Jeremy Sare (www.guardian.co.uk) Gordon Brown, in his speech on the war in Afghanistan last week served up that old truism: failed states are a seedbed for terrorism and establishing democratic elections are the long-term solution. Pity then that this principle is not applied more widely.
The violent scenes in Somaliland’s parliament on Tuesday, following the third cancellation of the presidential election, showed one country’s fragile democracy crumbling before our eyes. One MP even pulled a pistol on his colleagues. Why is no country, such the old colonial power Britain, offering to mediate and prevent an eruption of hostilities?
The electoral dispute is relatively simple; it stems from disagreements about the best system of voter registration. A similar impasse in another African country would have elicited an immediate offer of international arbitration. But so far, nothing. It is because the world cannot find the courage to recognise Somaliland, which forms the northern part of Somalia, as a sovereign state.
The recent elections in Afghanistan attracted more than £100m in funding from western countries, in addition to hosts of observers and support staff. Somaliland, given the chance, could also form a bulwark against regional Muslim extremism and terrorism. Lord Malloch-Brown, on leaving the Foreign Office in July said Somalia was a bigger potential source for terrorism in the UK than Afghanistan.
The threat is not academic. The ultra-extremists of Al-Shabab effectively control south central Somalia and they have made clear their murderous contempt for the “un-Islamic” democracy of Somaliland. A series of multiple bombs in Somaliland’s capital, Hergeisa last year killed more than 20.
Somaliland’s democratic institutions were born of one people’s determination to find peaceful resolution to a bitter civil war. Although extremely poor, it has emerged as a brave and resourceful country. Yet the United Nations, the EU and Britain seem content to sit idly by, observing this vulnerable country descend into the familiar chaos of its neighbours in Somalia and Eritrea. Ahmed Yusuf of Somaliland Focus (UK) said: “The involvement of the international community is paramount and desperately needed. Let us not abandon Somaliland … as they did to Somalia 19 years ago.”
So far the only country to make any kind of intervention has been Ethiopia. Although assistance should be welcomed from any quarter, the long-standing antagonism between Somalis and Ethiopeans makes this offer of help more problematic than useful. Imagine India offering to negotiate between political parties in Pakistan.
Britain and the US’s decision not to act to preserve this young African democracy is directly attributable to Somaliland’s lack of recognition as a sovereign nation, despite nearly 20 years of stability. The UN still clings to an absurd notion Somaliland should rejoin its wayward cousin, Somalia. The union of the two countries (1960-1991) was an undoubted failure by any measure and referendums in Somaliland have shown immovable resistance to its restoration. It would be about as welcome as telling the Scots they should be part of England.
The US maintains a freer role than Britain and pivotal one at that. Hillary Clinton’s recent seven country tour of Africa shows the continent has risen much higher on the state department’s agenda. But Washington still appears widely divided (between state and defence departments) on the issue of diplomatic recognition.
A Foreign Office spokesperson hinted independence was an achievable goal eventually: “Free and fair elections will be vital to Somaliland’s democratic credentials.” But a former Foreign Office minister described their case as a “no-brainer”. So there looks to be a similar conflict of opinion between British officials. But regarding the current crisis, the Foreign Office could offer nothing more than this lethargic response: “A new election timetable should be decided by independent experts and should be agreed by all the parties of Somaliland.”
Professor Ioan Lewis, a leading expert on the region, sees Somaliland president Dahir Riyale Kahin’s “sticky” presidential chair as the main problem. “It is down to the reluctance of the current president, like so many leaders elsewhere, to follow the constitution and accept that his term is over … his obduracy and growing charges of corruption have prompted this constitutional crisis,” he said.
Somaliland’s situation underlines the international community’s unerring ability to show a failure of leadership. While leaders dither about the etiquette of which country should be first to agree Somaliland diplomatic relations, the country risks capitulation. Its continued isolation can only harm all of us – even from an entirely selfish point of view, we should help them.