By Dr. Karl Von Batten
Over the years, the U.S. has enacted policies and initiated government actions focused on Africa that have either fallen short of the stated objective or exacerbated the problem that the policies or actions had aimed to resolve. One of the reasons for this unfortunate track record is a lack of true understanding of the dynamics that make up each African country. African politics and societies are more complex than the politics and social dynamics in Europe and North America. Nigeria, for example, has over 250 ethnic groups, and each group is motivated by historical, societal, cultural, religious, and political needs, desires, and animosities.
Unfortunately, history shows that well-intentioned U.S. foreign policies based on a simplistic understanding of internal dynamics in each country in Africa have resulted in more problems. The upheavals in Libya and South Sudan are recent examples of American and European good intentions turning into disasters. We Americans tend to look at things through the lens of good guys versus bad guys and freedom versus perceived oppression, enacting policies or government actions based on these conceptual viewpoints. In this way, the self-declared state of Somaliland appears to be the latest potential victim of U.S. good intentions.
There is a push by a group of highly respected individuals in Washington, D.C. for the U.S. to recognize Somaliland as an independent country separate from Somalia. Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation, is one of the finest minds when it comes to U.S. policies focused on Africa, and he is a strong advocate for U.S recognition of Somaliland as an independent country. On May 06, 2020, Joshua published a piece on the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal website titled “Somalilanders’ Quest for Independence Isn’t ‘Neocolonial’ Plot. It’s Self-Determination.” In it, he said, “It is Somalilanders, and no one else, who have split themselves from Somalia, just as the Eritreans did from Ethiopia in 1991, and the South Sudanese did from Sudan in 2019”. Eritrean and South Sudanese independence movements both led to wars that, in part, are still being waged today. Therefore, I do not think those are good examples to argue for Somaliland’s independence. Joshua is correct in that Somaliland did declare independence from Somalia in 1991. Nevertheless, what is missing from Joshua’s comment is that not all Somalis/Somalilanders in Somaliland are pro-secession from Somalia—many are against it. This dissent is why there is strong opposition by many Somalis/Somalilanders and Somaliland-Americans against U.S. recognition of Somaliland.
The opposition to U.S. recognition of Somaliland has little to do with independence from Somalia and everything to do with a power struggle between the clans. As with most African states with multiple tribes and clans, Somaliland is not unified. Somaliland is made up of five clans, namely the Isaak, the Dhulbahante, the Isse, the Warsangali, and the Gadabuursi. The Isaak is the clan in power and pushing for independence. The four opposing clans—the Dhulbahante, the Isse, the Warsangali, and the Gadabuursi—oppose the U.S. recognition of Somaliland because they know that will translate to financial and military aid to the Somaliland government, which is controlled by the Isaak clan. The fear among the other clans is that U.S. aid to the Somaliland government, and therefore the Isaak clan, will allow the Isaak clan to dominate the other clans and take control of their land. Currently, the Somaliland government only has complete control over Isaak territory, where the Somaliland capital, Hargeysa, is also located. However, the recently introduced House and Senate Bills proposing the U.S. recognition of Somaliland and the expansion of the U.S. military relationship with Somaliland have increased political anxieties in Somaliland. The opposing clans are now openly discussing the eventuality of a civil war against the Isaak clan. All it takes to start a war in Africa is a few people with Avtomat Kalashnikov (AK) 47s.
I urge caution when it comes to Somaliland. This is why I support the current U.S. policy that calls for the African Union, Somalia, and Somaliland to resolve the Somaliland issue amongst themselves—this is the right approach. It is up to Africans to decide their fate. The days of Americans and Europeans dictating or influencing the borders of sovereign African countries should be left in the last century. I am opposed to H.R. 7170, the Republic of Somaliland Independence Act, and Section 5 of S.3861, the Somaliland Partnership Act. Two pieces of legislation that directly and indirectly violate Somalia’s sovereignty. U.S. foreign policy must be color blind; we as Americans cannot oppose Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s borders and sovereignty and then turn around and put forward legislation that violates the borders and sovereignty of an African state.
The one rule for Europe and a different rule for Africa has not gone unnoticed by Africans. Instead of pushing legislation and policies that will further divide the region and lead to civil war, the U.S. can play a constructive role in the Somaliland issue; we can help the African Union facilitate a national dialogue between the opposing clans, the Somali government, and the government of Somaliland. The U.S. can also help by assisting in developing a road map for peace that will ensure peace and prosperity for all Somalis. This is a logical way forward. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and South Sudan, when it comes to Somaliland, we cannot pretend that the deadly outcome of possible U.S. policy missteps is unknown.
Dr. Karl Von Batten, FRSPH, is the Managing Partner of Von Batten-Montague-York, L.C., a policy advisory and advocacy group representing the United Somali Alliance of the USA. The United Somali Alliance is a Somaliland-American nonprofit organization opposed to U.S. recognition of Somaliland.