Dan Simpson: The ghost of Somalia

Somaliland should be allowed to depart a chaotic country in transition

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The issue of whether Somaliland should be recognized as a separate, independent country has been on the African and international agenda since government collapsed in Somalia itself in 1991.

   
Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).
  

The entity that calls itself Somaliland, the former British Somaliland, which merged with the newly independent Italian Somaliland in 1960 to form the then nation of Somalia, has had many of the attributes of nationhood for more than a decade. These include a functioning government, settled borders, a flag and a constitution. It even has an airline, Daallo Airlines, which I didn't find substantially worse to fly than US Airways.

Somaliland seemed different from Somalia itself when I visited its capital, Hargeisa, briefly in June. Hargeisa, by contrast to Mogadishu, the ostensible capital of what is left of Somalia itself, shows no guns and seems like a busy but quiet African capital. Africa and the world continue to insist that Somaliland is still part of Somalia and that its independence should not be recognized.

When I was U.S. ambassador and special envoy to Somalia in 1994-95 I agreed with that point of view. Part of my reasoning then was that there was still fighting among the Somalis in Somaliland over its borders and over who controlled the government. Those differences have now been resolved for years and I see no further valid reason to deny Somaliland recognition as a separate, independent country.

The argument against recognition of its independence is that to accept its successful separation is to accept the dissolution of Somalia as a country. Africa and the world do not wish that to happen. Not only is it messy, worst of all from the point of view of other African countries it risks encouraging separatist movements across the continent to seek independence for their own pieces of real estate. Countries vulnerable in that regard are numerous. Plus, there has been only one agreed separation to date, that of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993, and that has led to warfare between them that simmers to this day.

So, runs the argument, the position of the African Union, supported more or less mindlessly by the United States to please the Africans, de facto Somaliland independence remains unrecognized. The U.S. government continues to pretend that Somaliland is part of the country of Somalia, which no longer exists except as lines on the map.

Somalia as a country collapsed formally in 1991. Africa and the world has tried, with visibly diminishing enthusiasm, to put it back together again ever since. Having stubbed its toe badly there in the 1991-95 period, the United States virtually ignored Somalia in its fragmented state until some of the Somali warlords managed to persuade the Bush administration that they were worthy recipients of cash to use in the alleged war on terrorism.

Never at a loss in using words creatively, the Somali warlords called themselves The Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and for Counter-Terrorism. Now who could not want to finance peace and the war on terrorism? It is said that they were receiving $100,000 to $150,000 a month at one point to bring freedom to Somalia. That U.S. enterprise crashed and burned June 5 when the peace and counterterrorism gang were driven out of Mogadishu by the Council of Islamic Courts gang.

Insult was added to U.S. injury June 22 when the Courts group signed an agreement with the ostensible Somali Federal Government of Transition in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. The accord, which included an FGT surrender, posing as a cease-fire, was signed under the auspices of the Arab League, whose current president is Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, one of America's least favorites. The league's secretary general, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, called the warlords America's team, war criminals who should be put on trial.

No Westerners were involved in the event. The next meeting of the Courts Council with the hapless transitional government, based in Baidoa, far from Mogadishu for its own safety, will take place July 25, again in Khartoum.

The United Nations seems to be coming to terms with the Islamic Courts Council. Its representatives met with Courts officials in Somalia on July 3. The United States appears so far not to have regained its feet in the face of the June 5 and June 22 setbacks. Press reports first had the United States offering talks. On July 1, however, State Department Africa bureau head Jendayi Frazer told Congress that the United States would not hold talks with the Courts group, now clearly in control of most of the old Somalia, minus Somaliland and another candidate breakaway area, Puntland.

Ms. Frazer said U.S. policy would be to seek to strengthen former Somali police in support of the Baidoa transitional government. It is true that it is toothless; resuscitating the old Somali police, however, is quixotic. The United States tried that at great cost in the 1990s. It didn't work.

The bottom line is that Somalia remains a big mess, although the Courts group may now be able to impose some order. I didn't go to Mogadishu this time because I knew how I could get in, but not how I could get out given the lack of clarity there. The idea that Mogadishu is a nest of al-Qaida adherents is a fantasy sold to the United States by clever Somali warlords, always adept at working scams to get money for arms.

It is also definitely time to recognize the independence of Somaliland. There is no longer any Somalia whose territorial integrity needs to be defended. The African Union has shown itself to be hopeless with regard to the Somalia issue and has now been supplanted in any negotiating role by the Arab League.

If there is still in existence a sense of Somali national identity that cuts across the old Italian and British Somalilands, Somalis seeing Somaliland walk away independent might revive it. If not, why hold a new Somaliland hostage to a ghost?



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