Somaliland secures more US support with presidential visit to Washington

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 22 March 2022 09:36

Muse Bihi Abdi, the President of Somaliland speaks to The Associated Press in Hergeisa, Somaliland, Somalia on 3 April 2018.
Muse Bihi Abdi, the President of Somaliland speaks to The Associated Press in Hergeisa, Somaliland, Somalia on 3 April 2018. (AP Photo/Malak Harb)

Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi has secured bipartisan pledges of increased US support for his self-declared state during his visit to Washington D.C. this week, even as formal recognition remains off the table - for the time being.

In the first US trip by a sitting Somaliland leader since President Ahmed Mahamoud Silanyo in 2013, Bihi secured meetings with top Joe Biden administration officials and members of Congress. The visit caps a months-long campaign to boost bilateral ties with the United States and other countries amid continued political instability in Somalia, conflict in Ethiopia and Sudan, worsening drought and increasing Chinese influence in the region.

“Through my consultations with the Biden Administration, Members of Congress and American business and civil society leaders this week, I am more confident than ever in the future of the US-Somaliland partnership,” Bihi said in a statement shared by Somaliland’s US lobbying firm, FGH Holdings (formerly the Glover Park Group). FGH has represented the Somaliland Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation since 2018 and is paid $22,000 per month.

After years of tireless effort, I am encouraged to see so many friends of Somaliland in the United States, particularly in the US Congress.

“I repeatedly heard a growing recognition and commendation of Somaliland’s extraordinary achievements in building a democratic, stable and self-sufficient state. Both Democrats and Republicans welcome accelerated efforts to deepen engagement on a range of security, economic and governance initiatives,” he said.

He continued: “After years of tireless effort, I am encouraged to see so many friends of Somaliland in the United States, particularly in the US Congress. The path ahead is promising, and I look forward to future partnerships to fight terrorism, advance democracy, and create new opportunities for trade and investment in the Horn of Africa.”

Chinese competition

Bihi’s visit follows a November trip to Washington by Foreign Minister Essa Kayd in November. The following month Congress sent its first-ever delegation of congressional staffers to the de facto country, which declared its independence from Somalia three decades ago.

During his trip Bihi notably met with members of Congress as well as White House Senior Director for Africa Dana Banks; Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee; Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Ilan Goldenberg; Deputy to the Commander for Civil Military Engagement at US Africa Command (AFRICOM) Andrew Young; and Maura Barry, the senior deputy assistant administrator for Africa at the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Somaliland is particularly keen to boost US investment and encourage military interest in its new port facilities in Berbera on the busy Red Sea shipping route.

Bihi started his US promotional tour with a speech on Monday 14 March at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, which has championed US embrace of Somaliland as a counterweight to China in the Horn of Africa. Chinese competition featured prominently in the discussion.

The Horn of Africa’s rising global importance “is reflected in the expansion of foreign military bases and build-up of naval forces in the Red Sea, as well as enhanced international cooperation and to fight piracy and ensure maritime security,” Bihi said at the think tank. “Great Powers’ competition in Africa will continue for the foreseeaable future. In this environment, the United States should make clear its support for governments that embrace democratic governance and stability in the midst of threats, instability and external pressures.”

Somalia reacts

The visit has created an uproar back in Somalia, prompting US Ambassador Larry Andre to insist in an interview with Somali news outlet Garowe Online that the Biden administration “recognizes the sovereignty and territorial intergrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia in its historic borders, which include the Somaliland region.” He added: “We respect the achievements of the Somaliland region in terms of democratic governance, economic development and security.”

The United States continues to be a steadfast partner of the Somali people and its federal government, but the Biden Administration has limited itself to the confines of a ‘single Somalia’ policy at the detriment of other democratic actors in the country.

“We view the question of Somaliland’s status as an issue for the people of Somalia – including Somaliland – to determine,” Andre said.

Congress takes the lead

Congress has been more forward-leaning.

After Phee tweeted that she welcomed the opportunity to strengthen US engagement with Somaliland “within the framework of our single Somalia policy,” the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch of Idaho, replied that the Biden administration should not limit itself in that way.

Two days later, Risch teamed up with South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen to offer legislation calling on the State and Defense departments to team up on a feasibility study on establishing a security partnership with Somaliland. Risch had offered a similar provision in the annual defense bill for FY2022  last fall but it did not make it into law. The bill would not recognise Somaliland as an independent state, however.

“The United States continues to be a steadfast partner of the Somali people and its federal government, but the Biden Administration has limited itself to the confines of a ‘single Somalia’ policy at the detriment of other democratic actors in the country,” Risch said upon introducing the new bill.

“In this complex time in global affairs and for the Horn of Africa, the United States should explore all possible mutually beneficial relationships with stable and democratic partners, like Somaliland, and not limit ourselves with outdated policy approaches and diplomatic frameworks that don’t meet today’s challenges.”

However, top Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its Africa subcomittee, Representatives Michael McCaul of Texas and Chris Smith of New Jersey,  led a nine-member letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 14 March urging closer ties. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, a former Assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under President Barack Obama, was the only Democrat to sign on.

“We urge the Administration to increase diplomatic engagement with Somaliland officials, senior leadership travel, and consider a permanent presence in Hargeisa,” they wrote. “Increased partnership with Somaliland should be a priority and will mutually benefit U.S. and Somaliland interests. We thank you for your attention to this important matter.”

Three days later the full committee hosted President Bihi in person to “discuss ways to deepen engagement, promote cooperation and further support their remarkable progress in democracy, governance and security.”

Finally Representative Scott Perry, a Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation to recognise Somaliland as a “separate, independent country” on Friday 18 March.

No other lawmakers have yet signed on to the long-shot measure.

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