When is a nation not a nation? Somaliland’s dream of independence

Joshua Keating, in: The Guardian, 20.07.2018 (gekürzt WS)


Though unrecognised by the international community, this self-declared state in the Horn of Africa has its own flag, parliament, currency and national identity. What has to happen before its status changes?
When you are in Somaliland, there is never any question that you are in a real country. After all, the place has all the trappings of countryhood. When I arrived at the airport, a customs officer in a Somaliland uniform checked my Somaliland visa, issued by the Somaliland consulate in Washington DC. At the airport, there was a Somaliland flag. During my visit, I paid Somaliland shillings to drivers of cabs with Somaliland plates who took me to the offices of ministers of the Somaliland government.
But, according to the US Department of State, the United Nations, the African Union and every other government on Earth, I was not in Somaliland, a poor but stable and mostly functional country on the Horn of Africa. I was in Somalia.
Even among unrecognised states, Somaliland is a special case – it is both completely independent and politically entirely isolated. Unlike South Sudan before its independence, Somaliland’s claim for statehood is based not on a redrawing of colonial borders, but an attempt to re-establish them. Unlike Taiwan, it is shackled not to a richer, more powerful country, but a poorer, weaker one. Unlike Palestine, its quest for independence is not a popular cause for activists around the world.
The journalist Graeme Wood has described places such as Somaliland as the “limbo world”: entities that “start by acting like real countries, and then hope to become them”. What separates “real” from “self-proclaimed” countries is simply the recognition of other countries. There’s no ultimate legal authority in international relations that decides what is or isn’t a real country, and differences of opinion on that question are common. What separates the Somalilands of the world from, say, Sweden is that Sweden is recognised by its peers.
Statehood may be a legal concept, but achieving it is an entirely political process. To the degree that foreign officials acknowledge Somaliland at all, they are generally sympathetic to its history and admiring of its recent accomplishments. Somaliland’s main obstacle is not the world’s animosity, but its indifference. Its current predicament answers the question: what would happen if you created a new country and no one noticed?


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