The dynamics of Somaliland’s foreign policy and relations

TERRAIN/FIELDWORK

Somaliland: How a non-recognized political entity is pursuing its foreign policy?

By Aleksi Ylönen

Aleksi Ylönen received his Doctorate in International Relations and African Studies at the Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain). He has been a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Turku (Finland), and a researcher at the Center for International Studies – CEI-IUL – University Institute of Lisbon (Portugal) as well as an associate professor at USIU-Africa in Nairobi (Kenya). He is a recipient of a CFEE Grant to conduct field research whose objectives, methods, and preliminary results are summarized here. 

 

Introduction

Since the state collapse in Somalia and its self-declared independence, Somaliland has attracted significant interest among academics. While Somaliland’s peace and state-building processes and its political system and governance have drawn most interest, its foreign relations and remarkable autonomy as a non-recognized political entity in pursuing its foreign policy have attracted much less scholarly attention. This fact motivated my research and fieldwork to explore the dynamics of Somaliland’s foreign policy and relations.

The ongoing project of which the field research in Somaliland forms part seeks to shed new light on Somaliland’s foreign policy and relations. These form a crucial part of its official overall objective to gain international recognition. So far, I have been successful in drawing on contacts and networks in Somaliland to obtain field-based data and improve his understanding of the orientation, strategy, and practices of Somaliland’s independent foreign policy. The French Center for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE) funded field research was very useful in this regard and has allowed the researcher to gain a deeper understanding of Somaliland’s foreign policy and external relations through targeted interviews, conversations, and observation.

 

Research Process

The assumption at the beginning of the research was that Somaliland’s initiatives and approach towards states in and beyond the region are a manifestation of its leadership’s interests and leverage in terms of the country’s foreign policy. Despite its state of non-recognition, Somaliland is deemed to actively pursue independent foreign relations. This is manifested in practice in its informal and de facto relations with various states and external parties despite the lack of international recognition by any United Nations member state.

The research has combined desktop inquiry of primary and secondary sources with primary fieldwork data obtained through interviews selected by employing purposive sampling. The desktop research focused on primary documents and secondary literature, online sources, and verifiable social media content which are screened for content on Somaliland’s foreign policy and relations. This information was subjected to content analysis which was informed by the researcher’s experience and expertise on the politics in Somaliland and the region. The desktop research successfully produced a base of information on which the fieldwork has built.

The fieldwork was conducted in August 2021. The fieldwork data was acquired through in-depth interviews. A local network of contacts allowed reaching out to those who are well-informed about Somaliland’s foreign policy and external relations, ensuring their participation. Local contacts were very helpful for identifying and locating interviewees. From 15 to 19 August 2021, at Hargeisa, interviews were done mainly with key actors, current and former officials and local experts who are either involved in the making or are intimately knowledgeable of Somaliland’s foreign policy orientation, strategy, and practice, as well as of its wider external relations: former foreign affairs official, acting foreign minister, heads academic and/or research institutions, special envoy, and diaspora representatives.

After returning from Somaliland, the interviews have been transcribed and subjected to content analysis which allows the pinpointing of the most relevant information. In particular, information concerning strategy, practice, and orientation of Somaliland’s foreign policy is focused on, along with more general information helping in wider contextualization of its external relations. The data has been compared with that acquired from other interviews and through desktop research in order to verify and corroborate it. This is expected to produce robust findings which can illuminate Somaliland’s foreign policy and external relations beyond the current state of knowledge.

 

Initial Results and Significance of Findings

Initial results of the field research appear to confirm the research assumption that Somaliland has remarkable independence in its foreign relations in the regional context in which most neighbouring states face significant constraints. This, in part, owes to its economic and political independence from other state and non-state actors, including Somalia and international institutions. However, at the same time, as a small polity, it faces difficulty in dealing with more powerful regional and extra-regional actors.

Officially, Somaliland’s foreign policy features the effort to gain international legal recognition, but the prolonged stalemate in this matter has led to other aspects, particularly foreign investment and aid for development, becoming increasingly important. In relevant political circles development, along with the long-touted security and democratic political order, is seen as a pathway to eventual international recognition.

Although on paper Somaliland’s foreign relations are the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in practice Somaliland’s foreign policy is determined by the President of the Republic. It therefore to an extent reflects the personal characteristics, orientation, and vision of the leading state figure. However, President is answerable to the legislature and the citizens and there is an expectation that foreign policy orientation reflects the views of both. President’s power over foreign policy presents both opportunities and drawbacks. While it enables flexible foreign policy manoeuvring without excessive bureaucratic hindrances and the president to pursue his vision for the nation, it heavily relies on the figure of the president and his action and has few checks and balances on his power over external affairs.

Although the data is still being analyzed, the research is likely to yield further interesting findings regarding the independence, strategy, and practices of Somaliland’s foreign policy and its external relations. This is significant from both academic and policy perspectives because it promotes a greater understanding of the independence of Somaliland’s foreign policy and relations in the region in which states are generally subjected to asymmetric relations with stronger partners.

The findings will highlight Somaliland’s uniqueness as an international actor, but they should also result in some generalizable aspects arising from its particular case. For example, they are likely to provide an increased understanding of how non-recognized state entities engage in orienting, strategizing, and practising foreign policy.

 

Recent publications in journals and a book from the author:
* Aleksi Ylönen, “Is the Horn of Africa’s ‘Cold War’ over? Abiy Ahmed’s early reforms and the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea”, African Security Review (2018).
* Aleksi Ylönen, “Inheriting Power: Somaliland’s Political Institutions and the 2017 Presidential Election”, Review of African Political Economy (2018).
* Aleksi Ylönen and Jan Záhořík (eds.), The Horn of Africa since the 1960s: Local and International Politics Intertwined, Abingdon: Routledge (2017).

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