Africa

A land in need of recognition

What Somalilanders have achieved they have done so with hardly any international assistance -- a salutary reminder that local ownership does work.

Fifty years ago the protectorate of Somaliland gained independence from Britain. Five days later, on July 1 1960, it elected to join Italian Somalia in a union. The marriage did not work; Somalia descended into military dictatorship, civil war and chaos. In 1991, Somaliland elected to go it alone, establishing the conditions for peace through a home-grown Islamic democracy.

But still it remains without recognition by the international community, despite fulfilling legal norms for recognition. Somaliland has defined borders, a functioning government and armed forces capable of defending its people. It is also relatively stable, especially when compared to Somalia.

What Somalilanders have achieved they have done so with hardly any international assistance—a salutary reminder that local ownership really does work. How long they can sustain these achievements without recognition is anybody’s guess. What is certain, however, is that Somaliland will not be able to build on them and consolidate its development unless its current isolation is broken. 

And if issues of global governance—including terrorism, health concerns, piracy and the environment—require effective states as local implementing agencies, then it makes sense to strengthen Somaliland. The most cost-effective way of doing so is through recognition.

Somaliland’s problem is that, unlike the split-up of Czechoslovakia or the secession of Eritrea, its original marriage partner, Somalia, does not agree to a divorce. In the past decade several strong voices have urged them to relent, even if not explicitly. South Africa’s then-department of foreign affairs concluded in 2003 that “it is undeniable that Somaliland does indeed qualify for statehood, and it is incumbent on the international community to recognise it”.

The African Union, which has sent two missions to Somaliland, in 2005 and 2008, has said it fulfils many of the aspects of state recognition. “Objectively viewed,” the 2005 report states, “the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a Pandora’s box’”—the source of African misgivings about the recognition of new states on the continent.

Recognition would help to solve some of the territory’s social and economic challenges. The capital Hargeisa is heaving at the seams; built for 150 000 people, it now houses closer to one million. The harbour at Berbera appears busy to the visitor. The nearby airport, built as a Cold War staging post by the Soviets with one of the longest runways in Africa (it was once designated by the United States as an alternative landing strip for the space shuttle), is slowly being rehabilitated and is accommodating a trickle of flights.

But the infrastructure elsewhere is rickety. The 60km of freshly paved road from Jijiga in Ethiopia’s Somali-populated Ogaden region, running eastward towards the Somali border at Tog Waajale, contrasts with what lies ahead.

Tog Waajale’s dirt streets are festooned with the Somali national flower, the plastic bag. Goats feed on mounds of rubbish and snot-nosed children and idle youths hassle for a hand-out. Once through the ropes slung across the track denoting the border, the next 20km in Somaliland is tough going—a series of mud roads criss-crossing their way through a multitude of dongas over the flat, bleak terrain in which there is scarcely a knee-high tree in sight.

This road, and Ethiopia’s connection with the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden, could do with some planning and finance. But, given Somaliland’s limited means, this is likely to come only from development assistance—and that is unlikely without the international recognition Somaliland lacks.

The economy is stable, if poor, and is based on livestock farming and exports (more than half), remittance or money transfers (about $800-million annually) and telecommunications. To this mix can be added port and customs charges at Berbera, and the tax on the $180-million annual khat industry (approximately 12%).

Total Somaliland government income is estimated at ­$50-million, although it has plans to increase this to above $100-million through more strictly and strenuously applied taxes. GDP is estimated at $350 per capita for Somaliland’s 3.5-million people, which is higher than Tanzania ($280), Eritrea ($190) and Ethiopia ($100).

Somaliland’s socioeconomic challenges are formidable, to be sure. The number of young people enrolled in primary and secondary education has increased in recent years, but only one girl is enrolled for every three boys. Economic growth rates are not rising fast enough to deal with the backlog in development and the devastation caused by the civil war. The expectations of Somaliland’s increasingly globalised youthful population are not being met.

The speaker of the house, Abdirahman Abdillahi, notes that between 60% and 70% of the population is unemployed, and more than half of youths are without opportunities to “go further in their studies or find a job”. This “could be a time bomb” for radicalisation, he says, and university professors agree that the veil is more on view than ever before.

Somaliland’s President Ahmed M Mahamoud Silanyo says recognition of the territory is a key element in dealing with these obstacles to development and will be overcome “even if we have to wait for 100 years”. Or as a prominent Somaliland businessman puts it: “A lack of jobs goes hand in hand with a lack of hope, which creates terrorism and gets us back to square one. The West,” he said, “cannot worry about terrorism and then not recognise Somaliland.”

There are other problems that will not disappear with formal ­recognition; in some cases, they might indeed be exacerbated by it.

One of these is the national addiction to khat, the amphetamine-like leaf said to cause excitement and euphoria that is chewed by an estimated 20% of the population. Not only does this divert as much as $450 000 daily into a consumptive habit, it also results in laziness, contributing to an already low rate of productivity. “It is a chronic social, health and economic problem,” says the minister of planning, “one of the most important that we need to address.” It has also created an exceptionally powerful khat-trading elite.

It is also necessary to bring more women into social and political life. Unless Somaliland’s more iniquitous customs and traditions are tackled, the country will not take off. There are just three women among the 164 members of the two houses of Parliament. The practice of female genital mutilation is ubiquitous; an estimated 95% of young women suffer.

Whatever the benefits to Somaliland, recognition from regional states and the international community, would illustrate that African borders, far from being sources of insecurity, can be a source of stability and enhanced state capacity. In that respect, recognition of Somaliland would certainly be an African game changer.

Patrick Mazimhaka is the former deputy chair of the Commission of the African Union and chairs the advisory board of the Brenthurst Foundation; Greg Mills directs the foundation. They have both recently been in Somaliland

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