THT-The U.S. should recognize Somaliland as an independent country. In practice, the territory is not now, nor is likely to be, a part of Somalia. Acknowledging that reality would allow Washington to create more effective policy in an important and contested region. A strong relationship with an independent Somaliland would hedge against the U.S. position further deteriorating in Djibouti, which is increasingly under Chinese sway. It would demonstrate the benefits Washington confers on those who embrace representative government and would allow the U.S. to better support the territory’s tenacious, but still-consolidating, democracy. An independent Somaliland would be a stable partner that has little risk of experiencing the tumult that frustrates American interests elsewhere in the volatile region. Somalilanders deserve the justice of having their decades-long practice of independence recognized and should be allowed to disassociate from the dysfunction of southern Somalia that hinders their development.
Somaliland has been de facto independent for 30 years. The U.S. should recognize this and build a facts-based policy that better serves its strategic interests.
Recognizing Somaliland’s independence would enable the U.S. to hedge against further deterioration of its position in Djibouti, which is under Chinese sway.
This would reward Somaliland for its sincere commitment to democracy and deliver the justice of honoring its strong and consistent aspirations for independence.
The autonomous territory of Somaliland sits in one of Earth’s most strategically important areas. Yet the influence Beijing has built, particularly in Djibouti, threatens the U.S.’s ability to defend its interests there. Recognizing Somaliland would let the U.S. build a partnership with the territory that would give Washington a hedge against further deterioration of its position in Djibouti. Hargeisa (the capital and largest city of Somaliland), almost alone in Africa, has already demonstrated its willingness to defy Beijing when it established what is, after Eswatini, Taiwan’s most advanced diplomatic relationship in Africa.
Recognizing Somaliland would also affirm American support for democracy by rewarding the territory’s tenacious, though still-developing, 30-year-old homegrown democracy. It would as well allow Washington to provide the type of unfettered support for democracy-building activities in Somaliland that it cannot currently provide because of constraints imposed by the federal government based in Mogadishu. Somaliland is also an area of relative calm that offers the U.S. an opportunity to work with an advantageously positioned partner that carries few of the risks and constraints that undermine Washington’s efforts elsewhere in the region.
A common objection to recognizing Somaliland’s statehood is that it would set off a brushfire of secession in Africa. Yet Eritrean and South Sudanese independence did not. Somaliland is also unique in Africa because it has successfully operated autonomously for 30 years, has a critical mass of the attributes of statehood, was once independent, and wishes to revert to that status within colonial-era borders, the standard the African Union uses to determine statehood.
The AU’s precursor, the Organisation of Africa Unity, declared in 1964 that the assembled heads of state and government “[s]olemnly declare that all Member States pledge themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence.” This should not be a bar to Somaliland independence since Hargeisa wishes to revert to the borders it had when it received independence from Britain. There is also an irony in using the Organization of African Unity declaration as justification for denying Somaliland independence because the summit that produced the pledge was held in Cairo—then part of the United Arab Republic after Egypt and Syria voluntarily united in 1958. That union was dissolved in 1961 after Syria declared its independence, and African states today recognize Syria’s sovereignty. They also recognize that of the Sudanese Republic (today known as Mali) and Senegal, conjoined in the Mali Federation that became independent in 1960 but voluntarily dissolved several months later. For the OAU declaration, see Organization of African Unity, “Resolutions Adopted by the First Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government Held in Cairo, UAR, from 17 to 21 July 1964,” July 1964, https://au.int/sites/default/files/decisions/9514-1964_ahg_res_1-24_i_e.pdf (accessed August 6, 2021).
Independence would free Somaliland from the drag of association with southern Somalia. It would also deliver the justice of honoring the strongly and consistently held aspirations for independence of millions of Somalilanders.
The region of Somalia today known as Somaliland achieved independence from Britain on June 26, 1960, following 73 years as a British protectorate. Five days later it formed the Somali Republic by joining with southern Somalia when the latter gained its own independence from Italy.
Initial Merger. Despite the voluntary merger, tensions existed between Somaliland and the rest of the country from the beginning. Of the Somalilanders who voted—the leading political party there boycotted the process—over 60 percent rejected a 1961 referendum ratifying the union and a provisional constitution for the Somali Republic.
One day after independence, Somaliland’s Legislative Assembly passed the Union of Somaliland and Somalia law that was never ratified in the south. The southern legislature instead passed a different law repealing the north’s legislation. Northerners had little input on the constitution that southerners and Italian officials drafted, which provoked the widespread resistance in Somaliland to the new union law and the constitution. See Anthony J. Carroll and B. Rajagopal, “The Case for the Independent Statehood of Somaliland,” American University International Law Review, Vol. 8, Nos. 2–3 (Winter/Spring 1992 and 1993), https://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1877&context=auilr (accessed August 6, 2021), and Initiative and Referendum Institute, Somaliland National Referendum: Final Report of the Initiative & Referendum Institute’s Election Monitoring Team, July 27, 2001, http://www.iandrinstitute.org/docs/Final-Somaliland-Report-7-24-01-combined.pdf (accessed August 6, 2021).
De Facto Independence. Somaliland charted a different course. Following a conference of traditional leaders, in May 1991 the territory re-declared independence and began operating as an autonomous state. A series of other conferences followed in which the leadership created a system of government mixing traditional and Western-style elements that remains largely in place today. It held a de facto independence referendum in May 2001—in which 97 percent of voters approved a constitution that again proclaimed the region’s independence.
An estimated two-thirds of eligible voters participated. Those who voted “no” on the referendum likely were expressing displeasure with Somaliland’s political leadership—and not with the notion of independence—while those who voted positively seemed primarily motivated by wanting to support Somaliland’s independence claim. Some of those who abstained were likely opposed to independence, however. Turnout was much lower in the eastern part of Somaliland (inhabited by clans different from Somaliland’s dominant clan, the Isaaq), an area also claimed by neighboring Puntland. The contested areas are dominated by the Dulbahante and Warsangeli, sub-clans of the Harti (itself a sub-clan of the Darod), which is also prominent in Puntland. These non-Isaaq clans generally prefer union with Puntland and so oppose Somaliland independence, although it is unclear the exact number who oppose independence. Initiative and Referendum Institute, Somaliland National Referendum, and Shinn, “Somaliland: The Little Country That Could.”
Recognition Benefits for the U.S.
Recognizing Somaliland would be a simple acknowledgement of the truth that the territory is an independent state in all but a technical sense—and would allow Washington to create a more effective reality-based policy for the region. The benefits to the U.S. would be significant, starting with allowing Washington to diversify away from Djibouti, a country on which it is overly reliant and that is increasingly under Chinese influence.
The region in which Djibouti and Somaliland lie is among Earth’s most strategically important. In recognition of that fact, the U.S. placed its only permanent military base in Africa in Djibouti.
This small country the size of New Hampshire hosts Chinese, French, German, and Japanese military bases as well. The port is critical to U.S. military operations in Africa, as 90 percent of the logistics and materiel U.S. Africa Command uses in its East Africa operations flow through Djibouti port. See Thomas D. Waldhauser, “Statement of General Thomas D. Waldhauser, United States Marine Corps Commander, United States Africa Command, Before the Senate Committee on Armed Services,” February 7, 2019, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate,