Will the Arabs dare to listen to Somaliland?


The Arab League has the habit of leaving issues to fester until such time when surgical intervention becomes necessary from foreign powers whose interests do not necessarily match those of the Arab world.

Examples are plenty but a few recent ones include Somalia, Southern Sudan and Darfur, Iraq and the Lebanese-Syrian issue. None of these issues has come out of the blue. All of them have been fermenting and escalating for years before they have reached the bursting point. All the time, the Arabs were using an ostrich mentality and burying their heads; hoping that they one day could raise their heads to find things fixed by some divine power. It is quite perplexing how Arabs love the status quo and use all their energy and resources to ensure that things stay as they are; they do this not only because they prefer stability and peace to the turbulence and commotion that often result from change but because they also fear that any change may rock the murky waters of Arab politics and expose the Arabs inability to deal with it.

Realpolitik also seems to elude the Arab focus, while sentimentalism and empty nationalistic slogans blur the clarity of their vision. A real example of the Arabs propensity for idealism and contempt for pragmatism is their famous Khartoum Resolution of 1967 which carried the three “nos” of Arab-Israel relations at that time: No peace with Israel, No recognition of Israel, No negotiations with Israel.

It took another decade for Egypt’s Anwar Sadat to cause a political Tsunami in Arab politics and inject the first dose of realipolitik into the Arab political lexicography. Other than the masterly strike of Sadat, all other Arab attempts of realpolitik came too late when the political landscape had already changed beyond recognition and they had to face the bitter reality of opting for face saving tactics.

Now as the Arabs hold their 18th summit in Khartoum on 28-29 March 2006, one issue that calls for a masterful realpolitik decision is that of the little known country of Somaliland. By just evoking the name, one can anticipate frowns on faces of Arab politicians.

So what is the issue of Somaliland and what does it need from the Arabs? To correct a hackneyed notion that will jump to the reader’s mind, I have to state at the outset that Somaliland is not Somalia, similarly as Lebanon is not Syria, or Jordan is not Palestine. I take these countries as an example because both Lebanon and Syria on the one hand and Jordan and Palestine on the other hand have each been one country at one time in their history. I may also cite failed unions as that of Egypt and Syria and Senegal and Gambia. Somaliland and Somalia are, therefore, not an exception.

The story started on 26 June 1960 when Somaliland gained its independence from the British. It was the first part of five Somali territories that emerged from foreign domination. The other four were French Somali Coast, present Djibouti, Italian Somalia, present Somalia, and the two Somali regions each in Ethiopia and Kenya, historically known as the Reserved Area and Northern Frontier Districts respectively. Somaliland was recognized by the United Nations, had its flag, its currency, its Executive and Judicial system, its police and military forces, its distinctive British governance and education and its internationally recognized borders.

Five days after its independence, however, Somaliland had given its sovereignty and made a voluntary union with Italian Somalia on its south, which had become independent on 1st July 1960. The name Somaliland had ceased to exist and the two merged parties called the new entity the Republic of Somalia. The quick and unbridled union was seen as a prelude to the liberation of all other parts of the Somali territory and bringing them under one flag. The five-cornered white star in the middle of the Somali blue flag denoted the Somali people’s unforgiving resolve to undo the colonial legacy and unite the Somali speaking pastoral nomads of the Horn of Africa under one roof of “Greater Somalia”.

For the next 30 years, the successive Somali governments thrived on inflaming the people’ sentiments in achieving the sacred Somali unity. The masses sang, danced, slept, woke up and dreamt of such sacred union. This irredentist policy of the Somali government depleted the country’s meager resources as every penny was channeled to liberation movements that wrecked havoc to neighboring countries and prevented the development of good neighborly and prosperous relations with them. It also portrayed Somalia as a sore thump in Africa, particularly as the African people were emerging from European colonialism and the prevailing mood was fostering brotherhood among African peoples, removing the colonial demarcation borders and creating the Unites States of Africa.

Although the dream of Greater Somalia was dealt with a serious blow when Djibouti decided to stay away from the union after gaining its independence on July 27, 1977, Somalia’s military dictator Siyad Barre still launched a lightening attach on Ethiopia in 1977 in attempt to liberate the Somali region of Ethiopia and force Djibouti back to the union fold. The initial gains of the Somali military was soon reversed, when the Soviet Union, the main supplier of military hardware to Somalia, switched sides and backed the Marxist Ethiopia regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam with heavy military equipment, logistical support and deployed thousands of Cuban forces to the battle ground. Somalia was defeated and tens of thousands of Somali-Ethiopian refugees crossed the border.

Somaliland suffered the most from this continued hostility to its neighboring Ethiopia as all military operations were carried out from its territory and Somaliland’s historical trade and economic links with Ethiopia were severed. In addition to this, the government established refugee camps in the north and resettled tens of thousands of them in major towns and farming areas. The people of the north resisted the government’s resettlement program and saw it as a calculated policy aimed at replacing the native population with new arrivals, the majority of them belonging to the President’s clans in Ethiopia. The government deployed heavily equipped military units to major towns in the north. Angered by the daily humiliation of their people, the northern born military brass took arms against what they saw as Southern domination of their country and a calculated policy of emptying their area of its original population.

Seeing his rule on the brink, Siyad Barre started playing a tribal card and appointed ruthless cronies of his clan as governors and military commanders in the north with the clear objective of bringing the northern insurgency to a crushing defeat. The military used all its might to subdue the northern opposition. They bombarded the civilian population, burned villages and farms and leveled major towns to the ground. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed and buried in mass graves, while almost two-third of the country’s 3.5 million population crossed the border to Ethiopia as refugees.

When Siyad Barre’s government collapsed in 1991, Somaliland people convened a conference on 18 May 1991 and made a unanimous decision to reclaim their sovereignty and declared their union with the South in 1960 as null and void.

Somaliland embarked on a grass roots reconciliation and reconstruction process. The refugees returned in the thousands to rebuild their homes and their lives and government institutions were put in place. Somaliland today boasts of having successfully held three democratic and internationally observed elections; municipal, presidential and parliamentary elections. It has its flag, a national currency, a bicameral parliament, an executive and judicial system, a vibrant and fast growing mercantile sector and unprecedented free press.

Unlike Somalia, the former Italian colony, where people remain hostage to the ongoing fratricide, mayhem, chaos and warlordism, Somaliland has remained an oasis of peace and stability where people abide by the rule of law. All this has been achieved without foreign intervention, international financial assistance and without regional or international conferences.

Somaliland today has become the focus of interest for its homegrown model based on modern democracy and traditional laws, thus prompting experts on African affairs to describe it as Africa’s Best Kept Secret and the Little Country That Could.

A report compiled by an African Union fact-finding mission to Somaliland and presented to the latest African summit in Khartoum early this year, strongly recommended the country’s recognition, saying “since its declaration of independence in 1991, Somaliland has been steadily laying the foundations of a democratic state, clothed with the relevant attributes of ’modern state.’ ”

“The fact that the union between Somalia and Somaliland was never ratified and also malfunctioned when it went into action from 1960 to 1990, makes Somaliland’s search for recognition historically unique and self-justified in African political history. As such, the AU should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case,” the report recommends, stating that Somaliland’s “case should not be linked to the notion of ?opening a Pandora’s box’, or re-opening similar issues in other African countries.

Iqbal Jhazbhay, an Africa analyst at the University of South Africa, finds the report as part of the AU’s new pragmatism in dealing with the continent’s chronic issues: “The AU-sponsored peace deal in Sudan allows for a referendum, five years from now, on whether the south wants to go it alone. This could not have happened if it were business as usual. The AU now goes for results, and takes account of subjective facts and practical realities,” he said in a statement to the South African Mail & Guardian paper.

Two African heavyweights, South Africa and Nigeria, have even indicated readiness to recognize Somaliland, according to AU sources. There are also signs that the U.S. and the EU are looking at Somaliland with favorable eyes, particularly as the latest and 14th attempt to establish a central government in Somalia after 15 years of mayhem and lawlessness appears to be in shambles. Observers also point out that Washington has knowledge of significant offshore oil and gas deposits in Somaliland.

So, where do the Arabs stand on Somaliland’s issue? It is obvious that the Arab world led by Egypt is against the recognition of Somaliland. According to U.S. press reports, Egypt fears that an independent Somaliland could provide basing support to Israel and the U.S. at the mouth of the Red Sea. Egypt is also worried about the impact of the growing dependence of Ethiopia, Egypt’s traditional rival on the Nile waters, on Somaliland’s seaports. Somalilanders, therefore, accuse Egypt of being behind the eight-year old Saudi Arabian ban on the exports of Somaliland livestock to the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia slapped the ban on Horn of African livestock due to the outbreak of Rift Valley Fever in 1998. Although the disease had never been detected in Somaliland and repeated WHO reports gave it clean bill of health, Saudi Arabia has excluded Somaliland from the lifting of the ban, thus consolidating Somaliland’s suspicion of the ban being a political stance aimed at forcing it to give up its recognition quest.

This is why Somaliland will be absent from the agenda of the Khartoum summit, while Somalia, which according to Dr. I.M. Lewis, an authority on African history, is “a fantasy state which now only exists on paper … and in rhetoric…” will represent the peaceful, democratic and institutionalized Somaliland.

Having old links with the Arabs since biblical times, Somalilanders know that the Arabs cannot break the mold by suddenly being pragmatic and following the AU line, but as the Somali proverb says: “Barasho horteed, ha i nicin – don’t hate me before you know me”, Somaliland people would like to ask the Arabs just to try to know them before they hate them.


* Bashir Goth is a veteran African journalist, from Somaliland, who is currently based in Abu Dhabi. He regularly contributes to UAE, African and Some European journals. 

This article was first published on Sudan Tribune in 2006.



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