Somaliland: A radical change?

A genuine debate must begin over the future of Somalia and Somaliland, Afyare Abdi Elmi says.

Somaliland’s recent elections have been praised as ‘free and fair’ [EPA]

Although the international media has under-reported it, the world has recently witnessed a major event in the Horn of Africa – a free, fair and generally peaceful election in Somaliland.

On July 2, Isse Yusuf Mohamud, the chairman of Somaliland’s election commission, announced that Ahmed Mohamud Silanyo, the leader of the opposition Kulmiye Party, won the presidential election with 49.59 per cent of the 538,246 votes cast. The incumbent president, Dahir Riyale Kahin, came a distant second with 33.23 per cent of the votes.

International observers declared the election “free and fair” and praised the conduct of political actors and stakeholders involved in the election campaign.

Even more significantly, unlike many leaders in the region, Kahin embraced the popular verdict and accepted defeat gracefully.

A peaceful transfer of power is now underway.

Two options

However, this significant event brings into focus two contradictory approaches to the future of the region: (1) recognising Somaliland as a new state or (2) establishing the Somali state from Somaliland.

Proponents of the secession of Somaliland as an independent state argue that Somaliland has fulfilled the criteria of statehood – a permanent population, defined borders, territorial control and government.

They also note Somaliland’s achievements in the wake of the Somali government’s collapse in 1991 – particularly impressive considering the heinous crimes Somalia’s military regime committed against the people of the north before it fell – and assert that the region established peace, demonstrated a commitment to democracy and presented mature leadership. 

Challenges of creating a new state

Can Somaliland’s experiences be replicated in the rest of Somalia? [EPA]

But creating a new de jure state can only come about from two directions: the international or national front.

Internationally, political considerations have often outweighed legal and historical arguments for most of the 25 countries that have joined the UN over the last two decades.

Interestingly, although Bosnia-Herzegovina has not fulfilled all of the criteria for statehood it has been recognised as a state.

But, despite the recognition of two permanent members of the Security Council, the US and the UK, and another 67 countries, Kosovo is not yet a member of the UN. Serbia, Russia and many other countries facing secessionist challenges refused to recognise it.

In Africa, only Eritrea has attained de jure statehood since 1992. The African Union recognised it after Ethiopia relinquished its claim and recognised Asmara.

The African Union is reluctant to address the issue of recognising new African states because it wants to maintain pre-existing boundaries. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that the African Union has not formally processed Somaliland’s application even though it was submitted in December 2005.

For Somaliland to secure a UN seat, it requires the support of the majority of the countries of the African Union, nine members of the Security Council, including the five permanent members, and two-thirds of the General Assembly. In today’s security cautious and politically charged atmosphere, consensus among the five permanent members is often difficult to achieve, no matter what the issue.

But with meager resources, Somaliland cannot mobilise the lobbying efforts needed to deliver state recognition. Its ability to access international forums and to impose sanctions if some states refuse to recognise it is limited. Achieving recognition through international channels will, therefore, prove extremely difficult.

The second, and perhaps more feasible, option is through what political scientists call the consent of a parent or partner state – in this case Somalia. If, as in the case of Eritrea and many states that separated from Russia, Somaliland’s parent or partner state relinquishes its claim to it, the international community would have no choice but to recognise it.

At this time, however, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu has neither the will nor the capacity to make this decision. And the international community has not accepted the dissolution of Somalia as it supports the government and has sent peacekeeping troops there.

Neither the national nor the international option, therefore, appear to offer an easy solution.

Radical solution

IN depth

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But, there is an alternative.

A win-win solution for all involved is still possible. Given the fact that efforts to establish a legitimate and functioning Somali state from Mogadishu have failed, the international community and the Somali elite should consider the creation of the Somali state from Somaliland.

There are several reasons why the time is ripe for this option.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there are no religious, cultural or language differences separating Somalis – the homogeneity of the Somali people is an obvious reality. Somalis have a shared culture and history and a collective destiny.

Moreover, there is no minority issue here. The dominant Isaq clan in Somaliland is one of Somalia’s major clans.

Secondly, recent events in Somalia have contributed to maturing the general public and preparing them for a radical change. The two-year-long Ethiopian occupation of southern Somalia has had two unintended consequences. It has revealed the vulnerability of all Somalis regardless of region and, by displacing hundreds of thousands from the south, it has increased levels of contact between average Somalis, thus having a normalising effect.

For the first time, there is a growing realisation among large segments of Somali society that their survival is interlinked. Religious, cultural, language and ethnic unity can, therefore, be more easily transformed into a political order that is at peace with itself and its neighbours.

Thirdly, the transitional government in Mogadishu is struggling against multi-clan extremist groups, many of whom are from the north. Unless a miracle occurs, the TFG’s chances of success are slim. And with just one year until the government’s mandate ends, the establishment of a state from Somaliland offers more promise than yet another conference producing a dysfunctional government or an extension of the TFG’s mandate.

Finally, Somaliland’s experiences and institutions can easily, in theory at least, be replicated in the rest of Somalia.

Dialogue and consensus

In a globalised world, life is not easy without a stable, legitimate, functioning and recognised state.

Somalis in the south long for peace and stability, while those in more stable regions experience difficulty in accessing development assistance or in travelling to nearby countries for work or trade. Young Somalis who perish in the desert between Sudan and Libya or on the Mediterranean Sea come from across Somalia.

Establishing the Somali state from Somaliland would be one feasible option that the world should consider. Perhaps, moving the main UN agencies in Nairobi to Hargaysa would be the first step towards this end.  

In the final analysis, however, the ultimate decision on either unity or separation has to come through dialogue and consensus. In other words, neither force nor emotion-driven rhetoric will take the country anywhere – a genuine debate must begin.

Dr Afyare Abdi Elmi is a professor of International Affairs at Qatar University and the author of Understanding the Somalia Conflagration.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera