A Legal and Diplomatic Analysis of Somaliland’s Quest for International Recognition

This article provides an extensive and nuanced analysis of the persistent and strategic quest of Somaliland for international recognition as a sovereign state vis-á-vis the multi-faceted legal and diplomatic challenges.

Abstract: This article provides an extensive and nuanced analysis of the persistent and strategic quest of Somaliland for international recognition as a sovereign state vis-á-vis the multi-faceted legal and diplomatic challenges. This research will try to compare Somaliland diplomatic strategies with the other non-recognized or partially recognized African States like Kosovo and South Sudan concerning recourse to the legal criteria for statehood under international law, enshrined in the Montevideo Convention, to uncover the dynamics that lie hidden. Further, this paper takes into account the regional and international geopolitics impacting or influencing Somaliland’s recognition efforts. The issues are therefore approached both as relevant to Somaliland and in response to the roles different actors play on the African continent and internationally. The contributing role of the African Union-United Nations and immediate neighbors of the country are considered significant recommendations for this paper.

The paper seeks insight into international law factors regarding state recognition and the practical strategic role that policymakers can play in developing meaningful pathways to support the recognition effort of Somaliland and strengthen its position within the international community


May 18, 1991, marked the year the region of Somaliland in the Horn of Africa declared independence from Somalia after the collapse of the Somali government and at the end of a brutal civil war that had disproportionately ravaged the country. Although this region formerly a British protectorate did briefly gain independence on June 26, 1960, it voluntarily united with the erstwhile Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic. The union was to prove however challenging, and the two maneuvered for decades in a situation of political tension, economic disparity, and warfare

When the Somali government collapsed in 1991, Somaliland had the perfect moment presented to it to revive its sovereignty. After the civil war, Somaliland set out on the remarkable path of state-building: stabilization of governments, effective democratic institutions, and a lively civil society. All of these were based on a constitution validated through a popular referendum in 2001 to lay the foundation on which the governance of Somaliland is based, particularly on the rule of law, separation of powers, and respect for fundamental human rights.

All these great achievements confer to Somaliland an ‘unrecognized state’, which has many deep consequences in its socio-economic development, instability in the region, and ‘diplomatic and business practices across the globe’. Without international recognition, Somaliland is denied access to the international financial system, substantive foreign investment, and full integration into the global economic and political forums. This has inevitably created limits to the country’s development opportunities, aside from the strategic trade role its position along the Gulf of Aden could otherwise offer.

Added to these are the susceptibilities of the Horn of Africa concerning the total geopolitics. This is because the entire region is replete with complex political relationships, security challenges, and various states and non-state chess playing their interests. A strategic location has brought in the significance of Somaliland in regional security and economy, and it might seem that a bid for recognition touches on powerful regional and international interests.

Though has been multi-layered: it involves bilateral and multilateral engagements at various levels and public diplomacy campaigns that are also meant to underline democratic achievements and stability. These have included lobbying at the AU level, the UN, and influential countries, especially in the West. However, the principle behind the maintenance of territorial integrity-a central tenet of the AU’s policy-has been an important stumbling block. Most African states are afraid of setting a precedent through recognition that may provoke similar separatist movements in the respective states, and spread instability across the African continent.

But the deeper reason for this reticence towards recognition on the part of the international community lies in the complex interplay of international law and state sovereignty. Although the criteria for statehood have been spelled out in the Montevideo Convention and hence, there is a law governing statehood, and recognition practices, political realities of recognition often broadly diverge from the template provided by these legal principles. It meets the qualifications of having a permanent population, a defined territory, an effective government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. However, the latter is entirely a political act on their part and may be conditioned by the strategic interests the claimant serves and by geopolitical considerations.

Somaliland has therefore been a strong case study in the complication of international law, diplomacy, and state sovereignties in the modern world. It brings to the fore the tension between the existing legal criteria of statehood and the political process of recognition, the meaning of the regional and international political implications on the aspiration of unrecognized entities, and broad issues of peace and stability in the region of contested sovereignties.

Somaliland’s experience, since its declaration of independence in 1991, is the story of its strength and commitment to realizing its sovereignty and ensuring stability in the region. The lack of international recognition is a big lacuna, yet in itself means there must be a requirement for some nuance in the interplay between the legal standard and the political realities within the international system. While Somaliland continues to seek recognition, the case also remains relevant for gauging the potentials and constraints of the ventures of state-building in the background of the complex dynamics of geopolitics.

Legal Criteria for Statehood: An Analysis of Somaliland’s Status Against the Montevideo Convention

The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, dating back to 1933, is recognized as one of the most crucial bases of international law. In it, four criteria for statehood are recognized: a permanent population; a defined territory; an effective government; and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. The subsequent section examines Somaliland against such criteria in law in depth, placing its re-emergence as a state within a legal context.

Permanent Population: Stability in Demographic Characteristics

Even though it does not enjoy international recognition, Somaliland has a resident population estimated at 3.5 million people. This population largely consists of ethnic Somalis who share one language, culture, and historical heritage. In other words, there exists quite a high degree of social cohesion and most of it is on automobiles. Such population stability also can be justified by the fact that the country holds census activities, functions voter registrations, and is actively involved in democratic elections regularly.

Somaliland’s population is one strong indicator of the country’s stability and permanence. Its people are demographically consistent. Population censuses are held constantly to provide an accurate state of the demographics for formulation and governance. Voter registrations are also carried out with utmost care so that the electoral process is representative enough of the population. All these parameters ensure the permanent population criterion stipulated by the Montevideo Convention is strengthened.

Further, the participation of the working population of Somaliland in free and fair democratic exercises, such as presidential, parliamentary, and local elections, demonstrates behavioral relevance and engagement in the management and activities of their nation; the active citizenship legitimizes the administration and further represents a population that is settled, not transitory in any way, and deeply devoted and dedicated to the exercise and the overall nation-state-building process.

Territoriality: Acquired Frontiers and Functional Space

It can be noted that the territory of Somaliland corresponds to that of the former British Somaliland protectorate, which became independent on 26 June 1960, and voluntarily united with Italian Somaliland the following day, on 1 July 1960, forming the Somali Republic. After declaring independence in 1991, Somaliland established firm administrative control over its historical boundaries, and internal stability was achieved.

The determinate territory criterion is significant in statehood as it provides the geographical extent to which a state has to exercise its sovereignty. Somaliland remains true to the boundaries of its colonial history in which it got its independence, thereby having a well-defined territory with clear and recognizable demarcation by the international community. Further underlining historical continuity is the putting in place of mechanisms controlling its borders and administrative regions which help in effective governance and security within its territorial limits.

The Somaliland government has put proper border control in place to monitor and regulate human and goods movements, making the borders secure and sovereign. Administrative regions are well-demarcated and served with local structures that provide easy administration and public service provision. This is esteemed by the presence of security forces that have been deployed in every corner of this country in line with the maintenance of law and order, meaning that this country in reference, to Somaliland, has proper administration over its defined territory.

Functional Government: Democratic Institutions and Governance Structures

 Somaliland has an operational government that exercises effective control. It has democratic institutions in place, has held periodic elections, and maintains law and order through the traditional and modern governance structures in place. The government follows a constitution that came after a national referendum of 2001, which underlines the separation of powers, the rule of law, and human rights.

The effective government criterion is one of the basic principles of statehood that sums up having the possibility to exercise authority but also provide governance over the defined territory. In its case, Somaliland has effectively maintained a robust democratic government with the structures set, well established, and fully functional. The government comprises the executive, legislative, and judiciary. Each has its independence and, therefore, works independently but interdependently to offer governance over its people.

It means that elections are held into office regularly and power is transferred peacefully through a process that is carried out with the will of the citizens. Elections, which indicate transparency and inclusiveness, allow citizens to participate in the process of electing their leaders. The government, for instance, practices the rule of law through its legal and just set-up. This is where justice can be strong and exercise accountability.

The government of Somaliland is also heavily involved in the provision of public services, such as health, education, and national development structures, for the betterment and progress of the state’s inhabitants. The government system is closely in control of law and order through law enforcement and security forces that assist the government in curbing threats to the nation at the national and international levels. Coordination between the traditional and modern governance systems further enhances the legitimacy and popular acceptance of the government system.

Diplomatic Relations and Constraints: Ability to Engage in any Relationship with Other

Somaliland maintains informal relations with many countries and international organizations. It has representative offices in some countries, for example, in the UK, Ethiopia, and the US, and takes part in some international forums such as the African Union’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD. However, this engagement is limited by its unrecognized status, which blocks its capacity as a signatory to some treaties and full participation in world diplomatic and economic fora.

First and foremost, the ability to enter into relations with other states is one of the chief criteria for statehood, which indicates the ability of a given state to conduct international diplomacy and cooperation. Though not formally recognized, Somaliland has already shown the capacity to establish and maintain diplomatic relations. This could be evidenced by representative offices in different countries, which is a strong indication of its proactiveness in diplomacy and building international relationships.

Earlier, the participation of Somaliland in international fora, such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, testifies to its mental preparedness and ability to partake in regional development and cooperation. As modest as these relations are, it is a demonstration of Somaliland’s brilliance in diplomacy and towards the rest of the states and international communities. Somaliland has hosted international delegations as well as participated in bilateral and multilateral discussions on security, trade, and development matters and, in the process, demonstrated its capacity for diplomacy.

But lack of formal recognition puts up insurmountable hurdles in the way of Somaliland by the international community. Without recognition, Somaliland cannot be a part of agreements and treaties, international memberships, or active participation in the global economy and political systems. With due inevitability, such a constraint limits its capacity to attract international assistance and resources towards its sustainable development and security concerns.

Such proactive diplomacy of Somaliland proves that, despite all of these, it is capable of maintaining international relations. By constantly exploring channels of engagement and cooperation, Somaliland takes a stand that it is a responsible and able member of the international community. This persistence in diplomacy highlights Somaliland’s commitment to the elements of statehood that are stipulated by the Montevideo Convention amidst formidable impediments.

Somaliland provides for all of the criteria of the Montevideo Convention on statehood, having a defined population that resides on its territory, an effective government, and the capacity to conduct relations with other states. Undoubtedly, these are the elements that will give a strong legal base for their statehood argument, even though there are political and diplomatic obstacles that hinder its recognition. In the light of the above stated, Somaliland proves that it is legitimate and, therefore, capable of becoming a sovereign State, a full subject of international order.

Diplomatic Stratagems: A Comparison between the Efforts of Somaliland and the Experience of Kosovo and South Sudan

If recognized, the diplomatic stratagems of Somaliland have been but comprehensive and have included bilateral and multilateral engagements as well as public diplomacy campaigns. This part will try in essence to analyze them against the background of the experiences of Kosovo and South Sudan, two states that have sought international recognition in more unfavorable conditions.

Bilateral Diplomacy: Cultivation of Strategic Alliances and Partnerships

It has done this by trying to create and develop bilateral relations with important countries like Ethiopia, Djibouti, and the UAE. Particularly important is Ethiopia, which has forged very deep economic and security linkages with Somaliland – seeing it, basically, as a strategic partner in the Horn of Africa. The development of the Berbera port by the UAE demonstrates the value of this strategic position and its potential role in regional trade.

Among the concerns Ethiopia has regarding this relationship is that it borders Somaliland and that it has security and trade interests with it. More especially, the availability of the Berbera port through which Ethiopia is expected to import or export goods and products is also associated with economic interest for the country; hence, it has an interest in ensuring the stability of Somaliland and cooperation from it as a partner. Alternatively, it balances this partnership by not issuing formal recognition to Somaliland but maintains a diplomatic relationship with Somalia, which is otherwise a recognized separate and independent sovereign state.

The work that the UAE is putting into the Berbera port is only a sign of how strategic Somaliland is. Far beyond transforming Berbera into a significant trade center, through this project, the economy of Somaliland will also be enhanced strategically toward increasing the influence of the UAE in the Horn of Africa. The same huge economic engagements for the UAE have never materialized into formal recognition just as in the case with Ethiopia, hence proving what balance there exists between the interest of any country vis-à-vis its economic interests and diplomacy.

In stark contrast, Kosovo’s journey to recognition came on the back of receiving strong bilateral support from important Western states, chiefly from the United States and other European Union member states. Indeed, the United States and assorted other important EU countries had recognized Kosovo within days of its declaration of independence in 2008 and had bestowed upon it significant political impetus for subverting the arduous task toward international recognition. Shorn of such vital politically underwritten support, Kosovo would not have been recognized by over 100 UN member states.

The other factor that South Sudan utilized to secure its recognition is bilateral relations. In this case, South Sudan leveraged the geopolitical importance between states and the interest the international community shared in the long-term concern of conflict in Sudan. Involvement in a Comprehensive Peace Agreement among the international, spearheaded by the US, laid the groundwork for the future of South Sudan in attaining its independence in 2011. The consensus in which the international community, as a unit, had agreed that the civil war in Sudan had to stop allowing an avenue for South Sudan’s recognition of independence issued quickly.

Multilateral Engagement: Lobbying Regional and International Organizations

It has been very active in its dealings with international organizations, including the African Union (AU), United Nations, and others, “lobbying the AU to recognize its unique case because of its historical boundaries and governance, different from other secessionist movements.” Yet, so far, the AU has declined to approve such recognition, apprehensive about generating a domino effect elsewhere in Africa.

Somaliland has, therefore, been at pains to insist that its case was the restoration of historical independence and not an issue of secession. Highlighting the unique colonial experience and a union that was voluntarily entered into with Somalia, Hargeisa argues that its fight for a claim to sovereignty is not similar to the other secessionist territories or cases. More particularly, however, the non-interference in the states’ territorial boundaries had pressed a great challenge to the cause for the international recognition of Somaliland.

It has participated in development activities at the UN and lobbied for assistance with its recognition quest.  But without AU support, the path to the UN for Somaliland is a hard one.  The regional consensual voice on UN policy is loud, and without AU support has given a quick path to international recognition through the UN, to Somaliland.

The multilateral engagement Kosovo had undertaken until then was a process in which Kosovo sought recognition from influential international bodies as early as possible in the independence process. The most important step in that regard was the advisory opinion of the ICJ, which in 2010 established Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not in violation of any international law. Kosovo has in this regard become a member of international organizations, such as the IMF and the World Bank, and its position on the international stage is almost equal to other recognized states and countries.

The international community has thrown its lot on the peacemaking bid to end the conflict in the Sudan. The efforts to allow the independence referendum to proceed and after this to realize the recognition of the new state—South Sudan, the AU, UN, and other international groups—immensely supported. Normally, the AU endorsement of the CPA and UN support in the peacekeeping and state creation exertions increases the chances of the SPLM winning independence and state recognition for South Sudan.

Public diplomacy has also been used to seek international support; Somaliland has underlined its democratic achievements, stability, and human rights record. This comes in contrast with Somalia’s instability, thus placing Somaliland on the map as an example of the most fertile politics in the volatile region. Conferences and publications have been used in international media to shore up a good image and rally grassroots support for the course internationally.

Public diplomacy has been one of the main strategies through which Somaliland differentiated itself from Somalia. It showcased its democratic process, including periodic free and fair elections, peaceful transitions of power, and respect for the rule of law and human rights. All had the aim of projecting an image of legitimation of Somaliland as a sovereign state deserving of recognition by the outside world. The easier way is when the government reaches out to the international media and participates in international conferences to showcase how the country develops and achieves its goals and pleads for recognition.

Experience has it too that Kosovo uses public diplomacy to couch its democratic rule and ideas in Europe. Indeed, by embracing European values and norms, Kosovo hopes for international support, in particular, by the EU member countries. Various public diplomacy campaigns emphasize the progress that has been made by Kosovo in the areas of human rights, economic development, and regional cooperation.

Public diplomacy initially revolved around gaining sympathy and support for its independence from the international community, focusing on the humanitarian crisis during the civil war eruption set against the backdrop of a definitive human rights violation in the Sudanese Civil War. Today, South Sudan’s problems related to governance and internal conflicts post-statehood have been explanatory of the challenges that the country faces in portraying a positive image internationally. Nevertheless, public diplomacy is going to be a more critical instrument through which aid for the state-building project can continuously be sought from the rest of the world.

The comparison between the diplomatic efforts of Somaliland and its counterparts, Kosovo and South Sudan, reveals both the similarities and differences in the pursuit of international recognition. It reflects the determination and strength shown by Somaliland in its pursuit of multidimensional efforts concerning bilateral, multilateral, and public diplomacy with no achievement of expected formal recognition, particularly from the AU and UN bodies.

Effective international support and helpful geopolitical considerations operated on the side of both Kosovo and South Sudan and worked in their favor, leading them toward recognition. The fact is that just like the strategic significance of South Sudan for the resolution of the conflict in Sudan, Kosovo’s alignment towards the West has also become quite an important factor in this direction. If such holds for these countries, the case of Somaliland is quite different since its unique historical and political contextualization necessitates more intricate strategies on the regional level, but also internationally.

Whereas Somaliland’s case for recognition quests proceeds, comparing the experiences of Kosovo and South Sudan underlines the diversification of strategies in navigating the complexity of international diplomacy and state sovereignty. An established strategic alliance, for instance, with regional and international organizations, helps harness or include public diplomacy; this occurs as part of pursuits to facilitate emerging states’ settings’ attainment of the desired recognition.

Comparative Case Studies: Lessons from Kosovo and South Sudan

The case for international recognition of Somaliland is a web—a myriad of quests from which lessons can be borrowed from other entities that similarly face challenges. This paper looks at the illustration of lessons to be borrowed from Kosovo and South Sudan for the edification of the case of Somaliland for recognition.

Case for Kosovo

The illustration of the case for Kosovo against the quest for international recognition of Somaliland is very much in line with each other. After its February 17, 2008, declaration of independence from Serbia, Kosovo engaged in an aggressive and highly targeted diplomatic campaign. This campaign focused almost exclusively on the need to bring around the United States, as well as the more powerful of the European Union member states, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. These countries played an even more important role because, besides political support, they also offered economic and military support through international institutions like NATO and the EU.

The stance adopted by Kosovo has been one of a multi-dimensional diplomacy. It has been proactive in trying to brush up as close as possible to Western notions of democracy and values by underlining its commitment to human rights, democratic governance, and economic reform. Such an alignment made it an attractive candidate for recognition among Western nations that place these as primary foreign policy values. Additionally, Kosovo played on historical ties as well as a moral imperative to right past wrongs—most visibly through the ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses that had occurred during the Kosovo War.

Significantly, the United States was among the most prominent of its supporters. The US normalized relations shortly after independence, meaning Kosovo legitimately recognizes and has since been a vocal supporter of, Kosovo’s international recognition and integration into world institutions. This gave Kosovo a significant diplomatic edge as the influence of the US can exert in international affairs. Equally collateral, the support of major EU countries made the integration of Kosovo into Europe’s economic and political structures easier, even if it took going against some other EU member states.

These successes notwithstanding, Kosovo still faces very important challenges. Its recognition is anything but universal; Russia, China, and some EU members, such as Spain, Greece, and Cyprus, oppose Kosovan independence. Russia and, above all, China, have opposed it and, in the former case, have vested veto power over the Security Council, a setback of a level that is sufficient to deny Kosovo entry into the United Nations.

The Kosovo case offers some lessons to Somaliland. First, the importance of alliances with influential countries and international institutions cannot be overstated, The first reason is that backing from some mighty states may greatly assure legitimacy and diplomatic power for the newly born state. Second, having the newborn state aligned with worldwide norms and values, especially democracy and respect for human rights, can make the case more attractive for recognition. Finally, some geopolitical interests and rivalries by world powers themselves create a challenging environment under which sensitivities have to be delicately taken care of if the efforts for recognition have to succeed.

South Sudan: International Facilitation and Referendums

How did South Sudan end up as a country the world at large was supposed to recognize? It emerged as the independent Republic of South Sudan on July 9, 2011. The route was one of a longer conflict, peace agreement, as opposed to the ‘mere declaratory independence’ in the case of Kosovo, and it was also marked by extensive international mediation and support.

It was a dramatic process to the independence of South Sudan in 2005 through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. The CPA was brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway and effectively ended the decades of civil war waged by the Sudanese government against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. This opened a new chapter with an interim period of six years before the people of South Sudan would vote in a referendum regarding their independence.

International actors also played a role in facilitating the process. Important support from international organizations, such as the AU and the UN, ranged from providing logistical and financial support in the conduct of the referendum to diplomatic pressure on Khartoum. The UN would play a key role, especially through its peacekeeping mission in Sudan, in stabilizing the region and guaranteeing a credible referendum.

The referendum held in January 2011 provided a crucial legitimizing factor in the claim of South Sudan to statehood. The large majority of 98.83% that voted ‘yes’ to secede/yes’ in the referendum provided a clear and democratic mandate for the separation of South Sudan from Sudan. This was not only a process that legitimized the independence bid of South Sudan but it also sealed international support from a majority. With great speed, South Sudan was officially recognized by the leading powers and became a member of the United Nations on July 14, 2011.

Yet, the experience of South Sudan afterward reflects the formidable challenges that the latter comes with. Since its recognition, South Sudan has been grappling with internal skirmishes, governance issues, and a lack of proper economic standards. The civil war that broke out in December 2013, after only two years of independence, put much doubt on the state-building process in the country. These internal wars have greatly hampered issues of development opportunistic efforts and have continued to inject major challenges on issues of stability and governance.

From the case of South Sudan, several lessons can be drawn from others, including the case of Somaliland. First and foremost, recognition in and of itself points to significant international facilitation and mediation. International/external states might facilitate peace agreements, offer logistical support, and facilitate democratic processes, such as the credible referendum. Second, the legitimacy derived from the democratic mandate succinctly witnessed in a referendum goes a long way to boost the claim of a particular state to independence. Then came the even bigger task of post-recognition state building: the domestic conflicts and governance challenges only remind us how much states would benefit from sustainable international support and reliable domestic institutions to effect stability and development.

A comparative analysis of the diplomatic efforts by Somaliland with Kosovo and South Sudan brings out both similarities and contrasts in their quest for international recognition. Similarly, the multifaceted attempts—bilateral diplomacy, multilateral engagement, and public diplomacy—are highly indicative of determination and strength on the side of Somaliland. Heavily, essentially, heavyweight challenges still come in non-recognition by international organizations such as the AU and UN.

The strong support from the international community and strategic geopolitical considerations are elements that have supported the two countries, Kosovo and South Sudan, to gain recognition. In this regard, while Kosovo leaned west, and South Sudan was central to the resolution of the conflict of Sudan, then it worked in the favor of the two countries’ struggles to find recognition. Thus, the only but protracted case of Somaliland requires some indigenous and international concepts that take into consideration the regional as well as international dynamics.

The experience from Kosovo and South Sudan has much to teach Somaliland as the latter continues on its march for recognition. It would adjust strategies to offset what will accompany or follow in such complex international diplomacy and state sovereignty. It can expand its portfolio of strategic alliances, contacts with regional and international groupings, and enlist public diplomacy in its favor to enhance its chances of gaining the recognition it has been seeking. More significantly, massive post-recognition state-building processes will be necessary to sustain its sovereignty and development.

Geopolitical Dynamics. How Regional and International Politics Impacts Somaliland’s Pursuit of Recognition

Somaliland’s success in its pursuit of recognition is mainly defined and determined by the geopolitical environment of the Horn of Africa. The discussion in this section addresses the main regional and international stakeholders surrounding the African Union, United Nations, and neighboring states, and the impact these actors’ activism will have on the pursuit of the recognition of Somaliland.

Regional Players: Juggling Interests and Stability

Ethiopia Strategic Partnerships Political Caution

It means that Ethiopia relies on Somaliland because of strategic interests; it is about security cooperation and strong economic ties. In this way, the argument runs that ‘developing the port of Berbera and trade corridors that link a landlocked Ethiopia to the Red Sea makes Somaliland crucial for economic-strategic plans’. This port provides an important alternative route for the landlocked Ethiopian State, decreasing its dependence on Djibouti and increasing access to global markets.

However, Ethiopia refrains from the provision of formal recognition because it presents a risk of conflict with Somalia and the Muslim influence in the region. Formal recognition of Somaliland would most likely anger Somalia. That act would encircle an already unstable region besides upsetting Ethiopia’s wider exotic strategy across the region. It, therefore, shows how a delicately balanced approach is maintained by regional powers while negotiating the tricky politics of state recognition. It keeps them economically and politically engaged without showing signs of all the way recognition for stabilizing the region and its strategic alliance.

Djibouti: Economic Ties and Regional Stability

Djibouti, despite its strong economic relations with Somaliland, upholds the African Union’s principle of territorial integrity. A strategically located country, with vital port facilities of its own, Djibouti is a regional commercial crossroads and enjoys very good economic and political relationships with both Somaliland and Somalia. But more broadly, Djibouti’s prudence is indicative of the greater regional aversion to legitimizing breakaway territories out of concern that it could further destabilize what is already a region mired by numerous conflicts and that a precedent could imbue and embolden other secessionist movements.

In addition, Djibouti is close to Somaliland, with which it shares a border. More importantly, most of the imported goods and services that sustain the Kenyan economy and other peripheral countries in the region flow through Somaliland. By recognizing Somaliland, Djibouti could easily defend its close ally in the region. In a nutshell, the intricate nature of the interaction between economic interest and political stability in the region reveals Djibouti’s pragmatic approach, basically encouraged by the strategic establishment of the country in global politics.

African Union: Security fears

The need to adhere to the AU’s policy of maintaining all borders of countries is one of the primary factors in denying recognition to Somaliland. Indeed, the far-reaching policy of the AU, in spirit, and practice through the adopted charter, is to maintain peace by avoiding conflicts and preventing instability through secession. Consequently, in the case of the recognition of the secession of Somaliland, other parts may also want to secede and resultantly lead the whole region to be unstable and fragmented.

In all this, however, the AU has engaged with Somaliland at varying levels by acknowledging its stability and success in governance. The understanding here is that the AU takes cognizance of Somaliland’s exercise of democratic governance, its relative peace, and even its feat of economic development even though the regional body has not shown such congenial attributes towards its quest for official recognition from the organization. At times, the stand taken by the AU is an implementation of subsidiary commitments to general issues of post-colonial state borders and regional stability.

United Nations: Democracy versus the Rule of Law

The United Nations (UN) has not been that keen to work closely with Somaliland but has rather based its recognition on the territorial integrity of Somalia. This UN position is a reflection of the general international policy not to tamper with independent borders to avoid a potential domino effect that may result in chaos and anarchy around the globe. However, the UN has worked with Somaliland in some development projects as a result of the recognition of the capacity and stability of Somaliland.

This limited engagement by the UN with Somaliland signifies, though, a recognition of the de facto statehood of Somaliland and its contribution to regional stability. Therefore, this pragmatic approach can allow the UN to support developmental and humanitarian efforts in Somaliland, respecting the international legal norms over issues of state recognition. In this sense, it means that the UN’s careful dealings with Somaliland are a reflection of how hard it will be for the country to get full recognition under the current international legal framework.

Barriers to Recognition: Political, Economic, and Strategic Challenges

Not many countries in the world have recognized Somaliland. In this context, there are several barriers to Somaliland’s recognition. Ideally, these barriers range from political and economic to strategic factors. Each of these aspects has been taken in great detail to understand the actual cause of the lack of recognition of Somaliland.

Political Barriers: Precedent Concerns and Sovereignty Issues

The main factor in the non-recognition of Somaliland has indeed been political considerations. Many do see its recognition as legitimizing the cause of other separatist movements. States fear recognizing the state of Somaliland since it might be a precedent that will threaten their territorial integrity. It is common among those nations with strong separatist movements or great regionalism caused by a large ethnic or cultural identity.

For instance, Spain with Catalonia and the Basque Country, China with Taiwan and Tibet, and Russia with several of its ethnic regions, the interests at stake for any strong state require a hard line against an acknowledgment of new entities emerging from secessionist efforts. The international political environment creates a condition where states are cautious and reluctant to encourage the support of secession efforts in nearly any form, no matter how reasonable the appeal might be.

Economic Hurdles: International Markets and Investment

A lack of recognition grossly limits access to international financial systems and foreign investment by Somaliland. Without formal recognition, Somaliland is unable to fully participate in global economic forums and, in turn, hampers its social-economic development. Non-access to such financial institutions of the world that would facilitate the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund means it cannot make any agreements regarding funding and loans for developmental purposes.

Such an economic isolation almost nullifies the bright scope for growth and development for Somaliland. In the face of such uncertainty regarding business deals with illegal states, foreign investors feel quite discouraged. This, in turn, highly restricts the economic development of the region. Such economic marginalization is not only damaging its development prospects, rather it refrains it from also moving forward as a proper, self-sustained state in the eyes of the world.

Strategic Barriers: Geopolitical Rivalries and Stability Concerns

Strategic interests also are behind the non-recognition of Somaliland. Major international actors like the United States and the European Union have an interest in stability in the Horn of Africa. They are, therefore, generally very reluctant to take steps that may further destabilize a region already characterized by instability. Recognizing Somaliland may cause friction with Somalia and other regional claimants while complicating international diplomatic efforts in the region.

In particular, geopolitical rivalries involving powerful countries like the United States, China, or regional powers complicate recognition dynamics. For example, the United States-China strategic rivalry in the Horn of Africa impacts how each country approaches Somaliland’s recognition. These geopolitical dynamics operate in a context where recognition of emergent states is more often than not framed or evaluated about strategic interests and focused less on the merits of the statehood case on its own.

Practitioner Policy Recommendations

Strategic Interventions to Enhance the Prospects of Somaliland’s Recognition

This section offers practical and strategic policy recommendations for Somerset authorities aimed at bolstering efforts that promote the international standing of Somaliland

Promotion of Diplomatic Representation: Strategic Alliances and Lobbying

The policymakers should make the diplomatic quest of Somaliland more strategic and tailored in approach. It can be achieved through acquiring alliances with influential countries, particularly those who have strategic interests in the Horn of Africa, while simultaneously banking on the issue of geopolitics of Somaliland. There is a requirement for more Lobbying at international forums and bodies such as the UN and the African Union to propagate the Somaliland cause and to draw sympathizers.

Strengthen the diplomatic missions and open more representative offices to the target countries. It will help Somaliland develop bilateral relations and a propagandist activity for recognition. Maintenance of a continuous dialogue with potential friends will help to succeed in achieving better recognition. Somaliland has several mutual interests, like economic cooperation and regional stability. Such benefits can be used for a better environment in the recognition process.

Leveraging Economic Potential: Investment and Trade Opportunities

Somaliland could focus on leveraging its economic potential to garner support. By promoting investment opportunities, particularly in sectors such as trade, infrastructure, and energy, Somaliland can build economic ties that could translate into political support. Highlighting successful economic projects, such as the development of the Berbera port, can showcase Somaliland’s potential as a regional trade hub and attract international investors.

Creating a favorable investment climate, including legal and regulatory frameworks that protect foreign investments, can further enhance Somaliland’s attractiveness to international investors. By demonstrating its economic viability and potential for growth, Somaliland can strengthen its case for recognition.

Engaging with Regional and International Organizations: Building Legitimacy

Increased engagement with regional and international organizations is crucial for Somaliland’s recognition efforts. Somaliland should continue to lobby the African Union and seek observer status in international bodies, thereby increasing its visibility and legitimacy. Participation in regional security and development initiatives can also demonstrate Somaliland’s commitment to regional stability and cooperation.

By actively participating in international forums and contributing to global discussions on issues such as security, development, and human rights, Somaliland can build a reputation as a responsible and stable actor in the international community. This engagement can help counteract the isolation that comes with non-recognition and build a broader base of support.

Somaliland must build a stronger legal and moral case for recognition. This involves highlighting its compliance with international legal standards for statehood and emphasizing its contributions to regional stability and security. Developing a comprehensive and persuasive narrative that addresses the concerns of potential recognizing states is essential.

Engaging in international legal and academic forums to present Somaliland’s case can also help build broader support. By articulating the legal basis for its statehood and showcasing its commitment to democratic governance and human rights, Somaliland can strengthen its claim to recognition. This narrative should emphasize the unique historical and political context of Somaliland’s quest for recognition, distinguishing it from other secessionist movements.


The Path Forward for Somaliland’s Quest for International Recognition

Somaliland’s quest for international recognition presents a complex interplay of legal, diplomatic, and geopolitical factors. While Somaliland meets the legal criteria for statehood under the Montevideo Convention, its recognition is hindered by political, economic, and strategic barriers. By adopting a more strategic and coordinated approach to diplomacy, leveraging its economic potential, and increasing engagement with regional and international organizations, Somaliland can strengthen its case for recognition.

This article contributes to the broader discourse on state sovereignty and international law, offering practical and strategic recommendations for policymakers to support Somaliland’s recognition efforts and enhance its international standing. The path forward for Somaliland requires a multifaceted strategy that addresses the concerns of the international community while showcasing its achievements and potential as a stable and democratic state. Through persistent and strategic efforts, Somaliland can navigate the complex geopolitical landscape and move closer to achieving its goal of international recognition.

Gulaid Yusuf Idaan
Gulaid Yusuf Idaan
Gulaid Yusuf Idaan is a distinguished senior lecturer at universities in Somaliland, specializing in diplomacy, politics, and international relations in the Horn of Africa. His independent scholarly work and extensive publications have established him as a leading expert in regional dynamics and diplomatic relations. In addition to his significant professional contributions, Gulaid is an aspiring university lecturer, holding multiple Master's Degrees in International Law and Diplomacy, and International Relations.