Somalia’s Denial Won’t Rewrite the Books: Somaliland Has Proven Itself a De Facto State Deserving Recognition

The separation between Somaliland and the rest of Somalia began during the colonial era, when Britain administered the territory as a protectorate separately from Italian-governed areas further south.

When Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took the stage at the 37th African Union Summit in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa on February 17th, 2024, his harsh criticism of the recent Ethiopia-Somaliland cooperation agreement displayed a short-sighted and counterproductive approach to a complex political issue with deep historical roots. Rather than advancing reconciliation, his remarks entrenched long-held positions and undermined opportunity for constructive engagement between key stakeholders in the Horn of Africa region. 

The Summit provided an opportunity for African leaders to discuss collaborative solutions to pressing challenges like food insecurity. However, Hassan utilized the forum to condemn Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to formally recognize Somaliland and establish a security partnership through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). While no doubt playing to nationalist sentiment back home, the Somalia President’s reaction overlooks crucial context shaping realities on the ground.

The separation between Somaliland and the rest of Somalia began during the colonial era, when Britain administered the territory as a protectorate separately from Italian-governed areas further south. Nearly a century of isolated administration yielded distinct administrative structures, economic patterns, and cultural influences in both territories. When they unified as the Somali Republic in 1960 following independence, the forced union of such divergent regions was perhaps destined to face challenges.

From the outset, tensions arose between clans and between those nostalgic for colonial-era autonomy and supporters of Pan-Somali nationalism. The authoritarianism and perceived favoritism towards certain clans under dictator Siad Barre’s regime from 1969 intensified discontent, particularly in the northern regions of Somaliland. Armed rebellions ultimately led to Barre’s ouster in 1991 and Somalia’s descent into chaos, but Somaliland immediately took the opportunity to reclaim the sovereignty it had never fully relinquished.

While Hassan maintains that such a unilateral move violated Somalia’s borders, Somaliland’s self-declared independence is best understood as a reversion to the pre-1960 status quo, before being subsumed within the ill-fated Somali state project. In the three decades since, through sustained efforts and against all odds, Somaliland has emerged as one of the few relatively stable and democratic successes in the turbulent Horn of Africa region. It has consolidated effective self-governance, with institutions, security forces, government structures, and a populace that overwhelmingly favors maintained independence.

In contrast, despite ongoing international support and a succession of transitional administrations, large parts of Somalia remain under the control of Al-Shabaab militants and intermittent conflict. Somaliland’s experience underscores the failure of the 1960 union to unite distinct societies, as well as the viability of self-rule as an alternative to the instability that has plagued Mogadishu. While Hassan’s government clings to a vision of restored territorial control, Somaliland’s reality is one of a de facto independent state in all but name.

Ethiopia, as the dominant regional actor, is well within its rights to engage strategically with this reality by recognizing Somaliland’s sovereignty. In exchange for use of port facilities on Somaliland’s coastline, Abiy has brought added international legitimacy to the separatist administration’s effective rule. Given Somaliland’s record of delivering stability where Somalia struggles, this cooperative approach stands to strengthen security for all parties. Hassan’s hostile condemnation ignores political winds that have shifted definitively away from restored union after more than 30 years of distinct development.

Hassan’s remarks promoted an outdated narrative that fails to acknowledge the political realities that have emerged on the ground. While nationalism defines his rigid stance, pragmatism demands recognition that separate Somali and Somaliland societies with distinct geographies and identities have formed since the colonial era in the Horn of Africa.

At this stage, after over 30 years of effective self-governance and consolidation of sovereignty, Somaliland is clearly in a position to exist as an independently recognized state should its citizens democratically decide that path. Autonomy within Somalia is not a tenable framework given the turbulent history of their forced union and Somaliland’s clear trajectory towards independence.

Ethiopia’s engagement with Somaliland’s government constructively recognizes this reality and stands to strengthen security cooperation across the region. Rather than criticism, Hassan and Mogadishu would be wise to pursue negotiations in a spirit of reconciliation and mutual understanding and respect the right to self-determination. Only through open and pragmatic diplomacy between equal stakeholders can sustainable political solutions be found that bring long term stability to the Horn of Africa.

Zelalem Tamir
Zelalem Tamir
Zelalem Tamir is an economist by profession and currently pursuing his MA thesis on international relations and diplomacy at the Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at zelalemteamir[at]