Oct 30, 2006

Somaliland: Appeals to Britain for Help

The president of Somalia's breakaway northwestern republic of Somaliland appealed for Britain's help in attaining international recognition as an independent state, in an interview published in the Daily Telegraph

In the harsh terrain of the Horn of Africa, torn by decades of war, a peaceful Muslim democracy with a pro-Western government has emerged on the territory of a former British Protectorate.

Somaliland has its own flag, anthem, currency, army and elected government – yet the country of 3.5 million people does not appear on any map. By seizing de facto independence from Somalia 15 years ago, Somaliland escaped the anarchy engulfing its southern neighbor.

However, it has remained a stateless enclave ever since, denied international recognition or legal status. Camels stride through its tumbledown capital Hargeisa, where the streets swirl with desert sand. But no one carries a gun in public and there has been no fighting here since a brief outbreak of clan warfare about 11 years ago.

President Dahir Rayale Kahin, who won a closely fought election in 2003, is leading a campaign for the world to recognise Somaliland's independence. As the colonial power from 1884 until 1960, Britain's position in this campaign is vital.

"How can a country that has met all the conditions of statehood be rejected by the international community," Mr Kahin asked during an interview with The Daily Telegraph.

"We are struggling for recognition. We have fulfilled every condition, but the world has left us stateless. Our people have no enmity for the British. They have sympathy with the British. They want Britain to come again and recognise our independence."

After Britain ended the Protectorate on June 26, 1960, Somaliland enjoyed five days of recognised independence until it chose to unite with Somalia, formerly under Italian rule.

Two decades later, Somaliland began a guerrilla war to regain its independence. Victory came with the overthrow of President Siad Barre and the destruction of Somalia's central government in 1991.

Since then, Somaliland's leaders have managed to disarm 50,000 militiamen and rebuild Hargeisa, which Barre's forces razed in 1988. A series of free elections has taken place. Mr Kahin, 54, won power by a margin of 217 votes. Two years later, the opposition defeated his party and won a majority in parliament.

Mr Kahin, who is the only African president who "cohabits" with his opponents, said this proved Somaliland was a "secular democracy".

"The isolation we are living with gives us enough problems. We don't want to create problems within our country," he added.

But without recognition, Somaliland has no international aid or loans. Its agricultural economy has a minimal tax base and the national budget is only £20 million.

Few regions are more dangerous for a weak, unrecognised state than the Horn of Africa. To the south, Islamist radicals have seized control of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia. Their goal is to "reunite" the entire country, by force if necessary.

Already, Islamist sympathisers have held demonstrations in Hargeisa, calling for the imposition of Sharia law. Somaliland occupies a strategically vital position on the Gulf of Aden, with a large port at Berbera.

Without international help, its government may not be able to withstand the pressure. Mr Kahin warned of the consequences of Somaliland's collapse. "Many foreigners, including the British, will regret that they lost a friend in the Horn of Africa," he said.

But recognising Somaliland is fraught with risk. Islamist radicals would view it as a Western plot to divide the Muslim world. The League of Arab States, which counts Somalia as a member, is adamantly opposed.

So are many African countries, who fear that welcoming Somaliland into the club of nations would encourage separatists inside their own borders.

But observers in Hargeisa say the very future of Somaliland hangs in the balance. Hussein Bulhan, a local commentator, said that internal collapse followed by an Islamist invasion was the main threat.

"We are really at the 11th hour here," he said. "In my view, it is a race between a collapse and being recognized by the world and rebuilding our country."