Somaliland, a break-away region in northwest Somalia, celebrates 27 years of “independence” from the rest of Somalia this week.
The former British protectorate declared independence from Somalia in 1991 when the last effective Somali central government collapsed after a coalition of clan militias overthrew military president Siyad Bare. It joined Somalia in 1960, a few days after gaining independence from Britain, to form the Republic of Somalia.
But it still remains unrecognized despite close to three decades of democracy and stability in a chaotic and undemocratic Horn of Africa region. One of the most credible elections in Africa happens in the most an unlikely place – Somaliland – whose neigbours are either in turmoil or in dictatorship.
Somaliland elected a new president in November of last year, voters chose a former rebel commander and a fighter jet pilot as their president from a pool of three candidates. The incumbent chose not to run for a second term.
Somaliland’s constitution, like most democracies, allows the president to seek a second term in office, but the former president, Ahmed Muhammad Silanyo, chose not to run again and backed a candidate from his party –Kulmiye- a rare in Africa. The election was free and fair and credible, the losing candidate accepted the result although he disputed when preliminary results were being released. The election was the first to use iris recognition in Africa to identify voters.
This election has put East Africa and the rest of the continent to shame. Somalia, which insists Somaliland is still part of it, could not hold a one-man-one vote, a few hundred members of parliament elected a president inside an airport hangar in the capital, Mogadishu. An election could not be held due security fears and there were allegations of corruption including voter bribery.
In Kenya, East Africa’s biggest economy, elections are a matter of life and death and their credibility are always questioned, sometimes leading to violence that result to loss of lives and property destruction. More than 100 people including a senior electoral official were killed during last year’s disputed election and, in 2007, more than a thousand people were killed and close to a million displaced.
Ethiopia – the West’s number one ally in the fight against terrorism – the ruling party wins all parliamentary seats. Uganda, Sudan and Eritrea have life-time presidents, sort of. Democratic Republic of Congo has been postponing presidential election for more than a year and President Joseph Kabila is reluctant to leave office.
Somaliland, which is still unrecognized by the international community, is one of the most stable democracies in Africa. During the campaign period, the state media provided a fair coverage for all candidates – the ruling party and opposition party candidates. Although this is a sign of a good democracy, Somaliland continues to harass and jail journalists operating in its territory for “calling a united Somalia.” In other African countries, the taxpayer-funded media is a no-go zone for opposition parties.
The election was delayed for close to two years on the grounds of several factors including the drought that hit most part of East Africa and political wrangling among Somaliland politicians.
In 2010, President Dahir RiyaleKahin accepted defeat to an opposition candidate Ahmed Silanyo, also very rare in Africa and unseen in eastern Africa region.
Although it is unrecognized state, Somaliland has signed several delas with foreign countries including the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia. Somaliland and UAE signed a military agreement which would allow Abu Dhabi to build a military base in the Red Sea port city of Berbera. The agreement includes UAE to modernize the Berbera port. Dubai-based comlany, DP World, acquire 51 percent stake in the port, Somaliland got 30 percent and Ethiopia 19 percent.
Somalia was unhappy with UAE’s involvement with Somaliland without its consent. Somalia considers Somaliland part of its territory and declared the port deal between the UAE and Somaliland “null and void and against its constitution.” The parliament in Mogadishu nullified the military base agreement between the UAE and Somaliland. Another UAE-owned company, P&O, made a deal with Puntland – a federal member state in northeast Somalia and is managing the Port of Bosaso.
The Somali central government feels undermined when foreign nations make deals with state governments and says it has the constitutional right to sign every deal involving a foreign player on behalf of all Somalia – including Somaliland.
Somaliland is a strategic position for UAE which is fighting Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh accuse Tehran of arming the Houthis – a Shi’a rebel group which overthrew a Sunni government in Sana’a.
In 2015, FlyDubai, an Emirati carrier, launched direct flight between Dubai and Hargeisa – the first and the only direct flight outside Africa. Ethiopian Airlines is the other that connects Hargeysa and Addis Ababa.
Turkey, which provides both financial and technical support to Somalia, and is trusted by Somalis as an honest partner, has been hosting on-and-off talks in Ankara between Somalia and Somaliland for reunification purposes. The talks bore no fruits.
Unlike Somalia, Somaliland backed the Saudi-led coalition against Qatar when Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar. The Somali government said it remains neutral but regional administrations which Mogadishu has no control of contradicted the central government and made their own decision to support Saudi Arabia.
Somaliland has a working political system, government institutions, a police force, a working judiciary, an organised military, currency, its GDP is ranked above some African countries like Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi, and is one of the most stable countries in Africa – Al-Shabab group, an Al-Qaeda-linked group fighting to overthrow the Somali government does not operate in its territory.
Considering these facts, Somaliland could have fulfilled conditions necessary for a self governance and independence. This is the time the international community start rethinking Somaliland’s independence. Why not try a referendum?
If it recognises Simaliland as an indelendent state, the international community fears the revival of dreams of so many regions around Africa such as Nigeria’s Biafra, Darfur, Cameroon, Ethiopia and others.
For the time being, the new President, Musa Bihi, has to tackle unemployment and inflation and continuing to pursue international recognition. Unemployment is rampant and a large number of Somaliland’s youth are among young African men and women risking their lives in the Mediterranean Sea to reach European shores for better lives.