Kenya recently expressed its intention to establish a consulate in the autonomous state of Somaliland, a country in every sense – except that it does not have international recognition. The rival Gulf states of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have sent diplomatic delegations (the UAE went further and now has a permanent diplomatic presence) and Taiwan is making concerted overtures to its fellow ‘unrecognised state’. Why?
Firstly, Somalia sits at a strategic place in the world, dominating the Horn of Africa: Somaliland sits on the most strategic part therein, the Gulf of Aden. It has the deep water port of Berbera (and could develop others) that make it attractive to outsiders looking for a trade route into Africa – and landlocked Africa states like neighbouring Ethiopia looking for a trade route out. In normal times it has a diverse economy, hubbed around the camel trade.
Secondly, it is politically stable, especially since it declared independence from the rest of Somalia 30 years. The BBC’s Mary Harper, along with the American academic, Peter Pham and the Australian counterinsurgency guru, David Kilcullen, all feel that Somaliland is a model for the rest of Somalia (and perhaps Africa and other, developing parts of the world) because of its system of dispute resolution through clan meetings in the traditional way, ‘in the shade of a tree’ and the consistently equitable distribution of resources and political appointments between those clans.
But that worked 30 years ago when Somaliland had been reduced to rubble by the forces of the tyrant, Said Barre, and the state had a reason to unite and a clean sheet of paper to work with. A hard working, well educated Diaspora abroad sent money and some even returned to help reconstruct the country.
Somaliland is also almost entirely made up of Somalis from the Issaq clan. That gives it an advantage over other parts of Somalia like the central Galmudug and Hirshabelle States, which remain Federal States within Somalia, but which are melting pots in terms of clan and which experience near constant inter-communal violence as a result. Without Somaliland’s strategic position and its clan homogeneity, the model for others becomes less applicable.
Somaliland is also deeply conservative and is not a fun place to be, say, a journalist or a social media user with controversial opinions. Nor, for that matter, is it much fun to be a woman, or young.
Many of the ideologues behind Somalia’s al-Qa’ida linked terrorist group, al-Shabaab, came from Somaliland. While the area might be free of the scourge of terrorist attacks, the mindset and the sympathies are still very present.
Somaliland is also in conflict with its neighbouring state, Puntland (which, again, remains part of Somalia) over the potential resource-rich sub-regions of Sanaag and Sool. While technically part of the Somaliland, the population in Sanaag and Sool are mainly from another major Somali clan, the Darod, and many would rather sit with their clan brethren in Puntland.
Armed clashes between Somaliland and Puntland forces happen frequently and if Somaliland were to ever achieve independence, it is very likely that it would find itself immediately at war with Puntland over those disputed territories and, by extension, with Somalia as a whole. Nothing unites Somalia like a common enemy.
Time for Out-of-the-Box Thinking?
This as far as much of the thinking has gone, as can be seen by the spattering of articles on the subject of independence for Somaliland around the 30 year anniversary in May. Some were clearly paid-for propaganda by Somaliland; some were wholly unbiased, including as The Economist magazine. The general conclusion, though, was that Somaliland should be independent and, while not perfect, Somaliland would be better than the mess of the rest of Somalia.
Perhaps it is time for some ‘out of the box’ thinking – not the kind of ‘out of the box’ thinking that involves buying a slightly larger box in which to think, but some genuinely fresh ideas.
The United Somali Emirates?
The United Arab Emirates was mentioned in the first paragraph: why not the United Somali Emirates? The current federal system in place in Somalia only suits the three states that are relatively clan-homogenous, Somaliland, Puntland and Kenya’s border state, Jubbaland. The other three, mixed clan states experience constant low level violence and create space for al-Shabaab to operate. Mogadishu is entirely ignored and its population has no political representation.
So how about this?
Yes, leave Somaliland, Puntland and Jubbaland as they are: but sub-divide the others into, if necessary, city states like Venice during the Renaissance, but ensure that they can generate revenue and are clan homogenous. Make Mogadishu a truly political capital, like Canberra or Ottowa. Or establish a new political capital and make Mogadishu a state like the six others.
Certainly, this would require a very big tree under which to accommodate the discussions amongst all the interested parties: but it might be the kind of radical approach that is required if Somaliland isn’t to be celebrating the 40th, 50th, 60th… anniversaries of its unrecognised statehood while the rest of Somalia struggles with various degrees of chaos.