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Beyond Recognition: Why is Somaliland not Sovereign?

Africa Analyst



The new Red Sea port deal, signed by Ethiopia and Somaliland at the start of this year, has reignited tensions in the Horn of Africa over regional power dynamics, territorial disputes and, most importantly, concerns of sovereignty. The question of Somaliland’s sovereignty and statehood has taken centre stage once again, and is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. 


Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, seeking recognition as a sovereign state. Despite applying to the African Union (AU) in 2005, it has yet to gain formal international recognition after two decades. Rather, the AU seems reluctant to grant Somaliland’s sovereignty even though it is becoming a recurring cause of insecurity and instability in East Africa.


This article aims to suggest that Somaliland’s statehood remains unrecognised by the AU because it is a case which defies Eurocentric frameworks of statehood. Rather, Somaliland's struggle for sovereignty testifies to the necessity for more diverse theories of the state which take into account Africa’s colonial history. The tensions that have arisen because of the new Red Sea port deal demonstrate this. 


International recognition for Somaliland is crucial to stabilising domestic and regional politics but, more pertinently, for reshaping understandings of statehood universally. Without international recognition access to multilateral aid and investment opportunities is limited, hindering the development of the state. Additionally, without recognition, Somaliland struggles to resolve intra-state and inter-state disputes; the Red Sea port deal would not have exacerbated existing tensions and provoked intervention by Somalia if Somaliland’s sovereignty was recognised. This requires redefining statehood beyond the current normative criteria.


The conventional conception of the state in academia, influenced by realist thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, does not account for Somaliland's unique configuration or its history. Somaliland’s colonial history permeates its national identity, which emerged during the decolonisation era and developed further during the era of the Somali Republic, eventually leading to separation from Somalia in 1991. Somaliland’s claims for independence are due to its dissimilar colonial history, culture and identity from Somalia, as well as a response to the victimisation caused by the Barre regime. 


In 1960, when the Republic of Somalia was created, it was comprised of two distinct regions – British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland. Since then, Somaliland has built its state through democratic elections, established a government, and maintained stability in the region, whilst Somalia struggles to establish political order. The different historical foundations of the two have informed their different political landscapes, indicating how the distinct colonial histories of affected African nations have informed the ways in which they were structured post-decolonisation. Thus, Westphalian notions of statehood are of limited use when applied to African states. 


Normative statehood frameworks, such as the Montevideo Convention, based on Westphalian principles, are insufficient to evaluate Somaliland's statehood. Despite meeting conventional criteria –– Somaliland does have a centralised governmental institution –– its sovereignty remains debatable due to the normative explanations that conventionally inform international recognition. This affects Somaliland's political stability and its ability to participate in the global community: while internal support aids state-building, the absence of recognition hampers accessing the privileges provided to states. The AU's reluctance to recognise Somaliland is tied to fears of sparking other secessionist movements, but Somaliland must obtain the recognition of the AU first before it can be recognised by other international organisations. As a result, Somaliland has to strike the balance between pandering to the international community to appear as a legitimate state-building project, whilst centralising and internalising this initiative to form a stable state. 


To absolve Somaliland from this limbo, there is a renewed effort by academics to revise how we understand statehood. Particularly for post-colonial African states, appreciating a bottom-up approach to state construction allows for a greater historisation and interrogation of factors like colonial legacy, culture, religion and tradition and how they contribute to state-building. This is not an approach which is considered when adopting a Westphalian lens, which post-colonial states like Somaliland require. The imposed colonial borders of the Berlin Conference disrupted African modes of governance and restricted the natural development of African states. Thus, a redefinition of statehood to appreciate different governance forms would not only allow non-European states to be understood normatively but could have possibly granted Somaliland international recognition when it applied to the AU nearly two decades ago. 


Currently, national identity in Somaliland revolves around the struggle for sovereignty, developed from the bottom up through clan politics, tradition, and Islam. Its relative autonomy so far, gained due to a lack of international interference, highlights the dilemma Somaliland faces—striving for recognition while maintaining stability as an unrecognised state. Although the prospect of democracy was initially promising, this was jeopardised by structural issues linked to non-recognition. Clan-based democracy, instrumental in establishing peace, is being challenged due to weak institutional frameworks. The lack of international connectivity that Somaliland experiences hinders access to external cooperation mechanisms, impacting electoral infrastructure and creating a cycle where reliance on cultural identities clashes with the need for international recognition. A similar dilemma exists pertaining to security; Somaliland is unable to take measures, like the Red Sea Port deal, which would be entirely legitimate for a state to undertake, without repercussions because it remains unrecognised. Yet its’ state security gets more precarious without engaging with neighbouring states. It’s a demonstrative case of the fact that delaying international involvement with Somaliland will do more harm than good.


While some argue that Somaliland should develop further before seeking recognition, external obstacles hinder its international acceptance more so than internal factors. Reluctance from countries to be the first to recognise Somaliland and prioritising Southern Somalia's interests pose challenges that have the risk of destabilising the Horn of Africa repeatedly. To break the cycle, the unique history and stability of Somaliland demand a re-evaluation of statehood itself.


To conclude, the intricate interplay between statehood and recognition is pivotal in shaping the security of the international community. Somaliland's struggle for sovereignty goes beyond mere acknowledgement; it questions how we define statehood and urges a broader conceptualisation that reflects the complexities of African governance. The Red Sea port deal exemplifies this; in an attempt to securitise itself, which is a privilege of statehood, Somaliland is incapable of doing so without making enemies of its neighbours. Somalia, which has refused to recognise Somaliland, has been antagonised by this measure, and it has caused a concerned response from other African states. While this is valid, it is only half the picture. The other half requires one to uncover the dilemma in which Somaliland finds itself in; a limbo, by which Somaliland has to appear as a state, and act as a state, but must also do so without international engagement, which is the arena in which it would legitimise itself. 


Thus, recognising Somaliland is not just a diplomatic formality; it is an opportunity to reshape statehood and foster an inclusive international system. The journey towards recognition is challenging, but it holds the potential to dismantle colonial legacies and promote authentic forms of governance. The state of Somaliland should no longer be ignored on the international stage.



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