Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) gave a speech in Minneapolis on Jan. 27 declaring that she would use her influence to prevent an agreement over access to the sea being signed between Ethiopia and the breakaway Republic of Somaliland.
According to one corrected translation, Omar, speaking in Somali, proclaimed “The U.S. government will do what we tell the U.S. government to do. That is the confidence we need to have as Somalis … As long as I’m in Congress, no one will take over the seas belonging to the nation of Somalia.”
President Joe Biden may be anxious about inflaming Islamic sentiment in the region, but he should realize that a narrow diplomatic window has opened with regard to security and stability in the Horn of Africa, and he should not let it close.
Most Americans probably identify Somalia with Ridley Scott’s 2001 film “Black Hawk Down,” which dramatized the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. American forces have been deployed to Somalia off and on for more than 30 years and under five presidents. Official American policy supports the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia within its 1960 borders.” But policy can and should change.
The Republic of Somaliland, in the north of Somalia, declared independence from the central government in 1991. But the state from which it sought to secede was of no great antiquity, having been formed after independence from colonial rulers only in 1960. Before that, the territory which now claims its autonomy as Somaliland was a British possession starting in 1884, while the rest of the country had existed as Somalia Italia since 1908.
The United States should carefully examine the prospect of recognizing Somaliland. 80 percent of the population is made up of the Isaaq clan, making it ethnically distinct from Somalia. Despite lack of international recognition, it has created a reasonably free and democratic society over the past 30 years, with presidential elections in 2003, 2010 and 2017, and is due to go to the polls again this November. International observers in 2017 noted that “Somaliland’s success in establishing a viable political system that combines customary structures with the representative electoral mechanisms of the nation-state has been impressive.”
Somaliland still faces challenges of corruption, economic and political marginalization, and violence against women. But over the same 33-year period, Somalia, which asserts its sovereignty, has been in freefall, beset by internal violence and weak political institutions.
Freedom House, which produces an annual assessment of political freedoms and civil liberties, last year rated Somaliland as “partly free” with a score of 44 out of 100. Somalia was declared “unfree” with just 8 of 100. For context, the United States only managed 76 of 100.
These two small jurisdictions, with a combined population of around 18 million, are important to the United States because of their strategic location. The West has been brutally reminded of the importance of freedom of navigation by the attacks on shipping by Houthi militants in Yemen, on the northern shore of the Gulf of Aden. Somaliland and Somalia are to the south, watching over access to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and thence to the Red Sea, which accounts for 12 percent of global trade and a third of global container traffic.
Somaliland remains poor. If rated separately, it is the 18th-poorest country in the world; but one 2023 study named Somalia as the poorest of all. Somaliland is limited by its lack of international recognition: it is ineligible for loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and excluded from international markets and global trading networks.
In 2021, Somaliland saw the opening of a major port facility at Berbera operated by Emirati logistics giant DP World. Last March, the government created a special Berbera Economic Zone by the port to encourage trade and investment. Where Somaliland has developed private enterprise it has been dynamic and highly entrepreneurial. In terms of education and research, the University of Hargeisa has established links with Harvard, University College London and King’s College London.
It is Somaliland’s very efforts towards development that sparked Rep. Omar’s remarks. On Jan. 1, the Somaliland government concluded a memorandum of understanding with Ethiopia to lease access to the open sea for the Ethiopian Navy in return for a share in Ethiopian Airlines. Ethiopia lost its coastal access when Eritrea seceded in 2003 and currently pays fees to use port facilities in Djibouti. Inevitably, Somalia has objected, as have Eritrea and Egypt.
The U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Ambassador Michael Hammer, has maintained the administration’s line on the integrity of Somalia, where the U.S. has spent $3.25 billion in assistance since 2006. By any metric, current U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa is failing. Yet the shipping lanes just off the horn are now one of the central focuses of America’s military and diplomatic efforts. If Donald Trump takes back the presidency in November, it is hard to imagine he will apply a magnifying lens to the intricacies of U.S. posture; he sees foreign policy only in the most startling of primary colors, and has no instinctive affinity for free trade or global supply chains.
President Biden has a year, come what may. It is time to make radical changes, to stop using the interests of a failed shell of a state as the fulcrum of U.S. policy. Somaliland has made astonishing economic and political progress over the past 30 years without the benefit of statehood — and now deserves a modest helping hand.
In the United Kingdom, which is the UN Security Council “penholder” for Somalia overall, there is a small but determined group of legislators campaigning for recognition of Somaliland. Britain’s support for Operation Prosperity Guardian and military action against the Houthis suggests an obvious partnership: change tack, support indigenous economic development and show the region a new model of stepping up to self-sufficiency and the West’s enthusiasm to embrace vibrant nations as part of the security architecture. Success is by no means guaranteed — but the approach of the past 30 years has shown itself exhaustively to be a failure.
Eliot Wilson is a freelance writer on politics and international affairs. He was senior official in the U.K. House of Commons from 2005 to 2016, including serving as a clerk of the Defence Committee and secretary of the U.K. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
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Author: Eliot Wilson, opinion contributor