September Books 15) Becoming Somaliland

15) Becoming Somaliland, by Mark Bradbury

Bradbury has done a good job here of untangling the complex set of politics and conflict which have led to the former British colony of Somaliland repudiating its 1960 union with the neighbouring Italian colony, and instead constructing a home-grown democracy, despite its non-recognition by the international community and generally chaotic neighbourhood. Somaliland remains a very poor country, crucially dependent on exporting its cattle across the Gulf of Aden (with mineral resources now coming into the picture as well); yet it has managed to overcome internal conflict and build a robust democratic system with only minimal engagement from the outside world (which has instead wasted its time empowering warlords from the east and south of the disintegrated Somalia).

One of the interesting facets of Somaliland’s development has been the process of introducing democratic structures to a clan-based and partly nomadic society, particularly because one often hears the assertion that some cultures are simply not suited to democracy. The contrast between Somaliland and the other Somalis in the neighbourhood demonstrates that it really isn’t a matter of culture, it is a question of leadership.

That leadership has been provided in large part by the Guurti, the upper house of parliament which consists of nominated clan elders, and still retains immense political credibility in comparison with the elected lower house and perhaps even the president. Yet one must remember that this is a work in progress; the lower house was only elected for the first time in 2005 (and elections due this year were postponed because of the immense technical difficulties of organising them).

I said when I left my previous job two years ago that if you are working in international politics and not doing anything for Africa, you need to ask yourself why. Since the start of last year I have been privileged to work for and with the Somalilanders, trying to get the rest of the world to live up, if not to its principles, at least to their promises to these affable, decent, long-suffering people. It is tremendously rewarding.

Somaliland would certainly satisfy the criteria defining statehood in the 1933 Montevideo Treaty ((a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states). So, of course, would a lot of other secessionist entities.

These days the principle of territorial integrity, generally accepted, provides that international frontiers are recognised as inviolable except by agreement. This is intended to deter wars or territorial aggression; and if you look at the map of how Europe’s borders changed in the fifteen years after the Montevideo Treaty was signed in 1933, you can see why. Preventing such wars in general is clearly a Good Thing; but sometimes the principle of territorial integrity comes into serious conflict with the reality on the ground. The break-ups of the old Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union give us plenty of examples.

Somalia/Somaliland is another one. The current Mogadishu government is much further from satisfying the Montevideo criteria than is the Republic of Somaliland, but it is the former rather than the latter that gets to sit in the UN and other international bodies, despite the fact that it barely controls Mogadishu and a few other towns. But then, who ever said that international poolitics made sense?

One thought on “September Books 15) Becoming Somaliland

  1. Understood; I can only report on the impression I get of joined-up campaigning (or not, as the case may be).

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