Non-recognition also means they have been spared the manipulative outside interference that has often only made matters worse in Somalia to the south. Even so, it has not been an easy ride creating Somaliland. There have been border wars with Puntland to the southeast, another breakaway region from the old Somalia, and creating an economy with traction has been a struggle.
A major element in the economy, according to the World Bank, is the estimated $1 billion overseas Somalilanders remit each year to their families at home.
Otherwise Somaliland survives on a simple economy based on the export of beef cattle and camels to the Middle East. Other exports include frankincense and myrrh.
But now, with the so-far successful secession of South Sudan from Sudan this month, the question of international recognition of Somaliland as a nation state has again emerged. In theory international recognition would provide the diplomatic and economic links that would allow Somaliland to take the next leap in its development.
However, there are strong feelings in neighbouring governments that if ever a functioning administration can be put in place in Somalia, Somaliland must be reunited with the south. Most countries in the Horn of Africa contain regional minorities harbouring separatist instincts. The governments fear that recognized independence for Somaliland, building on the South Sudan precedent, will start a cascade of independence movements.
Even the European Union is divided on the matter because the two old colonial powers, Britain and Italy, disagree sharply on the future of Somaliland. Britain supports recognized independence, Italy doesn't.
Britain established a protectorate over what it called British Somaliland in 1888 when it signed treaties with the local sultans. But London's only interests were to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden, supply beef to regional outposts and curtail slavery.
When London gave Somaliland independence in 1960, the new country decided to unite with the former Italian Somaliland, which got independence from Rome six days later. It was a decision Somalilanders have spent many years regretting, especially after Maj.-Gen. Siad Barre seized power in the southern capital of Mogadishu in 1969.
In the early 1980s, the Somali National Movement was formed by members of the Isaaq clan, the largest in Somaliland, and by 1988 it controlled most of the region.
But Barre's retribution was murderous. At one point in 1988 his air force carpet-bombed the northern capital, Hargeysa, killing tens of thousands of men, women and children and sending about 300,000 refugees into neighbouring Ethiopia. But the northern civil war was the beginning of a gathering uprising that eventually ousted Barre in 1991.
In May that year Somaliland declared its independence. Somaliland was led until 2003 by presidents selected by councils of clan leaders, but in that year Dahir Riyale Kahin was elected in a direct popular ballot. Kahin was defeated by Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo last July in elections judged by international observers to be largely free and fair.
Somaliland has an executive presidency and a two-chamber parliament.
The lower house is made up of directly elected members from the three main political parties and the upper house is composed of elders selected by the half dozen tribal clans. Even so, democracy in Somaliland is not perfect, but it has the attributes of being entirely homegrown; far more representative, open and accountable than most African countries can claim; and unique among entirely Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
By Jonathan Manthorpe (Vancouver sun)