afrol News, 31 May - This morning, poll stations opened in the breakaway republic Somaliland in northeastern Somalia. Somalilanders are queuing to vote "yes" or "no" on a proposed Constitution and independence. Although their claims seem legitimate, the Somalilanders' bid for independence finds no international recognition.
Asked whether today's referendum on the new Somaliland Constitution also is a referendum on independence, Somaliland's President Muhammad Ibrahim Egal says 'yes'. "The first article of the Constitution establishes the independence and the sovereign status of the country, its borders and all. Once you have accepted that Constitution, you have accepted Somaliland," says Egal.
Somaliland, or former British Somalia, in practical terms however has been independent for ten years and stands a good chance of a successful secession from Somalia (former Italian Somalia). In May 1991, after the fall of Muhammad Siyad Barre's military dictatorship and Somalia falling into the hands of rivalling and warring clans, Somalilanders decided to break away from what President Egal calls "the quagmire next to us". Three decades of repression and massacres of civilian Somalilanders were enough; they did not want to get involved in the new fighting in the south.
Between 1991 and October 2000, the rest of Somalia was without a central government. Clan leaders and warlords fought endless wars where the civilian population was the main victim, besides the economy. Meanwhile, Egal and his reconciled partners slowly built a modern, African state from their governing centre in Somaliland's capital Hargeysa. All state institutions carefully have been established.
Somaliland has its own efficiently running legislative, executive and judiciary powers and an army. It has its own coinage, flag, numberplates, passports, Internet services and so on. Although Somaliland has a liaison office in Washington, the only institutions still missing are real foreign representations and embassies in Hargeysa. No state so far has recognised Somaliland's independence.
The international society on the other hand chooses to give full support to the Transitional National Government (TNG) of Somalia in Mogadishu, although its failure to establish itself as a unifying government in Somalia is more obvious for each month that passes. The TNG was a result of the Djibouti negotiations in 2000, supported by the UN, and was to re-establish a Somali central government in Mogadishu after 10 years of civil war and without a Somali government.
Somaliland President Egal however boycotted the Djibouti negotiations, referring to the fact that his country had declared the re-establishment of independence already in 1991, when there was no Mogadishu government to negotiate with. Other parties and clan leaders that had signed the Djibouti declaration with time have not contributed to its fulfilment and in practical terms have withdrawn their support to the TNG. Now, the so-called central government only controls a few areas of the capital. The rest of Somalia is again, or still, in the hands of rivalling groups and clans, and the will to pass control over to the TNG has now totally disappeared.
While Mogadishu still is marked by rivalry, insecurity and terror, Somaliland's capital Hargeysa has had ten years of stability, tranquillity and economic boom. The unity among Somaliland's clans and groups has facilitated economic growth even within the vacuum of a country not recognised by any other.
The biggest hurdle in the race for recognition has proven to be the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which categorically refuses all changes on the African political map. This reluctance is based on the principle, enshrined in the OAU charter, of the inviolability of the old, colonial borders. Neither the UN nor Western nations want to overrule the OAU on this "inter-African" issue.
Somaliland however has a good case even within the frames of the OAU charter, being in the fortunate position of having four days of post-colonial independence and colonial borders to show to. It achieved its political independence from Britain on 26 June 1960. On 1 July 1960, it joined the former trust territory of Italian Somalia as equal partners to form the new state of the Somali Republic. "Contrary to our high hopes and aspirations, the political union turned into a nightmare," President Egal however said earlier this year.
These few days of independence, and the fact that British and Italian Somalia were two separate colonies, makes the Somaliland claim an option that has to be taken seriously. With the ancient colonial borders being sacrosanct in Africa, the only "separatist" states that have achieved recognition by the OAU so far are Eritrea and Western Sahara. Other sovereignty claims have been turned down or even sanctioned, such as the Comoran island of Anjouan, which has been independent for four years now. Somaliland is in a situation parallel to Eritrea - which however first was recognised by Ethiopia, the country it seceded from.
Although nobody wants to be the first to go against OAU doctrine and be held responsible for future secessionist movements in Africa, support and lobbying for an independent Somaliland is growing. International workers stationed in Somaliland are indeed impressed by the achievements of Egal's government, only too easy to contrast against the chaos in Somalia proper.
The UN media IRIN, usually carefully avoiding "hot potatoes", has been noted for its plentiful and positive reporting from Somaliland. In special reports, IRIN has published lengthy interviews with President Egal and economic success stories from Hargeysa; articles going far beyond the agency's original purpose of informing about humanitarian issues. UN workers in Hargeysa, through IRIN publishing more about Somaliland than any other international media, rather are seen as actively lobbying for the country's recognition within the UN.
But then, the UN does not rule out recognition totally, as does Somalia and the OAU. The UN attitude is that the fulfilled 1991 secession was not legal, as there was no working state to secede from. In so far, the UN demands that Somaliland first has to return to Somalia to be able to formally dissolve the political union of 1960. This is reported not to be an option in Hargeysa.
There are however others sympathetic to Somaliland's cause as the failure of the Mogadishu government becomes more evident. Three groups of international observers, from the US, South Africa and from neighbouring Ethiopia, are present in Hargeysa to monitor today's referendum, while the invited UN and OAU observers are conspicuous by their absence. Although these observers' presence does not mean their countries' recognition of Somaliland, it signals their willingness to consider recognition.
Also in London, the former colonialists' capital, support is gathered for Somaliland. The BBC today reported about Somaliland support demonstrations in the metropolis. Supporters demanded that the former colonial power should be the first to recognise Somaliland's independence.
Britain, key partner of many African countries (i.e. OAU members), is however not expected to make the first step in Somaliland's international recognition. Analysts look to fellow Muslim countries on the Arab peninsula, after Ethiopia the major trade partners of Somaliland. Even Ethiopia, increasingly dependent on the Berbera harbour and not recognising the Mogadishu government, could make the first move. Also Israel is an option, if Arab brothers fail to make the first step.
Although hoping for recognition, Somalilanders, enjoying a positive development for ten years without recognition, know they can keep on with their achievements without it. The timetable for the further development of national institutions in no way depends on international recognition.
If the referendum yields the widely expected "yes" to independence and the new Constitution, the process of establishing democratic institutions will continue immediately. Political parties are to be registered for the parliamentarian elections that are planned for the end of this year. Presidential elections are foreseen for 2002.
President Egal has already stated his willingness to run in the 2002 election. Even if Somalilanders elected him as their leader in Borama in 1993, believing he would be the most likely person to achieve Western recognition, he doesn't think his people is disappointed with him. "I think the vast majority of people in Somaliland still think I am the most likely man to put Somalia back on the road," Egal comments his chances in 2002.
Egal knows Hargeysa's strategy to build a strong, diversified and stable economy in the end also will produce political yields. "This country is going to be the first African economic tiger," Egal likes to portray the situation, knowing that growing trade ties also call for growing political ties.
Sources: Based on Somaliland Government, UN sources, BBC and afrol archives