Tuesday, January 18, 2022, marked a dash of hope for Somalilanders, but vexatious for mainland Somalia. Members of the UK parliament debated and largely supported the recognition of Somaliland’s statehood, on the same day Muse Biihi Abdi, the President of Republic of Somaliland, departed for Addis Ababa.
The MPs stated that the UK had sufficient justifications to recognize Somaliland, including averting the ‘vacuum’ potentially seized by UK’s adversaries. The MPs also suggested the UK government and international community supports a binding referendum within two years ‘to allow Somalilanders to express their democratic will.’
The debate indicated to UK’s concern of not being about recognizing its former colony, rather on it being the first to do so, or wait for the US‘s lead, which has a growing interest in Hargeisa.
President Abdi’s latest visit to Addis Ababa, which is his third since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came into power, also bore a bold move. Insiders say the latter is pressing to lease Zeyla for a navy base, through which Ethiopia’s aspiration to police the red sea area would come to fruition.
While some claim this would be in exchange for Ethiopia recognizing Somaliland as a state, others argue that leasing Zeyla for Ethiopia’s navy would only turn the UN against Somaliland. Egypt had also asked for a military base in Hargeisa. During the visit, Abdi reportedly accepted Abiy’s efforts to broker dialogues between Somaliland administration and the federal government of Somalia.
Back in September 9, 2020, the former pilot, Muse Biihi Abdi, recognized Taiwan as a state and asked to open a Somaliland representative office in Taiwan, stating “With growing global interest in the red sea and gulf of Eden, Somaliland wishes to strengthen bilateral relations and economic cooperation with Taiwan and all nations in the world. This accord will not affect interests of any country but rather contribute to international peace and security and regional economic activity.”
Ethiopia has entered bilateral agreements and transacted with Somaliland, despite Somaliland being only a de facto state for 25 years now. Many countries, including Ethiopia, work with the government of Somaliland, without recognizing the state. This is mainly in fear of retaliation from Mogadishu.
Mainland Somalia has long dreamed to reverse the colonial boundary that divides the Somali people, which created the Greater Somalia, encompassing Somaliland, Djibouti, Ogden and parts of Kenya. Since Somali people occupy the whole Horn of Africa, this will completely change east Africa as we know it today.
The source of the problem dates back to 1884, when Great Britain took protectorate of northern Somalia (now Somaliland), but kept the traditional clan structure autonomous. However, southern Somalia (mainland Somalia) fell under the full control of Italian trust territory.
In July 1990, British Somaliland was liberated and became an independent state, receiving recognition from 35 countries including all permanent members of the UN Security Council. Soon, the British Somaliland entered agreement with Italian Somali, giving rise to a unified Somali Republic. Afterwards, Somaliland left the union stating that the treaty of unification was blundered by the Italian Somali.
Initially, the two drafted separate treaty documents but the Italian Somali forced the unification. At this point, the case is similar to how Eritrea demanded secession when Emperor Haile Selassie I tried to force-unify post-colonial Eritrea with Ethiopia. Moreover, Somalilanders say irreversible crime was committed when repressive Ziad Barre hunted members of the Somaliland National Movement (SNM).
With population of about 3.5 million and a 137,600 square kilometer territory, Somaliland declared independence in 1991. This time, the UN and AU skipped the recognition process stating post-colonial unification is intact. The UN argues it cannot reverse the post-colonial decision and recognize agreements, ‘unless there are fundamental changes.’ This is despite Somaliland’s statehood claims fulfilling the Montevideo Convention that allows right to self-determination.
One of the major obstacles Somaliland faces for not being a de jure state happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Access to vaccine remained nascent, since vaccines can reach Somaliland only via mainland Somalia. Somaliland diaspora’s can travel to Hargessa only through en-route, mainly via Addis Ababa, cannot have visas or formally send remittances and officials do not have immunities abroad. Somaliland also cannot go to the ICJ, ICC, or be bound to other international treaties.
While mainland Somalia still considers Somaliland as its province, many argue that the government in Somaliland is much better in terms of fending off terrorists, good governance and democracy and fair elections. Even though Mogadishu is said to be crucial to give the green light to independence, many believe that mainland Somalia is not in a state to make such decisions, due to a weak government in Mogadishu.
Ethiopia neither denies nor recognizes, but works with Hargeisa, while soothing Somalia at the meantime. Statehood recognition is a political act, but has no legal basis in international law. So, a country cannot be forced to recognize or not recognize the quest for statehood.
“All the states denied recognition to protect their national interest, not because Somaliland’s cause is negligible. Not only the foreign powers, but even neighboring countries like Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya have strong interests in the two Somalia’s. So, they either give or deny recognition, based on their national interests,” said Demeke Achiso (PhD), political science lecturer at AAU.
Despite the statehood vacuum, the scramble of foreign powers in the red sea and the Gulf of Aden is inflating the price of Somaliland, with growing number of countries requesting a military base. Absence of peace and security in Somaliland can also spill-over to neighboring countries.
The numbers of global and regional powers with strong affinity to the Horn are way more than the number of formally ‘recognized’ states in east Africa. The ‘de facto state’ card, is resurfacing as de jure states become insufficient to accommodate inflated national interests in the rifting geopolitics of the Horn. Coupled with civil strife and foreign powers seeking a patch of land to set afoot, the horn remains a boiling pot to deliver fractured nations, or unification.
Yet, Somaliland remains an ideal example that cause is not sufficient for statehood and garnering recognition becomes an irreplaceable commodity in the quest for statehood. Many countries fear recognizing Somaliland will have a domino effect on other areas including Tigray, Taiwan, Barcelona, Scotland, and other places.
“Explicitly recognizing Somaliland will have no such domino effect. Instead, it will have positive impacts in stabilizing the Horn of Africa. Many countries recognized Somaliland tacitly. So, there is a power vacuum. If only one country recognizes Somaliland, all the others will follow. There is an increasingly stiff geopolitical dynamism in the horn and a growing scramble for ports,” said Abebe Muluneh (com.), a senior security sector researcher on Al-Shabab and Daesh.
Having failed states on either sides of the Red Sea is one of the reasons behind growing concerns of superpowers. One thirds of global trade passes through the Red Sea. Piracy, terrorism and human trafficking are high and pirates demand millions in ransom per ship. For Demeke, ignoring Somaliland will bring more trouble for east African countries.
“Having a strong Somaliland will benefit Africa more. It is time for IGAD and AU to solve the issue of Somaliland. Otherwise, the fate of Somaliland will be determined by increasing interests of foreign powers,” Demeke concluded.