On May 18 of this year, Somaliland turned twenty-five. Yet the anniversary is cause for a bittersweet celebration at best. Peace has improbably reigned since this enclave of the Horn of Africa obtained de facto independence in 1991. During those two and a half decades, the world has forgotten this unlikely outpost of functioning government, which has run free democratic elections since 2003 embedded in the chaos of the failed State of Somalia. As a result, 3.5 million Somalilanders have been raised stateless, victims of a legal asterisk that shuts them off from the world and—by extension—prosperity.
The African Union, based in neighboring Addis Ababa, is reluctant to grant Somaliland recognition. The AU and Ethiopia fear to trigger claims to independence in Africa, but in particular in the Ogaden region, whose independence claims it has long sought to stifle. Ethnic Somalis live in the Ogaden region and an unrecognized Somaliland has the dual benefit of weakening Somalia—Ethiopia’s rival—and Somaliland, whose roads the Abyssinian state uses paying minimal taxes to reach the port of Berbera in the Gulf of Aden.
Yet, if Somaliland is to prolong its precarious peace and stability, it will need some form of legal recognition and an infusion of development aid. Donors should be eager for one of two things: a rare development success story that beats the odds put forward by the United Nations and could serve as a model; or shoring up a place home to two million people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five that is currently a bastion against terrorism but could morph into a buzzing hive of it. In a region beset by turmoil, Somaliland is one of the few places that repeatedly proves its ability to survive like a stubborn weed growing in the cracked and barren political soil of one of the world’s most failed states.
With virtually no help, Somaliland has earned the label of “emerging democracy” from Freedom House . Their three-party system is inspired by British parliamentarism and is a remarkable success of bottom-up grassroots political mobilization and organization. Together with Kenya, Somaliland is one of the only countries considered at least “partly free” in East and Central Africa. I lived in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, for a year. It’s a blip surrounded by the empty lands of pastoralist herders, but home to bustling cafes and restaurants. Even though Hargeisa is legally isolated from the world, Somaliland cries out to be an open society. Last year, for the May 18 independence celebrations, I attended a banquet at the Ministry of Interior. Renditions of poems and songs complemented traditional dishes whilst politicians assured us that international recognition was, finally, within reach. This year, celebrations were tainted with sorrow due to the ongoing drought in the country, which has wiped out scores of cattle.
The contrast could not have been starker compared to my short stints in Mogadishu, a city shrouded in the smell of gunpowder and an air of hopeless pessimism that can only be produced by decades trapped in a war of attrition. I could walk around Hargeisa, day or night; Westerners would only walk around Mogadishu if they had a death wish or a penchant for being kidnapped. Even for Somalilanders, Mogadishu is considered too dangerous—most have never been. Al Shabaab is still prevalent enough for Mogadishu residents not to pick up the phone if it rings from an unknown number.
Yet, in spite of this contrast of fresh hope versus withering stagnation made worse by the creeping vine of homegrown terrorism, international development efforts typically treat both countries as a single forsaken wasteland and lack of recognition means the United Nations are not legally allowed to dispense aid directly to Somaliland. Meanwhile, the stubborn refusal to legally recognize Somaliland and to treat it as a regional problem creates an unbreakable ceiling of potential. Even with good governance and admirable tenacity, a country can only get so far going it alone in a bad neighborhood. Between Somalia and Somaliland, only one country has border controls, a cohesive army, functioning security services, and a government enjoying some level of popular legitimacy—and it’s the one that isn’t legally recognized.
I saw this paradoxical reality daily. Abdifattah, a taxi driver in his mid-twenties who speaks perfect English, keeps his car registration easily accessible as he faces routine license and registration checks in Hargeisa; in Mogadishu vehicles do not even have license plates. Abdifattah’s life not only illustrates the genuine State capacity of Somaliland, it also embodies its stunted future. Abdifattah drifts across the streets of Hargeisa carried by the lyrics of 50 Cent and Stromae in his Toyota imported from the United Arab Emirates. A forgotten child of the era of globalization, he has matured into an adult within a society that the world has deliberately cast aside: the Somaliland passport is recognized in just eight countries and the odds of being granted a visa are dismally low.
Even within its own region, Somaliland cannot control larger forces at play. Ethiopia and Kenya attempt to play puppet master to Somalia, pulling strings to their advantage and capitalizing on the lawlessness for their own foreign policy goals. Kenya has a claim on some of Somalia’s untapped offshore oil resources, whilst Ethiopia supports Somaliland to a point because it sells huge amounts of khat (a mild narcotic) and accesses the Indian Ocean from Somaliland—Ethiopia is a landlocked nation still unofficially quarreling with Eritrea. This regional puppetry creates even starker divides within Somalia, further limiting Somaliland’s potential. Gulf States are also taking advantage of Somaliland’s frays to push forward their own cultural agenda —not one of tolerance and openness.
As these outside forces continue to deny Somaliland its potential, Abdifattah and his friends could morph from a being a missed opportunity into a threat. The median age in Somalia is 17 in urban areas and 16 in rural areas. For comparison, the median age in the United States is 38 and in France it is 41. This is a population dominated by youth, but because of the broader context of stagnation and isolation, 75 percent of young people are unemployed. This isn’t just a development tragedy; it’s also a serious security risk.