Alexander Stafford: ‘The UK cannot afford to ignore Somaliland’s plea for recognition’

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By Alexander Stafford

Perhaps the most important lesson we should learn from the brutal war in Ukraine is the value of free, democratic friends in difficult places. The UK has taken a leading role in supporting our brave friends in Ukraine, having been one of the largest donors of military aid; but we have many other friends – or, perhaps, would-be friends – around the world whom we are consistently failing.

Nowhere is it more important to support democracies and cultivate friends than the Horn of Africa. This is an area of great international concern: most recently with the resurgence of Houthi activity in the Red Sea, but also ongoing concerns about piracy and terrorism; a population that is feeling the devastating effects of climate change, and an area that has deposits of minerals and other natural resources without which the world will not reach net zero. We cannot afford to ignore Somaliland’s plea for recognition any longer.

The Republic of Somaliland, a British colony until 1960 and a part of Somalia until 1991 — when Somalilanders made the brave choice to break away for the good of their country and their people, is ready to emerge onto the world stage. Unlike many of their neighbours in the region, Somaliland enjoys a healthy and thriving democracy modelled on our own. This year, we look forward to a peaceful and transparent Presidential election in November, following on the 2021 elections which excellently exemplified those characteristics.

Somaliland is also a relative haven for education: with high literacy and education levels for both boys and girls, neither of which are a given in the region; as well as being home to a powerful supreme court – indeed, it was only the court’s intervention in the 2017 election which ensured a peaceful transfer of power, after an incredibly close result.

Perhaps thanks to these solid foundations and their fight for independence, Somaliland has not seen the instability and civil war which has rocked Somalia in the last fifteen years; and the danger of terrorist violence from the likes of Al-Shabab, while not zero, is far lower than elsewhere in the region. International recognition would, therefore, be a powerful symbol to neighbouring countries that freedom, education, and democracy bring with it many advantages.

Of course, international recognition must follow due processes, but that does not mean it shouldn’t start now. The Foreign Office’s stated position is that regional recognition must happen before we can do the same. Indeed, the UK has been at the forefront of encouraging this regional recognition: supporting the talks between Governments in Hargesia and Mogadishu and pushing for increased intra-African dialogues. This regional recognition has now started, with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with Ethiopia, one of Somaliland’s biggest trading partners. The Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement is undoubtedly the first step on the road towards recognition of the largest unrecognised country in the world and also emphasises the stability and security of Somaliland as a trading partner and international ally.

The UK, now that we have seen the required local recognition of Somaliland should not hesitate in doing the same. It would prove beyond doubt that Britain supports democracies and that democracies succeed.

There is already some good news for British-Somaliland relations. Indeed, in many ways, our actions are speaking louder than our words. Britain has been uniquely active in supporting Somaliland’s development of the key infrastructure needed to engage on a global scale. Berbera Port, which is predicted to facilitate 75% of Somaliland’s trade by 2035, has received millions of pounds of support from the UK to build that capacity and support jobs and prosperity across the region. This investment, alongside the now-completed, UK-funded Hargesia Bypass, is undoubtedly part of Ethiopia’s attraction to Somaliland and is exactly the work that the UK should be supporting. Alongside that, the UK is the only western country with a permanent diplomatic office in Hargesia and is the UN Penholder for Somalia and Somaliland, so we have unparalleled diplomatic potential.

However, as the UK continues its legacy of supporting democracies around the world, Somaliland needs more than just words and money. The opportunities given to us by global, post-Brexit Britain include being able to look further afield for the friends we need for the modern world, just as we are in Ukraine, and nowhere is more deserving of our friendship than Somaliland.

This year marks a third of a century since Somalilanders staked their claim to independence. Somalilanders have therefore been fighting for international recognition for longer than they were ever unified with Somalia. The region has seen many similar bursts for freedom, and Somalilanders have watched as their neighbours, like Eritrea, have succeeded to the freedom and recognition that we have failed to support them in.

The time for that to change is now.