Will Southern Sudan be a precedent for Somaliland?

If Southern Sudan successfully secedes, will other African pseudo-states follow suit? Guest-blogging at the Christian Science Monitor, Alex Thurston takes a look at Somaliland: There is one other region in Africa that appears within reach of independent nationhood: Somaliland, which has claimed independence since 1991. Somaliland has its own government and enjoys a greater degree ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
559365_somaliland_0_02.jpg
559365_somaliland_0_02.jpg

If Southern Sudan successfully secedes, will other African pseudo-states follow suit? Guest-blogging at the Christian Science Monitor, Alex Thurston takes a look at Somaliland:

There is one other region in Africa that appears within reach of independent nationhood: Somaliland, which has claimed independence since 1991. Somaliland has its own government and enjoys a greater degree of stability than other regions of Somalia. Recently Somaliland successfully transferred power from one democratically elected leader to another, reinforcing democratic credentials that outshine those of many independent African nations. As crisis continues in southern and central Somalia, moreover, the US and other Western powers are showing greater willingness to consider recognizing Somaliland or at least treating it, de facto, as its own nation.

He also links to an Economist interview with Somaliland's foreign minister, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo, discussing the referendum (my emphasis): 

If Southern Sudan successfully secedes, will other African pseudo-states follow suit? Guest-blogging at the Christian Science Monitor, Alex Thurston takes a look at Somaliland:

There is one other region in Africa that appears within reach of independent nationhood: Somaliland, which has claimed independence since 1991. Somaliland has its own government and enjoys a greater degree of stability than other regions of Somalia. Recently Somaliland successfully transferred power from one democratically elected leader to another, reinforcing democratic credentials that outshine those of many independent African nations. As crisis continues in southern and central Somalia, moreover, the US and other Western powers are showing greater willingness to consider recognizing Somaliland or at least treating it, de facto, as its own nation.

He also links to an Economist interview with Somaliland’s foreign minister, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo, discussing the referendum (my emphasis): 

If the international community accepts South Sudan’s independence, that opens the door for us as well. It would mean that the principle that African borders should remain where they were at the time of independence would change. It means that if Southern Sudan can go their way, that should open the door for Somaliland’s independence as well and that the international position that Somaliland not be recognised separate from Somalia has changed.

I’m skeptical that the international community’s support for Southern Sudanese independence sets much of a precedent outside Sudan. There was similar talk of nationalist movements being emboldened immediately after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, including talk about Somaliland. 

The fact is, new states tend to be recognized by the international community on a case by case basis, and the laws and norms governing who gets to be a country are remarkably arbitrary. Precedents are far less important than they appear. Kosovo and Southern Sudan both had the advantage of having recently been at war with regimes accused of crimes against humanity. The Kremlin may have claimed that Kosovo’s independence was a precedent for its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia several months later, but it actually had a lot more to do with things coming to a head between Russia and Georgia. 

So I don’t think Southern Sudan’s positive reception indicates an urge to redraw more African borders, no matter how problematic those borders are. (See Bill Easterly’s new paper on the artificial states problem.) Somaliland may have a good case for independence, but it will have to get there on its own. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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