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  • Isabel Mathews

Somaliland: Democracy Growing in Barren Land

Located southwest of Ethiopia, off the coast of the Gulf of Aden, lies an unrecognized yet autonomous state known as Somaliland. With its own flag, currency, and constitution, Somaliland has instituted sovereign rule, yet it remains unrecognized by the international community. Many see democracy as a concept that only works with Western powers backing the regime. However, Somaliland has created democracy in a barren land. As state sovereignty conflicts rise up in other parts of the world, many still have not even heard of the democracy that formed in Somaliland after separating from the failed state Somalia. 

The Republic of Somaliland is an unrecognized state, with a population of around 3.5 million people. For reference, Somaliland is around the size of England and Wales. In Somaliland, common languages include Somali, Arabic, and English. Additionally, Somaliland shares borders with Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

History of Somaliland

In 1888, the British Empire established the British Somaliland protectorate in what is now Somaliland. The following year, Italy colonized present-day Somalia. On July 10, 1960, Somaliland was granted independence and soon went into a voluntary union with Somalia. 

Although Somaliland entered into a union with Somalia out of good faith, Somaliland was soon targeted by Somalia’s government. In 1969, Somali dictator Siad Barre took control of the state and ruled violently, with multiple human rights abuses. From 1988-1991, Barre massacred around 200,000 Isaaqs, a Somaliland-located tribe. Barre had initiated this genocide against the Isaaq clan as they had formed a rebel party against Barre’s authoritarian regime. A 2001 UN report concluded that "the crime of genocide was conceived, planned and perpetrated by the Somalia Government against the Isaaq people of northern Somalia." Barre’s genocidal actions included bombing Hargeisa, now the capital of Somaliland and then Northern Somalia. Despite Barre’s violent regime, the US allied with Barre as tensions in neighboring Ethiopia grew into a proxy conflict in the Cold War. 

Accordingly, the United States invested  $91 million in military and economic assistance for Somalia, and another $18 million in food aid for refugees. The United States overlooked many of Barre's atrocities to maintain dominance in the Cold War. The United States was aware of Barre’s genocidal actions, with one cable by the US embassy in Somalia saying that “Isaaqs, suffering from thirst, hunger, disease, and abominable camp conditions, were demanding to go home.” Still, the United States did not intervene and only stopped funding Barre in 1991 when alternate interests emerged in the Middle East. By 1988, Somalia’s economy was heavily dependent on US support. When Barre’s repressive regime collapsed in 1991, Somaliland declared independence from Somalia. Initially, the US intervened in the conflict but withdrew military support for Somalia after eighteen Americans were killed. This devastated Somalia’s economy and population. Because of the destabilization, the Islamic terrorist group Al-Shabaab currently tyrannizes Somalia’s current regime, resulting in increased civilian casualties and clan militia warfare. Constant warfare has led to approximately 2.6 million Somalis being internally displaced. To this day, Somalia has “high child and maternal mortality rates, severe malnutrition rates, frequent outbreaks of disease, and a lack of functional health facilities.” 

Democracy in Somaliland

Unlike the war-torn Somalia, Somaliland has a history of democracy, incorporating elements of direct elections. After declaring independence from Somalia, Somaliland adopted its own Constitution. The current head of government for Somaliland is the president, Muse Bihi Abdi, and he was elected with 55% of the national vote in 2017. Somaliland has reliable democratic elections as recognized by international observers. The Somaliland Constitution allows for three official political parties to compete in elections and ensures that there is a democratic transfer of power between governments. Although there is corruption in Somaliland’s government, given the history and region, this corruption is much less impactful than it is in neighboring countries. Freedom House ranks Somaliland as ‘partly free’ (with a score of 42/100), while neighboring countries have scores under 20. Additionally, although Somaliland has a difficult geography, climate, and access to resources, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo describes Somaliland as “a place that has made something out of virtually nothing.” As a developing state, Somaliland also faces issues on how to handle the freedom of speech and religion. Somaliland’s national religion is Islam and operates based on Sharia law. 

Impacts of not recognizing Somaliland

Despite its strides toward democracy and relative stability, Somaliland remains unrecognized by any UN member or international organization. This is mainly because the African Union bloc refuses to recognize Somaliland. While Somalia relied on international aid, Somaliland refused this aid and was unable to fully help their people amid food crises. Although evidence of atrocities had surfaced in 1997 as mass graves of Isaaq people were found, Somaliland still does not have the authority to prosecute these criminals because they are still legally part of Somalia which is not an International Criminal Court member. Regardless, Somaliland’s government is investing in museums and a war crimes commission to remember these atrocities committed by Somali dictator Siad Barre. 

Somaliland’s history affects its present-day status in the international community. Somaliland lacks international recognition and aid, unlike Somalia. Even if not supported by the United States or the international community, democracy continues to grow in Somaliland. 


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