Americans like underdogs, especially when they are feisty, self-reliant, and stand up to bullies. I’ve just had the delight of visiting such a place: the self-declared, independent Republic of Somaliland – situated on one of the most strategic pieces of real estate on earth.
(Don’t think “Somalia” – the disastrous place of Blackhawk Down – which is right next door on the east but infinitely distant in attitude and success.) Landing in Hargeisa, the capital, reminds one of West Texas, and sure enough the 25-mph wind hits you upon exiting the plane, although there are acacias instead of mesquites and camels in place of the cattle.
Somaliland’s self-declared independence is also very Texas-like. The Oklahoma-sized nation with 7 million people was a British colony, unlike Italian-controlled Somalia, and it actually gained independence first in 1960. That same year it voluntarily joined together with the other Somalia to form a federation.
The union was a disaster, as Somalia came under a ruthless dictator who tried to destroy the feisty Somalilanders, including inflicting thousands of deaths by bombing Hargeisa. In 1991, during the chaos which followed the Somali Civil War, Somaliland split from the federation and declared independence with a 97% vote in support from its people.
Since then, the nation has thrived under a robust democracy, an open capitalist economy, and an industrious people who are adamant about protecting their independence. And they have done it on their own, without receiving any of the billions of dollars in foreign aid which has been showered on the rest of Africa.
What Somaliland doesn’t have is international recognition. Much like Taiwan – with whom they do have relations (another factor in their favor) – Somaliland is a victim of geopolitical “realities.” Next door Somalia, a failed state in every respect, despite receiving incredible international financial support (including about $500 million annually from the US) and military assistance, is apoplectic over Somaliland’s existence and insists upon claiming it as its own, much like Mexico did with Texas.
The African Union (AU), with its aged autocrats, is loath to recognize the country lest its democratic values and self-reliance proves infectious to some of its member states with their own rebellious regions. And the US, not wanting to alienate the AU, also supports a “one Somalia” policy (much like our “One China” policy) which views the fiction that Somaliland is part of Somalia.
This is nonsense for a variety of reasons. Our policy started troubling me when I was Ambassador to Ethiopia in 2001 and met Somaliland’s first President shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. President Egal voiced his support for us and wanted to cooperate on anti-terrorism. I had to say “no” – for the bizarre reason that Somaliland was highly successful in providing for its own security so the US would not engage, even though the country certainly could have benefited from our advanced training.
Today, parts of our government want to end the “One Somalia” policy, with the Pentagon most especially eager to engage further with Somaliland. Given the nation’s 500-mile coast along the vital Red Sea – with so much of the world’s shipping passing by – plus a new container port being financed with a $500 Million investment from United Arab Emirates DP-World and Britain’s international development agency, it’s an ideal locale for possible US military contingencies.
The port city, Berbera, also has a new airport with a 3-mile-long runway. This, combined with the nation’s peace, stability, and strong pro-US stance, and its anti-Communist Chinese sentiments, make it an ideal US partner.
Meanwhile, our poor Ambassador to Somalia – an experienced Africanist on his third ambassadorship – is limited to living and working at Mogadishu airport while the al-Qaeda affiliated al Shabab terrorists continue to dominate the country and extend their control, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. If anything, conditions in Somalia will worsen under successive governments dominated by corruption and controlled by hapless and venal elites, yet the US continues to support them with our taxpayer’s money.
There are also members of Congress sympathetic to Somaliland who want to see a change in US policy – but this is unlikely with the current administration and the current US Department of State leadership. So maybe, just maybe, if a new administration wins our next Presidential elections, Somaliland’s dream of being a fully recognized member of the community of nations will become reality. Meanwhile, “the little country that can” goes on moving forward with the most Texas-like attitude I’ve found anywhere in Africa.
Ambassador Tibor Nagy was most recently Assistant Secretary of State for Africa after serving as Texas Tech’s Vice Provost for International Affairs and a 30-year career as a US Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @TiborPNagyJr