Dealing with Somaliland
Dealing with Somaliland
Somalia-Somaliland: A Halting Embrace of Dialogue
Somalia-Somaliland: A Halting Embrace of Dialogue
Op-Ed / Africa

Dealing with Somaliland

Soon after the state had collapsed in Somalia 1991, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland proclaimed independence from the rest of the country. Whereas the southern part of Somalia slid into anarchy, Somalilanders restored peace and built up effective government structures. On its summit at the end of June, when this comment was already written, the African Union discussed the sovereign status of the territory. Somaliland’s application for AU membership provides an opportunity to settle the issue peacefully.

On 18 May 2006, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland marked fifteen years since it proclaimed independence from Somalia. Its sovereignty is still unrecognised by any country, but its president, Dahir Rayale Kahin, submitted Somaliland’s application for membership to the African Union in December 2005. The claim to statehood hinges on the territory’s separate status during the colonial era from the rest of Somalia and its existence as a sovereign state for a brief period following independence from Great Britain in June 1960.

However, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, which is still struggling to establish its authority in southern Somalia, also claims sovereignty over the territory of Somaliland. The issue is becoming an increasing source of tension. Somaliland’s application for membership gives the African Union an opportunity to prevent a deeply rooted dispute from evolving into an open conflict. The African Union’s intervention should be designed to create an environment favourable to the peaceful settlement of differences without prejudice to the final outcome. The framework for determination of Somaliland’s sovereign status should address four central questions.

First, should Somaliland be rewarded for creating stability and democratic governance out of a part of the chaos that is the failed state of Somalia? Somaliland has made notable progress in building peace, security and constitutional democracy within its de facto borders. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people have returned home, tens of thousands of landmines have been removed and destroyed, and clan militias have been integrated into unified police and military forces. A multi-party political system and successive competitive elections have established Somaliland as a rarity in the Horn of Africa and the Muslim world.

Secondly, what are the prospects for peaceful preservation of a unified Somali Republic? The issue is more than political; it is a matter of personal identity for millions. Most southern Somalis are very attached to the notion of a united Somali Republic, but many Somalilanders – scarred by the experience of civil war, flight and exile – refer to unity only in the past tense. An entire generation of Somaliland’s youth has no memories of the united Somalia to which young southerners attach such importance. Squaring that circle will not be easy.

Thirdly, would granting Somaliland either independence or significant autonomy adversely impact the prospects for peace in Somalia or lead to territorial clashes? Somalia has been fractured by war and lawlessness for so many years – the prospect of at least a part of it becoming stable is tempting. However, some people argue that the rest of the country will only continue in chaos if separatist aspirations are rewarded.

Finally, what would the African Union’s recognition of Somaliland imply for separatist conflicts elsewhere on the continent? Membership in the African Union includes a commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of fellow states. Since Somalia is an AU member and its seat is no longer vacant, the admission of Somaliland would arguably violate this fundamental principle.

The African Union should appoint a Special Envoy to examine these questions, consult with all relevant parties and report on the legal, security and political dimensions of the dispute and offer options for solutions. Ultimately, there are only two possible outcomes: some form of united Somali state (whether in the form of a federation, confederation or a unitary arrangement involving considerable autonomy), or independent neighbours. The African Union’s challenge is to provide timely, neutral leadership in order to ensure a just, peaceful and enduring settlement, before confrontation and violence become the only options imaginable by both parties.

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