The Platform

Refugee camp on the outskirts of Hargeisa in Somaliland under the auspices of the UN.

Does Somaliland have a case for independence?

The topic of Somaliland’s secession from Somalia resurfaces periodically, and it has recently come into the spotlight again as Ethiopia and Somaliland have entered into a memorandum of understanding. This raises the pertinent question: Do the arguments for Somaliland’s secession rest on a solid philosophical foundation?

Somaliland builds its case for secession on two pivotal points. First, it reasserted its sovereignty in 1991 following the collapse of the united government formed in 1960 between the British Somaliland protectorate (the North) and Italian Somaliland (the South). This union was plagued by an egregious failure to maintain equitable principles of power and resource sharing, precipitating acts of violence and massacres against the people of Somaliland. Second, Somaliland argues that it would consider reunification if Somalia’s southern regions could establish political and security conditions conducive to unity, a milestone that remains unachieved.

In the three decades since it re-established sovereignty, Somaliland has witnessed the emergence of new visions. Its younger population has come of age under a separate flag, and the notion of secession has garnered global attention, drawing analogies with other movements like those in Kurdistan, Scotland, and Catalonia, and following precedents set by successful secessions such as those of East Timor and South Sudan.

Globalization has arguably diminished the allure of large nation-states, especially from an economic standpoint, leading to a greater reliance on regional and international alliances. However, it remains to be debated whether Somaliland’s arguments possess the requisite philosophical substance.

When considering the constitutional theories of secession, it is imperative to scrutinize whether Somalia’s Provisional Constitution accommodates a right to secede. As it stands, the constitution does not grant this right, reinforcing the view of Somalia as a federal republic.

Yet, some scholars within this discourse argue that secession may be justifiable as a recourse for grievous injustices perpetrated by the state against a separatist group. Political and legal philosopher Allen Buchanan, for instance, delineates three particular injustices that could warrant secession: large-scale human rights violations, the unjust annexation of territories, and sustained breaches of intrastate autonomy agreements.

On examining the first justification, it is evident that Somaliland has been subjected to acts of genocide and widespread human rights abuses. The genesis of these atrocities can be traced back to the detention of prominent figures during the 1969 military coup, culminating in the extensive bombardment of urban centers. While some lay the blame on armed factions for initiating guerrilla warfare, the fundamental issue originated from political interference and oppression by the military junta.

Ascriptivist perspectives assert that the right to self-determination is confined to groups defined by unique characteristics such as nationality, religion, or ethnicity. By this logic, Somaliland’s claim to secession might seem untenable given its shared cultural markers with the rest of Somalia. However, Somaliland could counter this view by pointing to Djibouti, where a Somali ethnic majority has formed an independent state. Additionally, it is pertinent to contemplate whether the entrenched tribalism in Somalia poses a more significant threat than any ethnic divergence, as internal homogeneity can sometimes engender more strife than a pluralistic society.

Proponents of the plebiscitary theory anchor the right to secede on the principle of self-determination, contending that this principle is of such paramount importance that it can legitimize absolute political sovereignty under specific circumstances. Somaliland frequently invokes this theory, given that a majority endorsed secession by ratifying Somaliland’s Constitution in 2001.

Nevertheless, plebiscitary theories also stress the importance of ensuring that the secession does not impair the residual state’s functionality. In Somaliland’s case, its departure, which would include territories rich in oil, is unlikely to jeopardize Somalia’s resource base, as both the northeastern and central regions of Somalia boast abundant oil and gas reserves, and the southern parts have rich agricultural and water resources.

Still, the potential cascade effect of secession, which might lead to the disintegration of the nation into smaller regions, could spell disaster for political and economic equilibrium, both within the country and beyond its borders. This concern is not unfounded, as evidenced by the secession of Khatumo State from Somaliland and its subsequent allegiance to the Federal Republic of Somalia after a violent conflict.

Contemplating secession through the prism of just war theory, the legitimacy of force in the separatist movements of the 1980s and early 1990s becomes a central concern. Certain interpretations of this theory posit that the use of force is justifiable solely when it serves to rectify severe injustices or to safeguard vital rights of self-determination.

In the context of Somaliland, the armed resistance to reclaim sovereignty may be viewed as a reaction to the severe human rights violations and institutional injustices it endured under the Somali regime. Nevertheless, it is critical to acknowledge that force should be contemplated only as a final option, and all peaceful alternatives must be thoroughly pursued before resorting to armed conflict.

The philosophical robustness of Somaliland’s bid for secession is a mosaic of historical grievances, human rights infringements, and the democratic will expressed through popular vote. While Somaliland’s arguments find resonance with certain secessionist theories, like those advocating for remedial rights and plebiscitary support, there are also counterarguments that challenge the impact of secession on regional stability and the potential for further fragmentation. The philosophical merit of Somaliland’s secessionist claims is a subjective matter, largely dependent on which theories and principles are deemed paramount.

Ibrahim Sultan is a progressive Somali journalist, writer, and advocate for social justice. He is the Founder of the Somali Progressive Initiative.