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Coronavirus and the State of Non-recognition: The Case of Somaliland – PART 1

By Jama Musse Jama, on 20 July 2020

This is the first of a two-part article. Part 2 is available here (link)

Average expected reading time 6 minutes

Introduction: background to Somaliland non-recognition

The Republic of Somaliland (Somaliland) is a de facto independent state in the Horn of Africa, which despite not being recognised by any nation, represents peace, democracy, stability, prosperity, and cooperation in the region. It is often referred to as a beacon of hope, stability and democracy, in an otherwise volatile Horn of Africa Region.

Somaliland is not part of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and has managed its own domestic, international and security affairs since 1991, when it dissolved the union with The Republic of Somalia following a war that was waged on Somaliland in the name of the Somali state. Legacy of the war still remains and Somaliland is still rebuilding all infrastructures including health and public facilities that were destroyed, which complicates the current COVID-19 response.

Somaliland has a young population of over 4 million, a coastline that stretches over 800 km along the Red Sea and a land area covering 176,120 square km. The capital is Hargeysa – a large, bustling city – with a population of over one million.

COVID-19 and non-recognised countries

On 30th January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 (2019-nCoV) disease, as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). It consequently advised all countries to put in place measures, at an early stage in the pandemic, to ensure effective detection and protection.  In the declaration, the major concern was the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker healthcare systems in the Global South, and mainly in the African continent. The WHO and other international bodies, however, did not appear to pay particular attention to what happens when an already weak healthcare system is further hampered by non-recognition of its government. There is generally a need for strong bilateral agreements and collaborations with recognised counterparts, if effective delay, containment and mitigation is to be put in place by the country.

Somaliland and COVID-19

Somaliland has open borders and an open economy. It shares these borders with Djibouti in the west, Ethiopia in the south, Somalia in the east, and the Red Sea (facing Yemen) in the north. It has a merchant economy that depends heavily on global trade. COVID-19 caused havoc in the global trade on which Somaliland’s economy depends. The impact was felt even before the virus reached the country. Somaliland suddenly found itself fighting on two fronts: a health front and an economic front.

In response to the pandemic, the Somaliland Government formed the National COVID-19 Preparedness and Prevention Committee led by the Vice President. The Committee established a quarantine site for persons suspected or known to being infected with the virus and an incident management system to manage this quarantine process. The government also ordered a temporary suspension of land borders entry and exits – restricting this for any non-essential crossings. Other measures included closure of schools, temporary suspension of Qat imports, and advisory pronouncements against mass gathering. Activities such as attending mosques, weddings and events were curtailed to promote an awareness of the importance of social and physical measures in preventing the spread of the virus.

The effort was not as smooth as it would have been since there was no testing equipment or functioning case tracing system that could facilitate the process. The financial challenge was also something that was limiting the effort of the committee. Every country has struggled with COVID-19, and Somaliland is no different, so there have been lapses in the implementation of policies that were good when formulated on paper, but have been subject to shortcomings in practice.

This blog analyses the challenges and opportunities for a non-recognised country such as Somaliland in the current global public health emergency caused by this pandemic. It focuses on how, in general, the status of non-recognition is affecting the preparedness and protection of the populace during this COVID-19 crisis. It considers the challenges and opportunities, focusing in particular on the case of Somaliland, in the context of the wider Horn of Africa sub-region.

The need for strong expression of State power

The current crisis highlights the role of the state, the strength of national boundaries and of sovereignty, as crucial elements in dealing with COVID-19. From the perspective of non-recognised states, there are two aspects to consider: the first one is that non-recognised states themselves often exert the power of their de facto statehood by declaring border closure, just as recognised countries do. In the specific case of Somaliland, the government was the first in the region to declare the border closed when a case was identified; not even in Somaliland, but in Ethiopia. The government quickly deployed medical teams to all entry points such airports, seaports and land border crossings. It was a genuine concern from the government of Somaliland that the health emergency could quickly spiral out of control. But considered from a political and international relations perspective, these measures were also a way to display and demonstrate the power the state could exert as an independent strong state, underlining the point that Somaliland exercises effective sovereignty, even though that sovereignty is not recognised officially. This indicates the state of power in Somaliland as exercised by the democratically elected current government. This is part of a wider historical pattern of political decision-making by successive Somaliland governments, of various political hues, over the past 29 years. In the current time it portrays the clear intention to act independently and to uphold the sovereign decision-making power vested in the government by the population which democratically elected it; such that it is able to exercise and demonstrate that within its own territory.

The second aspect to consider is that governments in non-recognised states promote their central role in the nation through legitimising their decisions and requiring public and private partners and stakeholders to comply with government guidelines. In the Somaliland case, key basic social services including healthcare and education are in the hands of the private sector. Nevertheless, in this time of challenge the state declared and expanded its mandate. Particularly its capability to access private facilities and requisition and repurpose them for the common use of wider society if needs arise from a state of emergency declaration, as permitted under Somaliland law. Medical equipment and medicines, spaces for quarantine and related resources owned by the private sector were directed for use for the common good by bringing them under the control of the state. This directive would have been legally dubious and hard to enforce without the declaration of an emergency. Hence, again, a non-recognised state demonstrated the ability to act just like a recognised one. That is notwithstanding the fact that Somaliland sovereignty was never in question domestically, even in normal pre-pandemic days. This point about internal legitimacy is important as it reflects the fact that capacity to act is vested in the consent of the population and a general trust and confidence that the government and, indeed, the formal opposition will ultimately act in the interests of the country. The implications for public health interventions are important, but little studied.

In both aspects, however, the case of Somaliland might be seen as a special situation, because, for instance, in terms of the effectiveness of border closure, Somaliland already had an effective, pre-existing state apparatus. All four borders were already monitored and managed peacefully even though the one in the east (with Somalia) has proven challenging at times. Hence, the ability to act just like a recognised state could be based on the existence of such effective, albeit non-recognised, capacities which create the impression that doing so is merely a normal act of governance in action.

However, Somaliland is feeling the pressure of the status of being non-recognised more than ever, and the impact and legacy of this pandemic manifests itself in both political and economic forms. In the political form it feels like business as usual. For example, the closures of borders, flight restrictions and related decisions, including legitimising election postponement. These political acts have been implemented with the same speed and effectiveness as recognised countries. Yet even the flight restrictions generated a political conflict, as Somalia declared its own airspace restrictions to cover Somaliland, while Somaliland still had flights arriving. This re-iterates the significance of unresolved underlying political tensions insofar as international politics is concerned, between Somaliland and Somalia.

Secondly, the economic aspect has been challenging for a number of reasons arising from Somaliland’s status as not being recognised. The state of emergency and closing borders (except for essential import activities) has crippled both state capacity and private sector activities. Even the smallest aspect of day-to-day tax collection has been hampered by stay-home measures. Consequently, the revenues of Somaliland’s government have taken a significant hit over the past few months, as indicated by a briefing prepared by Somaliland’s Ministry of Finance, though this is likely to be a temporary consequence. This has wider implications for government expenditure and delivery of the government’s domestic policy agenda.

Many recognised states have taken the opportunity to access alternative support lines through both fiscal and monetary policy interventions to support the wider economy and public institutions. But non-recognised states do not generally have access to multilateral financial institutions, the international financial system or bilateral economic support. In the case of Somaliland, it further lacks well-developed economic regulatory institutions. Being a developing economy, the Somaliland government’s capacity to introduce economic stabilisation measures – such as welfare transfers to the poorest and most vulnerable in society or expansionary fiscal policies – is severely restricted. In summary, the capacities of non-recognised governments to ease the economic consequences of unexpected economic shocks such as the COVID19 pandemic, are more limited than those of recognised countries. This has implications for economic resilience and short- to medium-term economic growth prospects, which are expected to take a significant hit.

The second part of this article will focus on the practical effects of non-recognition for Somaliland’s ability to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.


Dr Jama Musse Jama is an ethnomathematician with a PhD in African Studies specialising in Computational Linguistics of African Languages.  Currently Director of the Hargeysa Cultural Centre in Somaliland, Dr. Jama has also a Research Associate position at DPU, University College London, UK. He can be reached at twitter.com/JamaMusse

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