By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Mary Yang, an intern at Foreign Policy.
Top leaders from Somaliland, a semi-autonomous region in Somalia, visited Washington last week to lobby the United States to recognize the territory’s independence, touting Somaliland’s stable governance and geostrategic location that they argued could be an asset for U.S. interests in the Horn of Africa.
The Biden administration made clear it had no plans to recognize Somaliland’s independence from Somalia during the visit by Somaliland’s president, Muse Bihi Abdi, and foreign minister, Essa Kayd Mohamoud. But in meetings on Capitol Hill, top U.S. lawmakers signaled that they wanted the United States to deepen ties with Somaliland, viewing the territory as a bastion of stability in an otherwise unstable region and potential bulwark against growing Chinese influence in East Africa.
“Even if it takes 100 years for recognition, we will still stand for our identity, we’ll still engage with everybody, and we’ll still dream of a day where Somaliland is recognized as its own country,” Kayd told Foreign Policy in an interview.
Bihi and Kayd met with senior officials in the Biden administration, as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who stopped short of calling for Somaliland’s independence but who pushed for closer U.S.-Somaliland ties.
U.S. officials fear that recognizing Somaliland would upend U.S. relations with the federal government in Somalia, which cooperates with the United States on counterterrorism despite having only fragile control over some parts of the country, and would open the floodgates for other semi-autonomous regions in Africa to double down on drives for independence. They also argue that a U.S. recognition of Somaliland would severely damage Washington’s relations with other partners on the continent and the African Union, which does not recognize Somaliland.
“They’re doing an end run around the African Union and around their own home region trying to get Washington to give them what they can’t get locally,” said Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. diplomat and now expert on East Africa at the Atlantic Council. “That would be sort of like the African Union recognizing Puerto Rico as the 51st U.S. state before the U.S. does.”
But Somaliland’s pitch for independence could become more attractive in the coming years. Instability and widespread unrest have rocked Sudan and South Sudan. Ethiopia continues to wage a costly war against breakaway forces from its Tigray region. Somalia is still wracked by terrorism, and the federal government has fragile control over its own territory. But Somaliland, independent experts say, stands in sharp contrast to this and remains relatively stable and secure while maintaining regular election cycles.
The United States’ only permanent military base in the region is in Djibouti, neighboring Somalia on the strategically important choke point between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. However, Djibouti also hosts a Chinese military base and is unnerving U.S. policymakers with deepening ties to Beijing. Another point in Somaliland’s favor, regional experts say, is its tradition of holding regular elections, in contrast with Somalia, where the government has been criticized by the United States and other countries for delaying long-planned elections.
“Their idea is that there would be a democratic partner in that region that would be willing to serve as another base for the U.S. or partner in our security interests,” Hudson said.
Their arguments are taking root in some policy circles within Washington. Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, said the United States “should proudly be the first state to recognize Somaliland as an independent state” at an event with Bihi in Washington during his visit.
As part of their pitch, the Somaliland officials reiterated offers to support a U.S. military footprint or bases on Somaliland soil in exchange for a recognition of independence and highlighted deepening ties between their government and Taiwan, an independently governed democracy that China views as part of its own territory.
The lobbying efforts by Somaliland’s top officials offer a small window into how foreign dignitaries are working to advance their interests in Washington amid the growing great-power rivalry between the United States and China.
Somaliland officials, as well as U.S. lawmakers, played up the growing ties between Somaliland and Taiwan during their visit to Washington—a trend that has angered both Somalia and China. While the United States doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, as part of the long-standing “One China” policy that only recognizes Beijing’s government, the Biden administration and U.S. lawmakers are working to strengthen Washington’s informal ties with Taiwan and increase support for the dwindling handful of countries around the world that have spurned pressure from Beijing to maintain formal diplomatic relations with the island.
“There are similarities in terms of values and democracy and elections and human rights between Somaliland and Taiwan,” said Kayd, when asked about the matter. “On the other hand, Somaliland is ready to engage with everyone—as long as our sovereignty is respected and as long as there [are] no strings attached to our political views.”
The Somaliland officials’ visit also sheds light on the more active role Congress is playing in pushing the Biden administration to rethink traditional U.S. policy in East Africa and the careful balancing act the State Department is attempting as it responds to growing calls to engage Somaliland without recognizing the region’s independence and alienating Somalia’s federal government.
The State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs tweeted on March 14 that it welcomed discussions with Bihi (though it appeared to mistakenly tag a parody Twitter account of Somaliland’s president in the tweet) on “strengthening U.S. engagement with Somaliland.” But the State Department said it was doing so “within the framework of our single Somalia policy,” an apparently new phrase meant to underscore that the United States had no plans to recognize Somaliland’s independence.
U.S. lawmakers put out different signals that indicated they were much more eager to engage Somaliland—though nearly all stopped short of backing the region’s independence.
“We’re here to engage both parties, both Democrats and Republicans,” Kayd said. “We are a country who has values similar to the one that America has, standing for democracy, free and fair elections, and defend[ing] our country from piracy and also from terrorists.”
Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Mike Rounds, the chair and ranking member respectively of the panel’s Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy, introduced a bill formalizing that effort during the Somaliland delegation’s visit to Washington.
The bill includes a provision that would require the State Department to report to Congress annually about the status of U.S. aid to and actions in Somaliland for the next five years—with a stipulation that the United States would do so without recognizing the region’s independence.
A group of lawmakers led by Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the Biden administration to deepen ties with Somaliland, citing its ties with Taiwan and its potential to serve as a “counterweight” to China’s increased economic investment and military buildup in neighboring Djibouti.