The Horn of Africa: How does Somaliland fit?

[Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn delivered a paper on the current status of Somaliland at a Conference in Umea, Sweden on March 8. His analyses are his own and should not be construed to reflect assessments and policies of the U.S. Government.]

Following are excerpts from Amb. Shinn's paper:

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So long as the rest of Somalia remains a failed state, it is unreasonable to expect peaceful Somaliland to join willingly with its compatriots to the south. Somaliland must now convince the rest of the world, and especially the members of the African Union, that its case is special and deserves support.

The Central Committee of the Somali National Movement (SNM) assembled in Burao in May 1991 and declared unilaterally that Somaliland would henceforth become the independent Republic of Somaliland.

So far, Somaliland has had no success in convincing the Assembly of the African Union that its independence should be accepted and that it should be granted membership. Important countries like South Africa, Algeria and Senegal, if convinced of the merits of Somaliland's case, could make an important difference.

In the meantime, Somaliland opted not to participate in the process aimed at unifying Somali factions that was initiated by the government of Djibouti in 2000 in the Djiboutian town of Arta. The Arta Conference resulted in creation of the Transitional National Government (TNG) that took up residence in North Mogadishu and claimed to represent all of Somalia, including Somaliland. The TNG occupied Somalia's seats at the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), and the Arab League. Somaliland continues to reject both the Arta process and the government it created, arguing that the independence of Somaliland is nonnegotiable. For the same reason it is boycotting the Somali peace process that began last year in Kenya.

Somaliland and its Neighbors

Although not perfect, Somaliland has done amazingly well in managing the electoral process. Continued progress towards democratization, including free and fair elections, will help to convince the international community of Somaliland's bona fides as an independent state. One area that requires constant attention is the suppression of corruption. Although corruption is pervasive in Somaliland, the amounts involved appear to be modest and its overall record may well be better than is the case in most developing countries.

As Somaliland continues to build democratic institutions, one of the critical areas that require attention is a free press. There are few institutions that are more important at the early stages of developing democracy than a vigorous and open press.

Somaliland sees Ethiopia as an ally in its quest for support and recognition. Although Ethiopia understands that a stable, peaceful and independent Somaliland is in its interest, it is unwilling to be the first to recognize the government in Hargeisa. Somalia would immediately attribute nefarious motives to Ethiopian recognition of Somaliland, arguing that it wishes to balkanize Somalia and weaken Somali unity.

There are important clan ties between Somalilanders and the some 60 percent of the Djiboutian population that is Somali. Relations between Somaliland and Djibouti are correct and improving.

Saudi Arabia poses a major dilemma for Somaliland. A significant financial backer of the TNG and supporter of it within the Arab League, Saudi Arabia was traditionally the major importer of Somaliland livestock. For the better part of the last five years, Saudi Arabia has banned livestock from Somaliland on the grounds that it might be infected with Rift Valley Fever. Somaliland denies the charges, and there does not appear to be any current scientific evidence to support the claim.

In the meantime, the Saudi ban is doing grievous damage to the Somaliland economy. The ban has harmed nearly every kind of employment in the country-pastoralists, truck drivers, livestock traders, animal health staff, brokers, port employees and private business people.

In more recent years, Egypt has been a supporter of Somali unity and a strong Somali state that can serve as a counterweight to Ethiopia. Eighty-six percent of the water reaching the Aswan Dam in Egypt emanates from Ethiopia. The Nile River is, of course, Egypt's lifeline, and the leadership in Cairo wants to maintain maximum leverage over Ethiopia. A unified Somalia that might one day reassert its claims to Somali-inhabited areas of Ethiopia and has close links to Egypt would add to this leverage. As a result, Egypt is one of five countries that has recognized the TNG and opposes an independent Somaliland.

Eritrea, which received de facto independence from Ethiopia in 1991 and de jure independence in 1993, seemingly is a country that would be sympathetic to Somaliland's independence. On the contrary, it supports the unity of Somalia and is one of five nations to recognize the TNG in Mogadishu. Like Egypt, Eritrea also sees a strong and unified Somalia as a counterweight to Ethiopia.

Sudan's policy on Somaliland is especially intriguing. Sudan has traditionally supported Somali unity and is one of the five countries that recognized the TNG in Mogadishu. Sudan has been dealing with its own civil war since 1983 and does not wish to take any step that would provide additional justification for an independent southern Sudan. Acceptance of an independent Somaliland might weaken its own case for Sudanese unity.

Like Ethiopia, Kenya is primarily interested in a peaceful and friendly neighbor that does not export refugees and is in complete control of its borders. Kenya is also concerned that terrorist acts in Nairobi and Mombasa may have had some support from elements in Somalia. At the same time, Kenya does not want a strong neighbor that one day revives the Greater Somalia concept. For this reason, it is probably quietly sympathetic with an independent Somaliland. But as long as it is trying to solve the larger issue of peace in Somalia, it must remain completely neutral.

Somaliland and the United Nations

Somaliland is deeply disappointed that the United Nations played a key role in the process that led to the creation of the TNG and then allowed it to take Somalia's seat in the General Assembly. Somaliland also has a bad memory of the UN Mission to Somalia (UNOSOM) in the early and mid-1990s. UNOSOM spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Somalia to end a famine and engage in nation building, but took virtually no interest in Somaliland. For several years, UNOSOM officials did not even visit Somaliland.

Somaliland and the Donor Community

Bilateral donors have not been very forthcoming in providing assistance to Somaliland. Some probably shy away for fear that provision of assistance connotes diplomatic recognition. That concern can be avoided, however, by channeling assistance through international and indigenous nongovernmental organizations.

Somaliland is an excellent choice for increased rehabilitation and development assistance.

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(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: