In Praise of Somaliland
A Beacon of Hope in the Thorn of Africa
by Peter Tatchell

THIS yearís civil war in Somalia has killed thousands of people and created over half a million refugees. Democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights are almost non-existent in Mogadishu, where war, banditry, corruption, hunger, illiteracy, disease and unemployment are the norm. Somalia is a failed state that has failed its people.

In contrast, the north-west breakaway region of the Republic of Somaliland is an oasis of peace, stability and progress in the Horn of Africa. Imperfect, but moving in the right direction, in May this year the country celebrated its sixteenth anniversary of independence.

Against all odds, and with little international recognition or aid, the three million people of Somaliland have Ė largely by their own efforts Ė begun to establish a secure, functioning democratic state and a fair degree of economic stability and growth. This is a truly remarkable achievement in a region of Africa that has long been a byword for chaos, repression and war.

Somaliland, a former British Protectorate, gained independence in 1960 and became the first free Somali nation to join the United Nations.

In a unity move that most Somalilanders now deeply regret, the country joined with the former Italian protectorate to the south to form the Republic of Somalia.

Under the dictator Siad Barre, who seized power in a military coup in 1969, the new nation was beset by brutality. Following the collapse of his military regime and of the Somali state, Somali-land declared independence on 18th May 1991.

Over the last decade and a half, the predominantly Muslim nation has made the transition from an autocratic clan-based society, notorious for its poor governance, conflict and human rights abuses, to a peaceful and progressive multi-party democracy.

A referendum in 2001 led to the adoption of a new constitution. Since then, Somalilanders have held successful elections for President, the House of Representatives and local government. While Somalia has not had a free election since the 1960s, Somaliland has held three mandates since the turn of the millennium, each of which has been declared free and fair by international election observers.

In contrast to the intestinal conflicts that bedevil Somalia and many other African nations, Somaliland has found a way to negotiate and resolve these rivalries peacefully. It has bought previously hostile clans together in a pluralistic system that minimises conflict by incorporating the clan elders into the advisory upper house.

Somalilanders have achieved an enviable peace, progressively disarming and demobilising thousands of gunmen, while in Somalia militias still run amok, looting, extorting and terrorising the local population. Many of Somalilandís former clan fighters have also been successfully incorporated into the disciplined national army. And unlike many of her neighbours, the armed forces stay out of politics.

Moreover, Somaliland is country committed to the rule of law, upheld by an independent judiciary. Discrimina-tion on the grounds of ethnicity, gender or opinion is prohibited, and human rights abuses, such as torture, are criminal offences. The right to protest is protected by law.

Somaliland is not yet a fully-fledged democracy, and its unwavering observance of human rights is still a long way off. Somaliland has a multi-party system but only three political parties are allowed under the constitution. Islam is the state religion, and while non-Islamic faiths are tolerated, their promotion is prohibited. Muslims are not permitted to renounce Islam, and the legal system is based on Sharia law. Although rarely enforced with harshness, this does nevertheless place inherent restrictions of the rights of women. The female sex is poorly represented in public life and state institutions, although the constitution does give women the right to employment training and property ownership. Government corruption and inefficiency are not as bad as in many other African nations, but they remain a problem according to critics of the regime.

Somalilandís significantly improved record on human rights suffered a setback earlier this year with the arrest of four journalists from the independent newspaper Haatuf. They were only released at the end of March, after being detained for 86 days on charges of allegedly spreading false information and offending the President. This worrying abuse of press freedom was, however, an exceptional curtailment of what is nowadays a fairly open and free media.

Despite these flaws, Somalilanders have demonstrated, without any pressure from the West, that a Muslim country can build a peaceful, democratic state committed to upholding human rights. It is a model for Africa and the Middle East.

Yet Somaliland remains unrecognised as a sovereign nation. While the United Nations and the international community focus their attention on the civil war in Somalia, Somalilandís achievement in building a stable, harmonious nation is unacknowledged and unrewarded. Betrayed by the Arab League and the African Union, it stands alone.

Instead of singularly condemning Africaís failures, isnít it time the West did more to recognise and support its successes?

Sweden and Germany are moving towards diplomatic recognition, but not Britain. Somaliland wants to join the Commonwealth but has so far been rebuffed. This rejection sends all the wrong signals.

It is time Britain changed course. We should push the Commonwealth and the European Union to recognise Somaliland as an independent, sovereign state; and lobby the African Union, the Arab League and the United Nations to do likewise. A modest increase in British and EU aid and trade would go a long way to strengthen Somalilandís economic base. Tackling poverty and unemployment, and improving health, education and housing, would help underpin and enhance Somalilandís development as a beacon in the region.

 Over to you, Gordon Brown.