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Embassy Row: Shadow democracy in Africa

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2013

A small but stable democracy lies in the shadow of Somalia in the volatile and terrorist-infested Horn of Africa.

It formed a government based on the U.S. Constitution. It feeds more than 3.5 million residents and exports 4 million head of livestock a year to its biggest customer, Saudi Arabia.

It holds elections, and defeated incumbents peaceably transfer power to the opposition.

Yet for all its pretense to nationhood, Somaliland remains unrecognized diplomatically by all of the 193 countries of the United Nations. It is a stepchild of Somalia, which spent the past 22 years in anarchy, war and famine, while Somaliland quietly built a functioning democracy.

"It is a model for the region," Somaliland Foreign Minister Mohamed A. Omar told Embassy Row this week.

On a Washington visit with Somaliland President Ahmed Mohamed Mahamoud Silanyo and other government ministers, Mr. Omar explained that the purpose of the trip was to provide U.S. officials with an update on the region's progress and to lobby for U.S. recognition.

He said many nations in Africa are "holding back" recognition, "waiting for a signal from the West."

"Somaliland's case is not being hindered by legal issues. It is a political issue," he said.

Present-day Somalia was created in 1960 by the union of the former colonies of British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland. Mr. Omar said the goal then was to create a greater Somalia by drawing in ethnic Somalis in neighboring areas.

That goal failed. Somalia collapsed into a military dictatorship under Mohamed Siad Barre, who was overthrown in 1991. Somalia became a lawless nation, beset by pirates and terrorists. Massive international diplomacy and some military intervention have brought some stability to Somalia, which adopted a new constitution last year and held presidential and parliamentary elections.

Somaliland, meanwhile, declared independence in 1991 and spent the past two decades working out details with various clan leaders for a new government — modeled after the U.S. Constitution, with a president, bicameral legislature and independent judiciary. It held its first multiparty presidential election in 2003.

The CIA World Factbook 2013 says Somaliland, about the size of Virginia and West Virginia combined, has "maintained a stable existence and continues efforts to establish a constitutional democracy."

Mr. Omar said the only hindrance to international recognition is Somalia's reluctance to disband the union.

Somalia's new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, is holding talks with Mr. Silanyo on the union's future. They met two weeks ago in Ankara, Turkey, and plan another meeting in July.

Somaliland also is providing information to the West about terrorist activities in the region.

"Somaliland is a credible partner in the fight against terrorism," said Mr. Omar, adding that no violent extremists are based in his country. "Somaliland is a democratic, Muslim nation in a region with terrorism."

Although Somaliland is officially unrecognized, dozens of foreign countries have offices in the capital, Hargeisa. Somaliland also is attracting foreign business because of oil and gas reserves.

Mr. Omar met Thursday with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the third highest-ranking diplomat at the State Department. Mr. Silanyo earlier this week delivered a major speech before the prestigious Atlantic Council.

"The visit has been quite successful," Mr. Omar said.

Email Embassy Row at jmorrison@washingtontimes.com. The column is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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