Somaliland’s president Dahir Riyale Kahin was on a working visit to Ethiopia this week when he celebrated the 15th anniversary of his country’s unilateral declaration of independence, four months after the fall of the dictator Siad Barre in January 1991.
He is in Ethiopia to discuss growing economic and political ties with the regional leader that override the fact that his country remains unrecognised internationally.
But Somaliland’s isolation appears to be crumbling. The African Union is preparing to name a special envoy to consult and prepare a report on how best to engage the breakaway state -- perhaps by the end of this year.
Somaliland has always claimed a legal case for going it alone; it is not secessionist, merely an independent country that has broken a union with another of similar status. And there is plenty of precedent for that in Africa. It is Somaliland’s relative success that is winning its quest for recognition.
This is greatly assisted by its southern neighbour, Somalia, presenting itself over the past 15 years as a textbook case for a failed state. The best military and mediation efforts of the region and the international community have produced a transitional federal government for Somalia that has been unable even to control the capital, Mogadishu.
This month alone, fighting between the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts of Somalia and the United States-backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter Terrorism resulted in at least 150 deaths, mostly innocent civilians.
The Islamic courts were started by the traditional clan leaders to offer a semblance of order in a country that has not had a government for 15 years.
But the strict implementation of sharia law and the customary Somalia law, known as Xeer, is too much for the warlords who have held sway in Mogadishu.
The US backed the formation of the alliance in February, hoping to get at those with links to al-Qaeda hiding within the ranks of the Islamic courts. But this has further alienated the Somali population, who believe Washington should be showing more interest in strengthening the political development of the country than in bankrolling warlords.
By contrast, Somaliland has risen from the rubble into which Barre’s forces bombed it to create a country whose democracy is internationally acknowledged, even if its political status remains in dispute.
There appear to be three major reasons for this contrast between success in the north of the Horn of Africa and failure in the south.
The Somaliland National Movement (SNM) was formed with the express purpose of overthrowing Barre. So when he fell in January 1991, it was perfectly poised to fill the power vacuum. By contrast the movements in the south were young and disparate.
“The Egyptian government called a conference in Cairo in May 1991 to get a consensus among the various Somali groups,” recalls Unisa-based, Horn of Africa political analyst Iqbal Jhazbhay. “The SNM felt slighted because it was not consulted in this process. The SNM leadership was meeting in Burao at the time. They were besieged by Somali-landers who felt that, once again, they were being marginalised, as Siad Barre had done. They demanded that Somali-land break its union with Somalia and declare independence.”
Secondly, the SNM has a democratic tradition and a history of civilian leadership while drawing on the elders as a steadying influence.
Mohamed Egal, the man who laid out the institutions of the Somaliland state, replaced President Abdurrahman Tuur in 1993. Kahin replaced Egal within hours of his death at 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria in 2002 with barely a ripple. Thirdly, Somalilanders have participated in a constitutional referendum, presidential, parliamentary and local elections -- all under independent, international observation. Some of this can be ascribed to international insistence that the territory prove itself worthy of recognition.
The south, on the other hand, feels no such pressure. Regional partners on the continent and interested international powers have shown themselves to accept anything that vaguely resembles a government in Mogadishu.