The hope that union would lead the Somalis into a free and democratic nation never materialized. Instead, the brutal military regime of Siad Barre took power from a nascent civilian government in 1969. Barre was a tyrant, described by some as in the mold of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who held power for 21 years through military force, money from foreign donors and by manipulating the region's clan system.
Barre declared the majority of northern Somalis enemies of the state. They had legitimate grievances about his misrule, and the way in which the union between former British Somaliland and former Italian Somaliland was handled in 1960. Consequently, a political disenfranchisement and ruthless military campaign was unleashed against the civilian population. An insurrection followed and eventually, in 1991, the military regime collapsed.
Since then Somalia has been mired in chaos and violence. But Somaliland has succeeded in establishing a functioning government, with a constitution, defined borders and a flag. It is governed along democratic lines with pluralistic political institutions. In May 2001, its independence was supported in a referendum by more than 90 percent of the population. Two presidential elections took place with a peaceful transfer of power; one in 2003 and another in 2010. This summer, nine political parties are competing in local elections.
Despite its achievements, no country in the world has yet recognized Somaliland’s independence. The US State Department and the African Union each cling to the fiction that Somaliland is part of the failed state of Somalia. It would have made sense to award Somaliland the diplomatic recognition it deserves. Its brief history of freedom and democracy stand in stark contrast to the terrorism, reign of warlords and piracy that is rife in Somalia, where US President Barack Obama and the UN are expending vast resources to fund African troops, which are propping up the corrupt transitional Somali government.
The argument against Somaliland’s independence comes from the African Union (AU), which has been tough on Somaliland for creating an independent democratic state. There is understandable paranoia about accepting new states with shifting borders inherited from colonial powers in Africa. The AU’s argument to deny Somaliland sovereignty is not valid, however, because it has had defined colonial borders that were established at the time of independence.
The irony is that US State Department diplomats, for political reasons, endorsed the position of the African Union in order to appease other African leaders and to get their military support for America’s counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia.
For the last two decades, the international community has tried through outside military intervention and massive aid to reconstitute Somalia. These interventions have ended in catastrophic failure.
The United Nations is also arguing that recognizing Somaliland might hinder the UN-sponsored peace and reconciliation efforts for Somalia. Among these efforts is the US-backed “road map” for Somalia, which projects forming a new government at the end of the “transition” in mid-August. Most Somalis have no faith in the “road map” process, which seeks to reinforce and legitimize the nominal Somali government even though Somalia remains ravaged by violence and self-interested neighbors.
The world regards Somalia as a basket case, but Somaliland is not and deserves better. Recognizing independent Somaliland would have positive consequences, not just for Somalia, but also for the whole Horn of Africa region. Indeed, Somaliland is contributing the international community's efforts to combat piracy that plagues the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
Keeping the status quo in Somalia would only prolong the human suffering there and spread radicalism and chaos that could engulf the region. In this scenario, diplomatic recognition for Somaliland would be unjustly denied and would further delay opportunity for investment, trade and economic growth.
Obama should do the right thing and fulfill the aspirations of 3.5 million people of Somaliland to have an independent and sovereign state.
Ali Mohamed is co-founder of the Horn of Africa Freedom Foundation. It is a grassroots organization, located in Lewis Center, Ohio, that advocates for the advancement of freedom and democratic values for the indigenous people of the Horn of Africa.