Somaliland : Growing ties with the US could be key to its recognition

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Thursday, 11 November 2021 09:37, updated on Friday, 10 December 2021 16:29

A girl sporting a sticker on her face with the colours of the national flag participates in a street parade to celebrate the 24th self-declared independence day for the breakaway Somaliland nation from Somalia in capital Hargeysa
A girl sporting a sticker on her face with the colours of the national flag participates in a street parade to celebrate the 24th self-declared independence day for the breakaway Somaliland nation from Somalia in capital Hargeysa, May 18, 2015. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

In the three decades since declaring its independence following the fall of the Siad Barre regime, the breakaway region of Somalia is benefiting from a convergence of regional developments that have boosted its popularity among US policymakers. Somaliland is thus banking on growing US support to make its case for eventual diplomatic recognition.

Somaliland will be dispatching its new foreign minister, Essa Kayd, to Washington shortly before Thanksgiving (25 November), The Africa Report has learned.

The trip comes as a bevy of former US officials – including at least two former top Africa officers at the State Department – and a key member of Congress have come out in support of deepening US ties with Hargeisa.

Meanwhile, the US military is showing a keen interest in Somaliland’s airport and port facilities as it looks to hedge against rising instability and Chinese influence in the region. Most crucial, perhaps, is that Somalia’s continued political dysfunction is further contributing to its northern neighbour’s image as a reliable partner in a troubled neighbourhood.

Add an active diplomat to the mix, and many Somaliland watchers believe the time is ripe for a rethink of US policy.

“It seems to just be this serendipitous confluence of coincidences,” says Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the conservative Heritage Foundation and author of a recent report, which argues that the US should recognise Somaliland. “There’s a lot of sympathy for Somaliland in DC.”

Stars align

Speaking to The Africa Report via Zoom, from his office in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Somaliland’s US envoy Bashir Goth was eager to demonstrate that the territory already has all the trappings of a state.

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Somaliland has its own parliament, passport and currency (the Somaliland shilling), but most of all, Goth argues, it has a strong legal case, having been briefly independent in its current borders following the end of the British protectorate in 1960, before its ill-fated union with the former Italian colony of Somalia five days later.

However, the de facto sovereign state still needs official international recognition to get access to international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. Private investors are also jittery about the lack of legal safeguards in a conflict-prone region.

“For 30 years now Somalia [has been] a failed state,” Goth says. “I think the world is starting to realise that Somaliland is [the] place to deal with, for peace and stability and business.”

Recent conversations with US officials, he says, have left him feeling “highly optimistic” as the Joe Biden administration develops a comprehensive Africa strategy to be unveiled early next year.

“They really want to have strong engagement with Somaliland, as close as can be to recognition,” says Goth, who has served as the head of the Somaliland mission to the US since September 2018. During this time, he has learned to temper expectations.

The United States supports the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia and recognises its sovereignty over Somaliland.

Official US policy has been to wait for the African Union to act first, something the regional body has resisted, amid concerns that such a move could inspire separatist movements across the continent. Knowing that full-fledged US recognition isn’t on the cards in the short-term, Goth has been working to build political, economic and geopolitical engagement with the US.

“We want US business to come to Somaliland, [that’s the first thing],” Goth says, as he highlights that the logistics giant Dubai Ports World (DP World), based in the United Arab Emirates, opened a new terminal at Somaliland’s Berbera Port in June and is now working on further expansion.

Last month, Britain’s development finance agency and DP World announced plans to jointly invest $1.7bn to modernise African logistics, including the Berbera port. “We are only waiting for the American investment,” Goth says. ”But the rest of the world is already on board.”

“[Secondly], we want close diplomatic relations,” he says, such as getting the US to open a consulate or representative office in Hargeisa. Eight countries, including the United Kingdom, Ethiopia and Turkey, have already done so (Egypt has also expressed a desire to establish a diplomatic mission).

The Americans aren’t going to come here without the permission of Somalia.

Washington, he says, should also be an active player in pressing Somalia and Somaliland together to resolve their differences.

Somaliland also wants the State Department to stop lumping it together with violence-plagued Somalia in its travel advisories. The breakaway region also believes it deserves an invitation to President Biden’s Summit of Democracies next month, after it held its seventh election in 30 years, earlier this year in May.

“If democracy matters, Somaliland matters,” Goth says, pointing out that Taiwan has reportedly been invited despite not being officially recognised by the US.

The Biden administration has however poured cold water on these aspirations. “Somaliland will not be invited to the Summit for Democracy,” a State Department spokesperson bluntly told The Africa Report. “The United States supports the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia and recognises its sovereignty over Somaliland.”

Likewise, the spokesperson said, the United States “has not sought to influence the AU’s position on Somaliland.”

Unshackled from government service, however, a number of former US officials are urging a rethink. Herman Cohen and Tibor Nagy (former assistant secretaries of state for African affairs) and former special envoy to the Sahel and the Great Lakes J. Peter Pham applauded Somaliland after its May elections, while Somalia drew official US condemnation for repeatedly delaying its own election, initially scheduled for February.

Goth says the outpouring of support from former officials has left him “both happy and frustrated”, since they still carry political weight, even if they are no longer in a position of power.

Additionally, at a 28 September hearing with State Department and USAID witnesses, Chris Smith of New Jersey, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs panel on Africa, added a rare endorsement from a sitting policymaker, which drew much attention in Somaliland. The comments came on the backdrop of Somalia’s repeatedly postponed elections.

“I want to recognise that amid the forces creating division and discord in the Horn in Ethiopia … there is one oasis of stability and that is Somaliland, which is a de facto, independent area from Somalia,” Smith said. “I would like to hear comments from both State and USAID as to how to better recognise Somaliland in the global community with an eye towards building sustainable peace.”

Meanwhile, the US government continues to expand its support for Somaliland. In addition to development assistance and “limited” State Department security assistance, USAID is also providing humanitarian assistance “based on need, for households and communities affected by conflict, locusts, and climate-related shocks,” the State Department spokesperson said.

“In 2021, the Bureau of Counterterrorism began a programme to strengthen the Bank of Somaliland Financial Intelligence Unit’s capacity to combat terrorist financing and money laundering, and additional cooperation is under consideration,” the source said. “While US foreign assistance is increasingly prioritised on supporting stabilisation efforts in southern Somalia, we remain committed to supporting Somaliland’s stability and economic and democratic development within the parameters of our single Somalia policy.”

Pentagon looks for Horn hedge against China

Somaliland has another ace in the hole: China.

Washington is increasingly worried that the Chinese are getting a little too cozy with Djibouti, where the US has its only permanent military base in Africa at Camp Lemonnier. At the end of his term, President Donald Trump pulled out the 700 US troops in Somalia, many of whom operated out of a forward operating base at Baledogle air base, which has come under attack by al-Shabaab militant group.

This leaves Somaliland as an increasingly attractive alternative. In addition to its expanding port, Berbera boasts of a Soviet-built airport that has one of the longest runways in Africa and once served as NASA’s emergency landing site during the 1980s.

“Looking at the geopolitics in the region, it’s the right time to invest in Somaliland,” says Goth. “Somaliland is the only country that’s actually countering the Chinese influence in the region.”

In August, the Somaliland Chronicle reported that a US Air Force C-130 military transport aircraft had landed at Berbera airport for an undisclosed mission. According to the news outlet, the US military “has approached President Muse Bihi Abdi, through a third party, for a potential alternative aid corridor to Djibouti.”

Goth says the US had sent a “survey team” to scope out the Berbera port, adding that he has had personal talks with US Defense officials, “and the interest is there.”

The US and Somaliland both want each other, but they need some sort of glue, which they don’t have.

“They were really happy with the facilities there and the situation and everything,” Goth says. “I have no doubt that they have a long-term interest in Berbera.”

Asked to comment about the Somaliland press reports, Lt. Cmdr. Tim Pietrack, a US Africa Command spokesman, tells The Africa Report that the military “routinely assesses potential operating locations to be able to prepare for contingencies, exercise readiness or adjust force posture as directed.”

Among the intermediaries working on the issue is former Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe, a Canada-based lobbyist for Dubai Ports World, with deep connections in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

Ben-Menashe tells The Africa Report that he met with President Bihi in Hargeisa a couple of months ago and with a “very high-level” US official in Washington around the same time. Discussions centred around further development of the Berbera Port and the addition of a naval port on the side, he says.

The Americans “are looking to have military facilities in Somaliland,” Ben-Menashe says. “But there’s a big but: I told [Somaliland] that we would have to lobby for you to get some kind of recognition as an independent country. The Americans aren’t going to come here without the permission of Somalia.”

The US and Somaliland “both want each other,” he says.  “But they need some sort of glue, which they don’t have.”

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