Fighting continues between the Somaliland army on one hand, and local clan militias on the other. At stake is the status of Somaliland’s Sool region.
Somaliland was briefly independent in 1960, but voluntarily joined a union with Italian Somaliland to form Somalia. As Somalia failed under the dictatorship of Siad Barre, Somaliland left the union and in 1991 reasserted its independence. It held multiple elections and established a vibrant if imperfect democracy. For three decades, it has embraced the West and established moderate policies while Somalia descended into clan warfare, became a morass of corruption, and pivoted toward China.
The State Department remains disinterested if not dismissive, despite Congressional calls to augment ties to Somaliland. U.S. diplomats resist relations and explain that they will not formally re-recognize Somaliland until the African Union does so.
Can African Borders Be Changed?
The African Union, meanwhile, cites a reluctance to change borders and questions the legality of Somaliland’s decision to dissolve its federation with Somalia. On both counts, the African Union betrays its own precedents.
While the African Union has generally opposed separatism across the continent — for example, in Biafra, Cabinda, and Katanga — it has blessed Western Saharan separatism from Morocco, even though Morocco’s history of rule in the region predates Sahrawi nationalism. Even if African Union opposition to separatism was the rule, the Horn of Africa is an exception. Eritrea had a brief colonial history decades before it separated from Ethiopia. South Sudan had no such precedent of autonomy. Compared to both Eritrea and South Sudan, which split from larger nations, Somaliland has a deeper claim to renewed independence. As a protectorate rather than a colony, it largely maintained its traditional leadership. Its history as both a protectorate and an independent country are now longer than its unhappy experience in union with Somalia.
Are Federations Reversible?
Precedent also belies the African Union argument that the former British Somaliland’s merger with Italian Somaliland is not reversible. Set aside the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today’s Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), which existed entirely during the colonial period. A better analogy for Somaliland and Somalia might be the failed merger of Senegal and Gambia into Senegambia. Even on a continent of artificial and seemingly arbitrary frontiers, the borders between these two West African countries stand out. The idea that the British and French delineated the borders between their two colonies by firing cannonballs from the Gambia River is only partly apocryphal. In a sense, Gambia is a county of riverbanks tucked inside a larger country with which it differs neither tribally nor religiously. Even so, the African Union blessed the divorce after less than a decade of the two countries’ confederation. The will of Gambia to be independent trumped any irredentist Senegalese nationalism.
Outside Africa, there are other examples of divorce: The Arab League did not force Egypt and Syria to maintain their failed United Arab Republic union, nor did it demand Jordan and Iraq subordinate their independence to their short-lived Hashemite Arab Federation. In Europe, Yugoslavia’s demise was violent largely because Serbian nationalists could not accept the reversion of its constituent republics to autonomy, if not independence. Rulers in Czechoslovakia were forward-thinking and their divorce was peaceful.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have both declared, “Diplomacy is back.” Rather than follow policy that the African Union bases not on precedent, but makes up as it goes along, it is time for Washington to take the lead and recognize Somaliland.
It would not be alone in doing so. Ethiopian diplomats have always quipped they would not be the first country to recognize Somaliland, but they would not be the third, either. What is certain is that maintaining the status quo is counter to regional security — it tempts revisionist and irredentist forces to achieve through arms what they never could achieve through hearts, minds, and the ballot box.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
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