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Why the USA Should Not Recognize Somaliland
By Osman Hassan
Saturday - December 25, 2021


Since they declared their secession from Somalia in May 1991, the one-clan secessionist enclave calling itself Somaliland has left no stones unturned for 30 years to get recognized. But until now. it has to contend itself with recognition from Taiwan, another renegade entity from China. The enclave sees at last a breakthrough, hoping to capitalize on the cold war hotting up between East and West. The USA is not happy to see Chines getting one up on them in Djibouti and wants another place, Berbera, all to their own, possibly in return for recognition. Having been shunned for decades, the enclave is only too happy to oblige the super power.

Those US calling for Somaliland’s recognition include Jendayi Frazer, former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Stephen M. Schwartz, former U.S. Ambassador to Somalia (2016-17) and Joshua Meservey, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. Such American interest has been cascading and reaching alarmingly to Congress, who sent a congressional staff delegation to the enclave who arrived on December 3rd, 2021. This follows on the heels of a mission to the USA by a delegation from the enclave and led by its foreign minister. This overture to a renegade one-clan enclave is taking place on erroneous premises, wrong assumptions and, worse, as if the rest of Somalia, including those in the north who do not subscribe to the secession, did not exist. It is all adding insult to injury.

This article is a response to a recent comprehensive policy paper by Mr. Meservey in which he articulates the case for recognizing Somaliland. The crux of his message boils down to a quid pro quo deal between the US and Somalia´s one-clan secessionist enclave. The deal is to give the USA a  base at Berbera and the enclave is to be accorded recognition in return. What clearly dictates the deal is Washington´s needs. A strong relationship with an independent Somaliland, he argues, would hedge against the U.S. position further deteriorating in Djibouti, which he claims is increasingly under Chinese sway. It is all reminiscent of the logic driving the 19th Century scramble for the Somali homeland among European colonial powers, each vying for a place on this strategic region as a safeguard against threats posed to its interests by its rivals. So, if the USA are losing to China in Djibouti, the answer is to get another base elsewhere by one means or another, this time in Berbera in Somalia´s rebel one clan rebel enclave.

When it comes to justifying recognition for Somaliland, Mr. Meservey comes up with a number of flawed or tenuous claims. Thus, he points to its “sincere commitment to democracy” and how it has “successfully operated autonomously for 30 years, has a critical mass of the attributes of statehood, was once independent, and wishes to revert to that status within colonial-era borders, the standard the African Union uses to determine statehood” . Recognizing the enclave, he stresses, would be a reward for its achievements, and in particular its “commitment to democracy” . If that was the case, the enclave would not have been asked a base in return. It is a simply a barter deal, each side giving the other what it wants.

All the same, his justifications for the recognition of the enclave can be rebutted or debunked outrightly. One such justification Mr. Meservey cites is Resolution 16 (1) on border disputes among African States, adopted by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in July 1964, which he argues supports Somaliland’s claim to its former colonial borders and hence its separate status from Somalia. This is a misrepresentation of the resolution which requires “all Member States” to “respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence”. Clearly, it applies to independent States which  joined the OAU since its establishment in May 25, 1963. It cannot apply to Somaliland which ceases to exist as a separate territory in 1960, and therefore could not have been a “member State” of the OAU. It applies to Somalia (incorporating Somaliland) as a member State and its borders with its  neighbours.

A second justification Meservey cites in support of recognition is his claim that “over 60 percent of the “Somalilanders”, who voted in a referendum 1961, rejected ratifying the provisional constitution for the Somali Republic”. This figure can only refer to voters from what is now the secessionist clan. Needless to say, the rest of northern clans/regions overwhelmingly voted in favour of the constitution. Somalia is run along clan lines even to the present day and what matters is how these different clans, north and south, voted. In the case of the referendum referred to, all the other clans voted in favour of the constitution.

Another referendum Meservey cites in support of recognition is one held in the secessionist enclave in 2001. Those who voted were those in favour of the secession. Unionist regions refused to participate in what they saw as treason. The outcome of a referendum organized by the ruling SNM rebels among its clan supporters was a foregone conclusion. Suffice to say, one clan’s self-serving referendum does not bind the rest of Somalia nor justify its recognition.

Mr. Meservey also invokes the Montevideo Convention as supporting Somaliland demand for recognition. Article 1 of the convention sets out the four criteria for statehood that have been recognized by international organizations as an accurate statement of customary international law:

The state, as a person of international law, should possess the following qualifications:

1.   a permanent population;

2.   a defined territory;

3.   government;

4.   capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Since the four unionist clans in northern Somaliland (aka Somaliland) do not want to secede from Somalia nor consider themselves as part of what the secessionist call “Somaliland”, the invocation of the Convention can only apply to the rebel clan. On this understanding, the enclave does have a government but one that mainly controls the clan´s traditional area. It has no permanent population since its mainly nomadic population are all the time on the move, crossing to other clans’ traditional areas in search of grazing and water. It has no defined territory since it has no demarcated border with unionist clans. It is not contiguous with the southern Somalia, Djibouti and only Ethiopia and hence cannot claim any borders with these neighbouring countries. Finally, it has no capacity to enter into relations with others States as a renegade entity. Altogether, it fails to meet the requirements for a State set by the Montevideo Convention

Meservey wants to make a case for recognition from the fact that the clan has been  “autonomous” from Somalia for over 30 years. Needless to say, such separation would not have lasted for long if Somalia has not been mired in civil war, or fighting another intransigent insurgents, Al Shabaab, or has not been condemned to 30 years punitive UN arms embargo – advocated among others by the USA. Such arms embargo hobbled the government to defend its from foreign invasion, or defeat the Jihadists, or end the secession by use of force or its threat, That is what explains their longevity and not the failure of successive Somali governments that have been denied the means to defeat them.

Meservey also advocates recognition of Somaliland to serve another objective, namely to end forever Somali irredentism and the quest for Greater Somalia. This is wishful thinking. Somali aspirations for unity are their common bond notwithstanding one clan’s secession. It is immortal as long as there are Somalis. Whether their aspirations are fulfilled or not is imponderable for now. It would depend as much on their determination as on the obstacles they face.

Why Somaliland Should Not be Recognized

There are good reasons why Somaliland should not be recognized by the USA, or any other country for that matter: doing so would be riding roughshod over the inalienable rights of northern unionists (aka Somaliland), or transgressing over the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia which hitherto the USA routinely supported, or destabilizing willy-nilly Somalia and fragile African countries in general. The adverse consequences of these factors (and more) far outweigh the benefits of a base in Berbera or rewarding a rebel clan for its illegal secession.

A: The Voice of Northern unionists counts

While it is clear what Meservey wants for the USA, he shows otherwise scant knowledge about the people in northern Somalia (former British Somaliland) and comes up with uniformed justifications for its recognition. The salient flawed assumption inherent in his discourse about the people in northern Somalia (aka Somaliland) is that they are monolithic and almost all support the secession. Nothing could be further from the truth. The following critical facts about the people in this region are indispensable for forming an objective judgement about the secession:

·       That there are five clans in the former British territory and only one of them, and not all of its members at that, are supportive of the secession from Somalia. It occupies less than 20 percent of the territory.

·       That the other four clans, occupying more than 80 percent of the territory, and who do not call themselves “Somalilanders” but citizens of Somalia, are unionists and oppose the secession.

·       That any claim as to who is the majority and who is the minority in the area, as Meservey has indulged in, is presumptuous since no official census of the clans have ever been made,

·       That the five clans that fell under British conquest are not exclusive to that area but are part of their fellow clans in southern Somalia (former Italian Somaliland), Ogaden region and Djibouti.

·       That each of the five clans, exercising its inalienable right, freely chose to join the union with Italian Somaliland. As such, no clan was forced to be part of the union just as none can be forced to be part of the secession as the one clan enclave calling itself Somalilanders is, forcing the secession on the other four unionist  clans.

·        Even the ruling clan is not monolithic about the secession. An inter-clan civil war erupted in the heart of the enclave in 1993/94 when one of the clans supported the former Somaliland president Abdirahman Ahmed Ali who was an avowed unionist.

The impact of USA recognition of Somaliland would, far from ending their resistance, do the opposite and motivate them all the more to free themselves.

B. One Clan Rule and Denial of Human Rights

Commitment to democracy is the key justification Meservey gives for rewarding the enclave with recognition. Admittedly, elections of some sorts have taken place albeit at long intervals and often at the behest of foreign donors. After 16 years, elections took place recently for the Peoples Chamber and only after persistent prodding from donors, No election took place for the Upper House for the same period. If members were to have their way, they would want to remain. Like a lot of façades put-up in the enclave, elections are not held as a prerequisite of democracy but as a show to win favourable international impression to win recognition. And on the whole they have been successful. A good convert is Mr. Meservey.

Once the facades are out of the way, the reality is something completely different. A more fitting analogy to the enclave would be the white minority-ruled former Rhodesia. Just as all power was monopolized by the whites, so all power is exclusive to the clan. The three political parties permitted in Somaliland are in the hands of the ruling clan. No other party is allowed to compete with them which closes the doors on other clans and regions. The clan’s control permeates also both houses of Parliament, the civil service, the police and the armed forces.

If one-clan power monopoly is unacceptable, what makes it intolerable is what it does with its power. Its militia, the SNM, have committed massacres against innocent civilians in unionist regions, the first taking place in Borama in the Awdal region when hundreds were brutally massacres as reprisal for allegedly being supporters of the ousted military regime. A similar massacre was committed at Kalshaale in the Buuhoodle district in 2012, also for resisting the secession. Both amount to crimes against humanity. These massacres remind many observers the Sharpeville massacre of Africans in March 1960 who were resisting Apartheid and white minority rule.

No less shocking are the wider appalling rule of law and human rights situation under the one-clan authoritarian rule. Daily human rights abuses are pervasive wherever the writ of the authority reaches but worse in the parts of the unionists regions it occupies. Freedom of speech, thought, assembly and movement (to Mogadishu) are proscribed. Arbitrary detentions, long periods in jail without trial, and languishing in jail long after sentences have expired are widespread. Extra-judicial killings are common in occupied Lascanod, the capital of Sool region, and used as a tool to suppress the rising opposition to the occupation and secession.

Access to justice and non-discriminatory application of the law underpin the rule of law. Yet those who do not have the means to defend themselves, or not connected to those who wield power, or belong to minority clans, are likely to be the victims of the abuse of power.. Extra-judicial killings, common in occupied Lascanod, the capital of Sool region, are used as a tool to suppress the rising opposition to the occupation and secession. Th United Nations Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Somalia has been following some of these cases which speaks for itself.

What recently shocked the rest of Somalia and the international community was the deportation of thousands of Somali citizens lawfully resident in Lascanod and carted back like cattle to southern Somalia. Many Children were in the process separated from their parents. It all amounts to crimes against humanity. And yet, Mr. Meservey calls their ways as devotion to democracy, an Orwellian doublespeak if there was one.

C. The Inevitable Pandora box

In the end, Mr. Meservey dispenses with seeking justifications for the barter deal with Somaliland and simply urges the USA government to proceed and get the deal. To forestall anti-USA imperialistic unilateralist stigma that might arise, he urges the government to co-opt some African countries to join the action. This is to project some semblance of a united action in order to encourage many others in the continent and beyond to follow suit. As he puts, the Africans’ role is to:

follow an American lead on recognizing Somaliland. The USA, he adds, “should coordinate the timing of its recognition of Somaliland with these countries so they can prepare to follow in quick succession. Their doing so would create momentum for even more states to recognize Somaliland by signaling that it is safe and beneficial to have relations with Hargeisa”

The USA would have no difficulty in finding some African leaders ready to do its bidding. This is the easiest part but what about the consequences? Mr. Meservey downplays any Pandora box arising from their recognition of Somaliland. As an example, he cites the cases of Eritrea and South Sudan whose separation from Ethiopia and Sudan led to no outcry or secessions in Africa. But their separation from their mother countries came through mutual agreement and the rest of Africa and the world went happily along with that outcome. What America is cooking up Somalia is something different – more a throwback to its worst practices in Latin America in the last century.

No matter how one looks at it, the consequences could be dire. For a star, if African governments collude with the USA in the dismemberment of a fellow African country, this could have serious consequences for the Charter of the African Union and for its member States. But even without this unholy alliance against an African country, a unilateral USA action is sufficient to open a Pandora Box and further destabilize fragile African countries already reeling from tribal separatists or Jihadist insurrection. America’s own allies in the continent would be the first victims. Africa would not be the only loser. America’s wider interest in the continent would also be seriously jeopardized. One has to ask whether a base in Berbera just to level with China in Djibouti is worth this possible incalculable damage to Africa and indeed to America’s own interests?

Somalia’s Reaction

If the USA recognizes Somaliland, in blatant disregard of Somalia’s sovereignty and unity, it is bound to be taken among many Somalis as an existential threat, tantamount perhaps to a declaration of war to dismember it. Though the reaction of the federal government can only be limited for obvious reasons to registering its anger, Somalis as people do not easily forget or forgive those who stab them in the back when they are down. That deep resentment is bound to poison relations for a long time to come.

The blessing in disguise

It would be incomprehensible for Somalis to understand that a nation that has itself gone through a civil war to defend the unity of the United States would itself support another civil war and  contemplate the breakup of the most homogenous nation in Africa. If Somalia is expendable for the USA, to the extent to dismember it just to get a base, a treacherous friend like that would no longer be indispensable for it and no doubt it will draw the necessary lesson.

Seen from another perspective, however, a USA recognition of Somaliland could be a blessing in disguise. If secession is legitimized by the USA (and some African countries collude with it), Somalia would be would be under no obligation to respect AU resolution on borders and free to pursue Greater Somalia. Thanks to the USA and its African cohorts, Somalia would be justified to support proactively the secession of the NFD in Kenya and the Ogaden in Ethiopia (already on the verge of breakup), both USA allies. They only have the USA to blame - and themselves if they recognize Somaliland.

And within northern Somalia (Somaliland), the government has been until now restrained and relying on peaceful means to deal with the secession. It would now be justified to act more robustly and, as a minimum, support the unionist regions to free themselves from the secessionist occupation. A one-clan enclave without the rest of the northern unionist regions would be unsustainable. Many within the enclave are already deserting the secession and coming back to the fold, feeling they are better off being part of the Somali nation than belonging to a renegade clan enclave. Many more are likely to follow them when they see the unionist regions free and part of Somalia. Contrary to what Mr. Meservey said about the recognition of Somaliland sounding the death knell to Somali irredentism, the USA action could inadvertently bring about Greater Somalia by destabilizing its own allies holding on to Somali territories.


What Somalis and most in Black African countries could deduce from a USA action recognizing Somaliland in exchange for a base is the unstated notion that respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of black African States are dispensable and do not matter. What matters is the interest of the super power which trumps the inviolability of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of African countries. It may not be an isolated case but could represent a precedent and followed by similar actions elsewhere.  

Such rationale for acquiring a base in a region of Somalia, through Machiavellian ways, and over the head of its internationally recognized government, is tantamount to neo-colonialism in the 21 Century that could destabilize the continent. It is bound to trigger an outrage in black Africa that their sovereignty and territorial integrity matter, echoing the outcry in the USA itself that black lives matter.

Osman Hassan
[email protected]
Former BBC Journalist
UN Retiree

Geneva, Switzerland


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