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Somaliland, a 68,000-square-mile desert netherworld in the northwestern portion of what everyone else still considers to be part of SomaliaYasin Yusuf/Unsplash
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An Almost-Country in the Desert That Doesn’t Care About Your Understanding of Politics

Observing the recent elections in Somaliland

by
Armin Rosen
August 30, 2021
Yasin Yusuf/Unsplash
Somaliland, a 68,000-square-mile desert netherworld in the northwestern portion of what everyone else still considers to be part of SomaliaYasin Yusuf/Unsplash
Tablet Top Ten 2021: An entirely subjective list, presented in no particular order, of our 10 favorite articles from Tablet’s Arts & Letters, News, Science, History, Israel & Middle East, and Sports sections in the year 2021. “Favorite” here means somewhere at the nexus of these pieces’ intrinsic merits and the measurable ways that readers engaged with them. If you caught them when they came out, they bear re-reading. If you missed them, you’re in for a treat. We feature them, two a day, this week, so you can peruse at your holiday leisure, and remember—or try to forget—this extraordinary year.
Tablet Top Ten 2021: An entirely subjective list, presented in no particular order, of our 10 favorite articles from Tablet’s Arts & Letters, News, Science, History, Israel & Middle East, and Sports sections in the year 2021. “Favorite” here means somewhere at the nexus of these pieces’ intrinsic merits and the measurable ways that readers engaged with them. If you caught them when they came out, they bear re-reading. If you missed them, you’re in for a treat. We feature them, two a day, this week, so you can peruse at your holiday leisure, and remember—or try to forget—this extraordinary year.

Tiny armies march across the sands beside the Hargeisa-Berbera highway. The road is being freshly tarmacked, and over the summer it grew almost by the day. When traffic stalled around the construction roadblocks, a stationary glance at the bordering wilderness revealed the stuff of hallucination: a horizon of ravening specks, an invasion force of grasshoppers, off to feed on what remained of the desert’s vegetation.

A mileslong chute of dust and sand diverged from the main road about 45 minutes east of Hargeisa. An engine-busting, gut-clenching seesaw up and down the loose slopes ended at Laas Geel, an uncannily domelike hill covered in crags of glittering red rock, towering over a vastness of cacti, thorn bushes, and more rocks. The name translates to “The Camel’s Well” in Somali, and when I visited the site a single one of these hardy beasts ruminated in the barren riverbed at the base of the mountain.

Laas Geel is the only quasi-famous thing in Somaliland, a 68,000-square-mile desert netherworld containing an estimated 5.5 million people in the northwestern portion of what everyone else still considers to be part of Somalia, bordering Djibouti and Ethiopia. Having declared independence from Somalia amid the country’s civil war in 1991, Somaliland operates as an independent state despite being recognized by no foreign governments. Because Somalia’s military can’t even control its own territory, never mind someone else’s, the danger of an invasion remains scant.

As long as it treats itself like a real country, the Republic of Somaliland’s existence isn’t threatened by this lack of recognition from the international community, such as it is. “Our people have their own recognition,” a government security official told me one night in a hotel courtyard swarming with flies, over the day’s half-dozenth cup of the local style of tea, in which much of the tea is diluted by heaping quantities of milk and sugar. He’s not wrong. The Somalilanders treat themselves as an independent polity, and for practical purposes that has been more than enough to survive on.

The story of human civilization in what is now Somaliland begins sometime around 20,000 years ago. Shaded inside high natural archways in the stone at Laas Geel, the artists of these ancient days gazed down at the Martian landscape and began to paint. They depicted herds of cattle, many with narrow white necks vanishing into heads the size of pinholes, some with clay-colored manes culminating in noses and ears, others with long symmetrical horns that reach to meet each other in trippy ovoid patterns. The few human figures they painted have stiltlike legs, stubby arms, and no facial expressions. Scholars have hypothesized that the people are praying to the cows, which all have disproportionately large udders. No one is sure who painted the images or why, but a spiritual explanation felt intuitively true when I turned around from the menageries marching across the vault of interior rock and faced the enormity of the yellowed plains. The mountain had to have been holy, a sublime place of shelter in a land that conspires against human survival.

Like the Egyptian pyramids, or maybe the Kotel, Laas Geel invites visitors to reflect on whether human nature ever changes—whether the creators of these sites were really like us, whether they felt what we feel, whether we’re staring into an alienating distant past or at a strangely familiar present. However rudimentary their lives were, the unknown culture that painted at Laas Geel contended with wholly relatable problems, and their art likely sprang from a still ongoing human confrontation with basic questions of how and why to secure social harmony and higher meaning in life, in a place where the land itself and a host of other uncontrollable forces are practically attacking you.

Somaliland’s answers to the big dilemmas of human social existence are novel by the standards of other democracies. The politics are narrowly tribal, but they’re not violent; the roads are a horror, but what do you expect from a government with no budget, receiving no lines of credit and little outside help? It’s a religiously and socially conservative place where family, God, camel herding, and agriculture still organize much of life, but there are a host of more supposedly forward-thinking places one can name that are in a far more advanced state of misery. The dust tracks, clannishness, and intense religiosity of Hargeisa, Somaliland’s comprehensively alcohol-free capital city, bear only the faintest resemblance to any kind of neoliberal end-state. The vast majority of people in public are men; as in other conservative precincts of the Muslim world, the muezzins erupt in a collective howl at 4:00 a.m. with no apparent objection from anyone.

Somaliland is a political experiment whose apparent success challenges a range of patronizing assumptions about how poor and allegedly “backwards” societies find the light. Our “underdeveloped” brethren are believed to require the gleaming example and helping hand of more enlightened peoples and systems—a boost from the international community, represented by brigades of NGOs, diplomats, and career multilateralists who come bearing secularism, individual rights, multiculturalism, democracy, security, sustainability, and thrift. Somaliland points to other possibilities. There are foreign diplomats and NGOs in Hargeisa, and their contributions appear to be positive. But they are far scanter than in Somalia proper, which has been in a state of civil turmoil for much of the past 35 years, trapped in a conflict whose opening phase saw the destruction of 90% of Hargeisa amid an aerial bombardment by the collapsing government of the military dictator Siad Barre. Barre and his son-in-law oversaw the alleged genocide of civilians from the Isaaq clan, an event also known as the “Hargeisa Holocaust,” between 1987-1989.

In the three decades after the Somalia-Somaliland split, Somalia’s ongoing state of violent chaos has drawn in peacekeeping missions from the U.N. and the African Union, a doomed U.S. military deployment, invasions by the Kenyan and Ethiopian militaries, a ruthless al-Qaida affiliate called al-Shabaab, and decades of attempted micromanagement from the U.S., Turkey, Qatar, and seemingly every other major government within a 7,000-mile radius.

By contrast, the militants and clan leaders who found themselves in charge of the formerly British-administered northern rectangle that became Somaliland in 1991 borrowed money from businessmen in neighboring Djibouti and convened a conference in the obscure desert city of Burao, rather than in a foreign hotel ballroom, to plot a way forward themselves. “We had $20 for each soldier, and they were very much satisfied with that,” Mohamed Kahin Ahmed, a guerilla commander during the early ’90s who now serves as Somaliland’s minister of interior, recalled of the early days of the state. “They were very tired,” he said of Somalilanders in the years immediately after independence, a time when neighboring Somalia was engulfed in the next round of civil war and much of Somaliland lay pulverized. “The only thing they needed at that time was peace.”

Peace eventually came to Somaliland from a combination of arcane local processes, quirks of history, and potentially unsavory compromises that would have been impossible for any single actor to produce on purpose, let alone a committee of international do-gooders. Present-day Somaliland is remote enough from common notions of what a just or open society is supposed to look like that it can’t be plotted on the typical left-right, autocratic-democratic spectra of political possibilities.

Somaliland’s so-far free and peaceful existence is an accomplishment that, even in its particularity, shows how all societies live and die by the accommodations they make with reality, and with themselves. Rooble Mohamed, who administers a World Bank-funded civil service reform program for Somaliland’s government, fled Hargeisa during the civil war and returned to a nearly flattened city in the early ’90s. “In 1991 everything started from zero,” he recalled. “There were no police till 1994.” We met in front of the main building at the Maansoor, a sprawling hotel compound that was long Hargeisa’s default accommodation for foreign VIPs, before a new wave of construction swept through town. “When this hotel was built in 1994, people were wondering what this guy was doing in the bush ... even the clan thought this guy was mad.”

For Mohamed, the country’s self-creation in the midst of total ruin explains why the place has stayed so calm for so long. “People don’t want to lose the things they feel they created.”

I was in Somaliland in May to cover the country’s first parliamentary election in 15 years. Hargeisa is built into a cool and green depression in the earth, so that the downtown’s warren of street-hawkers and wandering goat herds is sheltered by the rocky lip of the nearby desert. I had been there once before, on a reporting trip in 2013, a time when there was only one high-rise building in the center of the city, belonging to the Islamic bank Dahabshiil, which is technically based in Dubai but is largely run out of Hargeisa. Back then, the government’s annual budget was about half of its current estimated $339 million.

Today Hargeisa is a boomtown, its rows of new malls and boxy office buildings financed in large part through remittances from a global and often prosperous Somali diaspora. But there has also been another, less encouraging infusion into the city: people fleeing environmental and social collapse. Two decades of consistent drought, and events like the 2020 locust plague whose sequel I observed by the highway, have killed off cattle herds and wiped out small-scale agriculture, sending farmers and nomads into Somaliland’s sole economic hub. Perhaps 47% of Somalilanders live outside of cities, according to a 2015 government estimate, a number that will likely dwindle as the desert heats up and degrades, and divisions between the city and the wilderness grow starker. “Go 10 miles from Hargeisa, and it’s the end of the police, the end of the government, the end of the legal system,” said Guleid Ahmed Jama, a civil society activist and the former head of the Somaliland Human Rights Centre.

The country’s scheduled parliamentary vote had been postponed repeatedly over the previous decade. In fact, Jama explained, “Delays of elections became an integral part of Somaliland’s political system,” an apparently unobjectionable bargaining chip traded in the course of normal elite-level politics. All the more cause for celebration, then, when the impasse was finally broken. Somaliland’s diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C., invited me to join a small group of American researchers in witnessing election week in Hargeisa and Berbera. (Roughly half of our meetings were arranged by staff from the Somaliland Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the other half we organized ourselves. Though we had an MFA handler, her touch was tactfully light—we were allowed to go wherever we wanted and meet with whomever we wanted, and often went several days at a time without seeing her. Tablet covered my travel expenses.)

Somaliland, as you might have gathered by now, is the periphery’s periphery; it is impossible to get there by accident or on a whim. There is an understandable tendency in Hargeisa to talk as if this isn’t the case and to treat the country as a geostrategic linchpin, a key to regional peace and prosperity rather than a poor and isolated political anomaly. So many foreign players have been sending their representatives recently: With the United Arab Emirates mounting a local show of power and money, including an overhaul of a port in Berbera that it now basically owns and operates, their Qatari rivals sent a delegation earlier in the year. Beijing, likely irked by Taiwan’s opening of a fully-staffed mission in Hargeisa in 2020, sent its own delegation to the breakway republic’s capital (After China demanded that Somaliland eject the Taiwanese mission, the Chinese ambassador to Mogadishu, effectively Beijing’s top diplomat in the Horn, was refused a meeting with Somaliland’s president, who reportedly felt insulted.) “We nicknamed Russians ‘the hungry people.’ They’re not generous,” one political insider told me. “With Russia, you don’t get money, you don’t get development, you just get weapons,” a government official elaborated. “With China, you’ll have a bridge, but your trees and your resources will be gone.”

Despite all these suitors, Somaliland’s geopolitical significance is limited. China and the United States already have military bases in nearby Djibouti. Somalia, meanwhile, has the status of a recognized state and notionally governs a territory that has exported chaos to East Africa and the world in general for the past 30 years. Somaliland has a population equal to roughly 5% of neighboring Ethiopia’s, the troubled regional power one must fly through in order to reach Somaliland. Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, has a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a towering new Chinese-built hotel next to one of Africa’s busiest air hubs, but it’s the center of a dangerously flailing dictatorship fighting multiple civil wars.

In Somaliland, it is the boredom itself that fascinates. Hargeisa is the capital of the most peaceful and democratic political unit in a region of nearly 200 million people. It is a place of great intrigue where very little seems to actually happen. At night there is nothing to do but drink coffee or tea in courtyards, on roadsides, and beside the dust-catching, jagged little trees. Bony old men carry on like this for hours, heedless of the sand and flies, which swarm seemingly every office and restaurant and hotel lobby. The women, meanwhile, are off somewhere else. The cats shriek like humans; goats and donkeys bellow through the night. By day, Hargeisa’s gold market is a ceaseless river of people, with commerce carried into every inch of sidewalk beneath giant images of airplanes that travel agents have slapped on the face of every building. There are piles of locally grown oranges and bananas, jewelry hawked from wooden display cases in the road, and men and goats clustered in the shade. A Western interloper doesn’t get harassed for their business, and is barely even noticed by anyone. Life pulsates on its own terms, and it doesn’t require you or your money to keep going.

Somaliland doesn’t have a democracy in the sense that Americans might understand the word. Elections are tightly managed. The parties are granted 10-year mandates by the government, at which point they must dissolve themselves. The number of parties is capped at three, which is smaller than the number of major clan units, thus forcing a degree of cooperation between tribes and preventing elections from being nothing but a clan census by other means.

Somalilanders had 12 hours to vote across roughly 2,300 polling stations on May 31, and had to vote in person—no mail-in ballots, even with COVID on the loose. Voters needed to obtain a voter identification card months in advance, and in order to get one, they had to have their iris print taken and recorded. Somaliland tightly restricts who can obtain citizenship, a policy that also keeps the electorate small, at around 1.3 million registered voters in a population of over 5.5 million. (Somaliland citizens are prohibited from holding dual citizenship.) Its large number of long-term migrants from neighboring Ethiopia, many of whom are ethnic Somalis, have no real path to citizenship, and thus can’t vote. Though women voted in large numbers on May 31, and though the rainbow of hijabs in the winding women’s lines at polling stations often contrasted with the shorter and much more dour men’s lines, not a single woman was elected to parliament among the 13 who ran.

Even local political watchers struggled to explain the differences between the three parties, which the government only allowed to publicly campaign for two nonoverlapping days, and which did not hold public rallies or celebrations in the days after the vote. What exactly did the Waddani (Somaliland National Party); the Kulmiye Peace, Unity, and Development Party; and the Justice and Welfare Party really stand for?

“It’s a very boring and disappointing political system,” said Jama. Mohamed Farah Hersi, director of the government-linked Academy for Peace and Development think tank in Hargeisa, made the same point a little less bluntly: “You have democracy in terms of framework, but it’s clan politics,” with elections serving as a method for “preventing potential conflict between clans” and “delivering stability.” Even Faysal Ali Warabe, chairman of the Justice and Welfare Party, conceded, “We campaign on issues, but we’re elected on a tribal basis.”

Somalia and Somaliland are, on the surface, the most homogeneous societies in Africa, with near-total commonality of religion, ethnicity, and language. But individual Somalis, almost without exception, whether they herd camels or run an intelligence service, can identify the clan, sub-clan, sub-sub-clan, and even sub-sub-sub clan to which they belong, each with its own geographic, cultural, and sociohistorical profile that comes with centuries of friendly and unfriendly relations with other clans, sub-clans, and sub-sub clans. The clans predate the existence of an independent Somalia and of modern democracy. They were the only major social institutions left after the dissolution of the government in Mogadishu in 1991. “Everything becomes clan-based when you don’t have any other structure,” Rooble Mohammed explained.

In Somaliland’s political system, the centrality of the clan system means that tribal elders serve as a primary electorate unto themselves, with the first and only say over which candidates make it to election day. It means the upper house of Somaliland’s parliament consists of unelected clan elders serving essentially lifetime terms, and that in the event of death, they are replaced by their own sons. It is nearly impossible for a parachuting journalist to understand what “tribal politics” really mean in Somaliland, or how they actually work. And without that kind of understanding, it was extraordinarily difficult to get a nonsuperficial sense of what voters thought they were voting for, even when speaking with them.

Certainly there were issues at stake in the election, like new laws concerning press freedom, the criminalization of sexual assault, and an end to what was effectively a ban on non-Islamic forms of commercial banking. But, revealingly, it was difficult to get any sense of which party supported which side of which question, never mind whether the voters knew or cared. The system itself is designed to create gridlock, or at least to distribute power in such a diffuse way that it prevents too much change from happening too quickly . “Consensus-building and negotiations become stronger than rule of law over time,” Jama explained, a characteristic which is either a useful systemic stopgap or the germ of future chaos, or maybe both. But institutionalized gridlock—not exactly a novel phenomenon for an American—still didn’t illuminate the individual decision-making process of the average Somaliland voter.

It was only on election day that I got something close to an explanation. Our hotel—a yellow-washed square of shaded, open-air hallways surrounding a courtyard garden, where well-dressed young men held tea-fueled meetings at seemingly every hour of the day—was on the same downtown dirt track as the Civil Service Commission, whose dusty ballroom was the showpiece of the election, the polling station where much of the country’s political leadership voted and the media gathered b-roll. Young people serving as observers from the different political parties sat and stared at a ballot box, looking both intent and bored. Voters had their fingers dipped in ink and were then sent to a single curtained-off kiosk. (At each polling station, only one man and one woman could vote at a time.) At all polling places we visited, voter ID cards were cross-checked against a voter roll that included each individual’s photograph, which theoretically had to match the photo on the ID card.

Sam Adan, an activist for the Waddani Party who spoke with a heavy West London accent, milled about the ballroom, unconvinced the election would be fraud-free. He didn’t think any party would get a parliamentary majority, as indeed none of them did once the votes were counted. The chief electoral objective, he said, was “to limit the number of people that can be bought later on,” referring to the future parliamentarians.

In response to my now oft-repeated but never-answered question about what, if anything, voters believed the election was about, Adan gave the only account of Somalilander democracy that made any real sense to me. “Everyone says they’re for justice, but when they’re in power they do what they like,” he said. “It’s a lot bigger than elections ... if you get arrested only people from your tribe will vouch for you. If you have no representation, you don’t get justice.”

It’s easy to be cynical about a political system in which people believe rights are contingent on identity, as well as on the outcome of each individual election. At first glance, there’s a lot to be cynical about in Somaliland. For instance, in order to join the national military, you must first acquire your own gun, which seems almost humorously backward. Then again, rather than incentivizing the small arms trade as it builds an army of petty weapons traffickers, perhaps the government is actually deputizing its citizens in the nationalization of a dangerous pool of loose weapons, while saving itself the cost, inconvenience, perverse incentives, and possible geopolitical risk of having to buy guns from the kinds of dealers who willingly sell to unrecognized governments. The “bring your own gun” rule is only appalling if the alternatives aren’t considered. Up close, it makes perfect sense—and results in an alluring open-air pageant of old Eastern Bloc assault rifles.

The basics of everyday life are a similar source of bewilderment, at first. Somaliland has two locally owned telecommunications companies, Somtel and Telesom, which do not allow their respective users to call each other (even corner shops tend to list two different phone numbers). There’s an easy regulatory fix to this problem, but perhaps the government has decided it’s not in its best interests to pursue it.

The risk and the inconvenience of conducting even basic financial transactions in the territory of an unrecognized country have scared off every big multinational on earth, with the exception of the Emirati-government-owned Dubai Ports World. The government’s budgetary resources are therefore limited. Until recently, and possibly into the present, a majority of government revenue came from taxing shipments of the mild and highly addictive psychoactive khat leaf that comes through the country’s land border with Ethiopia. There are a few large companies based in Hargeisa, all owned and operated by Somalilanders, but they aren’t taxed very heavily, perhaps because they act as some of the government’s only existing sources of credit. If you’re an isolated quasi-rogue state, why make life difficult for your only lenders? Dahabshiil, perhaps the world’s largest African-founded money transfer service and the owner of one of Somaliland’s cell companies—who can remember which one?—lent money for the election effort, and is said to be closely involved with the Central Bank of Somaliland in setting exchange rates for the Somaliland shilling.

“It’s African culture: You steal from yourself,” said one Somaliland government official, who has spent the majority of his life in Africa. “Politicians here want peace and reconciliation and focus on the international community. They do the job 80%, and the corruption is 20%.” In Mogadishu, the official reckoned, the percentages are flipped.

The election was clearly taken seriously, though. Nearly all private vehicle traffic was halted across the country as a security precaution, a ban that few dared to violate. There were 10,000 soldiers and police officers mobilized on election day, which had a record number of polling stations across a record expanse of territory, according to Mohamed Kahin Ahmed, the interior minister. Ahmed, an unflappably serious middle-age man given to slow, deliberative speech and long, dramatic silences, stands at the top of what might be the sturdiest element of the Somaliland state, namely its internal security services. (The country’s idiosyncratic DIY-type military, which falls under a different ministry, is a close second.)

On the critical topic of al-Shabab, al-Qaida-linked jihadists who exert some degree of control over much of Somalia, and who blow up hotels and assassinate political figures in Mogadishu seemingly at will, Ahmed was somehow both open and evasive. Of course there are no Shabab bases in Somaliland, he said. Then he got up from behind his desk and pointed to a spot on a map of Somaliland, near the coast along the border with Somalia. “This is a strategic place for al-Shabab because it’s very close to the Gulf of Aden,” he explained. “It’s a four-hour walk to the sea. They can go easily to Yemen, get arms, then go.”

There is a belief in Somaliland that high social trust can explain why Shabab hasn’t taken root there. “It’s our social system, that’s what they can’t infiltrate,” said Hersi, of the Academy for Peace and Development. “If you’re al-Shabab you can easily be detected, since we know who’s who.” “Everyone is police here,” as more than one person put it. This might be true, and Shabab hasn’t pulled off a successful attack in Somaliland in over a decade. But the belief in an organic and omniscient security dragnet also conceals an unspoken fear that the jihadists simply haven’t gotten around to terrorizing Somaliland yet, and that they will easily establish a foothold within disaffected so-called “minority” clans in the border regions, once they decide it’s time to start marching north. Concealed within this fear is the suspicion that Somaliland might not prove to be so different from Somalia once its sovereignty and security are really tested.

As a partial result of these anxieties, about half the Somaliland government budget goes to security and, in Jama’s words, “can’t be audited.” Even the number of soldiers under the military’s command is a highly sensitive topic. “They always inform journalists not to say anything about the army,” said Sakharia Ahmed, head of the Somaliland Journalists Association. “If you report on the army you cannot protect yourself.”

Ahmed and I spoke on election day, on the crowded grounds of a walled villa that served as a government-maintained headquarters for civil society organizations, as well as an election-monitoring command center that senior politicians visited over the course of the day. Our interview represented another one of Somaliland’s strange compromises: The system isn’t free enough to allow for any deep examination of perhaps the largest institution in the country, but it is free enough to allow journalists to talk about that glaring limitation within earshot of the country’s leadership.

One of Somaliland’s more dizzying tangos with logic involves the recognition question. Recognition—which some believe is imminent, perhaps from Kenya or South Africa—was discussed as if it were a real possibility. It isn’t, of course, as I suspect Somaliland’s leaders are aware. The height of absurdity was reached when Warabe, chairman of the Justice and Welfare Party, suggested to me that Somaliland could sue Somalia in order to gain control of its U.N. seat, on the semantic and highly debatable point that Somaliland and Somalia applied for membership together in 1960 as political entities different from the present-day Republic of Somalia.

Somaliland’s claim to statehood is, superficially at least, about as compelling as those of Catalonia, Tigray, or Western Sahara. From the standpoint of international law—whatever that means, and however much it should count for—the Somaliland recognition dispute is simple, and it does not come out in Hargeisa’s favor. Despite the local argument that the former British colony of Somaliland didn’t merge into formerly Italian Somalia until four days after Somaliland’s independence in 1960, the unitary country of Somalia that was founded that year did not understand itself, and was not understood by the vast majority of the outside world, to be a union of two independent states. Sticklers for Barre-era constitutional law note that Somaliland did not have any legal right to secede in 1991. Their argument won out: The supposed illegality of secession remains a leading reason no government in the world recognizes Somaliland’s independence.

Somaliland’s nonrecognition is an instance of international law, international order, the inviolability of incumbent states, and other such elevated and abstract principles standing in opposition to both common sense and whatever values—peace, self-determination, democracy—the so-called West claims to believe in. “The world has proven to have the wrong criteria,” said Ayan Mahamoud, Somaliland’s former diplomatic representative in the U.K. “To get attention you need to be a troublemaker. The fact that you’re a normal functioning country is not important. Bad behavior gets attention.” Her implied point of comparison was Somalia, whose leadership she characterized as “an illegal government not elected by anyone and put there by the international community, and that pretends they’re the boss over us.”

In the case of Somaliland, Western decision-makers seem to believe that the fixity of the existing state system, and its notional connection to something called the global order, should outweigh the other supposedly highest aim of any political community since 1989, or maybe 1945, or maybe 1776: The organic creation of peaceful, democratic self-governance. As it stands, the international community’s preferred solution to Somaliland’s sovereignty question—reabsorption into the failed Somali state, whose capacity for governance tops out at policing a handful of neighborhoods in Mogadishu during daylight hours—is clearly untenable, maybe even insane. “Well,” a Syrian exile, or an Afghan secularist, or various Israelis and Palestinians might ask, “what else is new?”

The breezy confusion of the international stance toward Somaliland, a position which is simultaneously self-confident and self-defeating, is starkest in the case of the United States. Hargeisa hosts British, Taiwanese, Danish, and Emirati diplomatic missions, though not an American one. It is common to come across Somali Americans in Somaliland—I spotted a University of Minnesota-branded neck rest on my flight to Hargeisa—but their home government is nowhere to be found, including during elections.

Informed observers believe there is disagreement within the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy about Somaliland. The State Department doesn’t want the political headache of recognition, which would mean abandoning three decades of a failed, U.S.-backed, state-building project in Somalia, while complicating the jobs of U.S. diplomats in Mogadishu, Nairobi, Doha, Ankara, and countless other capitals. American recognition of Somaliland would be an admission that insisting on Somali territorial integrity was yet another multigenerational, bipartisan policy error. The United States and the rest of the so-called free world also have a stronger-than-usual allergy to the reconfiguration of existing states these days, owing to the territorial ambitions of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, to say nothing of secession movements that threaten the U.K. and allies across the European Union.

 ‘It’s 8,000 kilometers from the Berbera Port to Taiwan.’ Mohamed Hagi, Somaliland's Taiwan representative, with Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, in Taipei, Sept. 9, 2020

‘It’s 8,000 kilometers from the Berbera Port to Taiwan.’ Mohamed Hagi, Somaliland’s Taiwan representative, with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, in Taipei, Sept. 9, 2020SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

In contrast with Foggy Bottom, the U.S. military is said to be more favorably disposed to the plucky separatists in Somaliland, as it is fed up with the outrageously high basing fees and overall duplicity of the host government in Djibouti—home to the only acknowledged, permanent U.S. military base in Africa, and an authoritarian satrap where Beijing looms larger by the year. Djibouti is the only country on earth with both an American and a Chinese military base, and the Pentagon could conceivably see Berbera as an appealing alternative to that postage-stamp of an autocracy. Onward to Somaliland!

Perhaps such a debate really is unfolding behind closed doors. But the greater likelihood is that Washington just doesn’t care. Why sacrifice a pillar of the U.S.-led global order—in this case the inviolable territorial integrity of existing states—for the sake of a tiny noncountry that nobody’s ever heard of? Not even Taiwan has gotten that kind of treatment from the U.S.

“It’s 8,000 kilometers from the Berbera Port to Taiwan,” pointed out Allen Lou, the island nation’s representative in Hargeisa, head of a mission of eight diplomats based in an airy and somewhat spartan villa just off the downtown. Along with Somaliland, modern-day Taiwan is one of the world’s great examples—like Israel—of a society building a political reality with minimal consideration of what’s convenient for the rest of the world. “We respect their determination that sovereignty cannot be compromised,” Lou said of the Somalilanders.

Lou is a graying and soft-spoken man who seemed to possess the equanimity needed to live in a city-size sand trap for years at a time. He appears to be spurred by patriotic duty, which must lessen the tedium of spending several years in a place as simultaneously alien and unexciting as Hargeisa. “Here,” he said, “I work with national dignity.”

There were times, Lou told me, where it became obvious that Chinese agents were surveilling him in Hargeisa, which security officials in the city confirmed for me. But enduring the mainland nemesis was as much a part of Lou’s patriotic vocation as his tolerance of the dust and the flies. “We’re in a unique position in the world—wherever we are, our efforts will always be undermined by China,” he said. “It’s our destiny.”

Simply by existing, it is Taiwan’s lot in life to undermine the regime in Beijing, which is as noble a purpose as any country has at the moment, whatever the world thinks of its legitimacy as a political entity. In Somaliland, Taiwan is going a step further, aiding in the advancement of ideas and practices that could pose an existential threat to the regime in Beijing on a long enough timeline. Taiwan’s democratic development fund donated $2 million to make the elections in Somaliland happen, which is $2 million more than the United States seems to have contributed, and which marks a touching moment in the history of peoples who insist on forging their own way, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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