If you’re like me, when you saw the title of this post you wondered, “Has the country of Somalia changed its name?” But, no, Somaliland is not an alternative name for Somalia, but rather the name for a region that is fighting for independence from Somalia (see map at right).
I do not intend this site to become focussed on would-be independent countries, but I do have to admit that the question fascinates me and partly drew me to the Peace of Westphalia in the first place. In the 1640’s, partially sovereign states in Portugal, Catalonia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Transylvania (as well as some shorter-lived ones) struggled for recognition. In the modern world, we see much the same thing as Taiwan, Tibet, Somaliland, South Sudan, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Catalonia, and the Basque territories struggle to obtain or retain autonomy and international recognition. These places at a a wide range on the spectrum of independence: Tibet can only dream of independence at this time; Taiwan is fully independent but China undermines its sovereignty at every opportunity (most recently by insisting that airlines serving China not use the name “Taiwan” on their routes); Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian puppet states; Catalonia and the Basque territories are firmly part of Spain but have varying degrees of autonomy and strive for more; South Sudan is recognized as independent but struggles to maintain control over its own territory. (This is an incomplete list, of course.)
I was not even aware of Somaliland’s would-be independence until recently, which is ironic because it has been de facto independent for 25 years. (For some background information, check out the BBC site and Wikipedia.) In colonial times, Somaliland was administered by Britain and Somalia by Italy. They both became independent in 1960 and agreed to merge into a single government, which seemed like a good idea at the time. However, differences between the two regions became obvious as the first national leader imposed military rule, eventually leading to civil war. Somaliland declared its independence in 1991 and has been functionally sovereign ever since.
There is one qualification: no other country formally recognizes Somaliland’s sovereignty. Legally, Somaliland claims that it was an independent country for a short time in 1960 and has a right to reclaim its independence, just as Syria separated from its voluntary union with Egypt in 1971 and Senegal from Gambia in 1989. Politically, Somaliland is surprisingly democratic and is rated as more free than any of its neighbours by Freedom House.
So why the hesitation to accept it as a member of the international community? The political reason is fear that it would lead to even more independence movements in the region. I find this logic curious, since Djibouti and South Sudan are recognized internationally and both are far more problematic (from what it appears) than Somaliland. It is true, however, that Somaliland has border disputes with several other would-be independent regions of Somalia, and sorting out all those claims would be tricky. The other reason Somaliland may have trouble gaining recognition is that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, which means there are no major nations with a vested interest in its economic stability. Compare this with the case of China, whose Communist government was not widely recognized until the early 1970’s: unlike Somaliland, China was simply too big to ignore and offered too many advantages to countries who were willing to overlook Taiwan’s situation. Moreover, Somaliland has been free from the kind of catastrophe that mobilized world opinion in support of South Sudan. Ironically, Somaliland seems to be doing fine without official recognition, so there is little incentive to rock the boat.
I find Somaliland’s situation fascinating. Every country’s claim to independence is different; some have a stronger legal justification, others have established institutions that make its de facto sovereignty something that other states are likely to recognize eventually. I think Somaliland has both a strong legal justification and a generation of functional independence, which makes the failure of anyone in the international community to recognize them puzzling. If the situation continues for another generation, I suspect other nations will eventually accept the fact that Somaliland is independent, regardless of what problems that might theoretically create in the region. In the meantime, they are only a step away from being reunited forcibly with Somalia, as they are too poor to defend themselves against a determined attack and owe their continued independence to the complete inefficacy of the central government in Somalia.