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The U.S. and Somaliland: A Strategic Guide to Partnership

Family Security Matters
J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
Thursday, February 28, 2008


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A great deal has transpired in the little over two months since I last raised the question of Somaliland in this column, repeating a call I made two years earlier: “Since the disintegration of the Siyad Barre’s oppressive Somali regime into Hobbesian anarchy and warlordism, the international community has staunchly defended the phantasmal existence of the fictitious entity known as ‘Somalia.’ Now, however, is the time for the United States to break ranks and let realism triumph over wishful thinking, not only recognizing, but actively supporting Somaliland, a brave little land whose people’s quest for freedom and security mirrors America’s values as well as her strategic interests.


In January, the president of the Republic of Somaliland, Dahir Rayale Kahin, accompanied by his foreign minister, Abdillahi Mohamed Duale, and several other members of his cabinet, were invited to Washington for a visit that was officially acknowledged by the U.S. Department of State. According to the statement from the department’s spokesman, Ambassador Sean McCormack:


A high-level delegation from Somaliland, led by President Dahir Kahin Rayale, departed Washington January 19 after an eight-day visit. While here, the delegation met with senior officials of the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Department of Defense, and National Security Council staff, among others. This cordial and constructive visit demonstrated U.S. engagement with Somaliland in furtherance of our common interests in the areas of regional peace and security, economic development, and democratic reform.


Barely two weeks later, on February 3rd, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer arrived in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, with Ambassador John M. Yates, a veteran diplomat based in Nairobi, Kenya, who is America’s special envoy for Somalia (the U.S. envoy to Ethiopia, Ambassador Don Yamamoto, preceded the pair by one day). Dr. Frazer, the highest-ranking U.S. official to set foot in the republic since it reasserted its independence in 1991, spent the day holding formal talks with top government officials as well as meeting privately with representatives of Somaliland’s three registered political parties – the Union of Democrats (UDUB), the Peace, Unity, and Development Party (KULMIYE), and the Party of Justice (UCID) – and the unregistered “Qaran” political movement. Speaking to the press, Dr. Frazer explained the motivation of her visit:


Our visit to Somaliland is in connection and follow-up to President Dahir Rayale Kahin’s recent, visit, to Washington and on top of that to continue to work with the Somaliland authorities in the issues concerning peace, stability and security of the region. Our visit is also an acknowledgement of the democratic progress made by Somaliland…the U.S. assisted Somaliland in past elections and will continue to do so in the coming elections. We are here, today, to show our support for this and to mark the friendship and cooperation existing between the two countries.


A few days after Dr. Frazer’s visit, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) announced that it would “expand substantially activities designed to improve the lives of citizens of Somaliland,” pledging  “resources amounting to twice those spent in 2007 will be spent on projects focusing on the rule of law and security, democratic governance and on recovery and sustainable livelihoods, as well as on additional staff to increase the range of the ambitious programme in different regions of Somaliland” in concert “with the Somaliland government and other UN agencies.”


Dr. Frazer was careful to emphasize that the recent flurry of activity did not imply diplomatic recognition was imminent, noting that while “we have said on many occasions that the U.S. will continue to work with Somaliland, in particular, in the strong democratic values which Somaliland has succeeded in implementing,” the issue of recognition should be left to the African Union (AU), while America would “work with the AU and will respect whatever decision it makes on Somaliland’s status.”


However, as I previously observed, while the AU’s own report on the matter, presented by then-Deputy Chairperson Patrick Kayumbu Mazimhaka, acknowledged the uniqueness of the case – “The fact that the union between Somaliland and Somalia was never ratified and also malfunctioned when it went into action from 1960 to 1990, makes Somaliland’s search for recognition historically unique and self-justified in African political history. Objectively viewed, the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a Pandora’s Box’. As such, the AU should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case” – the AU is simply unable to actually address the matter as long as it continues to seat the utterly ineffectual “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia, which asserts sovereignty over the entire territory of the defunct Somali Democratic Republic despite being unable to so much as safely police its putative capital. Since Dr. Frazer is, undoubtedly, well aware of this reality, what is one to make of the recent developments?


In large measure, the recent engagement can be viewed as strategically sound at several levels. In the short term, it is increasingly apparent that the TFG’s lease on life is perhaps even more tenuous than that of its “president,” Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who, until last week, had not been in Somalia for months and was evacuated to London from Nairobi last month for medical treatment. In fact, just to get him back into Mogadishu last week, TFG forces and their Ethiopian protectors sealed all roads from the airport to the presidential Villa Somalia. In response, Islamist and clan insurgents fighting the regime fired mortars at the bunkered-down peacekeepers of the undermanned African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and, for good measure, lobbed half a dozen shells into the presidential compound. Amid heavy fighting last week, TFG forces sealed off the famed Bakara market, compounding the woes of those residents of Mogadishu who have not fled since most of these people either earn their living at the market or depend on it for basic staples.


Typical of the constant hit-and-run attacks by the insurgents, last Saturday at least four Ethiopian soldiers were killed when the water truck they were traveling in drove into an ambush in northern Mogadishu while, in the Wadajir district just south of the capital, gunmen shot and wounded a local government official as he stood in front of his house. On Sunday, heavily-armed insurgents from the radical al-Shabaab (“the Youth”) wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), reportedly led by Sheikh Muhktar Ali Robow, a.k.a., Abu Mansur, the former deputy defense minister of the ICU who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, briefly occupied the southern town of Dinsoor before withdrawing. With daily rounds of artillery duels, bombings, ambushes, assassinations, and incursions, no one seriously believes that even the full deployment of AMISOM – an unlikely occurrence in any event – would do much more than prolong the agony of the passing of the TFG, the fourteenth attempt by outsiders to restore central government to what was once Somalia. Hence it makes perfect sense for U.S. officials to reach out to any effective powers in the region.


Over the longer term, given the apparent futility trying to reconstitute a unitary state – a point I made more than a year ago in this column space – the members of the international community, especially the United States and its allies, have every reason to seek to engage Somaliland, not least of which is its geopolitical significance as a Muslim country with authentic democratic aspirations controlling over 900 kilometers of coastline along sea lanes along the Gulf of Aden, just opposite the Arabian Peninsula. Having such an island of relative security and stability is all the more important when, as veteran Somalia scholar Dr. Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College, who served as a senior advisor to the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) in the 1990s, has noted, “a collapsed state such as Somalia is more likely to serve as niche role as a transit zone, through which men, money, or materiel are quickly moved into the country and then across borders of neighboring states.” Moreover, there is the belated recognition in many quarters, of the validity of the warning which South African analyst Kurt Schillinger delivered in a paper for the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI): “Somaliland is a fragile entity in a fragile region with large Islamic populations – all demonstrably susceptible to radicalization.


However, just because a consensus is slowly being built around these two realizations does not mean that the United States will extend formal diplomatic recognition to Somaliland any time soon despite the consonance of the admirable efforts by its people to build a secure and democratic state for themselves to the vision which President George W. Bush outlined in his second inaugural address: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our worldOur goal…is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.” Rather, while the commonality of ideals provides a basis for moving forward, Realpolitik dictates that not just ideals, but concrete national interests must be carefully considered if a great power like the United States is going to break new ground and recognize an aspiring state like Somaliland. In other words, as much as I have been a consistent advocate for Somaliland – just last week I gave an address at the University of Baltimore School of Law entitled “The Case for the Republic of Somaliland: At the Frontiers of International Law, African Politics, and Territorial Order” – I cannot foresee recognition from Washington unless the government in Hargeisa convinces skeptics that there is substantial “value added” in the relationship.


To this end, the following are some steps which President Kahin and his government might take to build upon the recent progress in ties with the United States with a view to eventually securing formal recognition of what their citizens have accomplished in building a nation out of the wreckage of the former Somalia:


First, one cannot understate the importance of the presidential election scheduled for August 2008: it must be a model of free, fair, and transparent balloting. One of the most important claims that Somaliland makes on the attention of the international community is its democratic politics. While the 2005 elections for the House of Representatives marked a significant milestone in that the incumbent president’s UDUB won only 33 seats in the 82-member legislature (KULMIYE and UCID won 28 and 21 seats, respectively), following this up with a successful second direct democratic presidential vote (the first took place in 2003), would truly confirm Somaliland’s status in the company of emerging democracies. The United States has provided over $1 million to the International Republican Institute (IRI) to support training and other programs in preparation for the elections, while the State Department expects to make an additional $1.5 million available after the voting. The European Union is likewise providing financial assistance for the electoral exercise.


Second, beyond the voting, Somaliland must continue making progress on democratic governance. The territory is characterized a “partly free,” scoring 5 on political rights and 4 on civil liberties in Freedom House’s annual report, Freedom in the World 2008 (the scale is 1 to 7, with 1 corresponding to the highest and 7 the lowest levels of freedom). While the scores are impressive in contrast to that of the countries in its neighborhood – Somalia scores an abysmal 7 on both indices, Ethiopia and Djibouti scores a 5 on both political freedom and civil rights, while Eritrea manages to score 7 and 6 respectively – there is still considerable room for improvement. The members of the upper chamber of parliament, the House of Elders (Guurti), for example, have repeatedly extended their own terms of office. Corruption, while not as insidious as elsewhere in Africa, nonetheless needs to be systematically combated; while President Kahin deserves credit for sacking a number of corrupt officials during his tenure, the fact that they were even in place at all and needed to be removed is still disconcerting. While Somaliland is a largely homogenous society, there are nonetheless a few very small minority communities whose concerns could also be better addressed in the overall political process.


Third, while President Kahin expressed the willingness of Somaliland to work with U.S. regional counterterrorism efforts during his meetings with Defense Department officials in Washington last month – and legal avenues for such cooperation need to be found on the American side – Hargeisa must redouble its efforts on the anti-extremism front. And while government agencies on the American side may have unresolved issues with certain types of engagements with their Somaliland counterparts, nothing prevents the latter from more increasing the quantity and quality of intelligence which they share. This would be particularly helpful since American military and intelligence officials have very limited access to reliable information from southern Somalia, an area where Somalilanders not only are better positioned to operate, but in fact already do so extensively. While I realize that this proposal shifts the burden somewhat to Somaliland, it is, after all, Somalilanders who are trying to make a case for partnership with the United States. (For their part, American officials would do well to shift responsibility for matters relating to Somaliland from the U.S. embassy in Kenya to the one in Ethiopia given that while there are no direct connections between Hargeisa and Nairobi, Somaliland officials and civilians routinely pass through Addis Ababa en route to other destinations.)


Fourth, it is no secret that the former Somalia has significant potential natural resources. Last summer, I reported on how the People’s Republic of China was making a play for the oil in TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf’s home turf. There is every reason to believe that similar wealth is to be found not only on Somaliland’s territory, but also in its waters. While every state (and aspiring state) has the right to make such commercial arrangements as it deems most advantageous – there are reports of the Swedish-based Lundin Petroleum AB (owned, since 2001, by Canada’s Talisman Energy) had approached Somaliland’s Ministry of Water and Minerals for rights to oil and natural gas exploration – authorities in Hargeisa would do well to consider the long-term strategic implications of their decisions as well as the economic benefits. Even if their foreign policy elites were not generally divorced from the interests of their business classes, neither Sweden nor Canada would likely be much of a strategic ally for anyone, much less a nascent state in a dangerous neighborhood like the one Somaliland finds itself in. In contrast, as Walter Russell Mead and other scholars have pointed out, there is a long tradition of American business and government working in tandem, with the latter often following the former’s lead and U.S. political interests adjusting themselves to advance the economic interests of its citizens. Not only should the government in Hargeisa be open to approaches by American firms, but it ought to actively court them, realizing that without significant commercial ties to the United States, any political relations – if they come about at all – will be very tenuous. Conversely, the presence of American business interests, especially in strategic sectors, reinforces the geopolitical case for diplomatic ties between Washington and Hargeisa.


Commenting on Somaliland, I.M. Lewis, the British scholar who for half a century has been the preeminent authority on the Somali peoples,  observed: “The overall achievement so far as truly remarkable, and all the more so in that it has been accomplished by the people of Somaliland themselves with very little external help or intervention. The contrast with the fate of southern Somalia hardly needs to be underlined.” For these two reasons, among others, it is hoped that Somaliland will take the steps necessary to take advantage of the momentum in favor of advancing ties with its natural strategic partner, the United States, to the next level.

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor

 J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).

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