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Somaliland elections: Why the world ignores Horn of Africa's oasis of stability

The self-declared republic of Somaliland voted this past weekend for a new president. Somaliland is the one corner of Somalia that functions, but the international community refuses recognize it as a nation-state. Is the West scuppering its best chance for democracy in the region?

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / July 8, 2010

In this June 26 photo Ahmed Mohamud Silanyo, chairman of the KULMIYE Party, waves to his supporters at a polling station where he arrived to cast his vote in Hargeisa, in the self-declared republic of Somaliland. Silanyo has said he hopes the presidential election will help win Somaliland international recognition.

Barkhad Kaariye/AP/File

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Johannesburg, South Africa

A little over a year ago, I boarded an aged Russian propeller plane in Djibouti for a short flight into Somaliland. It was my first and, so far, my only visit to that self-declared republic, which broke away from Somalia 20 years ago while no one seemed to be looking.

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Strangely enough, the world still isn’t looking.

Last weekend, Somaliland held elections and – unlike elections in more respectable nation-states like Kenya, Sudan, and Burundi – there were no claims of foul play, no international election observers citing “irregularities.” Not even a “hanging chad.” Al Qaeda issued warnings for voters not to participate, but the voters ignored them. And when the results came in, and the country’s president lost, there was a peaceful transfer of power to the president’s rival.

Of course, it’s easy to ignore Somaliland. Unlike Sudan, Nigeria, and Angola, it doesn’t produce oil. Unlike Burundi, it hasn’t had a recent spate of genocide. Unlike Kenya, it isn’t a vibrant commercial hub for the region with occasional self-destructive tendencies. Somaliland’s biggest export is mutton, and I can’t remember the last time the international community intervened in a country over mutton. Even when it’s nice and lean.

But perhaps more importantly, the international community doesn’t intervene unless a country is in crisis. Quiet, poor, functional states – like well-behaved children – well, they tend to get ignored.

If Somaliland is the good child, then Somalia itself is the petulant brat. Somalia – the nation that technically still includes Somaliland and all the villages and pirate ports in between down to the border with Kenya – has been at war with itself for more than 20 years. Its disintegration after the fall of President Siad Barre in 1991 prompted President George Bush to send in US Marines to secure food deliveries. Continued conflict among Somali warlords for control of what was left of Mogadishu – and the death of 18 US Army Rangers (Black Hawk Down) – prompted President Bill Clinton to withdraw them a few months later.

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