Somalia is not often associated with democracy, economic freedom and political stability. Therefore, unless you knew better, if I were to tell you that there is a large part of Somalia that not only espouses these values, but also thrives under them, you would reflexively call me a liar. And you’d be both right and wrong.

Here’s why. Technically, there is such a part of Somalia. But it isn’t really part of the Republic of Somalia, the infamous one. Rather, it calls itself the Republic of Somaliland, and it occupies most of the westward thrust of northern Somalia along the Gulf of Aden, bordering Djibouti and Ethiopia to the west and south, respectively.

Beacon of hope

Somaliland issues its own passport and currency. It is run by a democratically elected government, with an independent parliament, executive and judiciary, and holds regularly scheduled elections that are generally deemed free and fair. It scores higher on Freedom House’s freedom index than many famous African countries, like Nigeria and Kenya, and most Muslim-majority countries.

It maintains a military that, though modest, effectively holds back the Republic of Somalia and is more than able to rein in piracy in its territorial waters. Internally, it has a functioning security and administrative apparatus which makes its streets safe and business environment largely competitive, despite high poverty rates.

Against all odds

Remarkably, Somaliland developed its democracy and accompanying institutions without any overt external support. If anything, it did so against external opposition. That’s because no UN member state recognises its right to exist, leaving it in a grey zone of international law occupied by very few other functionally self-governing democratic territories.

Taiwan, perhaps the most famous of this lot, at least enjoys the recognition of a motley collection of countries, like Swaziland and Mauritania, despite being claimed by a powerful neighbour with a highly capable military. Hell, even Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk, which are arguably much less legitimate and democratic than Somaliland, are recognised by Russia and six other states.

Meanwhile, Somaliland languishes on the sidelines, though it clearly stands to gain nothing by re-joining Somalia in the near future, even willingly; has given its people a truly peaceful state, law and order, a stable native democracy, and a viable path to prosperity; and has charted its own path through history for a generation. Why is this so?

The answer, it seems to me, lies partly in history, and partly in a general malaise of the the international community, which is, by nature, often uncoordinated, unrealistic, easily distracted, and unwilling to recognise to new claimants to statehood, however legitimate, lest it undermine the foundation of international order, which ironically rests on the sovereignty of nation states, and set off a chain of balkanisation.

First, the history. The Republic of Somaliland’s proximate origin, like that of most African countries, can be traced to the colonial era, when various Somali-inhabited territories were controlled and bartered about by a bunch of foreign powers. It is a convoluted history, even by African standards. Below is a quick and dirty summary.

The Somali people have occupied a vast patch of dry land on the Horn of Africa for millennia. Organised into large clans, and largely nomadic and mercantile, they are now one of Africa’s most populous ethnic groups, numbering over 24 million. Shortly after the birth of Islam, they converted en masse, mostly peacefully, to the religion, which then became central to their culture and identity.

Colonisation

In the late 19th century, seeking equality with its imperial European neighbours, Italy grabbed a large chunk of Somali territory, which it administered under the name of Italian Somaliland; the British took control of two separate portions, one in the north, named British Somaliland, and another in the south, Jubaland; the French took Djibouti, calling it French Somaliland; and Ethiopia grabbed the last and largest portion, known as Ogaden.

In 1925, as a reward for Italian cooperation in World War I, Britain ceded a portion of Jubaland to Italy, expanding Italian Somaliland to the current border of Somalia and Kenya. The Brits incorporated the remaining part of Jubaland into British East Africa, which later became the Kenya Colony, as the Northern Frontier District (NFD). They also kept British Somaliland in the north.

At the end of World War II, Italy, being on the losing side, lost all of its Somali territories to Britain, which then militarily administered them until 1950, when the reformed Italians regained control, administering their former colonial possessions as a UN trust territory, with the assurance of independence within a decade.

As independence approached, Britain openly declared its desire to unite all Somali-occupied territories into one polity. This reflected a movement that had developed among Somali people over the previous decades. Though they had never formed a state covering the whole extent of their homeland in the past, the experience of colonialism had awakened their national spirit.

Still divided

Nevertheless, when independence came, only British Somaliland and the Trust Territory of Somalia got to unite. Crucially, British Somaliland attained independence five days before the Trust Territory, and only joined the latter by an act of union passed by its legislative council a day later. This union gave Somalia its current canonical boundaries, forming an up-turned L on the coast of the Horn of Africa.

As for the other patches of Somali territory, Kenyan nationalists refused to cede the NFD (here is a lengthy and fascinating record in the Hansard of the British House of Lords on the matter), which is now the counties of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera; Ethiopia retained the Ogaden, which is now the eastern state of the Somali Region; and, of course, France, the queen of never letting go, hung onto Djibouti until 1977, playing its usual repertoire of dirty political tricks along the way.

Thus Somalia became independent as a fractured nation with a natural expansionist ambition. Its founding elites felt especially betrayed by their two largest neighbours, Kenya and Ethiopia, and relations started off quite frosty, where they had been very friendly before independence. Separatist movements were soon raging in both the Ogaden and former NFD, and Somalia repeatedly threatened to invade both.

Conflict

An invasion of Kenya turned out to be unfeasible thanks to strong British, American and Israeli defence assurances. Ethiopia wasn’t so protected. In 1977, Somalia, led by its military dictator Siad Barre, invaded and nearly captured the Ogaden, until the Soviets and Cubans helped Ethiopia turn the tide.

The loss of the Ogaden War in 1978 left Somalia so destabilised that it has never recovered. It led to the fall of the Barre government a decade later and set off the still-ongoing civil war. In a pyrrhic twist, Ethiopia and Kenya have paid a steep price for the Somali territories they kept. They have not only suffered terrorist attacks from militia operating out of Somalia, but also spent millions of dollars and the lives of many soldiers over the past two decades trying to prop it up.

It is in the context of this instability that the former British Somaliland opted for the exit. A separatist movement that started almost immediately after union, with a boycott of the referendum on the united country’s constitution, gathered strength over the next decade. Following the Ogaden War, as Somalia spiralled into failure, the anaemic Barre regime tried, and failed, to rein in the Somaliland separatists.

Peaceful arrangement

After the regime collapsed in 1991, Somaliland declared independence, and has governed itself since. The country conducted a peaceful transition to democratic rule in 2001 with a referendum on a constitution that is perhaps Africa’s most responsive. Though it borrows from Western models, it reflects the spirit of the nation in a manner that few others on the continent do.

For instance, the members of the upper house of the country’s parliament, aptly called the House of Elders, are elected indirectly by the major clans, thus forestalling a potent source of the rancour. Quite niftily, the constitution also limits the number of national political parties to three, encouraging politicians to differ on issues, rather than ethnicity, while limiting the possibility of one or two parties gaining an unassailable dominance. The minimum voting age is 15.

Somaliland has now been functionally independent for over three decades. Of course, it’s not without problems. Freedom House’s 2022 report, despite ranking it above many other African countries, only gives it a score of 49 (partly free). To the extent that the ranking is useful, it is as much an endorsement of Somaliland’s efforts as it is a reflection of the appalling state of freedom and democracy in Africa.

The constitution codifies Islam as the state religion, and bans missionary efforts targeting Muslim citizens. Granted, virtually every citizen of the country is a Muslim, so this is mostly a conceptual problem, rather than a practical one. Nevertheless, it portends a danger that every Muslim-majority state with secular pretentions has had to grapple with at some point.

Many other issues like these could be flagged up. But they are not unique to Somaliland. Every democracy faces challenges; it is the name of the game. As the Heritage Foundation’s Joshua Meservey writes, having such problems does not invalidate Somaliland’s claim to an existence separate from Somalia. If it did, then Somalia itself would have the weakest claim in the world.

Given all this, it is remarkable that no UN member state has officially recognised or established formal relations with Somaliland. The African Union, as it does with nearly every other mildly serious issue, is hesitant to adjudicate the issue, despite having its statute recognising state borders as they were at independence, which would vindicate Somaliland’s claim (remember, it was independent for six days before union with Somalia).

Be that as it may, Somaliland continues to chart its path through history, a native oasis of relative peace and freedom for six million Somalis, and a rebuke to the hollow roots of international law. One day, recognition will come (three US senators have recently introduced a bill that would establish closer ties), but before then, Somaliland will remain an independent country anyway.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.