. President Bihi also talked about the many threats their pursuit of democracy is facing from forces within the region and how Somalilanders are united in pursuing peace and fighting back against extremists and terrorists.
Muse Bihi Abdi: Everyone is a watch against a terrorist. Everyone is fighting to protect the peace first. Then their freedom. Freedom of a person, freedom of talk, freedom of demonstration, freedom of freedom to write his idea, to challenge the leaders, the president, the parliament, so that’s how we survive.
Muse Bihi Abdi: So our people protect the peace and they are against extremists, whatever they are. Whoever they’re. Now we have neighbors with Mogadishu. And there are ISIS, Shabab, tribal war, clan war, very confusing political issues. It’s a personality of a no party, not a doctrine, not a political program, it’s a matter of personality. And all regional governments, and even the superpowers, are meddling with their hands, their political issue who is who.
Doescher: So much remains unknown for Somaliland. So I ask President Bihi his hope and vision for the future of Somaliland, as they deal with regional instability and the pursuit of democracy and a peaceful transition of power.
Muse Bihi Abdi: I’m going to plant the tree of democracy and free market and free media in Somaliland. So that we will be grown up for the next hundred years. So I am going to make the Somaliland people to fulfill their choice and to explain the democracy well in the globe, whoever they are and wherever they are, that we are a friend of them with the same philosophy, and to make a good connection and cooperation with all the democratic clinicians with Somaliland in the future.
Muse Bihi Abdi: Most of them, they doesn’t know Somaliland. They have no difference between Somalia and Somaliland. Whenever an American citizen, most of them, hear the word Somali, ah, terrorist, Shabab, Black Hawk, and so on. But to explain there are two Somali: Somaliland and Somalia is different.
Muse Bihi Abdi: And I think when they understand the progress, the political vision of the people, which I am conveying them because they elected me, 55% of their vote, to explain the world democracy, world governments, to their vision, their aspiration, and their political doctrine. So that’s the mission. And I hope after 10 years, 40 years, that connection will grow.
Doescher: But what does a path forward to recognition look like for Somaliland? Is the US likely going to recognize them? What is the Biden administration’s posture on this? How big of a threat is China to Somaliland’s pursuit of democracy? Our friend, Josh Meservey sat down with us to take us just a little bit deeper. He’s a senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East here at The Heritage Foundation. And he’s going to explain after Based.
Doescher: Josh Meservey, it is great to have you back on heritage explains.
Josh Meservey: I am thrilled to be back.
Doescher: Well, let’s do this. So we have had some great conversations with President Bihi. He was here and gave us a vision for what a recognized Somaliland state would be and its impact that it would have in the region and internationally. And it was very inspiring to hear someone who cares so deeply for human rights, for freedom, for economic freedom, all the great stuff that we espouse here at The Heritage Foundation. I want to get from your perspective, what is the thing holding back a wide recognition of Somaliland?
Meservey: Yeah, I think there’s a number of things. In the mass protests in cities around the U.S. against an executive order that would block millions of people from entering the United States, I think it’s sheer inertia in some ways at places like the State Department, right? Where they are very status quo organization, which is fine. Sometimes that’s a strength, right? Sometimes I keep hasty ill-thought-out ideas from being implemented. But other times it means that they stay married to a particular policy long after they should have cut it loose. And I think Somaliland is a perfect example of that actually.
Doescher: Well, let me stop you there because I think it’s important to understand the region. You know, it is bordered by some very, very, very difficult actors. You know, Djibouti in the north is in bed with China like crazy. They’re not very stable.
Doescher: You’ve got Kenya, Ethiopia, and then of course in the south of Somalia, you have terrorists essentially running the show there. I’m curious as to how this… I don’t understand how this little area in the horn of Africa has stood out so much and how they have been so determined to carry forward in an idea of freedom as they have.
Meservey: Well, yeah. That’s part of just the sheer uniqueness of their experience is part of what interests me about them as well. Because it’s so obvious when you start researching them and learning about their history. It is extraordinary, particularly when you juxtapose their experience against with that of Southern Somalia, which still has horrible terrorist problems, is nothing remotely approaching a democracy, is run by kleptocrats and sort of glorified war Lords in some cases.
Meservey: Then you have all of this turmoil in other states, some of which you mentioned in the region, and then you have Somaliland, right? Which is not perfect, right? Like we should be honest. It has its flaws of course, but relatively speaking, it does extraordinarily well. And it’s done it without much international support at all with virtually nothing. And certainly nothing like the international support that Somalia, Southern Somalia has received.
Meservey: So it’s fascinating, right? Because it’s like, what accounts for this? When so many countries have such intense problems all over Africa and elsewhere, but you know, we’re talking about Africa, how did this place with so little support build something that functions?
Meservey: Probably you could write books on this. Right? I do think President Bihi mentioned the will of the people. I think that’s a pretty good answer actually. Somalilanders just decided that they wanted something better than what they’d had. They were coming out of a horrible war. They’d suffered terribly at the hands of the dictator who was based in Mogadishu.
Meservey: So they committed themselves, right? To building something that was stable and democratic. They had this fascinating indigenous reconciliation process, which is almost unprecedented in Africa where they just came together of their own accord and said, some terrible things happened between clans, among clans. We’re going to work it out because we need to live together in some semblance of peace.
Meservey: Now, again, they still have problems, right? There’s still some tensions and et cetera, et cetera. That’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is they’ve still managed to do something remarkable especially when you look around the region, see all these other places that struggle so hard with these issues with hardly any support.
Doescher: You say in your awesome report, and I’m going to quote you to you. So, don’t get too excited here. But I’m [crosstalk 00:13:29] sure it’ll be brilliant. It’s very brilliant. But you say quote, “In this difficult environment, the US should be seeking at out areas of calm. No matter how small, where it can make meaningful progress for its interest without the fear, it will all be swept away overnight by instability.”
Doescher: There is no other place in the region, or even in Africa as a whole where the US can as easily score such significant victories as are possible in an independent Somaliland. Now you also say that it’d be an act of justice to recognize Somaliland. Why?
Meservey: Yeah. It would be an act of justice because for three decades, even longer really, but particularly the last three decades, the Somaliland people have very consistently said they want to be independent and they’ve done everything in their power to assert that independence.
Meservey: And I think there is a justice and a moral issue there. There’s a lot of practical reasons why I believe death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger on Oct. 4 has lead some in the United States should be recognizing Somaliland. One of them is just our policy should reflect reality. And the reality is that Somaliland is not a part of the rest of Somalia. It is not functionally part of that country. Right?
Meservey: Any Somalilander who participates in the federal government is banned from the territory. They have to go ask for forgiveness basically from the president to be allowed to reenter? Mogadishu has no authority in Somaliland.
Meservey: So we should just acknowledge that reality of recognizing their independence would just be saying, we acknowledge this reality on the ground. Like there’s an on-the-ground truth here. And we’re just going to acknowledge it.
Meservey: But currently our policy is based on this fiction, that Somaliland is functionally part of the rest of Somalia. And what is even worse, and this goes back to the justice question, we elevate this government in Mogadishu, which is corrupt and feckless and a terrible American partner just to be frank. I’ll be totally frank about it.
Meservey: And we elevate that government at the expense of this government in Hargeisa, in Somaliland, that wants to be friends with the United States that is strategically located, that is doing its best to do the right thing, democratically and everything else. Again, I’m going to keep saying not perfect. Not perfect.
Doescher: Not Perfect. No, no, that’s a great caveat. But you keep talking about the dynamics here. We are finding out now how much China is intertwined in this whole region, dumping lots of money, asking for very little in return, except for when they come knocking, which of course, like you called it, the Boa constrictor around Africa’s neck.
Doescher: I mean around a lot of the developing world’s neck. My question to you is, okay, so we recognize Somaliland. What stops them from engaging with China and receiving that money, that investment? I mean, they’re right on the coast, you said 500 miles of port, potential coastline. What would stop them from that?
Meservey: Yeah, that is a risk, right? I address it in my report and we should be clear right about that. The famous old saying, right? There are no permanent friends, only permanent interests among countries. I think that’s true here. So I’m not suggesting that we naively go about this. I think we need to be very clear-eyed about some of the possibilities here.
Meservey: And yes, it would be very hard for Somaliland. Let’s say the United States recognized Somaliland’s independence. And then the Chinese came to them and said, “Oh, by the way, we have a UN veto.” You’re never going to be recognized at the UN, unless you cut ties with Taiwan and then we’ll play ball and you’ll get recognized at the UN. That’s a very real possibility. Right? My argument is that, for if the United States is the first to recognize, we should have a full package ready to go, right?
Meservey: This is how we engage. We need a strategy around it. We don’t just like blunder around. We recognize, and then we lose its focus or whatever. No. We need to, like, here are the investments we want to make, here’s the security cooperation we want to do. That all needs to be ready to go. S.
Meservey: So we build that relationship. We have first-mover advantage in many ways. And so we make Somaliland, a really strong partner so that when China inevitably does come knocking and it’s already come knocking because Somaliland is so strategically located like you were just talking about, then the Somalilanders see it as very much in their interests to remain really strong friends with the United States.
Meservey: I really think the United States will recognize Somaliland at some point. I think that’s going to happen. Now there could be some geopolitical event that totally changes the calculus that’s possible. But as things stand now, if they continue in this vein, I think the United States will recognize Somaliland.
Doescher: Josh, you’re making a lot of sense here, which does not fit in the US government at the time. So it’s-
Meservey: It also doesn’t fit with me sometimes. [inaudible 00:18:52]
Doescher: It’s really nice that you’re making so much sense here, but who’s going to listen? The US should recognize Somaliland. This is the report Josh Meservey has done. And I’m going to link to it in the show notes. I’m also going to link to a shorter article that you wrote because you have gone in depth and you have made a great case here Josh and I wanted to thank you again for doing this. I know our audience really appreciates it and loves it.
Meservey: Awesome. Well, thank you. I appreciate your interest in giving me the platform.
Doescher: That’s it. That’s all. Thank you so much for being a loyal listener to Heritage Explains. We also want to give a special thank you to President Bihi for coming in and doing this episode. What an honor. Now we’ve linked to Josh’s reports and a few other resources in the show notes. So log on and check them out. Michelle’s up next episode. We’ll see you then.
Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It is produced by Michelle Cordero and Tim Doescher, with editing by John Popp.
- The UNIQUE Case For The International Recognition Of Somaliland
- The World Can Learn From How Somaliland Overcame Militias
- Somaliland: The Little Country That Could By David Shinn
- Somaliland Declaration On The Origin Of African Borders
- Masuuliyiinta Xidh-Xidhan Iyo Dareemada Dhagarta Xambaarsan Ee Laga Soo Werinayo Dhinaca Madaxtooyada
- Somaliland Is A Beacon Of Democracy In An Unstable Region