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Postcard from Somaliland: where sovereignty means something



28 June 2013

Dr Sarah Phillips (centre): "Somaliland proclaimed its independence from Somalia in 1991 but has never been officially recognised by any state."
Dr Sarah Phillips (centre): "Somaliland proclaimed its independence from Somalia in 1991 but has never been officially recognised by any state."

Sarah Phillips, a senior lecturer at in the Centre for International Security Studies, is in Somaliland conducting research. She is grateful to the Developmental Leadership Program for funding.

Even as a political scientist, sovereignty is not something that captures a lot of my attention in the course of a normal day. But when I spend time in Somaliland, it's inescapable, and what it means to be seen - or not seen - as a state by the rest of the world is heatedly debated by people from all walks of life. Somaliland proclaimed its independence from Somalia in 1991 but has never been officially recognised by any state despite exercising a reasonable level of territorial control and internal political legitimacy.

As you enter the terminal at Somaliland's Berbera Airport, the importance of the debate over Somaliland's sovereign status for ordinary people is immediately apparent. Entry for foreigners costs $34, and the Government considers everyone but those carrying a Somaliland passport to be foreign. Somalis from either the south (the capital of which is Mogadishu) and Puntland (an autonomous region that does not seek independence) protest that they should not be considered foreigners because Somaliland is not, in the eyes of the rest of the world, separate from Somalia (Somalilanders are treated as Somali citizens at Mogadishu Airport).

Somalilanders are also in a bind when they depart from Berbera Aiport. The Somaliland Government considers it illegal for its 'citizens' to carry a Somali passport, yet a Somaliland passport gets you nowhere except Ethiopia and Malaysia. Djibouti also allows Somaliland officials entry but stamps the visa on a separate piece of paper so as to not to imply that Djibouti recognises the Somaliland passport. One can easily buy a Somali passport on the streets of the capital city (Hargeisa) for $45, which is the only option for most Somalilanders wishing to travel abroad. Those who take this option will have to pay the 'foreigner' fee upon re-entry after having technically violated the law.

Entry to Berbera International Airport, Somaliland.
Entry to Berbera International Airport, Somaliland.

As a result of being unrecognised, Somaliland's government has negligible access to external capital, whether through official development assistance, loans from international lending bodies like the IMF, or foreign investment. Private investors cannot access commercial insurance or seek recourse through international commercial law. This serves as a considerable - though not entirely prohibitive - disincentive for non-Somalilanders to invest in the country, and further limits the Government's ability to generate wealth through normal external channels.

These binds get more complicated in Somaliland's international relations. The UN promotes a unified Somalia and does not recognise Somaliland's claim of independence. Yet the UN has a strong presence and its agencies provide money for (and influence over) some of the most fundamental aspects of the Somaliland Government's interface with the population, including its school curricula, taxation, and police force.

In the past, the UN has advocated removing any mention of Somaliland's independence from its school curriculum, causing a heated debate over the international body's legitimacy. More recently, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) insisted that the police uniforms it provided should be identical to those it provides for Puntland and in the south, which was also taken as a slight on Somaliland's claims of statehood, although the Government eventually accepted the uniforms.

The debate over Somaliland's sovereignty has heated up recently. In mid-May, officials from the Somalia Federal Government, the UNDP and the Nairobi-based Civil Aviation Caretaker Authority of Somalia met in Mogadishu and announced that 'Somalia' would take control of the country's airspace at the end of 2013. Somaliland's Aviation Minister quickly countered with an announcement that 'Somaliland will fully manage its airspace from June 5th' and that (most) UN flights were no longer permitted to land in Somaliland. At the time of writing the flights remain grounded.

Meanwhile, when new head of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) visited Hargeisa this month, he was informed that UNSOM was not welcome in Somaliland.

As the governments in Mogadishu and Hargeisa struggle to project their authority domestically and internationally, the challenges facing newer states are clear. These high-level machinations affect business, travel, and development in disputed Somaliland, which brings the concept of sovereignty sharply into people's daily lives.

Somali passports can be bought on the streets of Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital.
Somali passports can be bought on the streets of Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital.


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Media enquiries: Kath Kenny, 02 9351 1584, 0478 303 173, kath.kenny@sydney.edu.au