In Africa, an island of democracy asks: Where is US help?

Somaliland, a breakaway republic of Somalia, considers itself a model for the region.

Under the Bush administration's theory of creating regional stability by supporting islands of democracy, leaders in Somaliland say it should be a shoo-in for official recognition as Africa's newest nation state.

Instead, this breakaway republic, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991, is marooned in diplomatic limbo. Having not yet achieved statehood, it is without access to formal trade agreements or international financial institutions such as the World Bank.

"The international community has abandoned us," says Hussein Ali Nur, editor of the weekly English-language Republican newspaper published here in Somaliland's capital, Hargeisa. "America talks about supporting democracy, but everything is distorted by the fight against terrorism. Our success is overshadowed by [US] strategic interests in Somalia."

During the last 16 years, as Somalia has torn itself apart, Somaliland's leaders have disbanded a guerrilla movement, drafted a constitution, and held multiparty elections.

Development consultant Mark Bradbury, who monitored parliamentary elections in 2005, says the republic performs as well as, if not better than, other countries in the region, such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, on public participation in the democratic process and freedom of speech. Said Noor, the foreign minister, goes one step further: "We have created a modern, African parliamentary system. It's a model for the region."

The house of representatives is directly elected and the upper house, the house of guurti, is composed of clan elders. Both houses are based on ethnic power-sharing quotas. Bradbury says the arrangement has helped to foster stability by accommodating traditional social structures.

While Somalia is fractured by tension between numerous clans, Somaliland is more homogenous – dominated by one single clan, the Isaq. This social cohesion has played a large part in defining Somaliland's sense of identity and promoting the notion of a separate future.

But not one country has endorsed its claims of sovereignty.

Political scientist Roland Marchal at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris says the US – and the rest of the international community – may well support Somaliland to achieve independence in the long run, but "timing is everything. What's to be achieved by recognizing a breakaway region in the middle of a bloody and protracted civil war?"

For now, the US State Department seems content to follow the lead of the African Union, which says it's focused on resuscitating failed states such as Somalia – not breakaway republics.

Some African analysts believe Somaliland's independence could form part of a future peace deal within a solution for the whole of Somalia – but fulfilling Somaliland's ambition prematurely could undermine Somalia's fragile Transitional Federal government (TFG), still fighting to establish control over the capital, Mogadishu.

A former British protectorate, Somaliland achieved independence in 1960, but quickly joined with former Italian territories to form Somalia. "We jumped too soon," says Mr. Noor. "It was a mistake."

Key posts in the new unity government went to southerners from Mogadishu, and Somalilanders rapidly felt excluded. Their mounting resentment gave birth to a rebel movement that Somalia's dictator, Said Barré, attempted to crush. His bombing raids of the main urban centers in 1988 killed 50,000 people and left Hargeisa in ruins. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the date of the bombing raids.]

Mr. Barré was ousted in 1991, starting the civil war in Somalia that is still raging – but Somalia's implosion was Somaliland's moment of opportunity. Now its population of 3 million Sunni Muslims wants nothing more to do with rule from Mogadishu.

Noor, a former guerrilla, says that memories of Barré's repression are still so bitter that "any political leaders who agreed to reunification would be killed one by one by our own people."

Bradbury thinks foreign diplomats could learn a lot from Somaliland's experience of reconciliation and reconstruction. He notes that Somaliland "has made huge strides with minimal outside interference, and that hasn't been allowed to happen in Somalia."

While the international community maintains a close interest in Mogadishu's future, Bradbury is concerned that Somaliland is not strategically important enough for foreign governments to invest the time and resources required in recognizing and sustaining independence. "Paradoxically," he says, "that may have contributed to its achievements to date."

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