Making a big problem smaller – extracting a functioning mini-state from a larger failed-state?

Wednesday, 3. December 2008     0 comment(s)
A Dutch frigate assists a South Korean trawler that had been attacked by pirates off Somalia in 2006. US Navy photo (image released). A Dutch frigate assists a South Korean trawler that had been attacked by pirates off Somalia in 2006. US Navy photo (image released).

The EU last week announced the dispatch of a naval mission to the seas around Somalia to help in the struggle against pirates. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been a problem for many years but only recently has it exploded onto the international media agenda. The Union’s response looks reactionary, weak and driven by press coverage as much as anything else. Many questions have been raised already about just what the mission can achieve. Topical comedians everywhere are having endless pirate-related fun but the story, of course, has a darker side when you look at what is happening on land and not just on the high seas. Somalia can be divided into three major regions: the northern coast – Somaliland which claims separate statehood; then the semi-autonomous Puntland that forms the actual ‘horn’ of Africa; and finally southern Somalia that includes the city of Mogadishu and runs down to the border with Kenya. Somaliland declared itself independent in 1991 but this remains unrecognised. Puntland’s secessionist ambitions do not appear so advanced, but they do have separate regional authorities who have played an ineffectual bit role in the piracy drama. The Puntland authorities are close to the western- and Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG). They theoretically run the country but are increasingly being defeated by resurgent, and further radicalised, Islamist militias. The weakness of the TFG means weak authority in Puntland, and this is allowing the pirate industry to base itself there whilst hijacked ships are anchored off the coast waiting for a ransom to be paid. This situation is unlikely to improve with the Ethiopians announcing just days ago their withdrawal by the end of the year. The TFG is left in control of the town of Baidoa and parts of Mogadishu and little else, whilst the African Union “peacekeepers” (there is no peace for them to keep) in Mogadishu have been left in a truly hopeless position. The EU has been backing the TFG but this policy is clearly failing and the situation requires a rethink of strategy.

The one part of Somalia that does not seem to be causing problems is Somaliland. So should its desire for independence be considered? The international community is generally very careful about recognising breakaway regions – just look at Kosovo or South Ossetia – but Somaliland remains “invisible” to outsiders (although some are working to change this). Somaliland may not be perfect – clan allegiances still seem to exist below the level party politics – but it does have a functioning democratic political system, which is more than can be said for Somalia as a whole. In a sense it is not a breakaway region at all, because there is no functioning state that it needs to break away from. Somalia is currently only a name on a map. The European Security Strategy of 2003 identifies failed states among the five most significant threats to Europe’s security. Surely then, if we can see a proto-state amongst the larger ruins of a failed one, recognition by the EU deserves careful analysis. Bombers – probably from al-Shabab, the most violent and dangerous part of the Islamist insurgency – recently targeted Somaliland presumably in an effort to destabilize it. If the international community recognised its statehood, security support could be offered.

A new country of Somaliland will not solve the problems of the Horn of Africa, but as all other international policies on Somalia seem to have failed, recognising Somaliland is surely worth considering.

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