by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.World Defense Review columnist
Imagine a country within the greater Middle East ambit that has successfully made the transition to electoral democracy with multiparty municipal, presidential, and, most recently, parliamentary polls. Moreover, imagine that despite virtually all of its citizens being Sunni Muslims, the country's national elections commission designates a progressive, foreign-based Christian non-governmental organization to coordinate the international monitoring of its parliamentary elections. And imagine that the incumbent president's party takes a drubbing at the polls, winning barely a third of the seats. Most audiences, if I were to tell them that I was not conjuring up Utopia, but describing a real life country, would probably question whether I was hallucinating, perhaps under the influence of the ubiquitous qat leaf popular in southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa.
The point is, however, that I am not hallucinating – much less doing so under the influence of mildly narcotic qat – but summarizing the largely unheralded developments over the course of the last few years in Somaliland, a self-declared republic in the northwestern region of the wreckage that is still labeled "Somalia" on most maps despite not having any of the recognizable accoutrements of statehood since at least 1991.
Bordered by Djibouti, Ethiopia, and "Somalia," as well as the Gulf of Aden, Somaliland has an estimated 3.5 million inhabitants whose ethnic, cultural, and religious homogeneity have kept them relatively free of the civil strife that has engulfed many of their fellow Africans. The Somalilanders are not rich: their largest source of income, aside from remittances sent home from relatives abroad, is nomadic or semi-nomadic livestock cultivation. However, neither material poverty nor the misfortune of being located in a less-than-propitious neighborhood has kept them from making an incredible run at independent democratic statehood.
From 1884 until 1960, Somaliland existed within its current borders as the protectorate of British Somaliland. On June 26, 1960, Somaliland was granted its independence by the British Crown and was internationally recognized as a sovereign state. When, a week later, the United Nations trust territory that had been the Italian colony of Somalia received its independence, Somaliland joined it to form a united republic. The union, however, was troubled from the beginning, especially after a military officer, Mohamed Siad Barre, seized power in a military coup d'état in 1969, suspending the constitutional, abolishing the national assembly, banning political parties, and taking the country he renamed the "Somali Democratic Republic" into the orbit of "scientific socialism."
Before the mercurial Siad Barre changed his mind and switch directions by adopting an Arab Islamist tack, his Soviet patrons had enabled him to turn his little country into the fourth most heavily armed place in sub-Saharan Africa – and he did not hesitate to use that power to violently repress any opposition, bombing, for example, Hargeisa, Somaliland's principal city, in 1988 during an attempt to destroy the Somali National Movement.
Amid the anarchy that ensued following Siad Barre's ignominious flight in January 1991, clan elders in Somaliland issued a declaration reasserting the independence that the northwestern region had briefly enjoyed in 1960. After some fitful starts, by 1996 a national accord had emerged around a civilian government led by Mohamed Ibrahim Egal which included a bicameral parliament which balanced an elected legislation-initiating House of Representatives and a conflict-resolving House of Elders (Guurti) which was vested with traditional moral authority. A formal constitution was drafted and approved by 97 percent of voters in May 2001, under which municipal elections were to be conducted in December 2001, followed by a presidential poll in March 2002. Both polls, however, were delayed due to difficulties with passing an election law and establishing an election commission.
President Egal died unexpectedly in May 2002 while undergoing medical treatment in South Africa and was succeeded, as provided for by the constitution, by his vice president, Dahir Rayale Kahin. Under Rayale, the delayed municipal elections were held in December 2002, with the president's Union of Democrats (UDUB) Party winning 41 percent of the votes and two opposition groups, Kulmiye ("Solidarity") and the Party of Justice and Welfare (UCID), making strong showings with 19 and 11 percent respectively. The results of the March 2003 presidential election were much closer with the incumbent President Rayale defeating his closest challenger, standard-bearer of Kulmiye, by 80 votes out of nearly 500,000 ballots cast (the opposition peacefully conceded the race after it failed to win a court challenge). The September 2005 parliamentary election to fill the 82 seats in the House of Representatives resulted in UDUB winning 33 seats, Kulmiye 28 seats, and UCID 21 seats. (With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the International Republican Institute dispatched a seven-member team to observe the poll and file a report.)
All of this progress has been made in Somaliland despite little international attention, much less support. Meanwhile, more than a decade after the ill-stared Operation Restore Hope, the rest of Somalia still lacks anything resembling a functional government – not that such pragmatic considerations are an obstacle to the international community pretending otherwise. The self-proclaimed "Transitional National Government of Somalia," cobbled together in late 2004 after talks hosted by the African Union in Kenya and consisting of self-appointed warlords with ties to various African rulers of dubious democratic legitimacy themselves, enjoys the perks of international recognition, including funding (most of which presumably never gets anywhere near Somalia) and the use of the collapsed state's diplomatic missions, including a swank piece of real estate on East 61st Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side that purports to be the "Permanent Mission of the Somali Republic to the United Nations." That this "government" has not quite made it to "its" capital of Mogadishu has not stopped "President" Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed from coming to New York to address the UN General Assembly (that Yusuf spends any time in Somalia at all is largely due to the Kenyans who, tired of their permanent "guests," finally evicted the "Transitional Government" from a resort on Lake Naivasha).
This farce would be risible were it not deadly. Somalia has Africa's longest coastline, straddling the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea: not surprisingly, all 47 incidents of piracy reported for East Africa by the International Maritime Organization in its last quinquennial report took place in Somali coastal waters. And, as I previously pointed out in The War on Terrorism's Forgotten Front, all sorts of shadowy groups have found convenient haven in the vacuum of the failed Somali state, including the al-Qa'eda cell responsible for the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and al-Itihaad al-Islaami ("Islamic Union"), a Taliban-like group with ambitions to take over Somalia whose leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, was fingered in the FBI investigation of the embassy bombing. Since the "government" of "President" Yusuf clearly impotent in the face of the Islamists radicals, its preferred coping strategy is to lash out against anyone who might not be so helpless.
In a BBC interview last week Yusuf accused the United States of backing several clan leaders who, tired of government inaction, gathered under the umbrella of the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism" and actually fought against the armed Islamist militants in Mogadishu in March. While American officials have neither confirmed nor denied their alleged role in the clash, to Yusuf it is apparently preferable that nothing be done than for the remnants of his notional "authority" be shredded further.
The strategic calculus for the United States is pretty straightforward: a stable and developing Somaliland is a potential ally that bridges both a still-vital Middle East and an increasingly significant Africa; failed Somalia has already proven itself to be an ongoing security threat.
President Bush has declared that America's strategy in the war on terror is to "deny the militants future recruits by replacing hatred and resentment with democracy and hope across the broader Middle East ... If the peoples of that region are permitted to choose their own destiny, and advance by their own energy and by their participation as free men and women, then the extremists will be marginalized, and the flow of violent radicalism to the rest of the world will slow, and eventually end."
At the edge of that Greater Middle East, the people of Somaliland have made their choice for political independence and democratic progress. While they have stumbled occasionally along the way, their efforts deserve encouragement through the appropriate economic, political, and security cooperation – which, in turn, will anchor Somaliland within America's orbit as well as international society. As a beginning, a few modest steps would go a long way towards engaging Somalilanders, including a minimal consular presence in Hargeisa and some security cooperation through U.S. Central Command's Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, based at Camp Lemonier in nearby Djibouti.
Since the disintegration of the Siad Barre's oppressive Somali regime into Hobbesian anarchy and warlordism, the international community has staunchly defended the phantasmal existence of the fictitious entity known as "Somalia." Now, however, is the time for the United States to break ranks and let realism triumph over wishful thinking, not only recognizing, but actively supporting Somaliland, a brave little land whose people's quest for freedom and security mirrors America's values as well as her strategic interests.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an academic fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. His primary research interest is the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over one hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.