by Zakaria Farah
Sunday, August 02, 2009
Much has been said or written of why the break-away region of Somaliland should or should not remain within Somalia proper. I am one of those who are adamantly against separatism or secessionism. We have also heard a lot from the other side – the vocal minority who insist on dismembering Somalia.
For nearly two decades, secessionist groups or individuals have vigorously campaigned for independence or recognition. These groups or individuals have claimed that Somaliland is “peaceful” and “democratic”, and should therefore receive the recognition it deserves. I have argued in previous commentaries on why Somaliland is neither peaceful nor democratic, but even if it was, political recognition is not based on either “peace” or “democracy”. There are many unstable or conflict-ridden countries that have obtained international recognition. Ironically, a good example is the current transitional government in Somalia which is universally recognized but literally controls a few blocks in Mogadishu, let alone having any influence in the rest of Somalia including regional administrations. In addition, most nations in the world are not considered “democratic” yet they enjoy political and diplomatic recognition. The pro-secession movements have belatedly recognized that international recognition is not treated lightly, granted easily, or come about automatically.
The secessionist groups or individuals are soothing their hunger for recognition by claiming that Somaliland has already gained a de facto recognition. These claims are apparently based on the facts that many humanitarian organizations and government aid agencies are dealing directly with the Somaliland administration. They also claim that their officials are received in other countries. But both of these claims are childish, to say the least. Even Ifo and Dadaab refugee camps deal directly with international organizations, governments and agencies but they are still recognized as part of Kenya. Similarly, international organizations, foreign governments and agencies treat Somaliland as a big “refugee camp”, but they do recognize it to be part of Somalia. In the same token, traveling abroad by Somaliland officials does not in any way bestow any recognition. I have seen and heard many Somali refugees from Kenya or Ethiopia traveling abroad for studies, medical treatment or for resettlement. The international community still does not recognize the Somali refugee camps or the Somali regions in Kenya or Ethiopia as independent entities.
Perhaps instead of asking why the international community has failed to recognize them, the secessionists should ask themselves why they failed to recognize the ironies in seeking recognition. The first irony is that most of the current leaders or officials worked for the previous government of the Somali Republic. Some of these officials belonged to security or intelligence agencies that ruthlessly quelled any uprising or separatist tendencies all over Somalia. The second irony is that, the secessionist groups or individuals operate from Western capitals where secessionism or separatism is considered abhorrent. Think about it: the major Western nations such as the United States, United Kingdom, and the Federal Republic of Germany, just mentioning secessionism within their borders is taboo and will create a political backlash. In those countries, the emphasis is always on the words “United” or “Federal”. Even Australia and Canada where the Queen of England is still the ceremonial Head of State, they have “States” or “Provinces” that can not or will not contemplate secession. The French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada did attempt to break-away from the rest of the English-speaking Canada perhaps for cultural reasons. Fortunately for the Canadians, the democratic processes in Canada did silence the secessionist movements there, at least for now.
The third irony is that the leaders, officials, and the civilians in Somaliland have to carry Somali passports or other foreign passports in order to travel overseas. Many times when pro-secession groups talk or write about the so-called Somaliland, they use words like “Country”, “Republic”, or “Nation”. They failed to realize that there is no “Country”, “Republic”, or “Nation” in the world where its citizens exclusively use “foreign” passports to travel abroad. The fourth irony is that “Somaliland citizens” in many cities, towns, and villages still use the Somali Shilling as the official currency. This is a clear indication that either the Somaliland government is unable to adequately supply its own money or the people are unwilling to accept “Somaliland Shilling” as money. If the people do not trust the money printed by the authorities, the “money” becomes nothing more than a paper dipped in ink. Even more ironic is that the Somali Shilling in circulation today are monies printed by questionable groups or individuals long after the collapse of the Barre government.
If the people of Somaliland trust the Somali Shilling under these circumstances or if there are no alternatives to the Somali Shilling, what does it say of the legitimacy of the Somaliland government? The fifth irony is that, while the secessionists claim that Somaliland was “independent” before the rest of Somalia, they failed to celebrate their Independence Day on June 26th. What makes this particular failure laughable is that the whole Somaliland secession mantra is largely based on the notion that Somaliland was recognized, albeit briefly, to have gained its independence from Britain on June 26, 1960.
Now that we know recognition for Somaliland is not any closer than it was eighteen years ago, isn’t it time for Somaliland to rethink its strategy? More often than not, if one plan fails, there is always a Plan B. The Plan B in this case is for Somaliland to abandon the idea of secession altogether and start talking of suitable and perhaps sweeter alternatives. Recently, for example, the Chairman of the U.S House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, Donald M. Payne, invited representatives of Somali Transitional Federal Government, Somaliland and Puntland authorities for talks in Washington, DC, but unfortunately the Somaliland officials snubbed the Congressman and refused to attend the hearing. They apparently declined participation in the belief that it was not in their best interest to attend any place where Somali unity is discussed. In fact, the topic had nothing to do with Somali unity or disunity. The title or the agenda of the hearing was: SOMALIA: PROSPECTS FOR LASTING PEACE AND A UNIFIED RESPONSE TO EXTREMISM AND TERRORISM. I do not know exactly which word or words did the Somaliland officials deemed as unacceptable. I am assuming that they did not like the word “Somalia” unless of course they were offended by the words “Extremism” or “Terrorism”.
In any case, the refusal to participate in a Congressional Hearing is arrogant and boneheaded in many ways. First of all, if one wants to achieve anything in life, one should be able to talk or discuss with anyone anywhere without preconditions. Secondly, the fact that you were invited by members of a powerful institution such as U.S Congress is itself recognition of sorts. Isn’t this one of the recognitions you were seeking desperately for so many years? This was a lost opportunity and public relations disaster for Somaliland and perhaps a gain for Somali political unity.
The Subcommittee on Africa is very influential, especially with an African-American President. It is also part of the more powerful U.S House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. Ironically, Congressman Payne is the highest ranking U.S official to visit Hargeysa in recent memory. Those of you who have watched the hearing may have seen how the congressman was visibly frustrated with the Somaliland snub. Not surprisingly, Congressman Payne refused to meet with the Somaliland Foreign Minister when he later showed up in Washington. This was his poignant closing statement at the hearing, “We express our dismay for the refusal of Somaliland to participate, however, we will move forward. One day, perhaps, they decide that they are going to be part of a greater Somalia and get onboard like the rest of [Somalia] trying to get onboard. And we won’t worry about the detractors. If they (Somaliland) want to be isolated, they can be assured that I will do all I can to isolate them. Evidently, it is sort of clear they do not need or want the support of the United States government. So we have enough to do to try to support Puntland and [the rest of] Somalia and we will try to do what we can”.
The fact that the advantages of Somaliland changing its strategy by renouncing secessionism are so great that sometimes you wonder why it has not happened yet. If Somaliland announces today that it is part of Somalia, it does not mean it is the end of the world for them or the end of the Somali misery. Somaliland will more than likely still retain its administration or political system. In political terms, it is better for Somaliland to be a Hong Kong rather than a Taiwan. Hong Kong has its own political system while it is still part of China. Unfortunately, Somalia does not have the power, influence, and wealth of China. Taiwan is a de facto independent state largely because U.S superpower patronage and its own economic powerhouse. So Somaliland will never be a Taiwan even if it wanted to.
Somaliland announcing its “reunion” with Somalia will likely reduce any tribal or clan tensions and animosities within its unrecognized borders. Even regions that are now against secessionism are likely to calm down politically if secessionism is off the table. I have specifically in mind regions such as Awdal, Sool, Sanaag, Togdheer or Ayn. Many clans and sub-clans are either totally against secessionism or are ambivalent about it. The other benefit of renouncing secessionism is the attraction of businesses and investments from foreigners and Somalis everywhere. Many well-to-do Somalis are investing heavily in countries in the region especially Kenya. These are investments Somaliland could attract.
The renunciation of secessionism is a crucial step but perhaps the easiest of all. The next step will be the discussion about the political system that the whole of Somalia will undertake. Even if Somaliland says it will become part of Federal Somalia, there will be still questions about demarcation of borders and political subdivision within Somaliland itself. For instance, Sanaag or Sool or both may insist on forming a separate “State” within Somalia. They may still insist to be part of Puntland, based on clan lineage. The complication will not end, but at least the stalemate of the status quo will end.
The other benefit is that Somaliland will play a big role in stabilizing the situation in the rest of Somalia. The clans from Northwest have some of the highly educated people in Somalia. In a united Somalia, these individuals will no doubt fill most of the technocratic posts in a federal unity government. Even today as divided as Somalia is, some of the most visible positions in the TFG and opposition groups are held by individuals considered to be from the clans of Somaliland. All in all, there is a huge talent and intellect in the Northwest regions of Somalia. These talents played a gigantic role in the creation and independence of Somalia. They will no doubt play even a bigger role in reviving and reuniting Somalia.