October 7, 2010 | The Atlantic

Should the U.S. Help Break Up Somalia?

741752702.jpgLast month, the United States announced a new policy toward Somalia. In a September 24 press briefing in New York City, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said  that the U.S. would “work to engage more actively with the governments of Puntland and Somaliland,” two autonomous regions within Somalia. This ends the U.S. policy of relating exclusively to Somalia's transitional federal government (TFG), which can be described as the country's central government only if “central” is understood to mean controlling several blocks  of the capital with the help of 7,000 foreign soldiers. The change was driven by escalating violence in Somalia's south from the al-Qaeda-aligned militant outfit al-Shabaab, the TFG's clear ineffectiveness, and the relative security that both Somaliland and Puntland have enjoyed. Though this new policy falls far short of recognizing Somaliland's long-sought independence, thus creating a new African state and fundamentally reshaping the Horn of Africa, some observers believe the U.S. should now give independence a closer look.

The U.S.'s hope is that by engaging Somaliland and Puntland, those regions will be better equipped to contain the spread of violence. Carson made this clear, saying that both regions are expected to “be a bulwark against extremism and radicalism that might emerge from the South.” He continued, “We hope to be able to have more American diplomats and aid workers going into those countries on an ad hoc basis to meet with government officials to see how we can help them improve their capacity to provide services.”

Though Somaliland declared its independence on May 18, 1991, it is not internationally recognized; Puntland declared itself an autonomous state in 1998, but has not sought outright independence. Carson, by referencing these regions as countries, drew questions from reporters on whether the U.S. was contemplating diplomatic recognition of them as independent states. He replied that the U.S. “still recognized only a single Somali state.” But Somaliland's representatives believe the U.S.'s policy shift does not go far enough.

I spoke with Saad Noor, the North American representative of the Republic of Somaliland, who believes that as long as its independence is not recognized Somaliland's relative stability will be in jeopardy. He noted that, at present, Somaliland cannot engage with international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, or even the Universal Postal Union. Noor also pointed to businesses' hesitancy to engage in the region because Somaliland's status as an unofficial country makes it difficult to insure their investments. Without recognition, Noor claimed, “our people's hopes and adherence to the state will erode day to day. If you cannot employ and educate the young men and young women, if you cannot build roads, if you cannot bring businesses that provide jobs, everything will be in a state of continuous deterioration.”

Noor is also unhappy that the U.S. is explicitly linking its Somaliland and Puntland policies. “Puntland never left the union,” he said. “Puntland still flies the flag of Somalia and uses the same currency. They say that they would like to have a federal republic of Somalia.”

Most of the scholarship to date regarding Somaliland's independence supports U.S. recognition. Peter J. Schraeder made the case in a piece he wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Matt Bryden proclamed that Somaliland “looks like a state, smells like a state and tastes like a state.” (Honestly, it makes more sense in context.) To be fair, ideas that are far from being implemented frequently have more public advocates than adversaries, and only garner more opposition once they look like they could become a reality.

I spoke to a few opponents of recognizing Somaliland to get a better sense of the debate. Abdulkadir Hashi, Puntland's State Minister for International Cooperation, called me from Puntland and voiced a fundamental philosophical objection. “The world is coming together,” he said, pointing to the European Union as one example. “So it doesn't make sense for Somali people to be split up.” Puntland thus does not seek independence, and opposes independence for Somaliland.

Another opponent of Somaliland independence is Abdiweli Ali, an associate professor of economics at Niagara University who has advised some of Somalia's political entities. Ali told me that geopolitical concerns include territorial disputes between Puntland and Somaliland, which he believes could make cause conflict. Some of the clans in these regions identify with Puntland rather than Somaliland, for example. In my conversation with Saad Noor, he brushed this concern aside, pointing out that Somaliland declared its independence almost twenty years ago. “Why haven't those bad things happened so far?” he asked.

Another objection that Ali raised is the precedent that Somaliland independence might set. “If you allow Texas to secede, how can you deny Oklahoma?” he asked. Advocates of Somaliland independence point to the fact that it once was an independent country: the former British Somaliland Protectorate gained independence on June 26, 1960, and was recognized by 35 countries before voluntarily forming a union with the former Italian Somalia five days later. Peter Schraeder wrore that Somaliland independence would not “call into question the African mantra of the 'inviolability of frontiers' inherited at independence.” Instead, dissolving the union “would constitute a unique case of returning to the boundaries inherited from the colonial era.”

While Abdulkadir Hashi acknowledges that Somalia's north has historically been short-changed by the government in the south, he told me: “I don't think that the grievances of the Somaliland people, great as they are, really justify secession.” He suggests that there may be intermediate solutions short of independence, such as giving the country's presidency to Somaliland.

Whether or not recognizing Somaliland's independence is the right solution, the U.S. would do well to understand the challenges that the region confronts. As Noor said, “Somaliland is held up as a shining example because of its successful recent elections and security situation. But it could lose its shine. The situation is not sustainable unless the international community invests in it.” And it is clear that the U.S.'s engagement with Somaliland and Puntland will only grow increasingly important, since the new U.S. policy is an acknowledgement that the TFG is not up to the challenges that confront it. So the policy is not just about Somaliland and Puntland: it is also about admitting to ourselves that the violence in the South will not end anytime soon, and searching for ways to contain its spread.