Local Coverage, Global Perspective

The legality of secessionism in Somalia

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Mohamed Abdi & Sharmaake Abdi.

Somaliland: The Legality of Somaliland’s statehood and its flawed democracy.

On May 18, 1991, the self-proclaimed ‘Republic of Somaliland’ purportedly dissolved the union that occurred between the State of Somaliland and the Trust territory of Somaliland under Italian administration on July 1, 1960. Consequently, it denies secession and argues to have restored the sovereignty that was relinquished upon the nascent independence.

What is Somaliland’s international legal status?

A voluntary union did occur between the independent ’State of Somaliland’ and the ‘Trust Territory of Somaliland’. Somaliland is right in that regard, but it is wrong to assert that it’s not a case of secession because the Somali Republic that emerged in that union was received as a unitary state by the international community and admitted into the United Nations despite the shortfalls of legal formalities during the merger. 

In seeking to dissolve that union either uniting territory must adhere to the domestic laws of the Somali Republic to recover its separate independent status — in bypassing that prerequisite a secessionist entity would be rendered. Thus, in unilaterally declaring its independence Somaliland has unlawfully seceded contrary to the Somali constitution. 

International law on secession:

To recognise an entity attempting to secede from a country is a violation of territorial integrity owed to the parent state. But there is an exception to this. If a country has brutally oppressed some of its people and subjected them to inhumane suffering — those people might have a right to secede under what’s called the right to self-determination of peoples (or remedial secession). And ‘might’ is a keyword. It’s not actually confirmed if remedial secession exists under international law. There are some legal instruments that alluded to it, but it’s not explicitly written in binding treaty law nor accepted as part of international customary law. Rather unhelpfully, the ICJ evaded the question to affirm or negate this “right” in the Advisory Opinion concerning Kosovo and instead determined that secession was a neutral act under international law. There have been cases of successful unilateral secession — Bangladesh is the primary example and Kosovo to some extent. However, it was only when Pakistan recognised Bangladesh that it was admitted to the United Nations despite having wide international recognition while Kosovo is still struggling to obtain admission due to opposition from Serbia which has the support of Russia and China. The international community does not lightly accept secession — there has to be a very compelling case for the parent state to be pressured into granting independence. In such circumstances, the international community is only reactive to situations that impel intervention. Normally there is an enduring conflict and a humanitarian situation which urges a coordinated response that could end in a political settlement and recognition of the seceding entity.

Despite the lack of a compelling legal case, Somaliland is likely to remain in a limbo state for the foreseeable future. It views itself as an “oasis” of peace in an otherwise volatile region whereas it derives legitimacy from an insistence on a supposed democratic will of its inhabitants. However, it cannot be said Somaliland is democratic rather ‘peaceocracy’ best describes the determinant factor that maintains its survival.

Is Somaliland a democratic or a peaceocracy region?

The term “peaceocracy” is used explain in circumstances whereby peace is used as a stool to bring stability to the disadvantage of democracy. In the context of post conflict settings, the concept of peacecroacy is used by political elites to limit the space for political participation. As a result, the notion of ‘peace at all costs’ becomes the model in which incumbents secure elections through banning opposing views and suppressing political candidates, nevertheless this is seen  as legitimate by the international community and aid donors. Even though Somaliland holds frequent elections, nonetheless it has become a peaceocracy region since it transitioned to multiparty democracy in December 2002. Ever since then the elections in Somaliland has seen the sitting incumbent silencing opposition candidates, state media and eventually rigging the process of elections. 

The recent elections that took place in 2021 demonstrates this in which opposition political candidates were harassed and detained. Even though Somaliland must be lauded for its commitment for holding elections, it is important to not ignore the fact that it has also turned to be peaceocracy region. Whilst the population are living in absolute poverty, peaceocracy has preserved the interest of elites and selective entrepreneurs. Moreover, as pointed by Elder, Somaliland’s high rate of political participation frequent hold of elections, peace and stability have been misguidedly interpreted as “makers of democratization”. However the reality is that elites have used peacecroacy to undermine the democratisation process of the region.

As a result, the international community and US that entertain the idea of recognising Somaliland as an independent nation just because it holds elections should understand the local dynamics of the region as demonstrated above. Furthermore, if Somaliland was to even be recognised as an independent state, the international community will open up a ‘Pandora box’ in which will further destabilise fragile nations in Africa that are already recovering from civil conflicts. For African countries that aim to collude with the US and the rest of the international community in diving Somalia, they should understand the risk this pose to the Charter of the African Union.

In preserving its own interest, it is also worth mentioning that the recognition of Somaliland is being lobbied by interest groups in the US who are advocating for US recognizing Somaliland in exchange of a  US a military base in the region. Thus, it is important for African countries to condemn US’s actions in violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia. If they were to remain in silent the case of Somaliland may be replicated elsewhere across Africa.

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