Somaliland: Island of Stability in a Sea of Chaos


By: James Ozzie Coker II.

Somalilandsun – Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. In 1991, the people of Somaliland declared independence from Somalia.

But international recognition did not follow.

Instead, they have been forced to remain attached to the anarchic nation against their will and expressly against the universal principles declared in the founding documents of the United States.

Somaliland is more apt to embrace democracy than Somalia. The British colonization of Somaliland, while not without its faults, introduced a rule of law and democratic institutions. The Italians however, colonized Somalia and ruled in a manner more fitting of their fascist institutions. Somaliland, conversely, does not have the historical experience of warlords and nepotism that has plagued the rest of Somalia. And, the territory is predominantly occupied by one group, the Isaaq Clan creating an inherent homogeneity.

It is in America’s national interest to recognize Somaliland as a sovereign nation. Somaliland could serve as a bulwark against extremism in the Horn of Africa. The United States can take bold steps to further foreign policy objectives by unilaterally recognizing Somaliland’s independence.

US support for Somaliland is practical from a national security standpoint. The Horn of Africa is home to the largest concentration of piracy networks in the world and Islamic extremism is widely believed to flourish in Somalia. Last week Somali pirates hijacked a Saudi ship carrying $100 million in petroleum. In September, pirates hijacked a Ukrainian ship that was transporting $30 million in heavy military equipment. Both ships remain under the watchful eye of U.S. Navy warships.

But the United States’ military is presently forbidden from coordinating operations with the military forces of Somaliland, and the State Department offers no diplomatic recognition to the de facto nation. A shift in policy could stem the tide of international crime and terrorism.

If recognition is given, military cooperation between the two countries will greatly benefit US capabilities in the region. Somaliland could serve as an excellent source of human intelligence. Additionally, recognition by the United States would send a strong diplomatic message to the region that stable governance, based on the will of the people, is preferred to governments based on lawlessness and corruption.

Somaliland has governed its population capably since claiming independence from Somalia. Its hybrid constitution is modeled after the United States and includes a tribal component that incorporates the nation’s own specific culture. The West should encourage this innovation by cementing Somaliland’s democratic institutions through recognition. Good governance and adherence to human rights principles should be fertilized wherever they grow.

Recognition would enable the flow of international aid as well. Currently, international law restricts nation-to-nation aid to unrecognized territories. An infusion of basic assistance is needed in Somaliland before any hope of democracy fades.

The Sudan, with a leader accused of genocide, will receive $332 million in American foreign aid this year, of which $77 million is claimed to be used for “governing justly and democratically.” Somalia will also receive $40 million of American foreign aid. Yet, Somaliland has governed itself “justly and democratically” for almost twenty years and will not receive any help from the United States.

The United States’ present policy is to “wait and see”. It will wait until the African Union (AU), an organization whose membership includes some of the most brutal dictatorships in history, recognizes this isolated territory. This approach is counterproductive because there is no guarantee it will ever occur. Somalia has no interest in allowing Somaliland to secede, and the AU has no political will to act.

Some fear that unilateral recognition of Somaliland could spark a domino effect. They argue that insurgent movements around the world might challenge the nation-state framework and declare independence. There is no precedent for this proposition. The most recent examples of Eritrea and Kosovo highlight that a population’s historical grievance perpetuated their claims for independence. Historical grievance trumps the dynamics of struggles in faraway lands. It is unlikely that U.S. recognition of Somaliland will stoke the fires of disgruntled peoples around the world and cause a global breakdown of the international system.

Recognizing Somaliland does not violate international law. Somaliland has a stable government, a defined territory and a unified population. But until it is recognized as a nation-state, it cannot legally participate in the realm of international affairs.

The United States would be well served by having a Muslim, democratically elected ally in a region of the world that has become notoriously unstable. Somaliland might not continue to exist as a democracy without recognition from the international community. It would be a sensible move to support this island of stability in a sea of chaos, making the world a safer place by helping a stable democracy grow and thrive.

James Ozzie Coker II is a second year graduate student at George Washington University, where he is conducting research on the US national security policy process, as well as security and development issues.