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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


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Coronavirus and the State of Non-recognition: The Case of Somaliland – PART 2

By Jama Musse Jama, on 20 July 2020

Part 1 of this article dealt with the background regarding Somaliland’s non-recognition and is available here (link)

Average expected reading time 7 minutes

Humanitarian assistance and COVID-19 in a non-recognised state

As is clear from the first part of this article, Somaliland non-recognition is not a product of on-going conflict and violence. The last period of conflict erupted in the early 1990s at a time when the Somali National Movement (SNM) had liberated the country from the military regime. Indeed, it was in 1991 that Somaliland proclaimed its independence from the rest of the former Somali Republic. After the first intra-SNM conflicts and clan-clashes in Berbera, Burao, Hargeysa and Erigavo in the years of 1991-1993, immediate internal reconciliation conferences were conducted in a very traditional way in Hargeysa, Burao, Erigavo, and Sheikh. These conferences culminated in the Grand Borama Conference (1993), which led to the establishment of much improved security and a stable government.

So rather than being a consequence of ongoing instability, non-recognition is instead a chronic case of de facto independence in the face of the status quo of non-recognition. To put it another way; perversely, Somaliland’s very stability has allowed the status quo of non-recognition to remain in place. However, because of the current crisis, in every country there is urgent humanitarian health aid to be delivered, which needs also to be delivered as effectively as possible. There are two types of aid or assistance: the first is aid to people – mainly humanitarian aid. The second is aid to states – mainly developmental and budgetary support. The situation in Somaliland is that aid to people depends on the humanitarian situation, and as long as conditions on the ground allow delivery, it keeps coming. Not in full, but some element keeps coming. Aid to the state is different, because officially the non-recognised state doesn’t exist as such, and any aid that is available through official channels goes to the recognised entity first, and only thence, if at all, to the non-recognised entity. In the case of Somaliland, the government has announced several times that they will never accept international assistance channelled through the FGS in Mogadishu. This is a red line as far as Somaliland is concerned.

Somalia’s Federal Government was successful in winning debt relief under Heavily Indebted Poor Countries status, releasing IMF support while the World Bank and UN Agencies, as well as the European Union, are fast-tracking cash-transfers to Mogadishu, as a recognised state, in the form of direct budgetary assistance. The FGS debt cancelation, the delay of interest and capital repayments, direct financial support as well as continental and regional assistance, are not, however, burning issues in the corridors of power in Hargeysa, as the non-recognised counterpart. On the contrary, the Somaliland government looks sceptically at any money that goes to Mogadishu. Particularly as the FGS use this international support quite openly to further its political ideology and political conflict. This inadvertently confronts the non-recognised counterpart, Somaliland, with an untenable choice between compromising the long-standing quest for recognition and taking the support on offer as part of the assumed ‘parent’ state or, on the other hand, of foregoing that critical support. Resolution of this impossible dilemma is hampered by lack of access to legitimate channels for negotiation and the right to request assistance as a self-governing state in challenging times.

Yet non-recognised status is not entirely negative. Paradoxically, Somaliland appears to have done rather well compared to some recognised countries. It is often overlooked in media and political discourse that the Government of Somaliland is the only democratically elected government in the region. It is surrounded by countries with unelected leaders and governments from Ethiopia to Djibouti and Somalia. This means that, even as a non-recognised state, the government of Somaliland is nevertheless directly accountable to its own people. As such it could be argued that the actions it took quickly (closed borders, stopped flights and quarantine) were in part driven by self-interest at the state level. This is because the Government of Somaliland is hugely reliant on internally generated resources and derives its legitimacy from an internal power base (the people). The government of Somaliland has, for example no external loans and receives only limited international financial assistance. Thus, the state domestically has a strong political and economic incentive to act decisively to protect the local socio-economic ecosystem including from medical health emergencies such as COVID-19. This was also evident at the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when Somaliland took proactive measures, such as screening passengers on international flights arriving into Hargeysa’s Egal International Airport. Conversely, the internationally recognised government in Mogadishu is reliant on, indeed arguably propped up by international support, but lacks democratic accountability and domestic legitimacy. This has implications for the Mogadishu government’s modus operandi; from its domestic and international policies and politics, as well as widely reported corruption and graft in government and public institutions, to its security arrangement with it being largely reliant on AMISOM troops for its continued viability.

Challenges and opportunities

COVID19 brings with it problems and opportunities for non-recognised states. It puts a lot of demand on meagre resources and exposes vulnerabilities in the case of non-recognised entities. On the other hand, it brings opportunities as the plight itself gives these ‘invisible states’ greater visibility. It provides a wake-up call for policy makers and scholars to reflect, for example, on food security and the protection of the people, and the policy measures most likely to have a tangible, positive impact. It also focuses minds and brings people together against a common problem, and political infighting takes a back seat. This inadvertently results in stronger institutions and clarity of political purpose not only from the incumbent Kulmiye party government, but also from the two official opposition parties, Waddani and UCID.

Also, on the opportunity side is the way it has given the government space to voice their concerns and to pursue bolder international strategies where the potential exists, as in the case of Taiwan with whom Somaliland has recently reached agreement on enhanced cooperation. For Somaliland, the crisis has helped to raise their political voice regionally and has highlighted the need for cooperation in addressing this huge global challenge that rises above existing political alignments. Hence it has been an advantage in that Somaliland as a state has been more visible and has been able to share their narrative at a global level. More specifically it provided an indirect visibility, both to international and regional institutions – such that renewed questions are being asked about de-politicising humanitarian assistance as a mutually beneficial endeavour. The other opportunity it has brought to non-recognised states is the self-reliance narration. It presents opportunities for practical steps by the private sector and friends of the nation, such that it strengthens ownership of local initiatives and domestically, the bond of national unity.

COVID-19 may well hinder democratic processes internationally and for both recognised and non-recognised countries, but the non-recognised is almost definitionally more fragile, often with little in the way of strong, rule-based legal and institutional systems.

Of course, all the shortcomings of the Somaliland Government in reaction to the pandemic cannot be justified by non-recognition. Many people criticized, for instance, the fact that incoming flights were not stopped earlier. The Somaliland Government has been confronted with the same choices as other countries when it comes to public health versus the economy and has shaped its policy response around its own definition of “national interest”. The Somaliland COVID-19 Preparedness Committee could, for example, have improved their public communication and not given room for rumours on the pandemic to spread; also the compulsory quarantine on arrivals could have been implemented more efficiently with clear and strict rules much better enforced.

Capitalising on Opportunities:

Reflecting on the aforementioned considerations, Somaliland is now receiving renewed international attention because of this crisis. This may lead it to secure more friends for its post COVID-19 international quest for recognition. The pandemic has brought Somaliland into the international arena, particularly as a research case study, having many similarities with Taiwan, with those two states being able to secure their populations and efficiently and effectively make decisions. The two states have been allies and with their recent establishment of formal ties, this definitely seems like an interesting opportunity to observe in the future. The current situation has also given space for Somaliland to state its differences with Somalia. Particularly to point out how long-delayed recognition remains a problem which manifests itself in many known and invisible socio-economic and political barriers, especially as little support of any kind has reached Somaliland during this pandemic. A good example is of the Chinese billionaire and founder of Ali-Baba, Jack Ma, whose donation to African nations through the African Union and the Ethiopian government, has been directed to the FGS, with Somaliland refusing to accept a share as long as the prerequisite condition is that it does so as a Federal Member State of Somalia. This broadly reflects the wider pattern by international actors, who have kept sending help to Somalia. Nevertheless, this has given the chance for Somaliland to showcase their quest for independence and allowed them to practice and hone policies of self sufficiency, whilst also strengthening links with the diaspora and private sector. Even as these current events raise questions of political desire, emergency compromises may still be needed to save lives.

Somaliland has also strengthened during this pandemic some friendships with allies. This is especially true for the UAE, which has supported Somaliland with materials, and for Ethiopia, who have provided smaller scale support to Somaliland as well as enhancing recently fraught relations. Ethiopian Airlines continues to fly into Hargeysa, even though the FGS has objected to this. Within Somaliland, this has been taken as a symbol of solidarity and strength from Ethiopia to parallel that of the UAE. A donation from Qatar raises a political question which reflects ongoing political wrangling amongst the Gulf countries which interacts with the politics of the Horn of Africa. Qatar’s unequivocal stance in support of the FGS has become an established feature of recent political events in the region. Other actors, such as the EU and UK remain positive, longstanding and well established partners for Somaliland. A key feature in this relationship, is the shared democratic credentials and Somaliland’s history as the former British Somaliland Protectorate, plus its large diaspora communities in Europe and the United States. The US and EU are particularly allies in the humanitarian assistance space, which was first formalised with the [now discontinued] US two track approach towards Somaliland and Somalia, whereby Western countries started to engage with both Somaliland and Somalia on a level but separate footing. The Somaliland Development Fund was another tool that facilitated direct support to Somaliland from the UK, Denmark and The Netherlands on projects fully aligned with the National Development Plan (NDP). The first phase of SDF [2013-2018] “provided funding for 12 projects with a total value of USD 59 million to projects implemented by the Government of Somaliland”, followed by British government signing “agreements worth £31 million to support development in Somaliland” in 2019. For SDF-2, additional support from the UK, Denmark and The Netherlands has just been announced (July, 2020, though the total sum involved is so far unreleased). This new phase has the declared objective of fostering “inclusive economic development for the people of Somaliland” (see https://www.somalilanddevelopmentfund.org/projects).

A particular consideration from the EU perspective – given the jointly determined nature of its foreign policy responses – is that support to Somaliland must preserve protocols that reflect and pay lip-service to Somalia’s ‘unity’, at least within the public arena and particularly in published statements. Major partnerships, including the EU, announced direct budget support to Somaliland in the first days of the crisis, but this has not yet been implemented, with the main reason for non-implementation being non-recognition, as the EU has no mandate to sign a bilateral agreement which would certainly upset Mogadishu. Nevertheless, the EU is the major supporter of humanitarian and development assistance to Somaliland via projects implemented by International and National NGOs.

Finally, apart from international financial and humanitarian impact, there are other areas where non-recognition has been a major obstacle during the pandemic, including education, trade and state revenue. Recognised states can rely on international assistance and debt relief to create space for the redirection of funds to address urgent health, education and poverty concerns while even allowing some bolstering of state capacity at this time of particular weakness. In Somaliland, though, these avenues are largely absent. The use of Berbera port, which generated significant private sector and state income has been halted, while livestock exports, despite the Eid market, remain well below normal expected volume and likewise, with many flights suspended, income usually gained from the airport has also ceased. The recent decision to ban most Haj pilgrims from entering Saudi Arabia also removes a key source of income for Somaliland livestock owners.

An opportunity might lie in the fact that the pandemic has helped the non-recognised state to see alternative strategies and partnerships for addressing the challenge, for instance, relying on the local community that is still playing a decisive role in providing basic social support. The private sector has also stepped up in many instances, with a donation to Somaliland’s COVID-19 committee from major businesses such as Dahabshiil, TELESOM, WORLDREMIT and other companies, providing further evidence of the resilience Somaliland is already recognised for. The case of Somaliland’s experience in dealing with the pandemic is therefore a mixed bag featuring a tangled narrative based on a positive domestic story of self-reliance and desire for local ownership and determination to stand firm on the well-justified quest for international recognition even in these challenging times, but without compromising on the value of human life. It is also a real-time example of the continued failure of the international community to find an alternative system that extends the needed support for security while valuing human life in the midst of a global emergency. The geopolitics that lie behind Somaliland’s lengthy status of non-recognition substantively impede efforts to address urgent and acknowledged needs on the ground in an effective and coordinated manner. This effectively represents the abandonment of collective responsibility, leaving critical humanitarian and developmental priorities to be handled through the fragmented international relationships resulting from an enduring refusal on the part of bilateral and multilateral partners to find creative ways around diplomatic concerns. This makes development assistance even more of a gamble than is already the case, undermining the principles of fairness and impeding sufficient input needed to address this acute human emergency. For Somaliland, while non-recognition has many consequences – some even positive – on balance, it significantly exacerbates already substantial challenges at a critical moment when we should all instead be focused on reducing barriers.


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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