Jun 12, 2007

Somaliland: In Search of Recognition

Somaliland is a democratic state with a well functioning government, yet remains frustrated in its quest for the international recognition its people feel they deserve.

Somaliland is a democratic state with a well functioning government, yet remains frustrated in its quest for the international recognition its people feel they deserve.

Below are extracts from an article written by Greg Mills and published by Business Day:

IN A recent article, author Bashir Goth observes of that rump of what was previously Somalia: “As people of Somaliland, we have only one thing in mind; that all roads lead to recognition... We have been watching other countries with less democracy, less peace and less ethnic cohesion gaining sovereignty and recognition. We have seen Bosnia, Montenegro, East Timor, all former Soviet Republics embraced and accepted by the international community. We now watch Kosovo and Western Sahara inching towards independence.”

One of the first acts of Africa’s post-independence leaders was to place a moratorium on the continent’s colonial borders — out of fear, apparently, that this would open a Pandora’s Box of secessionist and irredentist claims.

Divvied up at the 1885 Congress of Berlin between the colonialists according to ethnic loyalties, rivers, mountains, perceptions, interpretations, royal European relationships, alliances, whims and follies, these borders were inherited unquestioningly by the new leadership of Africa. For even though the political and economic chaos of post-independence Africa illustrated just how unworkable the borders could be, the moratorium safeguarded the weak territorial control of the continent’s states from covetous neighbours and fissile internal politics.

But 50 years on, how realistic is this, given the difficulty Africa’s bigger states have in managing their territories, cracks in the fac ades of national ethos and institutions, and the backdrop of the breakup of the former East bloc and Soviet Union?

And if politically feasible, what are the likely candidates for new borders and states?


One problem with African states is relative underpopulation or, put differently, the unevenness of its population concentrations. There are large areas of very few people, while some places, such as Rwanda and KwaZulu-Natal, can scarcely support their population numbers. Underpopulation or uneven population concentrations link with the ability to govern and extend power.

Those opposed to attempts to revisit Africa’s borders include, surprise surprise, its leadership, where there are obvious vested interests, along with those who have visions of the relative potency of nationalism over economic functionalism, and those who argue that greater dysfunction would result from splitting the continent into smaller parts.

If one accepts that Africa’s problems have stemmed in large part from the failure of governance, especially over large territories, and the related inability to manage differences of religion, race and ethnicity, then alternative forms of state formation remain a viable option, perhaps nowhere more than in Africa’s big states — Congo, Sudan and Nigeria.


Bashir Goth observes that “Somalilanders know that we neither have the political clout nor the alliance of the willing to support our cause”. A functioning Islamic democracy, Somaliland may not be recognised as an independent state, even though it functions better than many granted this formal label.

The irony for Somalilanders is that their country — the colonial British Somaliland — was briefly internationally recognised for four days in 1960, before Hargeisa agreed to join forces with the (formerly Italian) Somali Republic to form Somalia. While they do not thus technically represent the thin edge of the recognition wedge for Africa, they are, for the moment, a political symbol and catalyst for a long overdue debate — about whether redrawing or maintaining Africa’s borders will lead to endless conflict, chaos and suffering.

Yet Africa’s existing state structure now seems to be entrenched, not just in the minds of ruling elites, but also in those of much of the populace. No secession of Katanga or Kasai would be accepted by most Congolese. The recognition of Somaliland would be a red rag to a large number of Somalis, which would rapidly be used by Islamists in furtherance of their own agendas. But for the moment there seems to be no willingness to accept that when states patently don’t work, something else is needed.