The UK parliament hosted a debate on the 18th of January 2022 about the political recognition of Somaliland as a sovereign state. The debate was organized and led by the Rt Honourable Gavin Williamson MP, a Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire since 2010. He is Former Secretary of State for Education of the United Kingdom, who visited Somaliland in 2019 when he was serving as the UK Secretary of State for Defence. The debate was well attended by 20 MPs from all sides of the House. Chris Heaton-Harris, UK Minister for Europe from the ruling Conservative party represented the government in absence Vicky Ford, the Minister for Africa who was travelling in that week in East Africa. Following are four points of personal reflection on the nature of the debate and the possible consequences of this initiative for Somaliland recognition.
The nature of the debate
Firstly, we need to understand how the House of Commons works and where the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson’s political acumen when he called for the meeting, and who else was backing him in the debate. The well-crafted initiative, leadership, consistency, and commitment of MP Williamson was extremely important in this debate, but it should also be recognized that this was not just a debate called by a single MP. It was a well-organized and coordinated session, that brought the discussion to a level that was informative about the status and highlighted the aspirations of Somaliland with regard to recognition of it as an independent state. It was also the culmination of many years of activism from MPs, and most particularly from members of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for Somaliland.
The All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) for Somaliland was established in November 2016 with the following aim: “To promote understanding of and support for Somaliland’s achievements in building peace, democratic governance and a sovereign state in the Horn of Africa”. The aims also include championing “the need for continued UK assistance for Somaliland’s development”. An APPG is an informal, cross-party group formed by MPs and Members of the House of Lords who share a common interest, but they have no formal power or status within the Parliament. Almost all the active members of the APPG were present: Clive Betts from Shielfield; Stephen Doughty from Cardiff; Kerry McCarthy from Bristol; Matthew Offord from Hendon; and Ruth Jones from Newport West. These MPs and colleagues from the House of Lords come from different political colours: Labour, Conservative and so on, but they share their support for the Somaliland case.
The second group that should be named and recognized for their incredible contribution is Somalilanders in the UK, or British Somalilanders, the Somaliland Community, who in such a short time campaigned and contacted their MPs but also worked hard in the social media to make the case for debate so strongly in public opinion forums. They showed that their voice counted and that is because of their unity.
The third group is the Somaliland Government, represented by its Permanent Resident’s Office here in London who did marvellous job of contacting community members and promoting to tune in and follow the debate closely by calling their local MPs. When I say the Government, I do not mean only the Executive. We were all pleased, for instance, by the swift reaction from the Somaliland House of Representatives, who reacted positively and, on behalf of the people of Somaliland, thanked the UK MPs who initiated the debate.
What happened in the house?
The second question worth answering is what actually happened in the House? This was a genuine debate in which parliamentarians shaped the discourse with enthusiasm, truthfulness and excellent interventions based on facts. It is not common to involve so many MPs – more than 20 – who joined the debate and echoed the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson’s strong message. There was a real convergence of minds which is uncommon in parliamentary debates.
The central message was not only the fact that Somaliland Recognition has a solid, proven legal basis, but it also has a legitimate basis in human rights. Indeed, the world owes Somaliland respect because the aspiration to become an independent state is the fundamental human right of self-determination. MPs also used the verifiable fact, that Somaliland is a reliable, credible, and democratic partner, with whom the UK can do business. This is a key point: recognising Somaliland was framed as an invitation to British businesses and viable investors to engage with Somaliland. To put their money where they are sure they can make mutual profits and achieve benefit for both the UK and Somaliland. In additional, this should be linked to the recent CDC Group investment in Berbera Port via DP World.
Finally, they talked about the fundamental relationship between the United Kingdom and Somaliland; not only the historical one that many people readily cite, but also the fact that we share a future together, as so many British-Somalilanders today are rewriting the reality of this relationship with a positive new chapter. Somaliland, they told the world, is the only stable and credible spot in the turbulent and unstable Greater Horn of Africa region, and it occupies in incredibly strategic position for the Red Sea near Babel Mandeb passage.
Of course, we must recall the not-so-positive reaction of the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), which maintained, as expected, the official position of successive UK governments on the issue of the recognition of Somaliland. That is the UK government consider Somaliland recognition as a matter for Somaliland and the Federal Government of Somalia to agree between themselves in the first instance. This position was strongly rejected by the speakers in the debate, reminding the FCDO that this view from the junior Minister is not representative of the views of many within both the Government and the Opposition, as evidenced by the debate itself. Hon. Rushunara Ali, UK MP responded to the government position stating how the UK government took leadership role and supported Bangladesh independence when it was fighting with Pakistan, and UK did not say Bangladesh sovereignty has to be negotiated between Bangladesh and Pakistan”.
But for me, I noted the following four key points in particular:
Firstly, the counter point to the main argument of many speakers, namely reservations expressed against Somaliland recognition, were pre-emptively and comprehensively rebutted by MPs. They were unequivocal and overwhelming in their support. The work done by the community also cannot and should not be underestimated in this regard.
Secondly, the ideas that recognising Somaliland will destabilise Somalia or that negotiations with Somalia are a viable route to recognition, were also resoundingly challenged. This is what Somaliland has always advocated, but the fact it is now being said by many UK MPs is highly significant.
Thirdly, the MPs proposed practical steps towards common interest, for example, upgrading the status of the UK Liaison office in Hargeysa to issue passports to British Somalilanders and travel visa to Somaliland people, as well as British Council services, that today it is unconscionable, these citizens must travel to Ethiopia.
Finally, there was an overall acknowledgement that British companies could expand into this fast-growing market. In a post-Brexit world, Somaliland is well positioned to unlock a new dimension in UK-African trade. Particularly through Somaliland’s Berbera port – a growing trade and logistics hub that has attracted investment from Dubai’s DP World.
Somaliland Somalia disconnected
My third area of reflection is on Somaliland-Somalia issues: as just noted, one thing that was soundly dismantled in the debate was the argument that recognising Somaliland would destabilise Somalia, or linked to this, that Somaliland needs to negotiate with Somalia and to convince them to agree to Somaliland’s independence in order for Somaliland to win international recognition. This was convincingly rebutted. On the first part of this argument, there is little that the world could do to materially destabilise Somalia any more than it already is. Mogadishu’s ‘Federal Government’ of Somalia is, in effect, a paper government that is propped up by 25,000 AU troops. It commands virtually no control over Somalia’s territory, let alone Somaliland. One MP called the suggestion that Somalia exercises any meaningful control of Somaliland as “frankly nonsense”. Mr Clive Betts from Sheffield South East dismissed the idea that “Mogadishu now has any remit in Somaliland” as “a piece of nonsense, and it is time the [UK] Government recognised that.” But the most resounding refutation came from Hon Rushanara Ali, who drew a parallel between the case of Somaliland-Somalia and that of Bangladesh-Pakistan. She recalled the fact that the UK Government “took a leadership role and supported the right to self-determination of the country in which I[she] was born [Bangladesh] during the war of independence between Pakistan and Bangladesh.” Hon Ali reminded those present that the UK Government “did not say that Pakistan should determine the future of the independence of what became Bangladesh” and dismissed the idea that such a principle should be applied in the case of Somaliland as ridiculous.
Recognising the sovereignty, independence and achievements of Somaliland instead would be a key step to enabling Somalia itself to realise the internal peace which has alluded it for three decades. Specifically, it would provide a peace dividend for Somalia by allowing its nascent ‘Federal Government’ to focus on securing its own borders and stability. By recognising Somaliland independence – which is already a reality on the ground – the Federal Government could focus on improving its ability to govern Somalia, rather than maintaining the absurd distraction of some presumed but patently unrealistic commitment to future expansion of federal power into Somaliland. Somalia’s ‘Federal Government’ frankly should not concern itself with Somaliland which has already proven itself far more capable of governing itself. Somaliland’s success in that regard and its stability should not be undermined by sustained commitment to a thoroughly discredited position on federal unity. Recognising Somaliland will enhance Somalia’s stability, not degrade it, while consolidating Somaliland’s own impressive achievements.
Somaliland’s identity as a country is unique in the context of the Somali Peninsula. The Somali Republic had only two constituent countries: Somaliland and Somalia. It was formed by the union of these two previously separate and independent states. This creates an implicit situation in which there are no legal, historical, or political bases on which regions of what was the Somali Republic could secede. A separation between the only two entities that united to form the Somali Republic is therefore only that: a dissolution of a union between the two parties rather than the secession of a single region amongst many. In other words, it would constitute the dissolution of a union between two equal states, just as in the case of Gambia and Senegal when their union was dissolved. The consensus view is that Somaliland has an exceptional and uniquely justified case for international recognition and a proven 30-year track record of governing itself: a record that obviously far exceeds that of Somalia.
The fourth and last point that needs to be considered is ‘what to do now?’
This debate marked an important move towards the fulfilment of the desire of Somaliland to gain nothing less than full International Recognition. But obviously there is more work needed to achieve that goal. This moment must not therefore be seen as an end, but as an important step to build upon.
I am not sure, in the history of the UK Parliament, if there has been such an engaging debate on a Somaliland issue before. For the last three decades it certainly hasn’t happened. I have since seen few people, obviously anti-Somaliland, who have tried to downgrade what happened yesterday! But we need to build on this momentum by:
first recognizing that this is not an isolated accident, but it linked to the great coordinated moves that the current Somaliland Executive have made, including the excellent work done by Somaliland Representative in the USA and the recent interest of Americans in engaging more meaningfully with Somaliland through business and other relations. This led to the recent visit of the staff of the US Senate to Somaliland.
it should be also linked to the new conversation that has recently recommenced between the Somaliland and Ethiopian governments, including with the visit of the Somaliland Presidential delegation to Addis Ababa, which sends another important signal.
prior to this, Somaliland opened its doors for Taiwan as a gateway to Africa, a successful foreign relation between the two countries, from which resident Amb. Allen Chenhwa Lou broadly affirms that in Hargeysa, he represents “Taiwan in 10 East African countries”, and that Somaliland makes debut at Taipei International Food Show. China may see this relationship as an unnerving element in its policy in Africa, but Somaliland government managed wisely and firmly the conversation.
with those acknowledgements, we now need to call for all Somalilanders in the diaspora in other countries to take similar steps to work in their own countries while the mood is ripe for further advances such as those achieved in the US and the UK.
finally, despite the ‘formal answer’ from the FCDO to the debate, the UK Government is convinced the chances for Somaliland to improve, and both the recent updates on security travel advice and supporting of the CDC Group to invest in Berbera, give a signal. Somaliland need to capture that message and for instance insist on upgrading the UK Office in Hargeysa to full diplomatic mission.
In conclusion, I think there was a fundamental factor that really made a difference in the UK:
those MPs who have visited Somaliland had a much stronger voice as a result of their experience and thus being able to speak out convincingly on things that they knew from personal experience. Gavin Williamson, Stephen Doughty, Clive Betts and others who had visited Somaliland were prominent in the debate and in pressing Somaliland’s case. This is an significant factor and underlines the importance of engaging with politicians in countries such as the UK. As we used to say, “i tus oo i taabsii”, show me with facts. Somaliland showed them with facts that it is a credible partner, reliable for mutual investment, fostering democratic values, and as a partner for a better world for tomorrow.
Somaliland has been a stable, peaceful, democratic country in the Horn of Africa for 30 years. It has democratically elected successive governments with relatively effective and developing institutions, with seven peaceful transitions of power- an achievement that sets it miles apart from many countries on the continent. Somaliland has shown itself to be a responsible and mature member of the international community and has good relations with neighbouring countries in East Africa. Somaliland also co-operates comprehensively with the International Community on counter terrorism, antipiracy and maritime security.
Somaliland for the past 30 years has therefore been an anchor for stability. It plays a key role in securing its 850km Gulf of Aden coastline, including key maritime routes critical to African and global trade. This is critical to international logistics and supply chains. This has been much to the benefit of Africa and indeed the rest of the world.
Recognising Somaliland now would cement this anchor of peace, stability, and security in a
strategically important region.
This message that we have been repeating so loudly for thirty years, has been now said by others with a more powerful microphone than us, Somalilanders.
The day after
Somalilanders at home and in the Diaspora have been celebrating since the debate. Popular and lively celebration and debates in social media have been highly visible since then. The Somaliland Parliament endorsed a motion by MP Mohamed Hussein from Hargeysa, to formally thank the UK MPs on behalf of Somaliland. Opposition leaders expressed with words of appreciation the initiative. Thursday’s cabinet meeting, chaired by the President approved a similar endorsement while community-led, government backed, public demonstrations, expressing support for the debate, thanking the initiator, the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson, and other MPs, have been colourfully ongoing in all major cities of the Republic of Somaliland.
Dr. Jama Musse Jama, PhD, is the director of the Hargeysa Cultural Centre. He can be reached at twitter.com/JamaMusse