Somaliland: Memo to Paul Martin


Special to Globe and Mail Update

Somalilandsun – On Oct. 10, 1970, Canada officially recognized mainland China’s Communist government. This bold step ended the fiction that an aging group of anti-communists in Taiwan spoke for a billion Chinese. Canada’s move ended the diplomatic logjam on the issue, and facilitated a flood of successive recognitions by Western governments.

The stakes were high for the government of Pierre Trudeau. U.S. president Richard Nixon, champion of American anti-communism, opposed this China initiative. But he relented and with a visit in 1972, Mr. Nixon initiated negotiations to recognize China’s government. The move ended years of schizophrenic denial on the part of the U.S. political establishment and altered the subsequent course of the Cold War.

Canada now has a similar opportunity to be a catalyst for change, not by recognizing a great power, but by giving recognition to humble Somaliland. The inauguration of the country’s government that will emerge from today’s elections could become an important date for Canadian foreign policy – and perhaps for the international system as a whole – if Prime Minister Paul Martin were to travel to the capital city of Hargeisa for the inauguration of Somaliland’s newly-elected government.

Somaliland is a small outpost of order in the chaotic Horn of Africa. It was a British protectorate during the colonial period, but hastily entered into federation with the former Italian Somaliland just days after independence in 1960. It was an unhappy union.

Ultimately, Somaliland’s struggle for independence from the warlord government of Mohamed Siad Barre in Mogadishu culminated in a series of massacres in 1989 that killed 50,000 Somalilanders. When Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991, Somaliland declared its independence.

In just over a decade of de facto autonomy, Somaliland’s accomplishments are impressive – especially when compared to the fate of the rest of Somalia. While factions there have accomplished little aside from endless internecine fighting through their respective militia, Somalilanders have built a state.

Somaliland’s government has worked to rehabilitate roads and ports. A central bank manages an official currency with relatively stable exchange rates. Police and courts maintain order. These functions are carried out despite an official budget of just $30-million (U.S.) supplemented by remittances from a scattered diaspora.

Somaliland has also constructed the political foundations of a functioning democracy. In a 2001 referendum widely perceived by Somalilanders as an endorsement of their independence, 97 per cent of voters endorsed a constitution reaffirming the country’s independence.

Since then, local and presidential elections have been held. Outside observers have deemed these elections to have been largely free and fair. Indeed, in the 2003 presidential election, the incumbent candidate won by just 80 votes out of 500,000. The opposition party, based around prominent fighters in the independence struggle, accepted the results.

So why does the rest of the world insist that Somaliland is ruled by the fictional state of Somalia? Part of the problem rests in a political and legal compact among African leaders not to alter post-colonial boundaries, irrespective of realities on the ground, which resonates with a broader international commitment not to alter borders. But Somaliland has a strong legal case for recognition, even under these restrictive criteria.

It is not international law that blocks recognition of Somaliland, but politics. Member states of the African Union and Arab League are reluctant to deviate from an insistence on the sanctity of borders. To do so, they argue, would be to open the lid on a Pandora’s box of interminable territorial revision. More cynically, internationally guaranteed borders relieve them from the responsibilities and the inconvenience of actually governing the territory they claim and of earning the support of the population that lives in it.

All is not perfect is Somaliland: Journalists have recently been arrested and the autonomy of the judiciary is sometimes questioned. But little leverage is gained by excluding the possibility of formal recognition. Outsiders have deferred to African leaders on the issue for too long.

By initiating negotiations to recognize Somaliland, Canada would signal that respect for a state’s sovereignty depends on democratic legitimacy, developmental performance, human rights, and basic issues of governance. It flows from a demonstrated ability by political authorities to fulfill the “responsibility to protect” their population, not from their capacity to control the capital and its outskirts.

Such a move would not destabilize the continent. Indeed, South Africa looks favourably upon Somaliland’s independence and just last year recognized the independence of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (formerly Western Sahara), in a break with long-standing African practices. Moreover, it would challenge a crippling regional consensus on the sanctity of borders that in recent decades has contributed very little to peace, order or good government in Africa.

The Martin government should take the lead on diplomatic recognition and follow up with a generous aid package. Somaliland is precisely the kind of problem in which bold diplomacy by Canada can make a real difference.

Jean Daudelin teaches international affairs at Carleton University.

Lee Seymour is a PhD candidate in political science at Northwestern University and at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris.

Published Thursday, Sep. 29 2005, 1:15 AM EDT

Last updated Wednesday, Apr. 08 2009, 12:54 AM EDT