IN 1991, after the overthrow of Somalia’s military leader Siad Barre, the northern territory of Somaliland declared independence. While its mother nation has been in meltdown, Somalilanders in Hargeisa established a currency, set up a working government, held a series of free elections and saw through a peaceful transfer of power. But after two decades, they still haven’t won recognition as a country from international partners.
Mohamed Bihi Yonis, the foreign minister, claims that is about to change, saying that “it will happen soon”. His optimism is overblown, but not entirely without foundation. A number of factors have converged to buoy the independence bid.
Last year Somalia elected its first permanent government since the fall of the military regime, giving Somaliland a credible partner for negotiations. Ministers have been trying to win Somali leaders over in talks brokered by Turkey.
Mr Yonis says the negotiations have stretched as far as “how best to disengage from each other”. He claims that Somalia’s government, which formally recognises its breakaway neighbour as an autonomous region, is willing to make concessions. “They have accepted the understanding that… it is in the best interests of everybody to move things forward,” he says.
Somaliland has a strong legal case for recognition because it sticks to old colonial borders favoured by the international community. Increased financial security may also support its bid.
The Somaliland government has handed out a number of oil licences to exploration groups like Genel Energy, an Anglo-Turkish firm, in recent years, and is about to sign the biggest business deal in its 22-year history. An offer worth “hundreds of millions [of dollars]” has been tabled by “one of the world’s best port operators” to develop the harbour at Berbera, according to Jason McCue, a human rights lawyer who works as an envoy on the independence bid.
Serving as a trade route for landlocked Ethiopia, which has annual exports of about $1bn, could strengthen Somaliland’s bid for recognition amongst its neighbours. Big international investors could also influence their home governments to acknowledge Somaliland as a country.
But there are limits. Sources close to Somalia’s government say that it is committed to maintaining a unified nation. All public signals from Mogadishu point in the same direction. Somalia wants Somaliland to adopt its planned replacement currency, and is attempting to exercise control over the territory’s airspace. It has also contested the legality of Somaliland handing out oil licenses, saying that right lies with the federal government. A new draft constitution openly lays claim to Somaliland.
Somaliland doesn’t necessarily need its parent nation’s permission to get legal recognition. But unfortunately for it, Western governments, which are mostly impressed with its efforts, say that the first move should come out of Africa. The chances of that happening look slim. The African Union is scared that acknowledging Somaliland could create momentum for other separatist bids, and none of its member states have shown any indication that they will recognise the territory. The current crisis in newly independent South Sudan makes this even more unlikely.
Somaliland’s problem furthermore is that its case is dwarfed by other concerns in the Horn of Africa. While the northern territory chugs along in relative peace and stability, both rump-Somalia and its international partners are face pressing security problems. Hargeisa will have to wait.