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2 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

How it feels to be the foreign minister of a country that doesn’t officially exist

Somaliland’s chief diplomat comes to London.

By Jonn Elledge

I hadn’t thought to book anywhere for our meeting; neither had my interviewee’s handler. The three of us spent an awkward ten minutes trailing from packed pub to crowded cafe, before deciding that time was short and we might as well just get on with it.

So it was that I ended up interviewing the foreign minister of Somaliland by the fridge in the corner of a Westminster sandwich shop. This is not the normal place to find a chief diplomat – but Dr Saad Ali Shire seemed content enough. “If we were officially recognised, I’d be surrounded by security and so forth,” he pointed out. “I wouldn’t be free.”

But then, Somaliland (estimated population 3.5 million) is not like most countries. Officially, indeed, it isn’t a country at all. There are half a dozen territories around the world – Palestine, Turkish North Cyprus, Western Sahara and so forth – whose independence is not universally recognised, or is recognised only by other equally unrecognised states. But Somaliland is unique: the only territory whose independence is recognised by no other state, yet which functions as one all the same. It exists de facto, just not de jure.

Somaliland was briefly recognised once before: for five days in June 1960, what had been the British Somaliland Protectorate became a sovereign state. On 1 July, however, it joined with Italian Somalia, to its south and east, to form the Somali Republic, a hairpin-shaped territory along the coast of the Horn of Africa.

Officially, that state still exists. But in 1991, as the southern half of the country descended into civil war, the northern half broke away. Today, the former British protectorate styles itself as Somaliand, and is, Dr Shire claims, “exceptional in the region. It has maintained peace and security and a democratic process that is unique in that part of world.” It’s so far held three presidential elections, each largely peaceful, and each of which has brought a new president to power. In 2003, the runner-up ultimately conceded despite losing by just 80 votes – albeit after a quick trip to the country’s supreme court. (The country is far from perfect, of course: a poet was recently jailed for anti-national activity).

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Why has democracy taken hold in Somaliland, when it’s struggled in so much of Africa? Shire credits tradition: its nomadic tribes “are very democratic. There’s a culture in which people accept the authority of their elders”.

He suggests another reason, too. The fledgling state spent the first decade of its existence focusing on internal reconciliation, rather than moving immediately to hold an election. Its unrecognised status meant it had to do all this without international aid – though Shire suggests this had its upside. “There’s no free money,” he says. “Once you take money, there’s a timetable: three months, six months… We said no: we’re going to stay here until it’s finished.” 

The most recent election was held last November, and saw President Muse Bihi Abdi elected with 55 per cent of the vote. At time of our meeting, he’d already met leaders in neighbouring Djibouti and Ethiopia, and was planning a broader tour of Africa.

But the country’s lack of official status remains a problem, his foreign minister told me. Somaliland’s passports are not recognised, which “makes life very difficult for our business people”. (Shire, having lived in London for many years, travels on a British passport.) It also makes it harder to attract both international aid and risk-averse private investment. That in turn holds back the country’s economy. “In most developing countries,” Shire notes, “infrastructure is financed through soft credit from institutions like the World Bank. Because we can’t access this, we can’t build.” 

Much of Shire’s business in London the week we met was concerned with raising the country’s profile. He did several interviews with the BBC and other broadcasters, and met with the Somalian all-party parliamentary group at Westminster, too. (Britain has had a Somali population since the 19th century, though the vast majority has arrived since the civil war that began in 1991.) “Basically, it’s my job to sell Somaliland.”

But recognition, he adds, is always an objective. “We’re climbing the ladder towards statehood. I think the international community is sympathetic.” The British government has hinted that it’s willing to support the cause – but it doesn’t want to be first out the gate, for fear it’ll be accused of re-colonising its former territory. Shire clearly finds this frustrating. “Our position is that you shouldn’t make decisions on the basis of what people will say, but by what’s right or wrong.”

For the moment, though, the difficulty the territory seems to face is, paradoxically, that it’s currently doing OK. In a world with no shortage of conflict, an unrecognised but functional state just isn’t at the top of anyone’s to do list. “We don’t get attention because we’re peaceful,” Shire jokes. “Perhaps we should cause a crisis.”

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