Somaliland is an autonomous region in northern Somalia, which broke away and declared independence from Somalia in 1991. ‘Somalilanders’ vote, issue passports, have a military, and even have a national currency, but the African Union and other agenda-setting powers have determined that acknowledging this small independent region will encourage other secessionist movements.
To understand why this region will not stay in the shadows much longer, you need to pay attention to two things. Somaliland’s port of Berbera is “Plan B” for the Djibouti Port, and Somaliland’s Taiwan alliance sends a clear message.
In his book, “The Country That Does Not Exist: A History of Somaliland” (2021), author Gérard Prunier highlights the lonely achievements of Somaliland’s sovereignty and its self-governing independent government’s successes, including peace and democratic elections. Of course, no country is without issues, and Prunier explores these historical challenges, ending the book with a political bombshell, making this a timely and relevant read for anyone interested in forecasting the future of US-Africa, China-Africa, and African Union or United Nations relations.
Welcome to Somaliland
Three and a half million people live, work, and pray in actuality, but legally they don’t exist.
Somaliland has been its own region separate from Somalia since the late 1800s. It was a British-dependent territory until the 1960s. It then merged with present-day Somalia, which was then under Italian rule, until the civil war that led to its sovereignty today.
Somaliland is culturally and ethnically distinct from Somalia and successfully separated in 1991, establishing a constitution in 2001. Cultural distinctions are a key element to understanding the separation. Author Gérard Prunier explains the importance and influence of clans, or ‘clanism’.
Mohamed Siyad Barre was a Somali Dictator who served as the President of the Somali Democratic Republic from 1969 to 1991. His father was Marehan, and his mother was Ogaden or Darood. “In clam terms, Darood were the silent majority of post-colonial Somalia, and they had every intention of recovering what they considered their birthright,” writes Prunier (p.25). The Barre regime fueled the Somaliland War of Independence against the main clan family in northern Somalia, the Isaaq.
Those linked to the Isaaq clan makeup over 80% of the people living in Somaliland today.
The history of clans and their influence is, as you might expect, much more complicated. This complex history and nuanced ties are detailed across time, ending with where things are today, and Prunier, the book’s author, backs up his work with a detailed set of notes and lengthy indexes. This was particularly helpful for someone who doesn’t have a basic understanding of the region and needs supplemental sources to move through the book.
In response to China’s aggressive policy preventing other countries from recognizing or maintaining diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the United States Congress unanimously passed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative or the TAIPEI Act on March 26, 2020.
July of 2020, the President of the Republic of Somaliland HE Muse Bihi Abdi, used the TAIPEI Act to formally recognize the Republic of China (RoC, Taiwan) as a representative of China, strengthening diplomatic relations with Taiwan and allowing Taiwan to open an embassy in the capital city of Hargeisa, angering Beijing.
Prunier writes about this new relationship toward the end of the book and how the region is taking shape today.
The risky move will have consequences because Somalia takes opposition to Somaliland, much like China takes opposition to Taiwan. As a result, we see a recent agreement between China and Somalia to conduct joint patrols of Somaliland’s territorial waters.
What might be important about the relationship with Taiwan is that it signals Somaliland’s political interests to foreign powers looking for alternatives to the Chinese-controlled port of Djibouti.
Somaliland’s port of Berbera and the Berbera Corridor connecting to the hinterland of Ethiopia is very valuable.
This is a big threat to Djibouti, which is propped up by shipping and freight services to Ethiopia, accounting for 76 percent of its GDP. If Berbera port could capture 30 percent of Ethiopia’s cargo volume, this would likely squeeze Djibouti’s economy, but give Somaliland the boost it needs to rise from being the fourth poorest “country” in the world — if it were considered a country.
One thing they can’t afford right now, though, is terrorism and the extreme instability in neighboring Somalia if they want particular global partners. In July of this year, the Biden Administration launched an airstrike against terrorist militants in Somalia. The Pentagon reported that the airstrike “targeted al Shabaab fighters in the city of Galkayo.”
Al Shabaab is linked to al Qaeda, the terrorist organization founded by Osama bin Laden. This is not a good image for Somaliland to be so close to violent threats that could put foreign guests and infrastructure at risk.
The proximity of unstable Somalia also gives way to propaganda about Somaliland, especially coming from sources like Djibouti, China, and Somalia who have financial and political reasons to strike.
In recent news online, I read, “In Somaliland’s major cities such as Hargeisa, Burao, and Berbera, Shabaab it’s also thought to maintain sleeper cells.” However, there have been no terror attacks inside Somaliland since 2008, yet we find them in Somalia frequently.
Somaliland has accomplished consistent independence and peace in a territory that sits among the most secure regions in Africa’s Horn and East African. It has clan disputes and non-western ideas about the treatment of women and girls, but they have been quietly committed to joining the globalized world.
I think we’ll hear more from Somaliland here forward as a major player in shipping and freight services and as a host for military operations.