Saad Ali Shire (PhD) is the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation for Somaliland. Before his appointment, he was the minister of national planning and development for five years. Shire came to this post in 2015 by replacing his predecessor, Mohammed B. Yonis. Shire is an agricultural economist and studied agriculture at Havana University, Cuba and Somali National University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. He later attended Penn State University, US, where he obtained his masters and PhD degrees in agricultural economics. He has a postgraduate diploma in Islamic Banking and is an Investment Management Certificate holder of the Chartered Financial Analysts (CFA) Society of UK. In addition to that, Shire is a founding member of many academic institutions and professional associations, including the universities of Hargeisa and Burao. Shire was recently in Addis Ababa to attend the 28th Summit Meeting of the African Union, where he met with diplomats and ministers from various African countries. In the course of his stay in Addis, Tibebeselassie Tigabu of the Reporter caught up with him to discuss the pending case of Somaliland’s recognition. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Can we start with your visit to Egypt? What was the purpose of your trip there?
Last year I visited 13 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and Egypt was one of them. We have a significant student community in Egypt. Historically, we are used to sending our young people to study at institutions of higher learning in Egypt. In addition to that, we have had strong trade ties. Our delegation went to Egypt with a view to strengthening our relationship and cooperation in education and trade.
Was the visit fruitful?
Our delegation was received with the requisite protocol during our stay in Egypt. We met with officials of the ministries of education, health, trade, foreign affairs, and other Egyptian government entities.
The Nile has a special significance when it comes to Ethio-Egyptian relations. So, did your engagement with Egyptian officials have anything to do with the Nile?
We are fully aware of the sensitivity of Nile politics. The main purpose of our visit had nothing to do with water security as it relates to the Nile. It focused on education, development, and trade.
What about visits to other countries? Were you lobbying for Somaliland’s recognition?
Our delegation visited Kenya, Rwanda, Djibouti, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, and several more. We met with high-level officials and discussed the history and current situation of Somaliland and the aspirations of our people. In my view, the countries are quite understanding and sympathetic to our cause.
Two years ago Somaliland was contemplating pursuing the case of recognition at the International Court of Justice. Did you take the case to the court?
We are working with some lawyers to put the case together. We are confident that we do have the legal, historical, moral, and humanitarian criteria that justify Somaliland’s independence and its recognition as a sovereign state by the international community.
States have to meet certain conditions to be called that. Some of these are permanent population, a defined territory, a full-fledged government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Somaliland claims to have met these conditions. On the other hand, countries such as the Vatican City were able to get recognition with a population of only 1,000 people despite criticism of not fulfilling the criteria. Do you think the delay in recognition is politically motivated?
It has to do very much with politics. Somaliland has its own history that is completely separate from Somalia. In 1961, we got our independence. We united with Somalia even though the union itself does not have legitimacy if one looks at the fact that there is no official document to support it.
Nevertheless, we were together for 30 years, and it was a tormenting experience. Our people suffered in every way imaginable because we had made a terrible mistake of uniting with Somalia. With the ouster of the Siad Barre regime, we decided it was time to withdraw from the union. One thing that should be clear at this point is that, it is actually withdrawal from a union, and not secession from a country. The people made the decision, and not the politicians, and that was again confirmed in the constitutional referendum conducted in 2001. The referendum was held on a draft constitution that affirmed Somaliland’s independence from Somalia as a separate state. Two-thirds of eligible voters took part in the referendum and 97 percent of them voted in favor of the draft constitution.
What are the political factors you think held your cause back? Who is pushing against Somaliland’s recognition?
I think the people who are against Somaliland’s recognition should answer that question (laughs). However, I can only speculate here. The view of the Europeans, in general, is that this is an African issue so Africans have to decide on it. It is true; Somaliland is an African country. The Somaliland issue should be the purview of Africans, particularly member states of IGAD. At the same time, it is also an international issue. At the end of the day, Somaliland has managed to deal successfully with piracy. Piracy is an international phenomenon. It is not a single country issue. Migration is another issue, which Somaliland has been able to deal with. We do not really buy the idea that it is just only an African matter.
We are part of Africa and Africa should pay attention because we believe Somaliland plays a major role in ensuring peace and stability not only in the Horn of Africa but across the continent as well. We believe this is also an international issue.
Nevertheless, the question is if it is an African issue, why have African countries failed to recognize it as yet. (smiles). To a certain extent, they do recognize it. At the end of the day, Somaliland is not a fantasy. There is a country called Somaliland. It has international boundaries, a government, and a parliament, as in any constitutional democracy.
It manages its own affairs; engages with states and international companies. To all intents and purposes, it is a de facto state. It is a de jure status that we are after. We are hopeful people will come around and realize that recognizing Somaliland formally will be in the best interest of the region.
Why are states, Ethiopia included, reluctant to officially recognize Somaliland?
I think there is a popular view among African countries that recognizing Somaliland may lead to opening of a sort of a Pandora’s Box. Other entities may emulate and decide to secede from other countries. This is far from the truth. Remember, the African Union sent a mission to Somaliland back in 2005, and the mission produced a report. According to the report, Somaliland is a special case, should be dealt with as such, and should not be linked to the phenomena of the Pandora’s Box. There is no need of comparing the case of Somaliland to that of other African states. In fact, it is not the first time two African states united, and then went their ways. One can mention the example of the Gambia and Senegal; Sudan and South Sudan; Ethiopia and Eritrea. We have a stronger case. We are just two independent countries that formed a union, and when that union did not work out well, we become two separate, independent, sovereign countries.
What is Somalia’s position regarding efforts by Somaliland to seek recognition?
Somalia recognizes that there was a union. It recognizes Somaliland as a state, and that is the basis for the talks we started back in 2012 as two states. Nevertheless, Somalia holds the view that Somaliland’s case is that of separation and they seem to fail to recognize Somaliland as an independent state even if there was a negotiation to create that.
We believe Somaliland’s independence will benefit not only Somaliland, Ethiopia or Djibouti, but we believe it will also be in the interests of Somalia as well. It is rather short-sighted to deny Somaliland its right to be an independent country in the Horn of Africa. We think we can contribute more to the region as an independent state. We are a good example of democracy, reconciliation, peace and stability. We can play a major role in the development and security of the region.
What would you expect to come out of recognition?
Recognition will bring benefits to the Somaliland people and to the region as well. If one looks at, let us say, the economic aspect currently, we are not able to get bilateral aid because we are not recognized. We cannot secure a loan from international banks such as the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, and the African Development Bank because of the issue of recognition. We would like to attract more foreign direct investment into the country but we are also lagging behind because of the limbo status we are in.
If we were recognized, we would be able to attract more investors, and be able to create more jobs for our young people. Consequently, we would have low unemployment rate, and would thus be in a better position to curb migration.
There is a tendency to take Somalia and Somaliland as if it was just one nation. How do you characterize Somaliland?
Being located in the Horn of Africa gives Somaliland a lot of advantages and assets. One of the assets is its strategic location. Because of that, it has had a long history of trade with the outside world starting from the period of the Pharaohs and the Romans. It is a beautiful country. We have many tourist attractions such as the beach, the sea, and the mountains. There are rock paintings dating back 7,000 years. The people are friendly and welcoming. We also believe in resolving conflicts and differences through dialogue and reconciliation.
That is one thing that distinguishes us from Somalia and many other countries. That is how we managed despite challenges and lack of recognition; we were able to create a stable and peaceful democracy under very difficult circumstances.
As far as the economy is concerned, we have come a long way since 1991. From 1981 to 1991, there was a campaign by Somalia’s leader, Siad Barre, to destroy the people and the country as well. From the bombing and shelling, Hargeisa was almost flattened and turned into rubble. Now it is a vibrant city, a thriving metropolis with a population of one million.
We did not have a single university prior to 1991. Today we have more than ten universities, and that shows the progress we have been able to make. Concerning security, we have successfully dealt with piracy and extremism.
There has not been a single case of pirate activity on the territorial waters of Somaliland. We ensured the security of the maritime environment not only for our own sake, but also for others as well. Above all, we have put in place a democratic system that respects the rule of law with an independent judicial system.
In the coastal areas of Somalia, there is illegal fishing by multi-national companies, and armed coastal guards have been patrolling the coast. What was the mechanism you devised to control piracy?
There are illegal fishing activities and looting in Somalia; but that does not justify piracy. Piracy is a serious crime. It is a land-based criminal activity. What we have done is deny the pirates access to the land base. Without a land base, pirates cannot operate. We also have a coast guard, which is very effective. Because of the coast guard, the denial of a land base, and support from the community, we were able to keep piracy at bay and keep our waters safe for maritime transit.
Do piracy incidents in Somalia affect you in any way?
Pirates find a home in Puntland or Somalia. They have not found a home in Somaliland. Overall, piracy has declined, but there is still some pirate activity in Somalia. The difference between Somaliland and Somalia is that we have an effective government. In Somalia, there is no strong central government that controls the territory. This situation benefited the pirates.
The biggest challenge for Somaliland is security because it is located in a volatile region. How do you secure the borders?
We spend a good portion of our budget on security because security is extremely important. We live in a very volatile region. We do not spare anything to make sure the country is secure. We spend a good part of our budget and resources on security but at the same time, I think it is the people who also make a huge difference. The resources we spend on security benefit not only Somaliland but also the region. It benefits Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and beyond. The international community should not only recognize and appreciate our effort, but is also duty-bound to share the burden. We use our own resources and collaborate on intelligence with other countries. We are bearing the cost of all that, and we are on our own.
Somalia and Somaliland have always been known as a land of poets; but ironically, it is now predominantly overshadowed by chaos, extremism, and piracy. Is it still considered a nation of poets?
Yes, it is still a nation of poets, and that is part of our culture. The most famous poets came from Somaliland. Even though we are all Somalis, there is a big difference among the various Somali states. Of course, we speak the same language, predominantly we follow the same religion, but we have a different history. Somaliland has a pastoral culture whereas Somalia is more of an agrarian society. Though we share some common things, we also have differences. Culturally, we are also different. To mention just one example, the culture of reconciliation is something I think we have and cherish, but it barely exists over there. People confuse Somaliland and Somalia because of the name Somali but the fact that we are all called Somali does not mean we are identical. The fact that we managed as a state for the past 25 years without recognition and they have not managed is a reflection of the difference between the two societies.
The artificial nature of borders created by the colonial powers divided people that share common values, as in the case of Somalia. Since the Somali people share common values, do you believe in a possibility of all the Somalis coming under the umbrella of one nation?
First, the issue of arbitrary boundaries is quite common. One can go to Europe and find the same people residing in various countries. Boundaries around the world are artificial. One of the reasons why we joined Somalia in the first place was because there was an ambitious project to create a greater Somalia. The new Somalia was supposed to be formed by incorporating Djibouti, the Somali Regional State of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and the northern district of Kenya.
That aspiration is now dead because of what happened to the countries that were united. I think our experience made the union less desirable. We have come of age and now we are thinking region-wide, and not in a nationalist sense. Somaliland is part of the Horn of Africa. We are Somalis but also part of the Horn. You cannot have a stable region and prosper by forcing all Somalis to come together and form one country. It does not happen that way. Our aspiration as Somalilanders is to create a region of independent states. We would like to see an integrated economy within the Horn. Therefore, the idea of having one country, one people who speak the same language and share cultural heritage separating them from the rest of the world is no longer viable. Look at Europe, so many countries with different languages, cultures, and background, and at the same time now coming together under the fold of the European Union. Now we have regional unions such as COMESA and IGAD, which are focusing on the prosperity of the region. We have nationalism in that sense. We need to think regionally and internationally. Ethiopia and Eritrea share common culture, beliefs and value systems, and used to be one and the same, but the presence of colonial powers eventually led to their separation. When it comes to Somalia, colonization caused the disintegration of the country.
We would like to have an economically integrated Horn of Africa where goods, people and capital can move around without any barriers. We think our prosperity is all interlinked. A country cannot isolate itself and hope to prosper while the rest of the countries are left behind. One can single-handedly not do that anymore.
The recognition of Somaliland is raised repeatedly at African Union summits. What is the feedback from the African Union?
Somaliland is not new to the African Union. The African Union Commission sent a mission back in 2005 and there was a report in 2006. In fact, Somaliland applied for African Union membership in 2006. The AU is fully aware of this situation of Somaliland but there is a delay so we would like to bring the agenda of Somaliland back to the AU. We would like the African Union to be part of the solution of Somaliland. Countries are aware of this issue and we hope that they will put this case to AU agenda so it can be resolved peacefully.
What was in the African Union Commission’s 2006 report?
The report was very positive. The conclusion was that Somaliland was unique which requires being dealt with in a unique way and that had nothing to do with the phenomena of the Pandora’s Box.
It’s been 11 years since the report came out. What is the way forward?
Our annual attendance of the summit meetings of the African Union is a follow-up on that. We really would like the AU to send another mission to Somaliland to follow up the recommendations of the 2006 report. We hope we will be able to convince the AU that is the way to go. We believe the AU will take its responsibility in resolving this issue.
Why the delay in executing the recommendation?
I think that is a question for the African Union to answer (laughs). I can only speculate. Whatever the reason as to why the matter was not taken up from 2006 until now, we would like to bring the issue to the attention of the members.
At last year’s African Union summit, we met with four countries’ foreign ministers. All the delegates we met were aware of Somaliland’s position and sympathetic as well. As far as bringing the issue to the attention of the people and convincing them, I do not think it is really a hard task. They believe in Somaliland’s cause.
Any final words?
I would like to add that we are now experiencing a severe drought, which is affecting parts of Somaliland. It is a regional problem and has to do with the El Niño phenomenon. We have made appeals to the international community on a number of occasions. We would like to make the appeal again so that we can be able to provide for the 1.5 million people who are affected by the drought. There has been some responses but not adequate.