Africa’s Success Story – Somaliland

From war and repression to peace and democracy.

Against all the odds, and with little international support, Somaliland is well on the road to stability and democracy.

The Guardian – Comment Is Free – 12 April 2007


Too much of the news we hear about Africa is negative: famine, civil war, HIV, corruption and dictatorship. The latest horror stories from Darfur , Zimbabwe and the Congo grab the headlines, but quiet success stories like Somaliland rarely make the news.

I am talking about Somaliland, not Somalia . The contrast between the two states could not be greater. In the chaos and brutality of war-torn Somalia , over 1,000 people have been killed or wounded in the last two weeks. Since February, nearly 100,000 refugees have fled the fighting in Mogadishu , bringing the total of displaced persons to over 400,000.

Contrast this chaos and violence in Somalia with the tranquillity and stability of the north-west breakaway region of the Republic of Somaliland . Imperfect, but moving in the right direction, next month the country will celebrate its sixteenth anniversary of independence. Against all odds, and with little international aid, the three million people of Somaliland have, by their own efforts, begun to establish a secure, functioning democratic state and a reasonable degree of economic stability and growth. This is a truly remarkable achievement in a region of Africa that has long been a byword for chaos, repression and war.

Somaliland, a former British Protectorate, declared independence from the defunct Republic of Somalia on 18 May 1991. The new state is based on the colonial borders that were recognised in 1960, when Somaliland briefly gained independence from Britain and became the first independent Somali nation to join the United Nations.

Over the last decade and a half, the predominantly Muslim country has made the transition from an autocratic clan-run region, notorious for war and human rights abuses. It has emerged from the ruins of decades of misgoverance and conflict as a peaceful multi-party democracy. A referendum in 2001 led to the adoption of a new democratic constitution. Since then, Somalilanders have held successful elections for President, the House of Representatives and local government. While Somalia has not had a free election since the 1960s, each of these three votes in Somaliland has been largely peaceful and declared free and fair by international election observers.

In contrast to the clan conflicts that bedevil Somalia and many other African nations, Somaliland has found a way to negotiate and resolve them peacefully. It has bought previously often hostile clans together in a democratic system that minimises rivalries by incorporating the clan elders into the advisory upper house.

Somalilanders have achieved an enviable peace; progressively disarming and demobilising thousands of gunmen; whereas in Somalia to the south soldiers still run amok, looting, extorting and terrorising local populations. Many of Somaliland ‘s former clan fighters have been successfully incorporated into the mostly well disciplined national army. Unlike many other African states, the armed forces stay out of politics.

Moreover, Somaliland is committed to the rule of law, which is upheld by a largely independent judiciary. Discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, gender or opinion is prohibited. Human rights abuses, such as torture, are criminal offences. The right to protest is protected by law.

The country’s transition to democracy and the full observance of human rights still has a way to go. It has a multi-party system but only three political parties are allowed under the constitution. Islam is the state religion. While non-Islamic faiths are allowed, their promotion is prohibited. Muslims are not permitted to renounce Islam. The legal system is based on Sharia law. Although rarely enforced with harshness, this does place inherent restrictions of the rights of women. The female sex is poorly represented in public life and state institutions. The constitution does, however, give women the right to employment training and property ownership. Although government corruption and inefficiency are not as bad as in many other African nations, they remain a problem according to critics of the regime.

Somaliland ‘s significantly improved record on human rights suffered a setback earlier this year with the arrest of four journalists from the independent newspaper, Haatuf. They were only released at the end of March, after being detained for 86 days on charges of allegedly spreading false information and offending the President. This worrying abuse of press freedom was, however, an exceptional curtailment of what is nowadays a fairly open and free media.

Despite a few flaws, Somaliland is mostly a success story – especially compared to the violence and chaos of Somalia . The Somalilanders have shown, without any pressure from the west, that a Muslim country can build a peaceful, democratic state that, for the most part, upholds human rights. It is a model for Africa and the Middle East.

Yet Somaliland remains unrecognised as a sovereign nation. While the United Nations and the international community focus on the civil war in Somalia , Somaliland ‘s achievement in building a stable, harmonious democracy is unrecognised and unrewarded. Betrayed by the Arab League and the African Union, it stands alone.

Instead of one-sidedly condemning Africa ‘s failures, isn’t it time the west did more to acknowledge and support its successes? For a start, Britain , the Commonwealth and the European Union should recognise Somaliland as an independent, sovereign state; and lobby the African Union, the Arab League and the United Nations to do likewise. A modest increase in British and EU aid and trade would go a long way to strengthen Somaliland’s economic base. Tackling poverty and unemployment, and improving health, education and housing, will help underpin and enhance Somaliland’s transition to a war-free, democratic future. Over to you, Margaret Beckett.