By Matthew Candau
Hundreds of civilians have been killed in Las Anod, Somaliland in recent weeks amid territorial and cultural disputes between anti-government actors and Somaliland’s government. Claims that residences and hospitals have been shelled by the military have come to the attention of the international media, but have been repudiated by the disputed state’s defence ministry. The accusation can only be reliably attributed to one doctor in a hospital in Las Anod.
The conflict has sparked condemnation from states in the Global North, such as the United States which recently sent a delegation to Hargeisa from its embassy in Mogadishu to call for an immediate ceasefire.
While the causes may not be agreed upon, it is undeniable that this military action will not help the state in its quest for global recognition, a persistent goal throughout Somaliland’s history that has gained little to no traction.
Somaliland’s path to increased and open relations with the Global North may be a treacherous one, but could also lead to the development of a new, stable, and geopolitically advantageous ally to the West in Sub-Saharan Africa.
A Brief History of Somaliland
Somaliland is a breakaway state in Eastern Africa, occupying hundreds of miles of coastline on the Gulf of Aden to the North and over 20% of the globally recognized territory of Somalia. Like many other de facto sovereign states of its nature, Somaliland not only has its own president and government separate from Somalia, but also issues its own passport, maintains a military with around 13,000 active personnel (compared to only 20,000 in the rest of Somalia), and mints its own currency. But why does it want independence? And why isn’t it recognized?
Somaliland as a distinct entity in modern history largely dates to the colonial era, during which it was ruled as a British protectorate, while the rest of modern-day Somalia was governed by Italy. After gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Somaliland swiftly decided to merge with the rest of Somalia in order to bring together all Somali people under a stronger and wealthier “Republic of Somalia”.
However, the legal instruments used to establish this new republic were questionable at best. The people of Somaliland were not consulted during the drafting of the new nation’s constitution, and a majority of constituents and districts boycotted or rejected the referendum. Nevertheless, Somaliland was taken under Somali control.
Somaliland’s quest for independence from the Republic of Somalia was immediate. As early as 1961, just one year after Somalia’s independence, a group of Somaliland separatists orchestrated a coup attempt against the new government. As a result, southern Somalia received most of the political and economic assistance, isolating the people of Somaliland.
Over the next few decades, the Somali National Movement (SNM) gained a lot of traction in the North (Somaliland) to oppose the human rights abuses and the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre, a Somali militant. After Barre’s two-decade reign, leaders of the SNM and elders gathered and declared independence from Somalia in 1991.
Somaliland’s government has maintained a mostly stable democracy with consistently fair and free elections. Separation of power structures have been put in place that are akin to that of the United States and other global superpowers. It has since been integrated into the capitalist global economy and cherishes the opportunities provided by international trade.
Because of its arid desert climate and a general dearth of valuable and highly demanded natural resources, Somaliland is very reliant on imports. Everything from agricultural products to oil and clothes are among the state’s imported commodities. As a result, Somaliland’s economy is almost entirely primary sector-focused with little to no industry development, leaving its GDP per capita among the lowest in the world at around $700.
Despite this, Somaliland remains a useful geopolitical asset because of the Port of Berbera. This maritime and industrial hub is estimated to account for 75% of total trade and a whopping 27% of GDP by 2035. The port also enables over 30%of global trade for neighbouring Ethiopia and indirectly accounts for well over 1 million jobs.
Recent Diplomatic Efforts
Yet, the promise of its geography and its alignment with Western values has not gotten it very far; not a single foreign power recognizes Somaliland as an independent nation or shows any indication of considering it. While the reasons for this are numerous, the most significant reason for the West is that recognizing Somaliland would risk upending ties with Somalia.
While Somalia may not be the largest exporter or most significant American and European ally, it has consistently engaged in coordinated counterterrorism efforts with the United States. In addition, humanitarian and diplomatic efforts by the West are prevalent in order to increase political stability and general safety in southern Somalia. Recognizing Somaliland would only hinder these aspirations. Furthermore, endorsing one instance of secessionism could lead to an unprecedented spree of stronger independence fights across the African continent (e.g., Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) and the world (e.g., Abkhazia and South Ossetia) against the will of a majority of the international community and the countries under which they are currently subsumed.
However, this has not stopped Somaliland from sending delegations to foreign powers in an attempt to gain a larger stance in the global economy and scheme of governance. As recently as 2022, President Muse Bihi Abdi and Foreign Minister Essa Kayd Mohamoud visited the United States to court officials in deepening ties. Somaliland advertised itself as a bastion of stability and democracy in an otherwise unpredictable region.
For some top officials, this plea worked to some extent. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member James Risch (R-ID) proposed the “Somaliland Partnership Act” shortly after Muse Bihi Abdi’s visit. The act called for a stronger relationship that would “provide numerous, mutually-beneficial strategic opportunities” while not recognizing the state’s independence. While the bill itself did not pass, some of its most important aspects were incorporated into the Fiscal Year 2023 National Defence Authorization Act (FY2023 NDAA). The law, which stipulates the budget and funding for the U.S. Department of Defence, requires a feasibility study of the relationship potential between the states and the mutual benefits it would provide.
While the FY2023 NDAA may not provide Somaliland with the independence recognition it desires, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction.
The Future of Somaliland
Why would the United States even bother spending money on expanding relations with Somaliland? Will other Western states follow suit? And what does it mean for the breakaway state’s future?
As the United States still aims to perpetuate its role as a “world policeman” and maintain a military and/or diplomatic presence in most corners of the globe, Somaliland provides a strategic location in proximity to Eastern Africa and the Middle East. Neighbouring country Djibouti already hosts the largest enduring U.S. military presence on the continent, and having another close ally in the region would further expand America’s influence in the region.
From an economic standpoint, having access to the Port of Berbera would provide the United States with more direct access to Eastern African markets, such as Ethiopia – a country that exports roughly $200 million in gold worldwide annually.
The FY2023 NDAA also discusses the importance of countering China’s growing diplomatic and military presence in Africa, and Iran’s mobilization of warships into the Sea of Aden in recent years. While most African countries have received millions or billions in foreign aid from China, only a few (e.g., Burkina Faso and Eswatini) remain entirely dedicated to the West. Compared to these African states, Somaliland has a much greater geopolitical and potential economic significance, and could prove to be a powerful ally for decades to come.
Furthermore, partnership with Somaliland enables effective counterterrorism action against Al-Shabaab and other groups operating out of Somalia. Human trafficking and pirate activity in the region could also be reduced.
Somaliland has much to gain from the assistance of the United States government. Some regions in the territory have a Human Development Index lower than 0.35 – lower than any independent country by a significant margin. An estimated 41% of households are under the global poverty line, and some 65% of the population heavily relies on the region’s large livestock industry. The rudimentary healthcare system is significantly skewed toward residents of Hargeisa (the state’s declared capital); the healthy life expectancy is only 45 years.
Because of its lack of UN standing and international recognition, Somaliland receives far less direct foreign aid from the Global North than most of the continent. If the U.S.’s feasibility study turns out positively, Somaliland’s military, economy, and general infrastructure could experience unprecedented growth. Much of the U.S.’s direct intervention in Africa is related to the spread of diseases and medicine in general; cooperation in this field could also rapidly expand and bolster the state’s weak medical infrastructure.
The UK, Netherlands, and Denmark have already been supplying the region with humanitarian aid and infrastructure spending, but generally lack the official relationship proffered by the USA. However, the U.S.’s involvement could lead these (among other) powers in Europe to expand relations with Somaliland and spur further growth.
The recent violence in the region will have disparate yet simultaneous effects on the United State’ feasibility study and involvement from other foreign actors. If it is proven that the Somaliland government is responsible for the shelling of hospitals, it is highly likely that the feasibility study will yield negative results – whether or not this precludes Somaliland from American partnership in the future is unclear. On the other hand, humanitarian aid from NGOs, charities, and other actors may increase. In the long term, establishing formal military and trade agreements rather than relying on aid is preferable.
Regardless, Somaliland’s ultimate goal is for their independence to be recognized. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen any time soon. The West tearing apart current relations with Somalia could create upheaval and war, creating even more instability in an already unstable and terrorist-prone region. Therefore, Somaliland’s independence is contingent upon the Republic of Somalia allowing it to secede. However, the probability that Somalia would willingly relinquish its coastline on the Sea of Aden is next to none.
The state’s resume checks all the boxes for an African ally to the West, with democracy, lack of ties to China, and an advantageous geography. However, further diplomatic efforts from Somaliland will likely be in vain; a complete structural change in how world leaders view independence would be required. For now, all Somaliland can do is wait.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.
Image source: Council on Foreign Relations