Project Syndicate - September 22nd 2009
After almost two decades as a failed state torn by civil war, perhaps the world should begin to admit that Somalia – as it is currently constructed – is beyond repair.
Some of the country, however, can meet at least a basic standard of governance. The northernmost region, Somaliland, situated strategically at the opening to the Red Sea and home to roughly 3.5 million of Somalia’s 10 million people, is more or less autonomous and stable. But this stability fuels fears that Somaliland’s people will activate the declaration of independence they adopted in 1991.
At the end of September, Somaliland will hold its third presidential election, the previous two having been open and competitive. Unlike many developing countries, it will welcome foreign observers to oversee the elections, though, unfortunately, most Western countries and agencies will stay away, lest their presence be seen as legitimizing Somaliland’s de facto government.
But Somaliland’s strategic position near the world’s major oil-transport routes, now plagued by piracy, and chaos in the country’s south, mean that independence should no longer be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, following a fact-finding mission in 2007, a consensus is emerging within the EU that an African Union country should be the first to recognize Somaliland’s independence. A 2005 report by Patrick Mazimhaka, a former AU deputy chairman, provides some leeway for this, as Mazimhaka pointed out that the union in 1960 between Somaliland and Somalia, following the withdrawal of the colonial powers (Britain and Italy), was never formally ratified.
Ethiopia is the obvious candidate to spearhead recognition, given its worries about jihadi unrest within Somalia. Moreover, landlocked Ethiopia uses Somaliland’s port of Berbera extensively. Yet Ethiopia may hesitate, owing to its fears that formally recognizing Somaliland’s independence could undermine Somalia’s fragile Western-backed Transitional Federal Government. But, as Somalia’s new president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is a former head of the Islamic Courts, Ethiopia may choose the current status quo in Somaliland over the dream of stabilizing Somalia.
The key regional obstacle to recognition is Saudi Arabia, which not only objects to the secular, democratic model promoted by Somaliland, but is a strong ally of Somalia, which is a member of the Arab League (despite not being Arab) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Saudi Arabia supports the TFG financially and politically. Saudi pressure on Somaliland has ranged from banning livestock imports between 1996-2006, to threatening to reject the Somaliland passports of Hajj pilgrims.
When Somaliland’s people vote at the end of September, they will not be deciding explicitly on secession, but their steady effort at state building does amplify their claims to independence. So, two years after Kosovo’s independence, and a year after Russian troops wrenched Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, it is high time for diplomats and statesmen to provide some guidelines as to when and in what circumstances secession is likely to be acceptable.
Does any self-selected group anywhere have the right to declare independence? If so, the richest parts of any country could decide to go it alone, thus impoverishing their fellow citizens. Even if greed is ruled out as an acceptable motive, in favor of traditional ethno-cultural nationalism, a profusion of tiny tribal states might make the world far more unstable.
Moreover, does anyone, for example, want to see China return to the years of bloody warlordism of the early twentieth century? Not likely. Thus clear principles are needed, as neither self-determination nor the inviolability of national borders can be treated as sacrosanct in every case.
So let me attempt to outline some basic principles:
- No outside forces should either encourage or discourage secession, and the barriers for recognizing secession should be set high. Secession is in itself neither good nor bad: like divorce, it may make people more or less content.
- A declaration of independence should be recognized only if a clear majority (well over 50%-plus-one of the voters) have freely chosen it, ideally in an unbiased referendum.
- The new state must guarantee that any minorities it drags along – say, Russians in the Baltic states, or Serbs in Kosovo – will be decently treated.
- Secessionists should have a reasonable claim to being a national group that, preferably, enjoyed stable self-government in the past on the territory they claim. Nations need not be ethnically based; few are entirely. But most nations are unified by language, a shared history of oppression, or some other force of history.
If Somaliland’s imminent multi-party elections are reasonably fair and open, the outside world, including the AU and the United Nations, will need to reconsider its status, which has been fudged since the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991. All three of Somaliland’s parties contesting the forthcoming election are adamant about wanting recognition of the region’s independence, which was confirmed overwhelmingly by a referendum in 2001. So there is no question of one clan or faction imposing independence on the others.
Given the interests of all the world’s great powers in stabilizing the Horn of Africa, there does seem to be movement toward accepting Somaliland’s claims. An independent Somaliland could be a force for stability and good governance in an otherwise hopeless region. So the world may soon need to test whether the controversial principles it brought to bear in Kosovo have the same meaning in Africa.