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The Changing Political Landscape
in the Horn of Africa
By Mohamed Obsiye
Dec. 02, 2010

This article offers a reflection on the recent developments in Somaliland’s foreign policy and the changing attitude of the international community. For a long time there has been a complete disassociation between a country's ability to discharge its sovereign responsibilities and its claim to a sovereign status (Herbst, 1996-1997)(1). The international community’s continued support to give legitimacy to a non-functioning state, so as to preserve non-existing integrity is like refusing to perform an essential amputation for the sake of bodily integrity. As Herbst had argued about thirteen years ago the repeated attempts by the international community to revive Somalia’s nation-state, despite the overwhelming evidence that such a nation state has never worked nor will, should be replaced by recognising that a more viable state structure can better be created if what Spears (2004)(2) calls ‘the polity scale problem’ in Africa is seriously considered. Spears, like Herbst, suggests that the emergence of Somaliland, as did its predecessor Eritrea, or the South Sudan’s nation-in-waiting will soon do, is precisely a reflection of that process of scaling down the prevailing state structures in post-colonial Africa.   

It appears that the international community is now beginning to realise, in the best interest of world security, the political developments in the Horn of Africa should be accepted on their merits. That means that if in the past the international community has fallen for the de jure status of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), it is now paying attention to the de facto developments in the region and with restoring Somali unity dream becoming virtually unobtainable, the international community is recognising Somaliland for its achievement in the areas of democracy, peace and stability. The changes in the way in which the international community engages with Somalia and Somali coincide with the peaceful presidential election and transfer of power in Somaliland in August 2010. They also coincide with the new foreign policy which Somaliland has adopted which, in addition to the maturing home grown democracy, is making it difficult for the international community to neglect.

Over the past couple of months Somaliland’s foreign policy and the shifting positions of Ethiopia and Djibouti have made headlines, as did the US Dual Track Policy towards Somalia and Somaliland which similarly has generated much discussion. The new Somaliland administration welcomes these changes knowing that they will have profound implications for their search for political recognition. Somaliland’s forcefully articulated and deftly executed foreign policy has been instrumental in the change of position of both the above regional countries. Somaliland’s new foreign policy is intended to move the country beyond its established reputation for being a stable, peaceful and democratic country, but a country that is serious about its aspiration for full diplomatic recognition. It is focused on establishing bilateral relations, a half-way house to full membership of the free nations, and is already making headway in attracting bilateral relations. Whilst it might be naive to put a timeline to this process, it is, nonetheless important to point out that Somaliland’s recognition, a hitherto moving target, is more than ever before a matter of when and not a matter of if. And even if it does not achieve that goal, i.e. international recognition which has become a national obsession, for Somaliland to deal bilaterally with the international community is according to Somaliland’s FM, Dr. Mohamed Omar an achievement in itself. Bilateral relationships are expected to attract the country the much needed developmental assistance to boost their economic growth.

Economic growth, job creation and attracting international and Diaspora investment have become a central concern of Somaliland’s new administration. In this respect, the country’s new foreign policy, reflecting these aspirations, found partners, if coincidental, in Djibouti and Ethiopia. The latter two countries were for some time concerned about the image of the Horn of Africa which has been tarnished by bad publicity caused either by mad-made disasters like wars displacing millions from their home and livelihoods, or by natural disasters like draught and famine which were exacerbated by ineffective management causing much human suffering. Ethiopia and Djibouti, with their development initiatives, are committed to improving the living standards of their population, whilst at the same time they aim at transforming and restoring the image of the region by addressing the multidimensional poverty facing their people, tackling security concerns, and establishing regional trade links. Dr. Omar, shares and envisions these developmental goals. He wants Somaliland to be a key player in the envisaged Horn of Africa by attracting international investment for the country’s untapped natural resources and cashing in its strategic location.
Embroiled in the formation of yet another cabinet, these developments could not have come at a less fortunate time for Somalia’s TFG. Even though a new cabinet is now approved political disharmony among the TFG institutions is an ever present nightmare. Nonetheless its official line towards the US Dual Track Policy is that this new policy undermines the integrity of Somalia, as though there is anything to undermine, and even much less impressed by the changed position of Ethiopia and Djibouti. In an interview with the BBC on 22nd November 2010, the newly appointed Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) was extremely cautious about commenting in any indepth on their intended relationship with Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya. PM Mohamed instead emphasised strengthening their relationship with countries like Uganda and Burundi, the Arab World, the EU and the US. So what has changed for PM Mohamed (Farmajo) to be so vague about their relationship with Ethiopia and Djibouti? PM Mohamed (Farmajo) may have more in mind than merely avoiding to comment on his intentions regarding his government’s relations with Ethiopia. He may have found it difficult to swallow the diplomatic headways which Somaliland is booking in its foreign policy, particularly relations with neighbouring Ethiopia and Djibouti, and think that the best way to respond to their shifted positions is to ignore them altogether. He may also just be expressing the views held by some sections of the Somali Diaspora suggesting that Ethiopia, as Somalia’s arch enemy, is only out to keep Somalia downtrodden in a political mess, and the only way to show their disappointment for Ethiopia’s political involvement in Somalia is through low profile diplomatic relations, if not an outright confrontation. 

Although it might be premature to talk about how the bilateral relations between Somalia’s new government and Ethiopia will develop, one thing is certain: Somaliland is not taking too much of an interest in the TFG’s discomfort with the new political developments. After President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud (Silanyo) and his Foreign Minister Dr. Mohamed Abdillahi Omar visited Ethiopian and met Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in an official press release(3) PM Meles Zenawi ‘confirmed that Ethiopia would extend its support to Somaliland in the areas of security, peace, trade and communication, among others’. Here PM Zenawi more than ever before hints that Ethiopian will play an active role in facilitating the process of searching for diplomatic recognition. But it is not only Ethiopia that diplomatically sides now with Somaliland. Djibouti appears to have changed its position too; it may not be the first country to extend a full diplomatic recognition, but it has become the first country to extend a full diplomatic reception to President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud (Silanyo) on his official visit to the country in early November 2010.

Armed with the new impetus, renewed interest and change in the political landscape in the Horn of Africa, Somaliland is now firing on all cylinders in its search for full international diplomatic recognition. In addition to the delegation led by the president to the UK, a parliamentary delegation  from Somaliland is touring major European countries to showcase their achievements, strengthen  their links with European parliamentary institutions and rally support for enhancing their achievements.

Now the question arises what kind of relations does Somaliland intend to enter with its former partner of the union? The contemporary politics Somaliland stands for is one that recognises being a Somalian does not give one political leverage in all Somali-speaking territories. A national identity does not necessarily have to be forged out of such shared commonalities. Given that states are not naturally given but politically constructed on agreed upon principles, there is no reason to doubt that people sharing common language cannot form separate nations. Djiboutians did that. It is the lack of what Spears (2004) calls ‘the absence of common national consciousness’ that in addition to the polity scale problem similarly plagued contemporary African nation states, with the former Republic of Somalia being a classic example. Such national consciousness has never taken root in Somali-speaking territories both during pre-colonial and after independence.

President Mohamoud (Silanyo) knows that too well. In a speech on 26th November 2010 at Chatham House, London, he reiterated that the search for full political recognition is at the heart of his government. Outlining his vision of the region, he stated that they want to see peaceful Somalia. Clearly, peaceful Somalia is in everybody’s interest, not least because of the security concerns it raises, but more so because as Bryden (2004)(4) argues ‘an Ethiopian-Eritrean’ solution to the Somali-Somaliland problem might look attractive.

Having said that, President Mohamoud (Silanyo) did not hide his conviction that restoring and respecting colonial borders is in the best interest of the region, suggesting that the Great Somalia dream is now a ‘once-upon-a-time’ fairytale aspiration that needs to be archived, and indeed already archived by Somalilanders. He reiterated that the declaration of the Republic of Somaliland in 1991 marked the end of an epoch characterised by the hopeless dream of uniting all Somali-speaking people and territories under one nation. If we are to learn anything from history, he meant, it is that the 31 years of the Republic of Somalia were costly and disastrous. Echoing the changing world views towards Somalia, President Mohamoud (Silanyo) had a word of advice for that country. According to the President, Somalia can only emerge from the mess it is in if, and only if, its leaders stop relying on the externally-driven approach to reconciliation and peace building.

Mohamed Obsiye
BSc (Tropical Agriculture), MSc (Human Geography of Developing Countries), MA (Social Work), PhD Candidate.
E-Mail: mobsiye78@hotmail.com


(1) Herbst, J. (1996-1997) ‘Responding to State Failure in Africa’, International Security, (21):3

(2) Spears, I. S. (2004) ‘Debating Secession and the Recognition of New States in Africa’, African Security Review, 13(2).

(3) http://www.mfa.gov.et/Press_Section/publication.php?Main_Page_Number=5501

(4) Bryden, M. (2004) ‘Somalia and Somaliland: Envisioning a Dialogue on the Question of Somali Unity’, African Security Review, 13(2).


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