SOMALILAND DIPLOMAT BASHIR GOTH SEEKS TO RESOLVE A HORN OF AFRICA DILEMMA

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On one of Bashir Goth’s many visits to Capitol Hill to discuss Somaliland – the strategically placed, “de facto” country in the Horn of Africa that split from Somalia when Mohammed Siad Barre’s government collapsed in 1991 – a member of Congress offered an explanation for why Somaliland has struggled for 33 years to gain international recognition.

“He told me, ‘You know, your problem, you guys in Somaliland? It’s because you have no problem – no war, no conflict,’” Goth told The Washington Diplomat in an interview on May 27, the day that Ireland, Norway and Spain recognized Palestinian statehood amid Israel’s relentless attacks on the Gaza Strip following the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas.

“And I asked him, ‘Do you think it would be better (for the Somaliland cause) if we make war?’ And he said, ‘No, no, no – don’t go that way.’”

Goth, was born in what was then British Somaliland and spent much of his adult life working in the Middle East or for European capacity-building organizations, until he was summoned by the government in Hargeisa to represent Somaliland in Washington in 2018. He feels that Africa only comes into focus in D.C. when there’s a famine, a war or a coup, or minerals that are needed to drive technological advances are discovered somewhere.

Bashir Goth, the ‘ambassador’ for Somaliland in Washington, D.C., points to the unrecognized country on a map in his office. Somaliland lies across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, near the entrance to the Red Sea, and shares a border with Djibouti, which hosts military bases for more than half a dozen countries, including the United States. (Washington Diplomat)

Somaliland only has one of those – the minerals, including hydrocarbons, gold, gemstones, lithium and maybe cobalt.  But because it is still not recognized as an independent state, it has struggled to attract international investors.

Somaliland was recognized as an independent nation some 64 years ago, when it gained independence from the United Kingdom on June 26, 1960. Days later, it chose to unite with the former Italian Somalia – today’s Somalia, with Mogadishu as its capital – in what Goth called “a tragic union, a bad marriage.” Somaliland stayed in the marriage until May 18, 1991, when it ‘reclaimed’ independence.

Since then,  Somaliland has built a democratic system of government, deterred on its territory the terrorism and piracy that plague Somalia, and, despite not having access to international financial institutions, has achieved some economic growth and stability.

­But growth has been limited by its status as an unrecognized country. When it does have formal relations with a country, such as Taiwan, with which Somaliland established diplomatic ties in 2021­, business ventures quickly follow. A British-Taiwanese company is currently exploring for oil in eastern Somaliland and is expected to start drilling in the coming months, Goth said.

“The Taiwanese are also looking for lithium, which we know is there, but they are looking to establish the quantity” of the mineral used in rechargeable batteries, in deposits in Somaliland, he said.

American companies contact Goth on a regular basis, saying “they really want to go to Somaliland and invest in Somaliland but they are impeded by the State Department travel advisory that lumps Somalia and Somaliland together.”

Somalia falls under a Level 4 “do not travel” warning, with the State Department cautioning Americans that the country – including Somaliland, which State calls a region of Somalia – is rife with crime, terrorism, civil unrest, health issues, kidnapping, and piracy. But it also says that Somaliland hasn’t suffered a major terrorist attack since 2008.

MOU with Ethiopia could be a ‘game-changer’

The door might open for outside investors, following the signing of a memorandum of understanding on January 1 between Ethiopia and Somaliland.

The MOU’s two main pillars are that Ethiopia will recognize the Republic of Somaliland as an independent, sovereign nation, and that Somaliland will provide access to landlocked Ethiopia to a small but strategic stretch of its coastline, which includes the Port of Berbera.

The hope in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, is that once Addis Ababa formally recognizes Somaliland as an independent nation, other countries will follow suit. Things like bilateral agreements, foreign direct investment, development assistance and other key nation-building tools, which are off-limits to unrecognized Somaliland, would become a possibility and fuel growth in the Horn of Africa state.

But there’s a catch: The U.S. administration is against the memorandum of understanding, Goth said.

Despite years of peace and stability in Somaliland, despite it having a democratically elected government; despite high-ranking U.S. military officials having visited Hargeisa and expressed interest in using the port of Berbera as a humanitarian deployment hub; despite the airport in Berbera having the longest runway in Africa, built by Americans and upgraded by the United Arab Emirates; despite the al-Shabaab terror group not having a presence in Somaliland, and despite Somalilanders leaning heavily westward and shunning overtures from China, the United States is against the memorandum of understanding.

That means it rejects the notion of Somaliland as an independent country, even though Washington recognized Somaliland’s independence the first time around, in 1960.

A message from U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter, congratulating Somaliland on its independence on June 26, 1960. (Screenshot)

Goth is optimistic that the United States will eventually come around this time, too, and recognize Somaliland.

“I think it would be in the interest of the United States to support a stable, peaceful, democratic, young country in the Horn of Africa that’s at a strategic place at the Gulf of Aden. And we would like the United States back in Berbera Port,” he said.

“I think it’s just a matter of time. I think the United States will come if we can be a little patient. But … after 33 years, we’re thinking, okay, we cannot wait any more.”

Not unexpectedly, Somalia isn’t happy with the MOU either.

On Monday, Mogadishu said it would order Ethiopian troops out of Somalia if Addis Ababa does not pull out of the MOU. That drew an angry response from Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Ethiopia has thousands of forces in Somalia who are protecting several states in Somalia against Shabaab,” Goth explained. “But for the United States, I think the issue is that if tension increases between Somalia and Ethiopia and they reach a point where Somalia asks Ethiopia to leave, then Al-Shabaab will overrun the country. So the United States is putting pressure on Ethiopia, asking them to walk back on this, to withdraw from the MOU.

He, on the other hand, thinks the MOU “will be a game-changer,” he said.  “It will also enable the ongoing U.S. presence in the region, with Somaliland for support.”

Moving the needle on international recognition

Because he isn’t officially an ambassador, he meets representatives from the State Department or Department of Defense at coffee shops, and engages with the U.S. government on an informal and unofficial level. But his efforts are getting results. Working with limited resources and no embassy – Somaliland only has an office in Alexandria, Va.– he has helped move the needle on recognition.

“People ask me what kind of foreign policy I follow, and I say normal foreign policy, because we are normal in Somaliland.”
Bashir Goth, Somaliland’s representative in Washington, D.C.

In March 2022, he was instrumental in bringing Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi to Washington for meetings with members of Congress. Bihi did not meet with President Joe Biden, though, because in the eyes of the rest of the world, Somaliland isn’t a country.

The same month, a bill requiring the Secretary of State to submit annual reports to Congress on assistance provided to Somaliland and to work with the Department of Defense to conduct a feasibility study on establishing a security partnership with Somaliland, was introduced in the Senate.

While the bill explicitly stopped short of  recognizing Somaliland as an independent state, key elements of it were included in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, including a requirement for “the United States to explore all possible mutually beneficial relationships with stable and democratic partners, including Somaliland.”

Risch was one of the sponsors of the bill. He applauded the inclusion of “the most important part of my Somaliland legislation … in the FY2023 NDAA,” when it happened, and roundly criticized the United States’ Horn of Africa policy as “working off outdated policies and diplomatic frameworks that don’t meet today’s challenges.”

Somaliland is ‘not going back’

While Goth continues to work ceaselessly toward achieving international recognition for Somaliland, he admits that representing an unrecognized country is no easy task.

“It’s a whole experience unto itself. People ask me what kind of foreign policy I follow, and I say normal foreign policy, because we are normal in Somaliland,” he said. “Our diplomacy – if you are not recognized and cannot follow the official channels, you look at the political landscape in Washington, D.C., to see who’s sympathetic to Somaliland and you go there.

“That’s my normal diplomacy.”

Somaliland’s representative in Washington, D.C., Bashir Goth, sits in his office in Alexandria, Va., June 3, 2024. Somaliland does not have an embassy because it is not recognized as an independent country. (Washington Diplomat)

A day in his life as the Somaliland ‘ambassador’ includes holding talks with officials in Hargeisa when it’s midnight in D.C. – there’s a  7-hour time difference –; catching a few hours of sleep, waking up at 6:30 a.m. and starting the cycle of coffee shop meetings, visits to Capitol Hill, discussions with U.S. policymakers, briefings, all over again.

To unwind, Goth goes for long, contemplative walks, and writes poetry in the Somali language. He translated this one, “Mediating Between the Sky and the Earth,” for The Washington Diplomat.

I mediate between the sky and the earth
A messenger and a seer I am
Between two worlds
That do not listen to each other.

The sky does not fall
The Earth does not rise
And I, feeling no sign of weariness
Keep mending!
Keep repairing!
Trekking the parched Earth in search of water
But not bringing a drop home.

The sky, Goth said, represents the United States, “the most powerful country in the world” which “casts its shadow on all other countries.” The Earth is Africa, and specifically Somaliland. And the messenger is Goth, a diplomat engaged in the seemingly futile exercise of building a bridge between the sky and Earth.

“Somaliland is real. It’s a de facto state. It’s not going back,” Goth told The Washington Diplomat.

“We are patient, very patient. We know that keeping Somaliland in the conversation in Washington, D.C., is important. We know it takes a lot of time to build relationships,” he said.

“But our patience is not infinite. We shouldn’t  have to wait another 33 years and maybe see a new mess in the region, for the world to appreciate the role that Somaliland is playing in the Horn of Africa.”