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?

Barkhad Kaariye/AP/File
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.

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.

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.

Since then, Somalia has been the poster child of ungovernability. Nearly 2.5 million Somalis rely entirely on food aid from the UN’s World Food Programme for survival, to the tune of $485 million a year. Some 6,100 African Union peacekeepers keep a tottering transitional Somali government alive in the perhaps five square blocks of Mogadishu that the government still controls.

Lack of government control allows criminal gangs, arms smugglers, and piracy to thrive in the many small ports that dot the Somali coast. A European Naval Force patrolling the Gulf of Aden to protect commercial ships costs perhaps $300 million a year.

For all the world’s attention to Somalia, it’s hard to see the improvement in the lives of ordinary Somalis. Warlords still control much of the populated south, and while they tend to justify their actions with religious edicts these days, there’s not much difference between the cruelty of Al Shabab and the cruelty of an old-school warlord like Mohamad Farah Aideed. Food aid keeps millions alive, but they can have the unintended consequences of enriching all those charming warlords.

The fact that Somaliland hasn’t been dragged down into that same abyss by their petulant cousins is more than a miracle; it’s an act of sheer will. Its mere existence gives lie to the notion that Somalis can’t govern themselves, that clan rivalries and corruption and political Islam are destined to drag the Horn of Africa to depths of misery unseen since the Dark Ages.

But how long can a poor, quiet, functional country hold out in such a dangerous region? Why should it continue to arrest pirate gangs in its "territorial waters" when it barely has three boats to call a navy? And how to guarantee that this well-behaved country continues to act in its own peaceful self-interest?

The answer is simple, according to Somaliland’s new President, Ahmed Mahmud Silanyo, whom I interviewed when he was still just a presidential candidate.

“We are a nation and a state, we are a people aspiring to be recognized,” Mr. Silanyo said, during an interview at his home in the capital, Hargeisa. “The reason we are an oasis of peace in the region is that we are all committed to the principle of peace and coexistence with our neighbors.”

But a country that is cut off from trade with the rest of the world cannot survive, he added. “People are leaving this country by the thousands. You see the condition of the roads, the condition of our cities, the lack of development. Why doesn’t the world recognize us, when we are a people who want to live in peace?”

It’s a worthy question that deserves an answer.


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