The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit starts in less than a week, but it remains enveloped in strategic confusion. Initially, the White House said they would omit four countries whose leaders owe their position due to coups, but they invited others who had themselves seized power decades ago.
The administration was also unclear about the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing, deliberate starvation, if not genocide against Ethiopia’s Tigray people, during the course of which he repeatedly dismissed and belittled American envoys. His mentor and ally, Isaias Afwerki, rules Eritrea with an iron grip reminiscent of North Korea.
Yesterday, the White House confirmed that it would exclude Eritrea, but it appears it will invite Abiy after all. (Whether the Secret Service will shield Abiy from peaceful protest is another question).
Dana Banks, special assistant to the president and senior advisor for the summit, also announced that the White House would exclude Somaliland. “Invitations were sent to countries who are in good standing with the African Union,” she explained. The African Union does not recognize Somaliland as a full member, as no country formally recognizes its independence, even though it has governed itself since 1991
Banks, however, mischaracterizes the African Union position. The African Union has included Somaliland in multiple African Union summit, treating its head of state and foreign minister as equal to their African peers.
For Biden to exclude Somaliland, the most democratic state in the Horn of Africa and one of the most democratic countries in Africa, is not only an affront to the stated principles of the conference but also a figurative middle finger to Congress. Last week, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees published the full text of the National Defense Authorization Act. For the first time, the act included provisions to advance the U.S.-Somaliland partnership. For example, it required the State Department, Defense Department, and US Agency for International Development to submit an annual report to Congress detailing assistance, engagement and security initiatives in Somaliland. It also requires the State and Defense Departments to produce a feasibility study by June 2023 on opportunities for cooperation between the United States and Somaliland. A bipartisan group of senators pushed the Somaliland language through despite fierce lobbying by the administration.
White House and State Department hostility toward Somaliland runs counter to broader U.S. interests. Somaliland not only partners with Taiwan despite tremendous Chinese pressure, but it also contributes to regional security and counter-terrorism, often without outside resources. It acts on principle, rather than for cash. While Chinese influence in Djibouti increasingly threatens the presence of American forces in that country, Somaliland has said it will welcome with open arms an American presence at Berbera—a Cold War-era base and NASA emergency landing strip that is now refurbished. That the Somali foreign minister welcomed and praised Chinese officials as the Biden administration deferred to pro-Beijing Mogadishu over pro-American Hargeisa should be a scandal.
Biden, of course, can invite whom he wants, but the White House and the State Department should realize: Somaliland is a reality that will not go away. The Pentagon realizes it. So does the intelligence community and, most importantly, so does Congress. It is a strategic asset, and an ideological ally. Unlike other states in the region, it has demonstrated capacity. It is not a corrupt kleptocracy or autocracy like South Sudan and Eritrea. It has borders set by international treaty to which the United States is party. By citing a false African Union precedent to justify Somaliland’s exclusion, the White House not only signals its ignorance of Africa, but also suggests that, when it comes to the continent, the White House and State Department are intent to remain on the wrong side of history and reality.
By Michael Rubin
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).