Op-Ed: Somaliland’s diplomatic efforts

Somaliland Flag

By:Gulaid Yusuf Idaan

In 1960, Somaliland gained its independence from the United Kingdom and become an independent state, but the parliament voted to join former Italian-ruled Somalia. In 1961, a national referendum was held wherein a majority of northerners (of present-day Somaliland) voted against unification, but a majority of Southerners voted in favor. Northern army officers would subsequently launch a rebellion to gain Somaliland’s independence which was quickly quelled. Tensions continued to simmer between North and South. In 1969, Siyad Barre, a major general of the gendarmerie, came to power through a coup and overthrew the Somali Republic. As Somalia turned into a Marxist autocracy, Barre’s would prove heavy-handed, especially towards the north.

In the early 1980s, a group of exiles from Northern Somalia, primarily members of the more prominent Isaaq clan formed the Somali National Movement to oppose the Barre regime, after a long war they culminated with the overthrow of the Barre government in 1991. Somaliland proclaimed its independence that same year. Three decades later, Somaliland has yet to gain international recognition. Still, it has the trappings of a Weberian state, including a bureaucracy, an army, a currency, and perhaps most improbably, an electoral democracy. As one study published in the Review of African Political Economy put it, “Somaliland has all of the attributes of a state, with a constitution, a functional parliament and government ministries, an army, a police force and judiciary, and all of the symbols of statehood, such as a flag, its own currency, passports, and vehicle license plates. Furthermore, although Somaliland has been unable to secure international recognition, there is a creeping informal and pragmatic acceptance of Somaliland as a political reality.”

The self-declared independent territory in the Horn of Africa is not internationally recognized as a sovereign state. The political and economic Researchers have said more about how Somaliland’s status of no recognition affected its economic and international Relations. Given Somaliland’s ineligibility for assistance from international financial institutions or bilateral aid from donor countries, aid earmarked for Hargeisa is routed through the government of Somalia in Mogadishu. This has made foreign aid even scarcer. In January of this year, Somaliland Foreign Minister Essa Kayd visited Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, pleading for direct assistance from Western states. Kayd told reporters, “Ninety-eight percent of [the aid] is going to Somalia, and perhaps 2 percent is reaching Somaliland.” He also claimed that last summer, Mogadishu delivered COVID vaccines to Somaliland just days before their expiration date, dropping the shipment on the border between the two jurisdictions. Kayd added that Taiwan then stepped in to provide COVID-19 vaccines for Somaliland after the expired delivery was discarded.  Somaliland established relations with Taiwan in July 2020

As China’s presence has expanded in the Horn of Africa, Somaliland has opted to distance itself from Beijing and present itself as a democratic- ally of the West – and Taiwan. In March, Somaliland’s President Musa Bihi Abdi visited Washington, meeting with officials in the Biden administration, congressional leaders, and think tank types.  Bihi pressed for the recognition of Somaliland’s independence, underlining that while Mogadishu was signing agreements with Beijing, Somaliland was spurning China’s offers. “If we were to sign an agreement and accept China as our ally, it means that the freedom of the waterways of that region could be compromised,” Kayd said, “That’s why we have the Americans paying more attention. A number of Republican lawmakers were swayed by Kayd’s pitch. On March 17, three Republican Congressmen introduced a bill titled the “Somaliland Partnership Act” that would require the Secretary of State to submit annual reports to Congress on assistance provided to Somaliland, and to conduct a feasibility study on establishing a security partnership with Somaliland, with the ultimate objective being Washington’s recognition of the territory, “as a separate and independent country.”

This piece examines Somaliland’s emergence as a de facto state, an entity that has gradually acquired “empirical sovereignty,” but not “juridical sovereignty,” and maneuvering through Great Power rivalries since the end of the Cold War.


Political scientists have argued that Somaliland’s “ineligibility for foreign assistance” and Hargeisa’s need to collect tax revenue locally necessitated “revenue-bargaining” between state officials and societal actors, which in turn produced inclusive, representative, and accountable institutions. This argument, advanced by Nicholas Eubanks, claims that the rise of democratic institutions in Somaliland thus supports the classic thesis about state formation in medieval Europe, whereby a representative state emerged as a result of negotiations between authoritarian state officials in need of revenue and societal actors who agreed to taxation only in exchange for greater government accountability. Numerous studies have found revenue bargaining and demands for greater accountability in less developed countries, including Ghana, Senegal, and Mauritius.8 This, however, does not mean taxation will inevitably lead to accountability: Africa abounds with examples of states that extract local revenue and are highly exclusionary. (As Carles Boix has shown, a particular kind of authoritarianism emerges in countries rich in natural resources (like oil), which state elites can monopolize, as opposed to states where the property regime is more mixed and based on mobile assets.) Thus, in this argument, foreign aid can reduce a state’s reliance on tax revenues, impeding the development of institutions of accountability.  State-building in Somaliland has been deeply implicated in the development of a tax base.  Somaliland receives a small amount of aid administered by NGOs and development agencies,

Somaliland has since rebuilt northern cities ruined by civil war and improved the economic situation such that average income and infant mortality rate are higher in Somaliland than in southern Somalia. Moreover, since 1997, Somalia has held presidential, parliamentary, and district local elections (with a new Constitution ratified in 2001 with broad public support.) In 2009, Human Rights Watch would describe Somaliland’s achievements as “both improbable and deeply impressive.” The report stated: “Somaliland has done much to build the foundations of democratic governance grounded in respect for fundamental human rights.… There is vibrant print media and an active and independent civil society. Somaliland has accomplished these things primarily on its own, in one of the world’s most volatile regions. All of this stands in marked contrast not just to the chaos in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, but also to the records of governments across the Horn of Africa.” This school of thought suggests that if Somaliland were to gain international recognition and access to foreign aid that could undermine the social contract underpinning the country’s fledgling democracy. Yet international recognition has become a priority for Somaliland’s leadership, which has signed strategic and infrastructure agreements with Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates (the latter has signed a contract to manage the port of Berbera for 30 years), and established representative offices in Washington and Taiwan


The rise of China, the COVID pandemic, and the consolidation of Somaliland’s democracy seem to have accelerated Hargeisa’s push for international recognition. Sympathizers in Congress are seeing Somaliland not simply as a democratic oasis in a region dominated by authoritarian regimes, but also as a bulwark against Chinese influence in East Africa. “Somaliland has stayed faithful to democracy when hardly anyone noticed,” said Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation. “We need to be clear-eyed about the competition we’re in with the Chinese Communist Party… Almost alone in Africa [Somaliland] has been immune to Beijing’s overtures and threats.” Another think tank specialist wrote, “Recognizing Somaliland’s independence would enable the U.S. to hedge against further deterioration of its position in Djibouti, which is under Chinese sway. “Djibouti, since 2002, has hosted the American military base of Camp Lemonier; in 2016, China built a base in this East African nation

In 2020, Somaliland and Taiwan set up representative offices in each other’s capital cities, irking the governments in Beijing and Mogadishu. China would accuse Taiwan of “fanning the flames” and “harming others.” Kayd would retort that Beijing could not dictate his country’s political alliances: “We were born free and we will stay free. We will run our business the way we want. China cannot dictate, no other country can dictate.” (As China has expanded to Africa, Taiwan has lost support on the continent, with only Eswatini (Swaziland) having full relations with the island.) As Mogadishu has signed bilateral agreements with Beijing, Somaliland has distanced itself from China, and, stressing its democratic credentials, sought to cultivate support in conservative political quarters in the U.S. and Britain. Meanwhile, Western organizations that monitor democracies have observed that Somaliland’s electoral system needs to be more inclusive. A recent report by the International Crisis Group hailed Somaliland’s parliamentary and local elections held in May 2021 as a “milestone,” showing “the strength of Somaliland’s democratic culture,” but underlined the complete absence of women from parliament, and called for greater efforts to include women, under-represented communities, and to open dialogue with the restive eastern regions.

Somaliland’s recent diplomatic charm offensive seems to be paying off. In England, the Conservative MP Gavin Williams has called for Somaliland’s independence, stressing Britain’s ties to the territory, saying, “Our nations have long historic ties, and now it is time to make history together.” Republican and think tank support notwithstanding, the Biden administration has made clear it has no plans to recognize Somaliland. American officials worry that recognizing Somaliland would jeopardize Washington’s relations with Mogadishu, undermining efforts to contain al-Shabaab. Recognizing Somaliland would also violate the African Union’s 1964 resolution (that called on African states to respect their inherited borders) and set a dangerous precedent, inspiring other regions to break away. As former diplomat Cameron Hudson explained, 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,” adding That would be sort of like the African Union recognizing Puerto Rico as the 51st U.S. state before the U.S. does.” As the war in Tigray, Ethiopia drags on, Somalia struggles to assert control over its territory, and China continues to expand into Africa, Washington and London’s calculus could change, and Somaliland’s independence could come to be seen as a strategic asset. In such a scenario, the African Union’s norms and resolutions would not figure prominently in the Great Powers’ calculations.

Although the majority of states of African countries are against recognizing Somaliland for various reasons. Italy is clearly against secession in the EU, motivated by economic interests in southern Somalia and ex-colonial ties. Members of the older Somali elite still often have close relations with Italy. Egypt supports Somali unity to keep Ethiopia under control, with whom it is competing to use the Nile water. The Arab states prefer a united, strong Sunni Somalia in the Horn. The USA and most other EU countries are trying to stabilize Somalia. Recognizing Somaliland would not help.

Perhaps the most important factor preventing all African countries from recognizing Somaliland is the determination by the African Union (AU) that the continent’s colonial borders should not be changed. Otherwise, it is feared, it could lead to unpredictable dynamics of secession in the rest of the continent. Eritrea and South Sudan are absolute exceptions. In both cases, the legal situation was less relevant for the recognition than special political arrangements (in Eritrea the new government in Addis Ababa agreed to secession in 1991; regarding South Sudan, there was a lot of international pressure).

Somaliland and Ethiopia

Somaliland has reliable friends Among African Countries who have commercial and economic relations, and the first of these friends is Ethiopia, which Somaliland shares a long border with.

Relations between Somaliland and Ethiopia date back at least to the period of the Adal Sultanate and Abyssinia. The relationship between the two polities was often tense, culminating in the 16th century with the inconclusive Ethiopian–Adal war

The Ethiopian Empire signed a number of treaties with the British government during the period of the British Mandate over Somaliland. The most famous of these treaties is the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1897, which was aimed at demarcating the border between Ethiopia and Somaliland

 The agreement also established the freedom of trade and movement between the two sides.

Following its establishment in 1982, the Somali National Movement decided to ally with the communist Derg regime in Ethiopia against the forces of the Somali dictator Siad Barre.[8][9] Relations between the Republic of Somaliland and Ethiopia have generally been positive since Somaliland declared independence on May 18, 1991. The state of affairs marks a departure from the historical animosity between Somalia and Ethiopia.

In 1994, Ethiopia and Somaliland reached security and trade agreements that provided for an expanded strategic partnership among the most important of the agreements was a treaty providing for non-formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. Ethiopia and Somaliland also signed an extradition treaty

Ethiopia was the first country where Somaliland exchanged representative offices. Meanwhile, Ethiopia and Somaliland have trade ties

Somaliland and United States of America Agreements

The United States and Somaliland signature of the National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2023 was an unprecedented step in the history of the Republic of Somaliland, and as a result of the continuous diplomatic efforts made by the Somaliland Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Diplomatic Representative Office in Washington, the US Senate has included important articles that guarantee the consolidation of relations between the United States of America and the Republic of Somaliland.

The Horn of Africa faces an increasing number of complex challenges, yet the State Department continues to work on outdated policies and diplomatic frameworks that do not meet today’s challenges. I am pleased to see the most important piece of Somaliland legislation included in the Department of Defense budget for fiscal year 2020, which will require the United States to explore all possible mutually beneficial relationships with stable and democratic partners, including Somaliland. I look forward to engaging with the State Department on this matter in the coming months.”

Gulaid Yusuf Idaan

Senior lecturer, Researcher and Youth Activist in the Horn of Africa for the mobilization and empowerment of Young people in the Horn of Africa



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