At least a small part of the future of Africa is being played out in Somaliland, the northwest portion of Somalia that declared its independence in 1991. In its bustling but impoverished capital of Hargeysa, the most striking contrast with most African cities is the sense of order. Police -- who, given their salaries, are almost volunteers -- stand in the hot sun and direct obedient drivers. Money-changers sit on the side of the street with huge piles of cash visible, waiting for customers.
Order is supposed to be the defining characteristic of a state, but Somaliland is recognized by no country in the world as a sovereign entity. Instead, the world insists on clinging to the fiction that Somalia has a government that rules over a united territory. Understanding why the world pretends that Somaliland does not exist tells us much about the foibles of the international politics of recognition.
Somaliland was a British protectorate during the colonial period. In 1960, during the rush to decolonization, Somaliland was independent for five days before joining with former Italian Somaliland to create the Somali Republic. In 1989 the government of thug-President Mohamed Siad Barre declared war on Somaliland because of fears that the Somalilanders wanted to go it alone. Government fighters, taking off from the Hargeysa airport, systematically bombed the city, destroying just about every building. In an event all but unnoticed by the international community, 50,000 people were killed and approximately 500,000 of the population of 2 million became refugees in neighboring Ethiopia.
For several years, strife and conflict continued, but Somaliland persevered. Order was gradually restored and a government formed; the refugees returned and embarked on a long process of rebuilding. In 2001, 98 percent of voters opted in a free and fair election for a new constitution that boldly proclaimed the case for independence.
Somaliland then had successful, internationally monitored, local council elections in 2002 and a free and fair presidential election in April 2003. The presidential election was most notable because the ruling UDUB party, led by President Dahir Rayale Kahin, won by only 217 votes out of almost 500,000 cast. The opposition party KULMIYE challenged the tally but, in a moment of extraordinary responsibility given Somalia's history of having weapons resolve almost every conflict, eventually accepted the results. Somaliland is planning parliamentary elections this year (the legislature is currently appointed). At that point, it will have a far more impressive democracy than most African countries.
One would think that the natural response of the outside world to the extraordinary accomplishments of the Somalilanders would be respect and recognition, especially because Somalia still does not have a government and is still in absolute ruins a decade after one of the most expensive humanitarian interventions in history. That is not the logic of the Horn of Africa. About the only thing that the southern Somalis can agree on is that they do not want Somaliland to secede.
The rest of Africa has not been of any more help. One of the decisions that African leaders took at independence was to retain the irrational boundaries they had received from colonialists, because they could not think of anything better and because they thought that any credence given to self-determination would cause the continent to descend into chaos. The permanence of boundaries has become a major asset for African leaders who do not have to prove that they control their territories or even that they are a legitimate government in order to be granted international recognition and sovereign equality.
The Somalilanders made their own peace without the benefit of international mediators and conflict resolution experts. Of course, they still face extraordinary problems. Literacy may only be 30 percent; education for girls is left to Koranic schools; significant parts of the government are corrupt; just about all men have weapons at home and a good many of them spend much of their income and afternoons chewing kat leaves, an addictive stimulant imported from Ethiopia. In addition, the recent killing of an Italian nurse and a British couple raised concerns across Somaliland that it is still vulnerable to terrorist attacks from those who are determined not to let secession go forward.
Nevertheless, recognizing Somaliland would be a strong signal to the rest of Africa that performance matters and that sovereignty granted in the 1960s will not be an excuse to fail forever. Few regions of any African country actually want to secede; thus the world could recognize the achievements and legal idiosyncrasies of Somaliland without experiencing massive disruptions of Africa's map. The Somalilanders, almost unanimously, ask what more they can do when the international community continues to recognize Liberia, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of the Congo and other anarchic, violent places as sovereign units. It is time to give them an answer.
Jeffrey Herbst is chairman of the department of politics at Princeton University. This commentary was first published in the Washington Post on January 2, 2004.