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Jack McCaslin is a research associate for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.
On November 21, 2017, Somaliland peacefully elected its third president since 2003 and held its fifth peaceful election since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991. It was the first time that the incumbent did not stand; instead, former president Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Silyano” chose not to seek reelection. Muse Bihi Abdi, the new president, is a former minister in the government of the still-ruling Peace, Unity, and Development Party, and was a commander in the Somali National Movement (SNM). The SNM was the liberation movement that ultimately defeated Mohamed Siad Barre, the longtime leader of Somalia, and led Somaliland’s secession from Somalia. He was sworn in on December 15.
The secret, at least in part, to Somaliland’s quarter-century of peaceful de facto independence, was its gradual transition to democracy, partially shepherded by the SNM. A few months after the Barre regime collapsed at Mogadishu and the civil war ended in January 1991, the SNM held a conference of clan leaders that elected an interim leader, agreed to secede from Somalia, and created the independent Republic of Somaliland. This structure weathered intense internal violence in 1992, and in 1993 it elected Somaliland’s first president in multiparty elections. While the 1990s continued to be fraught with political and clan infighting, the newly-declared country was able to stick together and hold a constitutional referendum in 2001, which passed with over 97 percent of the vote.
Like other liberation movements, such as the ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, many current politicians and members of government were former members of the civilian and military arms of the SNM, but unlike Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF, the movement did not morph into a singular political party that controlled the state. It was a national movement at the time of independence, and eventually dissolved, creating space for political parties to emerge that reflected different views. In 2017, Freedom House ranked Somaliland as the only free ‘country’ in East Africa. Despite its rare albeit short history of peaceful democracy, only a quarter of working-age Somalilanders are employed, and in 2012, its per-capita GDP was the fourth-lowest in the world (if ranked independently). Remittances allow for much of the population to get by.
Through its reliance on councils of clan elders, known as Guurti, Somaliland utilized distinctly African forms of governance to guide it to democracy. It is ironic that African regional organizations have refused to recognize it, and the Untied States has followed suit. Their chief objection rests in the potential for a domino effect of successful secession movements in a region where there are numerous aggrieved (some more legitimately than others) parties itching for a chance to breakaway. For Somaliland, recognition by the international community is much more than merely symbolic; international recognition would enable legal foreign direct investment into the anemic economy.