President Museveni of Uganda recently waded into the contentious topic of relations between Somaliland and its infamous neighbour, Somalia. In a press release emailed to news agencies President Museveni announced he had received a visit from a special envoy of Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi. The Ugandan President disclosed that, amongst other things, he had offered to mediate between Somalia and the Republic of Somaliland.
This news immediately generated headlines across the world, including in most East African countries, and received significant backlash on social media from Somalilanders across the world. In addition, many Kenyan, Ugandan, Ethiopian and British commentators similarly indicated that President Museveni’s intervention was unhelpful. In what has turned out to be quite a diplomatic blunder for Uganda, the Government of Somaliland released a statement that the “Somaliland Government affirms that any dialogue that transpires between #Somaliland and Somalia will not discuss unification, but rather how the two previously united countries can move forward separately”.
This article explains why the President’s approach towards Somaliland requires a rethink. It will start by recounting the correct history of Somaliland in the regional context. It will then set out the immensely negative unintended regional consequences for East Africa, if Somaliland was forced into another ill-advised union with failed state Somalia.
The Republic of Somaliland: Not a Secessionist Movement
Firstly, it is important to retell the correct history. Somaliland is not a secessionist movement, nor is it a ‘breakaway region’ of neighbouring Somalia. The correct history – supported by ample evidence, facts and legal documents – is that Somaliland is a country and not merely a region. The State of Somaliland gained independence on the 26 of June 1960 from Great Britain. This in fact makes the Republic of Somaliland older than both Uganda and Somalia. To suggest Somaliland is merely a small secessionist region of Somalia is therefore factually, historically and legally incorrect, misleading and untrue.
Somalia has long sought to label Somaliland as a secessionist or breakaway region. However if one independently investigates and verifies Somaliland’s history, it quickly becomes clear that nothing could be further from the truth. How could Somaliland be a region of Somalia, when the State of Somaliland gained independence entirely separately (from the UK) on 26 June 1960? While on this day Somaliland became a sovereign, independent and internationally recognised country, Somalia was at this time was still a UN Trusteeship, under Italian administration. How can a sovereign independent country which gained independence completely separately, be a secessionist region of a neighbouring United Nations Trust Territory? The suggestion Somaliland is a secessionist region of Somalia reveals either a fundamental lack of understanding of Somaliland’s history, or a deliberate perversion and distortion of history for personal self interest. President Museveni has been poorly advised; his team should revisit and familiarise themselves with Somaliland’s history.
Somaliland’s Long History as a Sovereign Independent Country
Modern day Somaliland is the successor the famous Adal Kingdom. This country had existed in the approximate boundaries of present day Somaliland for centuries, from around the 8th century AD to the 1600s. After the decline of the Adal Sultanate, in the early 17th century, it was succeeded by local sultanates which emerged in the same present-day borders of Somaliland that had also been the Adal Kingdom.
Over the centuries, these local Sultanates were independent and self-contained. Somalilanders maintain extensive sea and land trade relations. Principally with neighbouring peoples including other East Africans, the Swahili coast, and Ethiopians – then known as Abyssinians. But Somalilanders have also maintained trade links also further afield with with Arabian Peninsula on the other side of the Gulf of Berbera (the Gulf of Aden), the East African hinterland through inland trading networks and even India and Persia.
As in much of East Africa, by the 19th century the British Empire had arrived on the shores of Somaliland, knocking on the proverbial doors. In 1884, through a series of Treaties of Protection signed between the U.K and Somalilanders. It was in this way that the country of Somaliland that we know today come into being.
It should be noted that Somalians on the other hand became a colony of Italy. Specific tribes such as the minority cross-border Dhulbahante community, and the small Majeerteen subclan, had willingly signed treaties of protection with Italy, in which they agreed to become subjects of Italy. This included the Ilig Treaty of 1905 signed between Italy and the local ruler known as ‘the Mad Mullah’. Concurrently Italy had separately purchased the remainder of Southern Somalia from the Sultan of Zanzibar, as it was part of the Swahili coast. By the 1930s Italy had introduced fascism as the predominant political philosophy in Somalia, as well as the Madamato system of Somalia Italiana, plantation slavery of Somalians and raft of other policies that were deeply destructive to Somalia’s social fabric and traditional structures. This unique history of neighbouring Somalia as East Africa’s only fascist indoctrinated country, largely contributes to Somalia’s present day issues. Till today Somalia’s political philosophy is ‘might is right’, autocratic dictatorship and abuse of minorities such as its large Somali Bantu population (the secret Somali Bantu Genocide).
Turning back to Somaliland’s history, it clearly and demonstrably has a long, illustrious and incontrovertibly rich history as a sovereign, independent country. The territory that is present day Somaliland with a recorded history of over of 2000 years. For at least 1,200 years the country that is modern-day Somaliland had a distinct identity, territory and indigenous citizens. Somaliland has had various successive forms of government (usually in the form of sultanates and kingdoms). It has also maintained relations with nearby countries, kingdoms and peoples.
If one looks at the Montevideo convention, which provides the modern definition of States, it is self evident that Somaliland has been an independent sovereign state for a long time. Over the past 1,400 years, there were perhaps only two a brief exception of two brief periods when the territory of modern-day Somaliland was not an independent, sovereign, self-governing country. Firstly, the 76 years Somaliland spent as British Somaliland and secondly the 31 years, between 1960 and 1991, when Somaliland attempted a failed union with neighbouring Somalia to create a new country called ‘The Somali Republic’.
Somaliland is not Somalia: Different Histories and Incompatible Cultural Values
For most of its 1,200 year history, Somaliland has had very little to do with the neighbouring territory of Somalia. This might seem unlikely, but is in fact true, and is an accident of geography due to the simple distance between Somaliland and Somalia. To put this into perspective consider this: Somaliland’s capital and main population centre Hargeisa is 2,300KM by road from the southernmost regions that are Somalia’s population centres. While Uganda’s capital is a mere 1,500KM from that same point in Somalia. Somalia was also part of the Swahili coast, various forms of Swahili are spoken in Somalia. Lastly Somalia also shares much culture with Uganda including posho (which Somalians call soor), Niiko dancing and Somali Bantu populations.
Beyond trade, Somalilanders historically had no connection with the neighbouring territory to their South, that would later become neighbouring Somalia. Post 1991 Somaliland has reverted to its old relationship with neighbouring Somalia: trade, but nothing more. Not only because of the geographic distance, but cultural and political incompatibility.
It is worth noting that when modern day Somaliland was created in 1884, neighbouring Somalia was, at that time, a possession of the Sultan of Zanzibar. Somalia was later acquired by Italy. Mussolini became its head of State. The territory inaugurated the Fascisti Party of Somalia as the first political party of Somalia. The Fasciti Party headquarters in Mogadishu would become Somalia’s parliament building. Fascism was taug in ht in schools throughout Somalia (not including Somaliland). Somalia was aligned with the Axis powers during world war 2, and even sent a delegation to the conference of Nazi allied countries in Rome, Italy. Somalian leaders are pictures with Hitler and Mussolini, sporting swastikas and carrying out fascist salutes.
Until the present day the values of fascism (might is right), machiavellianism, britality and autocracy are the national values of Somalia. This is displayed by Somalia’s government and citizens actions including the Isaaq Genocide, the Somali Bantu Genocide, terrorism, piracy and general anarchy that has become commonplace in Somalia.
Somalilanders on the other hand had a very different experience, much closer to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in experience.
Somalilanders also have values very different from Somalia, based on egalitarianism, pastoral community and democracy. This is why the rule of law prevails in Somaliland, whilst Somalia has been in anarchy for 32 years.
Somaliland and Somalia are culturally incompatible, just as Somalia and Uganda are culturally inconpatible. To seek to forcibly absorb Somaliland into Somalia, would be to wish for the destruction of the values, livelihoods and country that 6 million Somalilanders have so diligently built over decades. It is unthinkable.
The Idea of a Union between Somaliland and Somalia has Been Tried, Tested and Failed
The 31 year period during which Somaliland was under illegal occupation and attempted annexation by neighbouring Somalia, was one of the most destructive periods in its history. Somalia under the fascist genocidal dictator Siad Barre, who was an expansionist ethno-fascist, destroyed Somaliland and levelled it to the ground. Somalia then carried out the brutal Isaaq Genocide, in which it killed hundreds of thousands of Somalilanders, and bombed, burned and destroyed most of Somaliland’s cities, towns and villages. Somalilanders have not forgotten this genocide, nor forgiven Somalia.
Somalilanders are also cognisant that neighbouring Somalia is still the worlds most comprehensively failed state. We note that neighbouring Somalia continues to be famous for piracy, terrorism, mass murders, anarchy and daily bombings. Who in their right mind would want to unite with Somalia, especially when the rest of the world actively shuts the doors to Somalia to protect their own citizens from its chaos. It is for this very reason why both Kenya and Ethiopia have established buffer zones inside Somalia: to keep it at bay. Kenya has even gone as far as building a border wall with failed state Somalia. Therefore clearly any attempt to unite with Somalia will bring Somaliland nothing but death, destruction and destitution. We say, no thank you.
Museveni a Proponent of Greater Somalia? A Destructive Path for East Africa
Under Somalia’s leadership the Somali Republic, emboldened by its annexation of Somaliland, also invaded and attempted to annex Northern Kenya and Eastern Ethiopia. The Somali Republic also had designs to incorporate other countries including the Republic of Djibouti into his fantastical new country called ‘Greater Somalia’. Is more war, destruction and conflict in East Africa the wish of President Museveni? I pray it is not so. As Africans we must learn from our mistakes of the past, lest we be doomed to repeat them, ad infinitum.
The idea of Greater Somalia is one of an ethnically pure, supposedly superior country, for so-called ‘ethnic Somalis’. Greater Somalia’s claimed land area being twice the size of Western Europe, would incorporate Somalia, Somaliland, Eastern Ethiopia, Northern Kenya and the entirety of Djibouti. Its capital would be Mogadishu, Somalia. This is all very ironic and some might say delusional, given Somalia can’t even govern itself… yet Somalia has grand designs on neighbouring countries including Somaliland. In any case Greater Somalia which would be kick-started by Somalia attempting to annex Somaliland, would be a sure way to envelop East Africa in a great regional conflagration.
Greater Somalia ideologically very similar to Hitler’s Greater Germanic Reich – based on ideology of supposed ethnic purity, forced homogeneity, genocide & ethnic cleansing, and autocratic forms of government.
Somalia’s expansionist and ethno-fascist ideology of ‘Greater Somalia’ begins with invading, annexing and incorporating Somaliland into Somalia. The second step would be annexing Djibouti. Followed by Eastern Ethiopia (the Somali region of Ethiopia) and Northern Kenya (the Northern Frontier District of Kenya).
Somalia’s current constitutional including provisions claiming extra-territorial jurisdiction over Eastern Ethiopia, Somaliland, Northern Kenya and Djibouti. Somalia’s did this by including in its constitution provisions which state that anyone who is an ethnic Somali, even if they their ancestors have always lived in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somaliland and Djibouti and never even so much as set foot in Somalia, are citizens of Somalia simply by virtue of their Somali ethnicity.
This idea of Somalia as an ‘ethnic state’ is the basis that Somalia uses to claims extra-territorial sovereignty over neighbouring countries. In this way Somalia claims Somali Ethiopians (Somali Region of Ethiopia), Northern Kenya (NFD Province), Somalilanders (The Republic of Somaliland), and Djiboutians (Djibouti) are sovereign subordinates of Somalia. President Museveni is inadvertently and unwittingly lending support to and giving credibility to Somalia’s extraterritorial claims on neighbouring countries, including its illegal and baseless claims over Somaliland.
Regional Consequences of Greater Somalia’s Annexation of Somaliland, as Promoted by Museveni
President Museveni should be careful to not promote an ideology – of Greater Somalia – that he neither understands, nor can control. To do so would unleash a terrible and protracted new conflict and border wars between Somalia and all its neighbours, including Somaliland. President Museveni should respect Somaliland, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. He is supporting and unleashing forces of Somali ethno-nationalism and ethno-fascism that few outside the Horn of Africa understand or appreciate.
To support Somalia’s claims over Somaliland and neighbouring countries would unleash in the Horn of Africa, and East Africa more widely, immense instability, uncertainty. This would be bad for business, government and citizens alike in East Africa. It would adversely affect investor sentiment, international trade and political and economic stability. President Museveni should be careful to not be pulled into the orbit of Somalia’s chaos and anarcho-capitalism. After all, it has not worked out so well for Somalia.
Somaliland is the only bulwark that stands against the Greater Somalia ideology. Removing Somaliland from the region would be sure to pull Somaliland, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya into a regional conflagration and war the like of which the region has not seen since Somalia’s illegal 1977 invasion of Ethiopia. President Museveni would do well to remember that Ethiopia and Somalia went to war in 1977 because of this ideology. Somalia and Kenya went to war in 1963 because of this ideology. The Isaaq Genocide was committed because of this ruinous ideology.
The Legal & Moral Argument Against a Forced Union Between Failed State Somalia and Democratic Somaliland
The State of Somaliland then gained its independence on the 26th of June 1960 as part of the African decolonisation movement, similar to most other African countries. Somaliland therefore has its own borders based on internationally recognised and legally binding Treaties between the local people and the UK, between the UK and Ethiopia (demarcating the Somaliland-Ethiopia border), between the UK and France (demarcating the Somaliland-Djibouti border), and between the UK and Italy (demarcating the Somaliland-Somalia border).
By advocating a forced illegal union between Somaliland and Somalia, President Museveni is invalidating and opening up a Pandora’s Box of colonial African borders. He is giving credence to and providing credibility to Somalia’s illegal claims on not only Somaliland (based on supposed shared ethnicity). And also Somalia’s claims on Eastern Ethiopia, Djibouti and Northern Kenya. This goes against the AU charter which “SOLEMNLY DECLARES that all Member States pledge themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence”. This includes Somaliland’s sovereign borders with which it duly and legally gained independence on the 26 June 1960. Surely this cannot be his intention?
President Museveni should be careful to not wish to go back in history and seek to nullify Somaliland’s independence, unless he wishes to do the same for Uganda. After all, the age old saying teaches us that ‘what is good for the goose is good for the gander’. In other words, if President Museveni wishes people to respect Uganda’s independence from the UK on the 9 October 1962, why does he deny the same to Somalilanders? It is illogical, it is rash, it is unjustifiable.
President Museveni, as an elder statesman of East Africa, should be proposing solutions such as formalising recognition of Somaliland (which is effectively a 32 year old foregone conclusion – a reality on the ground that is not going away), and not contributing more problems and conflicts to the region such as proposing an unworkable, unfeasible, unthinkable forced union between Somaliland and Somalia.
Why is President Museveni advocating something for Somaliland that he would not accept for Uganda?
President Museveni has no right to dismiss the will of Somalilanders. Somalilanders have the same right to self determination as Ugandans – and any other African country. To suggest a reunification between Somaliland and Somalia is to reveal a lack of understanding and knowledge on the issues between them. Under no conceivable circumstances will Somalilanders accept being reunited with the country that waged a brutal genocide on them: Somalia.
To suggest a reunification between Somaliland and Somalia would be like forcing relatives of mass murder victims to live with the same mass murderer who killed their relatives. It would be immoral. It would be inhumane. It would be unthinkable. It would force onto Somalilanders a level of indignity, humilitation and inhumanity that they would never and will never accept. No sane person would accept it. Most of the 6 million or so Somalilanders will likely fight to the death and sacrifice their lives before their country is annexed by and forcibly given to neighbouring failed state Somalia (which cannot even govern itself).
In summary, President Museveni’s interjection is unhelpful, counterproductive and will aggravate the situation rather than help it. He must not inadvertently promote Greater Somalia. He must respect the history, identity and wishes of Somaliland’s 6 million people. He must not advocate for Somaliland a tried, tested and failed union with Somalia that historically only brought death, destruction and destitution. He must not tell Somalilanders to do something he would not accept for Uganda: giving up their independence, sovereignty and country, to join with the worlds most comprehensively failed state that is famous for terrorism, piracy and anarchy: Somalia. Somalilanders have considered his proposal and have resoundingly rejected it. Any attempt to forcibly reunite Somaliland with Somalia is unthinkable, unworkable and unacceptable.
About the Author
Dr Adali Warsame is a political commentator and public policy professional, who is a long time observer of Somaliland politics. He writing focuses on standing up for the dignity of Somaliland’s citizens, who appear to be forgotten in the melee that is everyday Somaliland and Horn of Africa politics.
Adali is an unapologetic Somalilander. He is passionate about achieving justice for the forgotten Isaaq Genocide victims, stopping the doomed Somaliland-Somalia talks and international recognition of the Republic of Somaliland.