Rethinking Somalia ‘s Plight

An article appearing in The Washington Post (“US Debating Shift of Support in Somali Conflict”) mentions that the United States is considering granting diplomatic recognition to the autonomous region of Somaliland in northwestern Somalia. Although establishing diplomatic ties with breakaway states arguably sets a bad precedent, there are clearly special circumstances in which adherence to the international norm of respecting a regime’s full and complete territorial sovereignty over the land within its official borders must be bypassed. The case of Somaliland is a strong example.

To set the context, Somalia is shaped like the number seven and is divided into roughly three main regions. The first and most often discussed area falls on the diagonal portion of the seven and is legally ruled, in name only, by the recognized official transitional government of Somalia. This region is home to Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu, the site of the infamous incident of 1993 portrayed in Black Hawk Down, and has experienced the bulk of Somalia’s civil war. In the corner of the seven is the semi-state of Puntland, comparable to Iraqi Kurdistan, which desires to remain part of Somalia as a whole while wielding a significant degree of autonomy. This also holds true for Somalia’s lesser known autonomous regions. Finally, on the majority of the horizontal portion of the seven is Somaliland.

Unlike Somalia’s other major regions, Somaliland does not recognize the authority of the Transitional Federal Government and sees itself as a fully independent state. Despite receiving limited foreign aid, as breakaway states rarely receive money from governments with whom they do not share diplomatic ties, Somaliland has done surprisingly well. In his February 27 article for the New York Times entitled “A Land of Camel Milk and Honey,” renowned scholar Nicholas Kristof described Somaliland as a tranquil and democratic state with a fully functional and freely elected democratic government and a reliable public service sector including schools, hospitals and even a library. In contrast to Mogadishu, where one might feel naked without full body armor and an automatic rifle, Somaliland’s capital of Hargeisa is home to a “thriving jewelry and financial market [where] scores of vendors, most of them women, are hawking millions of dollars worth of gold, precious stones and foreign currency out in open air.”

So if Somaliland is a bastion of freedom in the middle of hell, why would the United States think twice about establishing diplomatic ties with the unrecognized state? Well, it’s not that easy, and the process would be mired by red tape and technicalities. Furthermore, there is disagreement within the U.S. government as to what direction to take. Whereas the Pentagon wants to push through with establishing ties with Somaliland, which is seen as a step in the right direction in the fight against al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism, the State Department wants to continue its full support of the transitional government and its claim over the whole of Somalia. Doing otherwise may embolden other potential breakaway states in Somalia and beyond, threatening the stability and territorial integrity of various parts of Africa.

Although the State Department’s reasoning is not without merit and works as a generally good rule of thumb in most situations, it runs counter to the interests of the United States and the democratic world as a whole. While a good number of African countries continue to fail miserably despite being on the receiving end of heavy foreign aid packages, Somaliland has thrived with little funds, and as a result, should be rewarded for its efforts and established as a model of independence. After all, the West wants nothing more than to shatter Africa’s dependency on its money and resources, and if it takes a breakaway state to set an example, then so be it. The more states in Africa that are like Somaliland, the less other African countries will be able to use the excuse “we are failing because we aren’t getting enough resources from the West.”

More importantly, however, is Somaliland’s location and the context in which it finds itself. The horn of Africa is an often overlooked yet critical front in the war on terror and Islamic extremism. It is one thing to continue to defeat the terrorists and insurgents on the battlefield, and the allies of the United States, particularly Ethiopia, have done a tremendous job of defeating Somalia’s former Islamist regime, but military victories are not enough to win this war. This is a war of ideology, a war between democracy and Islamism, and nothing will unsettle the Islamists more than establishing free governments in the territories that they wish to control. The future of Somalia is uncertain compared to Somaliland, and as they say, “A bird in hand is better than two in the bush.”

Certainly, if Somalia were a stable democratic state whose government freely and fairly governed the whole of its territory, Somaliland’s independence from Somalia would be unnecessary. There is no reason to break apart an already functioning democratic state. Far from this, however, Somalia is a collapsed state, and there is little utility for the State Department’s passing up a significant opportunity for the growth of democracy in order to protect the “legitimacy” of a government who rules in name only. Instead, the United States should focus its efforts on ensuring a complete military victory of our allies in Somalia and encourage the transitional government to be realistic by cutting its losses and counting its blessings.

Copyright: The Retriever Weekly

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