Few in the international community know about the democratic country that has often been described as ‘A rare African miracle.’ A special guest post about the history of Somaliland by Edna Adan Ismail, former Foreign Minister of the Somaliland Republic and former First Lady of Somalia.
Colonialism and borders
As with most African countries, the British Somaliland Protectorate was established in 1884 after France colonised the land to the west naming it “La Cote Francaise Des Somalis.” Italy colonised another portion to the east calling it “La Somalia Italiana” and Ethiopia retained a portion to the south known as “The Somali 5th Region.” To the north is the Gulf of Aden.
What we cannot understand is what makes all the other African colonial borders legal, when those of Somaliland are considered illegal. In fact, we have the same borders today that we had when established in 1884 and we had those borders at our independence from Britain on June 26, 1960, while the two other Somali territories were still under colonial rule. Our borders are the same today, 55 years after independence from Britain and 25 years after separation from Somalia.
In 1960, Somaliland was the 12th independent African nation making it senior to 42 African countries that were still under colonial rule at that time. These countries are among the current 53 members of the African Union, who ironically have somehow given themselves the authority to determine the fate of Somaliland.
After independence, Somaliland became a member of the United Nations and 55 years later it has neither resigned from UN membership, nor given away its sovereignty to anyone. Somaliland still claims ownership of its independence and its UN membership, although Somalia has been allowed to occupy the seat that Somaliland had secured before Somalia’s independence.
Another injustice is the de-facto position of ownership that the international community grants our junior partner, Somalia, which has never owned, bought or annexed Somaliland through a military conquest. Unification of the two sovereign Somali states was not binding since it was never ratified by the parliaments of the two countries. In short, Somaliland is not a “break-away” region of Somalia, and the 31-year failed union between Somaliland and Somalia, from 1960 to 1991, was only an informal partnership that led to a brutal civil war.
A failed union and civil war
Other African countries, such as Senegal and Gambia, attempted similar unions but lasted only six months. Another example, a union between Egypt and Syria lasted three years. Just like Somaliland, these sovereign countries went into a voluntary union in good faith but when their union failed, they separated without any punishment from the international community.
On the contrary, Somaliland is being punished for doing exactly the same as these countries had done even though Somaliland had given the union a much longer trial and only withdrew after the military regime of Somalia’s former dictator, Siad Barre, carried out genocide and war crimes against our people. Somaliland withdrew from that union when government airplanes indiscriminately bombed and pitilessly flattened 90 percent of our cities, destroying our schools, hospitals, mosques, markets and civilian dwellings.
During those long years of mass killings of our people, the world did nothing to stop the carnage. Where was justice when thousands of women and children were massacred, when half a million became internally displaced and when an additional million became refugees in camps in Ethiopia and Djibouti?
To this day, mass graves are being discovered containing human remains, including those of small children, killed by Somalia. Sadly, the international community chooses to reward Somalia, which perpetrated these war crimes with billions of taxpayers’ money, when the people of Somaliland who have been the victims are denied a hearing and their ‘Day in Court.’
After liberating Somaliland in 1991, our people worked hard to bring peace and maintain the stability that we enjoy today. By contrast, the international community has failed to stabilize Somalia, even after funding 18 peace conferences and spending billions to keep international peacekeeping troops there.
Building a model for development and democracy
Following the defeat of Siad Barre, we held our own successful self-funded peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction conferences inside Somaliland, the first main one being in Burao in May 1991 when our traditional elders unanimously agreed to separate from Somalia, let ‘bygones be bygones’, not seek revenge on any persons from Somalia still living in Somaliland, and to secure a safe corridor for the return home of the Somalia prisoners of war held inside Somaliland.
That general amnesty holds to this day, with many labourers from Somalia working and living here with their families without any restrictions or fear for their lives. That is what Somaliland’s democracy is all about!
The second major conference was the Borama Congress in 1993 when Somaliland developed the National Charter that became the blueprint for the civilian and democratic system of government that has been in place since that time in Somaliland. During that Congress, over 500 representatives of all the clans of Somaliland elected the late President Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, who is known as the ‘Father of Somaliland.’
Immediately, Somalilanders rebuilt the country on a self-help basis without international assistance, without a Marshall Plan and without external financial support, nor with the political recognition that the country deserves but which has been denied to us.
Following the Borama Congress, we held our referendum to adopt the Somaliland Constitution that became approved by an overwhelming majority in May 2001. At the same time, voters also re-affirmed their support for the country’s sovereignty, which is consistent with the basic human rights of people to seek self-determination as contained in the Charters of the African Union and that of the United Nations.
In December 2002, we held our first local and parliamentary elections and in April 2003 we held the first of several Presidential elections through a multi-party democracy in Somaliland. Over the years, we have held several other political elections which have all been peaceful, democratic, and which have all been witnessed by the international community including the United States and the European Union. Many “recognized” countries in Africa cannot boast of such an exemplary record. In Somaliland, that is what we call democracy in practice.
Less than three years after separation from Somalia, Somaliland became the second African country after South Africa, to achieve a general and voluntary demobilization of its militia. We demobilized our freedom fighters without international assistance and without international troops to make it happen. We all know how many times demobilization has been attempted in Somalia with the help of peacekeeping forces from over 27 countries and we all know how badly these attempts had failed.
25 years after separation from Somalia, Somaliland is a country of hope, peace, and determination. Landmines have been removed and over a million refugees have returned home from refugee camps or from the diaspora. Thousands of dwellings have been rebuilt and major economic infrastructure has been repaired or built, such as schools, hospitals, mosques, ports, airports and other public property.
Today, we have an economy that is increasingly attracting foreign investors who wish to do business in Somaliland. Above all, Somaliland has built a society founded on peace, justice, and the rule of law. This year, Somaliland has received over 10,000 refugees from Yemen after war broke out there.
We stand neither for secession nor for the revision of Africa’s borders. We reaffirm our commitment to the peace and stability of the region which includes an unreserved respect for the unity, and the territorial integrity of nations. Somaliland was among the first African States to be free from colonial rule and fully respects the borders of British Somaliland Protectorate as handed over to us at the moment of our independence from Great Britain.
Infrastructure and economy
Our system of free market economy seems to fully agree with the entrepreneurial character of our people. It is seen in the dramatic economic growth that exists and which has earned us the description of “A rare African miracle.”
Today, there are more hospital beds, more universities, and more young people attending schools than we have ever had in our past history. We have more advanced telecommunications and electronic money transfer system than many countries in the world.
Somaliland has mineral resources that have not yet been exploited. We have oil, gas, coal, and the world’s largest gypsum deposits. We also have an 850 kilometre-long coastline that is free from pirates and which is strategically located on the Gulf of Aden. It is rich with marine resources only waiting to be exploited in order to boost our economy and to create jobs for thousands.
The deep-water Port of Berbera serves as a major outlet/inlet for land-locked Ethiopia with a population of over 70 million. Berbera airport also has the longest runway in Africa having been built by the British, extended by the Soviet Union, and then by the United States to become one of the six landing sites for the Columbia space shuttle.
Regretfully, even though Somaliland is a country that can be considered a rare African success story, the former Organization of African Unity, as well as the present African Union, is spending more time and effort over Africa’s failures and conflicts instead of giving credit to Africa’s achievements like the shining example we have in Somaliland today.
Failing to recognise the achievements of Somaliland would be a great discredit to human rights and to democracy itself. It would destroy the hard-won stability that we enjoy today, and could result in another mass exodus from the Horn of Africa that would scatter our people to the four corners of the world again.
Somalilanders have had time to recover, heal emotionally, and rebuild their country’s economy, politics, and military.
This position of strength gives us the confidence to move forward and to extend a hand of welcome towards anyone who has the mandate to represent and speak for the people of former Italian Somalia in order to initiate serious dialogue. This dialogue would be based on the goodwill and the mutual respect for the territorial integrity of the two sovereign Somali countries that united on the July 1, 1960. This dialogue could become the foundation upon which the two nations could build a platform for sound and serious negotiations between neighbours so that the people on both sides of the border would find peace again after a quarter of a century of troubles, tragedy and turmoil.
The people of Somaliland have made a clear choice. The question now is whether the international community respect the choice of the people of Somaliland?
Edna Adan Ismail is the former Foreign Minister of the Somaliland Republic and former First Lady of Somalia. She had previously served as Somaliland’s Minister of Family Welfare and Social Development. She is the director and founder of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa and an activist and pioneer in the struggle for the abolition of female genital mutilation. She is also President of the Organization for Victims of Torture.