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Somaliland’s Catch 22…!
By Mohamed Heebaan
July 24, 2010

Aside from Sool and other eastern regions that don’t consider themselves part of Somaliland, the rest of Somaliland is peaceful.  The region has just concluded an election that, by all accounts, was free and fair, and peaceful transfer of power has taken place or will take place within few days. 

This article is not about whether or not the secession from Somalia is good or bad for Somaliland. But it is only about the reasons behind Somaliland’s failure to attain world recognition in the past, and what the future may hold in achieving that coveted goal.
The political and security fortunes of Southern Somalia and Somaliland have been very different since the collapse of the Somali government, but they share one particular trait: Southern Somalia has been searching peace and stability in the past 19 years.  It is still searching.  Somaliland has been searching recognition in the past 19 years.  It is still searching.

Defining Secession: 

Secession is a sinful word in international politics.  Nearly all the major powers have sometime in their history fought against secession of some part of their country.  It is a phenomenon or process that is hardly looked upon with favour by anyone.  Therefore, for any country to support a secessionist region, two conditions, or at least one of them, must be at play in the conflict:

1—The country extending the recognition to the secessionist region must be an enemy of the country that is being seceded from.

2—The weakness or the disintegration resulting from the secession must benefit, politically or economically, the country extending the recognition to the secessionist region.

Now, keeping those two points in mind, let us raise the begging question, why has Somaliland failed to gain recognition in the past 19 years?                                                      

There are three main reasons for that failure, and they are:

1 — Misconception about democracy
2 — Seeking recognition in all the wrong places
3 — Ethiopia’s self-interest

1—Misconception about Democracy:

Somaliland leaders have apparently bought the notion that if they conduct free and fair elections, they would get into the good books of world powers, and that, in turn, would open the doors, and bolster the region’s efforts to gain world recognition. Theoretically, this is a sensible assumption. However, in world politics, theoretical sensibilities are not translated into actual policies.

True, democratization, free elections and peaceful transference of power are all good for Somaliland and its people.  No one can deny or dispute this. But does every country’s democratization and free elections good for or benefit say America?  Well, the US government doesn’t think so. 

If the Americans and the Europeans, for that matter, believed democratization of other countries served their interests best, they would have befriended democratic governments everywhere, and would have taken tough actions, including imposing economic sanctions, against dictatorships through out the world.  But a quick glance of the Arab world reveals that all of America’s and Europe’s friends in the Arab world are all, without exception, dictators!  The irony is that, Iran, the only country in the Middle East that is democratic, and  peaceful transfer of power regularly takes place is the only country against which the Americans and the Europeans have been directing their most virulent hostility!

To give another example that is closer to home, consider this:

-In 2005, Ethiopia conducted a general election.  Males Zenawi, the Tigrean dictator, rigged the election.  And when the Ethiopian people protested against the injustice, Zenawi’s forces literally massacred the protesters on the streets of Addis Ababa, reportedly killing about two-hundred (200) protesters in the process.  Was Zenawi regime sanctioned by the west, or at least forced to pay a price for killing civilian protesters in that cruel and inhuman fashion?  No.  Despite the blood on his hands, the Tigrean dictator continued to receive the largest western aid in sub-saharan Africa! 

-Again in 2010, Ethiopia conducted a second general election.  European and other international observers all confirmed that the election was neither free nor fair.  The Zenawi regime imprisoned the most popular opposition figure Bertukan Mideksa and literally stuffed the ballot boxes, and won almost 90% of the seats!  Was Zenawi chastised by the western powers for making mockery of the democratic process?   No.  On the contrary, Zenawi’s stature was hugely elevated so much so that he was invited to participate the G20 meetings that were held in Toronto just few days ago!  This shows the west’s lip service about supporting democracy is just that, lip service!

2—Searching recognition in all the wrong places:

Somaliland leaders have spent great deal of time and effort in searching recognition in various countries such as America, Canada, the European Union, the African Union, etc., etc.  Granted these are powerful countries and powerful organizations, however, when it comes to Somaliland’s recognition, none of those countries or these powerful organizations is essential, because none of them has the incentive of either being an enemy of the Somali Republic, or would particularly benefit from the disintegration resulting from the secession.  Even Britain, a close ally and former colonial master  consistently rejected the idea of extending recognition to Somaliland.  And if Britain wouldn’t do it, neither would the US, nor the E. U, China, Russia, India or any other power.  Because Somaliland and its leaders are understandably so exhausted with this process after 19 long years, and are so thirsty for recognition, any positive pronouncement by any western official about Somaliland, its stability, and democratization is greeted with near euphoria, making it appear as though the priced goal is, at last, just around the corner.  But time and again, hopes have been consistently dashed on that front.

3—Ethiopia’s self-interest:

If there is any country in the world that would start granting recognition to Somaliland this is it!  Ethiopia has both of the two incentives necessary for supporting the secession of Somaliland: it is the historic enemy of the Somali Republic, and it would hugely benefit from the disintegration resulting from Somaliland’s secession from Somalia.

The interesting thing however is that, even though Ethiopia has both of the incentives necessary for supporting Somaliland’s secession, and would hugely benefit from Somalia’s disintegration,  it has been refusing to extend the recognition to Somaliland. And the question is why?

Ethiopia has been refusing to recognize Somaliland for two clear cut reasons:

1—Granting recognition to Somaliland would cost Ethiopia a huge price from two fronts:
A—Such action would severely damage Ethiopia’s standing both in regional and international circles. The demise of the Somali government made Ethiopia a regional superpower by default.  However much of Ethiopia’s newly acquired status is driven from its close involvement, and near monopoly of the Somalia FILE!  The US, the EU, and African Union have all blessed Ethiopia to handle the Somali affairs in lieu of international community.   And because of its shrewd domination of the Somalia File, Ethiopia is considered by many as a regional pacifier. 

Now if Ethiopia grants recognition to Somaliland, all of Ethiopia’s pretensions will fall apart!  The Tigrean regime will lose credibility, and will be widely condemned as regional trouble maker.  In addition, the Ethiopian regime will automatically lose the Somalia File and all of its benefits and insights, and will be cut out of Somali affairs once and for all!  Instead of the dominant regional pacifier that it was once seen, the Zenawi regime will deservedly become an isolated regional pariah.

B—Ethiopia is a diverse multi-religion, and multi-ethnic country.  And aside from the Tigreans and the Amharas, none of the Ethiopia’s other ethnic nationalities ever consented to become part of Ethiopia, but, one and all, were forced to be one by the barrel of a gun!  That is why ethnic insurgency had been with Ethiopia for centuries.  Now, if Ethiopia extends recognition to Somaliland, that action may make Ethiopia end up shooting herself in the foot, and dig her own grave.  How so?  Well, if Ethiopia, as her recognition of Somaliland would clearly indicate, is seen as openly engineering the dismemberment of Somalia, a Muslim country and a member of the Arab League, Muslim and Arab countries would have every incentive to start hitting Ethiopia where it hurts, and give political, moral and financial support to the liberation movements such as the ONLF, the Oromo Liberation Front and others that are fighting to secede from Ethiopia.  Add to this, Ethiopia today is a mere shell of its old self.  Having lost Eritrea and all of its territories and ports, Ethiopia is weak, land-locked, and very vulnerable.  Thus, making a wrong move, will put Ethiopia’s very existence at peril!  As you can see, supporting the secession of Somaliland poses a grave danger to both Ethiopia’s international standing and to its very existence.

2—One of the most critical factors responsible for Ethiopia’s refusal to recognize Somaliland is that Ethiopia will gain NOTHING NEW, but trouble from recognizing Somaliland.  That is, recognizing Somaliland will not add ONE single advantage to Ethiopia’s national interests, but, as I pointed out earlier, the recognition will make Ethiopia incur huge and devastating costs.  And knowing they will get nothing positive whatsoever from recognizing Somaliland, whenever Somaliland leaders bring up the issue of recognition, Ethiopian officials have been simply saying, “Tinnish Qoy” or just wait a little longer, and Somaliland has been waiting for 19 years, and the waiting continues!

The reason why there isn’t any new advantage for Ethiopia from extending recognition to Somaliland is that Ethiopia already gets ALL the benefits possible to be gained from Somaliland’s secession from Somalia: Dismemberment of Somalia, the greatest strategic advantage for Ethiopia, is already a fact on the ground.  A huge economic advantage, and access to the sea, and unparalleled influence over Somaliland and all other Somali regions is also a fact on the ground.  That means Ethiopia today has, and has had, in the past 19 years all of the benefits possible to be gained from the dismemberment of the Somali nation WITHOUT any cost or repercussion on Ethiopia or its national interests!!

That means, the current status quo, where Somaliland remains in political wilderness,  is the state where Ethiopia’s national interests are best served!  The country gets all the benefits vis-à-vis Somalia and Somaliland without incurring any costs! 

This situation came about because Somaliland leaders have rushed into declaring the secession from Somalia, and by doing that, they surrendered their biggest card before the game started, and thus by default realized all of Ethiopia’s interests toward Somalia and Somaliland all at once:  dismemberment of the Somalia, access to sea, unparalleled influence on all Somali regions.  These are the three critical factors that would have induced Ethiopia to grant recognition to Somaliland, but the declaration of the secession brought all three strategic benefits to Ethiopia without any cost or commitment.  That is why Ethiopia does not see any reason why it should recognize Somaliland and incur devastating effect on its national interests for benefits she already has!  Thus, so long Somaliland pursues the secession agenda, in the same way it had been doing in the past 19 years, the chance of Ethiopia granting recognition are nil.  Ethiopia wants to keep the status quo of Somaliland as is, because the dismemberment of Somalia is today blamed on Somalis, Somalilanders included.  But the moment Ethiopia extends recognition to Somaliland it knows all blame of Somali dismemberment will be transferred and pinned on Ethiopia’s neck.  That is why ‘Tinnish Qoy’ is  Ethiopia’s preferable phrase with Somaliland.

Is there a way that Somaliland can force Ethiopia to extend recognition? Yes, there is one and only one way.  But it is away that Somalilanders aren’t interested at the moment, but in the end, they may have no other choice but to try it.

Anyhow, the one sure way that Somaliland can force Ethiopia to extend full recognition to Somaliland is to abandon the secession altogether, and reconcile with Southern Somalia!  But this cannot be done with tricks and manoeuvres.  It has to be genuine reconciliation.  If Somaliland leaders make statements or even issue veiled threats of wanting to rejoin with Somalia in order to induce Ethiopia, the Abyssinians will call it a bluff and will not budge.   But the moment Somaliland gives up on secession and starts genuine reconciliation with the south, a full Ethiopian Ambassador with all his credentials will arrive Hargeisa even before any southern delegation makes to the north!
Ethiopia will do this, and will recognize Somaliland immediately if it convinced the reconstitution of the Somali Republic is at work and is real possibility.  To prevent that from happening, Ethiopia will hold back nothing.  

This means the farther Somalilanders run away from southern Somalia, the farther Ethiopian recognition runs away from them!  The closer they get to southern Somalia, the closer Ethiopia’s recognition for the secession.  This is Somaliland’s Catch22!

In conclusion, if Somaliland leaders are serious about the secession, which I have no doubt they are, it is imperative for them to focus all of their energy and lobbying efforts on Ethiopia, and try to induce her to extend the recognition to their region.  But if they fail to convince Ethiopia, the only country that has the incentive and interest for this cause, they should stop treading on the road to nowhere, because, frankly, the whole endeavour is futile.  The sooner they realize that, the better for all involved.


One wild card for Somaliland’s recognition may come from Israel.  However given the unpopularity of the Jewish state through out the world, it is not clear whether the people of Somaliland will see Israel’s recognition as a curse, or as a cause for celebration.

Mohamed Heebaan
E-Mail: mohamed19456@hotmail.com


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