De facto states around the world are often called countries or places that “don’t exist” by many authors and journalists. TV-presenter Simon Reeve, Vice news and even academics have resorted to the catchy term, such as Nick Middleton’s Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist. Because some self-declared states have limited international recognition – sometimes none at all – it has become cool to refer to them as if they floated in a parallel dimension.

However, even if it’s a mere metaphor to describe the vulnerable condition of countries lacking diplomatic recognition, it would be more constructive if we stopped using it. Not because de facto states obviously exist in real life, but because spreading the idea of “non-existence” reinforces the dogma of UN membership as the sole source of legitimacy for a state to exist. Somaliland, for instance, has a fully-functioning democracy, issues its own passports, prints its own currency and holds regular elections, while its neighbour Somalia is a failed state, wreaked by terrorism, corruption and complete chaos. Living in an upside down world, as Eduardo Galeano used to say, it is not surprising that the former remains to this day unrecognized officially, while the latter is a full member of the UN.

After decades of a disastrous union and a civil war with Somalia, Hargeisa proclaimed its independence in 1991. In the last move of despair, Somalia’s Said Barre bombed Somaliland’s cities to the ground and hundreds of thousands had to flee. Despite the odds, however, a new and peaceful country emerged out of the debris. Since then, Somaliland has established a democratic system in one of the world’s most unstable areas.

Looking from the perspective of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which codifies the declarative theory of statehood now accepted as part of customary international law, Somaliland satisfies all the requirements for an entity to be recognized as a state. It has a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and capacity to enter into relations with other states. Although in theory there are no obstacles in recognizing Somaliland, no state has ever dared to do so.

Photo by Fernando Burgés
Ballot boxes at tallying centre in Caaynabo, Somaliland.

According to Bronwyn Bruton, the Director of Programs and Studies at the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, the international community has been uninterested in recognizing Somaliland as a new state for several reasons. First, Somaliland doesn’t have oil or other natural resources, which makes the region being overlooked by strategical players. Secondly, there is a belief that recognizing Somaliland would undermine international efforts to get a functioning government in Mogadishu, something that both the United States and the UK have put a lot of time and effort in trying to achieve it. Finally, the African Union is not keen on encouraging independence movements in other restive regions around the continent. Even though Somalilanders “have made an excellent case that because they were a British rather than an Italian colony, they were never really part of Somalia and so they have a right to be separate,” African nations worry that Somaliland secession from the rest of Somalia sets a dangerous precedent on the continent. Needless to say that this argument is completely hypocritical in light of the recent creation from day to night of South Sudan.

On the ground, the lack of international recognition affects Somalilanders in many ways. Slow international response to food crisis and drought being the most serious, as Hargeisa cannot access bilateral aid. Furthermore, Somaliland isn’t eligible for loans that the World Bank makes to vulnerable states. Until recently, resources to rebuild Somaliland came mostly from the Diaspora. Today, things are starting to change. The international maritime trade and logistics company DP World announced a US$442 million project to redevelop and expand the Port of Berbera which is at the crossroad of maritime high ways that connect Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Expectations are that Somaliland will bring much needed maritime competition on the Horn of Africa, which today is entirely dependent on Djibouti.

In November 2017, I had the chance to tread on the soil of Somaliland, as a member of the International Election Observation Mission. Interestingly, the mission was almost entirely funded by the British Government, which means an indirect yet powerful sign of recognition of Somaliland as a distinct sovereign entity than Somalia. Formally, however, neither the UK nor the EU dare to take the lead in recognizing Hargeisa, even if London and Brussels are very much aware that the recurring droughts in the country, coupled with underdevelopment and lack of opportunities, put its youthful population at threat from radicalization and mass migration.

Photo by Fernando Burgés

Somaliland does not float in a parallel dimension. It exists, or better said, it survives, despite the odds. Its people, perhaps the friendliest I have ever met, have been quietly rebuilding their shattered country with little help from outside. It might take years until the day when major powers decide that it is a good cause to push for, but in the meantime, a lot can be done by the international community.

Cover Photo: Photo by Fernando Burgés, Women queue to vote in a rural area of Somaliland



  • retro

    Fernando Burgés is originally from Brazil. Former editor of Europe&Me, he has lived and worked in Brussels for more than four years.

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