Few of us were surprised by the fact that the United States did not invite Somaliland and Eritrea to the U.S – Africa Leaders meeting, which was concluded last week in Washington D.C. The U.S said it did not invite Eritrea due to strained diplomatic relations and lack of recognition of Somaliland as a sovereign state.
Adding that their invitations of countries were consistent with the African Union and “our own recognition of governments’’. The US, like many other powerful countries maintain that the Somaliland’s case should be dealt with by the African Union. No doubt this year was a momentous one for Somaliland and its quest for international engagement and recognition. The parliamentary debate at the House of Commons in the UK and President Musa Bihi Abdi’s visit to the United States as well as passing the United States Fiscal Policy which included the Somaliland Partnership Act ushered in a wave of optimism and hope for Somalilanders. This is a perfect moment to step back and reflect around this issue; isn’t it time to question our foreign policy approaches targeting African states and what Somaliland is doing in this area? While it is a positive development to lobby in the western capitals and seek friendships, equally it is important not to forget that Somaliland’s case has more stakes in African capitals and institutions than in the West.
Somaliland’s different administrations pursued foreign policies that prioritized gaining international recognition and acceptance. Establishing democratic credentials in the country and fully functioning statecraft also helped boost the country’s de facto image. Yet, foreign policies of the last governments have been marked by inconsistency, less institutionalized and not coherent. President Egal opted to engage directly with the states by writing letters instead of strengthening foreign policy technocrats who could do the job, Rayale, Silanyo and Bihi were marked by similar problems. It was in Rayale’s administration that Somaliland – African relations were at its peak, Rayale himself toured many African states and presented Somaliland’s case as an independent there, meeting heads of states including President of Wade of Senegal. In his term, the African Union Fact Finding mission visited Somaliland and wrote a report that represented the complex nature of Somaliland’s case for recognition and was a missed opportunity for Somaliland to push international recognition within the continent. One of the most prominent scholars in the continent, the late Ali Mazrui, visited Somaliland and wrote about it later.
Somaliland’s different administrations pursued foreign policies that prioritized gaining international recognition and acceptance
Somaliland turned to a more Arab commitment, in particular the Gulf nations during the Silanyo mandate and continued with the Bihi government. This engagement was marked by investment projects, building of new infrastructure and most importantly the DP World Berbera Port expansion, but also a controversial military base agreement with UAE, Somaliland picking sides during the Gulf Crisis in 2017 etc. As in other Somaliland foreign policy undertakings, these visits and meetings were less transparent, institutional and uncoordinated. Despite this relations with the Gulf gave posture to Somaliland’s geo-strategic significance, yet it happened with the negligence of Hargeisa of pushing relations with the African continent.
For starters, the African continent consists of many states with different historical, social and political history, but they have one common notion: they are very sensitive to the idea of new states emerging out of the existing ones; the waves of separatism and also interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. They have long defended the notion of not changing colonial boundaries. The idea that Somaliland is trying to get international recognition involving border changes without the blessing of the African nation is going to be pretty far-fetched.
In addition to this, African states as members of the global institutions like the United Nations have a voting right and non-permanent presence in the United Nations Security Council (3 African countries including Kenya are part of the UNSC). In this case, they can influence and direct the agenda discussed in the Council. Having stated in favor of Somaliland’s case will be immensely helpful and politically significant.
Simply the fact the African states will be the ones receiving the direct results of Somaliland’s statehood, it makes them the major stakeholders and in return align their foreign, political and economic policies with the political situations in Somaliland. The recent modernization of the port of Berbera and the corridor constitutes an important factor of regional integration and interconnection for many countries and Somaliland. Measures must be taken in order to foster these ties. One good start could be for the Somaliland government to start focusing on establishing diplomatic/liaison offices in major regional and diplomatic hubs on the continent, such as South Africa, Nigeria and emerging African powerhouses like Rwanda and Ghana. These countries confer enormous political and economic powers on the continent and in particular on their respective regions and regional bodies (SADC, ECOWAS and COMESA). Although some of these countries have their own pockets of secession in their yards, yet they maintain friendly relations with other states seeking a state.
Somaliland’s political dispute over the elections and arrests of journalists and opposition figures is a setback for democracy and if it continues, it has the potential to significantly damage Somaliland’s reputation as a beacon of democracy
Moreover, it is time to expand the discourse used by Somaliland which focuses solely on democracy and elections and to use the language of cooperation and opportunity in business. Make no mistake, that does not mean the ideals of democracy and human rights should not be promoted, quite the contrary, but it’s necessary for our policy-makers to understand that not everyone we are dealing with is a big fan of democracy talks; Even though de facto states are known to push for the language of democratization in order to get international acceptance and engagement, considering the nature of the African political elite and their disdain towards democracy. Moreover, Somaliland’s political dispute over the elections and arrests of journalists and opposition figures is a setback for democracy and if it continues, it has the potential to significantly damage Somaliland’s reputation as a beacon of democracy in the region.
Lastly, adopt a two-track diplomacy, one emphasizing the recognition of Somaliland as an Independent State and the other promoting economic and technical engagement with African states. Essentially, this means not waiting for countries to acknowledge, but taking the initiative to engage in various sectors. The second option also involves engaging with various African institutions (governmental and non-governmental), private sector, think tanks, eminent personalities etc without necessarily making the non-recognized status inhibiting Somaliland from moving and being an active actor in regional affairs.These include applying for observatory status in regional economic communities or working with NEPAD. A number of regional institutions have allowed the accession of “governments” rather than states, and this niche could be explored.
Somaliland is experiencing great changes within the region and around the world, bringing both good opportunities and new challenges. It is time for the government in Hargeisa to start reconsidering their policy regarding the African states and make major policy reassessment to secure its position as an internationally recognized state and its role in the regional affairs.
By Moustafa Ahmad
Moustafa Ahmad is a researcher based in Hargeisa. He comes from an international relations background where he focuses on politics, governance and culture. He tweets at @Mustafe_Ahmad