On 27 June 2019, the Twitter account of the Foreign Affairs Office of Kenya referred to talks between Kenya and the self-declared state of Somaliland as a discussion between “two countries.” While this tweet may seem innocuous, it potentially has massive geopolitical implications, as it is the first time the self-declared state on the southern shore of the Gulf Aden has been recognized by a foreign country as an independent country.

On 1 July 1960, the former colonial holdings of Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland unified into the Somali Republic, what is commonly referred to today as Somalia. This republic maintained relative control within its borders until the 1980s, when the country’s government, led by Siad Barre, grew increasingly authoritarian and Ethiopian-encouraged resistance movements ran rampant throughout the nation. This hostility culminated in the Somali Civil War beginning in 1986 and ending in the overthrow of Barre’s government in 1991 by a loose coalition of armed rebel groups. As the rest of the nation plunged into anarchy and violence within the power vacuum following Barre’s ouster, the Somali National Movement convened with the elders of Somalia’s northern clans in May and declared what was once British Somaliland, ‘The Republic of Somaliland’, a self-declared state separate from Somalia.

Somalia remains in a state of chaos to this day, as the Human Rights Watch notes “fighting, insecurity and lack of state protection, and recurring humanitarian crises” as factors leading to the brutal living conditions within the state. 2.7 million people live internally displaced, and the Islamist armed group Al-Shabaab operates regularly in the East African nation. Contrasting the sordid state of affairs in the rest of Somalia, Somaliland has escaped much of the national chaos. The self-declared state of 3.5 million people has its own government, led by President and retired air force pilot Muse Bihi Abdi. Somaliland also has a standing police force, a government-run radio broadcast, and even its own currency, the Somaliland shilling.

By all accounts, the government of Somaliland is more stable than that of the rest of Somalia; however, Somaliland has struggled to garner international recognition. Prior to Kenya’s tweet, Somaliland has never been recognized as independent from Somalia, despite engaging in diplomatic talks in the UN and African Union and between states such as the UK and US. The international community has been loath to recognize Somaliland’s sovereignty because of a fear that doing so would result in the complete disintegration of Somalia. According to the African Union, recognizing Somaliland without the permission of the national government of Somalia would give rise to numerous other separatist movements in other regions of the country that could not be denied, reshaping the entire geopolitical landscape of the region.

For those in favour of Somaliland’s independence, Kenya’s recognition is extremely encouraging. Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see if Kenya takes back its recognition of Somaliland or fully embraces their new position. If Kenya becomes the trailblazer in a movement to grant Somaliland its independence, the interesting scenario will likely play out in the African Union’s 33rd AU Summit; its annual meeting to be held in early 2020. While the efforts of self-recognized states such as Taiwan and Kosovo to gain international recognition appear irreparably stalled, the debate surrounding Somaliland may just be beginning.

(KCW Today July 2019 Roundup)

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