The self-proclaimed but as-yet unrecognized Republic of Somaliland derives from the former British Somaliland Protectorate, occupying the northern part of the Somali-inhabited area of northeast Africa and the southern shore of the Gulf of Aden. Following the normal process of decolonization, it became independent on June 26, 1960, but—just five days later—agreed to join the former Italian Somalia immediately to the south. The resulting Somali Republic was intended by Somali nationalists to incorporate the other Somali-inhabited regions of the Horn of Africa—the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, and the French Somali Coast (now Djibouti). This ambition, however, was never achieved. Instead, after the breakdown of the military dictatorship of Mohamed Siyad Barre in 1991, government in the formerly Italian part of the state collapsed entirely, while the formerly British part reclaimed its independence on May 18 of that year.

Since then, Somaliland has remained self-governing, promulgated a constitution, held a number of reasonably fair and contested elections, and maintained peaceful rule over the greater part of its territory. This has been in dramatic contrast to the collapse and only very partial restoration of government in the area to the south. It is, however, extremely poor, and in need of development that can only come from integration into the regional and global economies. Meanwhile, its domestic political settlement is threatened by instability both in southern Somalia and in Yemen. Recognition would likely have a positive impact on both of these problems.

Somaliland has a strong legal claim to full international recognition. In addition to the historical claim deriving from its formerly sovereign status and its capacity to govern effectively in an extremely fragile region, it fulfils the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States’ requirements for statehood: a permanent population, a defined territory, and a government with the capacity to defend and represent itself. Additionally, it held a referendum in 2001 in which some 97 percent of voters supported independence. On the ground, it is a state that palpably exists, and any scheme for reattaching it to Mogadishu is fanciful. Moreover, there are obvious regional precedents set by the separation both of Eritrea from Ethiopia and of South Sudan from Sudan. The fact that the issue remains unresolved after nearly 24 years is due, at a formal level, to a failure to meet the criterion set by the African Union (AU), which states that the government of the “parent” state must agree to the split. But for much of this time, Somalia has had no government, and none of the extremely fragile regimes claiming to govern in Mogadishu have had any interest in acknowledging a right to secede that would undermine their own complex clan alliances.

Equally important in practice, Somaliland has been unable to find any powerful allies prepared to sponsor its independence through an act of recognition that would confront the international system with a fait accompli. The regional hegemon, Ethiopia, is sympathetic, but is inhibited both by its complex historical relationship with the Somali peoples and by its position as the headquarter state of the AU, which makes it particularly reluctant to disturb the continental consensus. Extra-continental states remain formally committed to the hopeless task of trying to ‘restore’ the state that was shattered back in 1991. The international system has put an enormous effort into the attempt to rebuild the Somali state governed in Mogadishu, and has been reluctant to alienate factions in southern Somalia opposed to Somaliland secession. Other major powers have broader interests in accepting the AU position; none have specific interests in Somaliland sufficient to induce them to break this consensus.

Yet the costs of non-recognition are now becoming acute. Somaliland remains a deeply undeveloped society and, although it receives some official aid, it has almost entirely missed out on the dramatic developments taking place in much of the rest of Africa. The private sector investment the country badly needs is inhibited in part by its problem of recognition: external investors cannot gain the legal status needed to protect their investment so long as they are operating within a global legal void. The transport corridor from the excellent port at Berbera, which would help to relieve Ethiopia’s heavy dependence on Djibouti, suffers from appalling communications links on the Somaliland side, in contrast to the modern highway that starts at the Ethiopian frontier. Ethiopia has one of the most rapidly developing economies in Africa—constrained though it is by its landlocked position and inability to use the Eritrean Red Sea ports—and development in Somaliland would necessarily involve closer links with Ethiopia, to the benefit of both countries. Furthermore, the Somaliland government itself is short on administrative competence, and would benefit enormously from capacity-building assistance of the kind that is readily available to other African states.

The international system as a whole has much to gain from supporting a stable, peaceful and democratic state within a region severely threatened by violent Islamism, both by al-Shabaab in Somalia itself and by developments just across the Gulf of Aden. Somaliland has its own effective and informal means of containing Islamist violence, rooted in its close linkages with indigenous conflict-resolution mechanisms. This approach would be far more conductive to long-term stability than any further heavy-handed external engagement in the region. Recognition of this strangely successful little state offers a low-cost means of promoting development and regional integration in a historically unstable part of the world—one which continues to be of vital concern both to the global economy and to the management of current international political tensions.