At the back corner of the top floor of a little office building in London’s East End, around the corner from the Tesco down Mile End Road from the Whitechapel subway stop, sits the one-room Somaliland Mission in the UK. Yes, Somaliland, not Somalia (as the pamphlets in the office make painfully clear). In 1991, right after the ouster of the Cold War-era military dictator of Somalia, Mohamed Siad Barre, and just before the descent of the country into 22-and-counting years of chaos and violence, the northern stretch of the nation softly declared its independence as the Republic of Somaliland.
No countries have officially recognized the independence of Somaliland, however, and few provide it much support. In fact many countries, America included, officially back the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, a party that periodically denies the independence of Somaliland.
Yet since declaring its independence, Somaliland appears to have experienced less insecurity and violence and developed more effectively than the rest of Somalia. Most of the recent (extremely limited) news coverage of the region has applauded heartening developments like the 2010 presidential elections, in which the opposition party defeated the incumbents by a razor-thin margin of a few hundred votes in elections dubbed free and fair by international observers, and power transitioned with nary a Molotov cocktail thrown.
After that changing of the guard, the new president, Ahmed Mahamoud Silanyo, appointed Ali Aden Awale as the new head of Somaliland’s Mission in the United Kingdom, a fully functioning diplomatic outpost issuing Somaliland visas and promoting the cause of recognition. After visiting the Mission recently, I spoke to Awale to figure out how exactly he conducts diplomacy in a world that has yet to recognize the reality of his nation.
VICE: How did you get a mission in the UK despite the fact that the government doesn’t recognize the independence of your region?
Ali Aden Awale: Let me first correct you. We have never been a region and we are not a region. We are a country called Somaliland. We became independent before Somalia even came into being. And then there was a unification of the two states. Then, in 1991, we cancelled that unity.
The office came into being because of the Somaliland community that was already here. It was a very strong community. During the civil war of the 1980s our country organized itself from here. It was a very strong part of our struggle against the dictatorship of Barre.
After the successful toppling of that dictator we turned our office into a diplomatic Mission. Because on May 18,1991, [when they got rid of the dictator] we decided to look back upon our history [to the existence of an independent State of Somaliland in 1960] and withdrew from the union and declared the re-assertion of our independence again. At the same time we decided that we needed an outlet where we could conduct our day-to-day activities and convey our message to the world.
Why did you choose London for that?
London was our biggest community and our main channel of communication with the outside world. This office has grown over the years and we now have 13 posts and representatives’ offices outside of Somaliland in places like Belgium, France, Ethiopia, Norway, and the USA all functioning and representing the nation.
How did you get involved in all of this? How does one become the ambassador for a young and unrecognized country like Somaliland?
At the time of the struggle I was one of the members of the community who was supportive of the cause. I was living in Saudi Arabia at the time, financing the operations back home. Later, I became a member of the current ruling party, before we won the election in 2010, and after we won I was appointed by the president.
When you went from being an office supporting a movement against the Barre dictatorship to a diplomatic mission—keeping in mind that Somaliland had been badly damaged in the civil war—how did you function? How did you practically communicate with and speak for Somaliland?
It was one of the toughest and most difficult situations. It used to take us a fairly long time to get in touch with the people back home. There were some satellite telephone systems, which were very expensive. But there were no postal services at all and not even a telephone system. It took us about three years to establish the first telephone contact with a few imported satellite phones.
What’s the learning curve like, transitioning from being the organizers of a resistance movement to diplomats?
The way we see it, we are still struggling for our nation. We were able to establish our government systems. But it is a learning curve, as you say. We started with disarming the militias, then bit-by-bit we transitioned to a multi-party system. We have endured a lot of ups and downs and I think we have been very good at dealing with situations as they arise.
The main issue is that we are now able to understand how the world works. And now we are pushing our case in the world and we also started to engage talks to officially end the union with the people in Mogadishu, although it professionally ended in May 1991.
What’s it like talking with the Somali government, which believes in the unity of the nation, including Somaliland, and doesn’t approve of your independence?
The conversation, as you can imagine, is different on their side. They have their own reasons for being in that mood. But as we see it, it is our country and our decision to end that union. We know they may be very unhappy with it. But that’s their problem.
Do you have any problems with the British government, given that you’re conducting diplomatic work in their country for a nation they don’t officially recognize as existing?
In fact we haven’t got any sort of difficult situation in this regard. We have had a very strong and long relationship with the British government. And most of the time the people who are representatives have dual nationalities with the country they work in, so we don’t have trouble with visas. Also, we are not the only country here with an office that is not recognized by Britain. There’s also Taiwan, which has a big representative office and strong economic relationship here.
You’ve gone ahead and just developed your state—currency, passports, all of that—without recognition. Have you gotten any blowback for doing that?
We haven’t had any problems with blowback from the rest of the world. The Somalis do talk about things that are very illogical and annoy us, but we get used to this kind of rhetoric from them and we know how to deal with that.
And what about your diplomatic relations with the UK? Why are they so unsupportive when it comes to the recognition of your independence and so stuck on the notion of Somalia’s unity?
I don’t think that’s the case. I think that is the case in the view of people who have not studied the history of Britain in Somaliland. Britain has problems with piracy and terrorism, which we help them with, and Britain wants to help Somalia, which we as Somalilanders have no problem with.
We believe Britain is not pushing us into anything [i.e. union with Somalia], and they have good communications with us. I believe that they know exactly the reasons why we have decided to stay away and we hope they respect that, and we respect their decisions as well.
So you’re happy with neutrality? Just as long as the UK doesn’t force you into unification, you’re OK with that as opposed to hoping for outright recognition?
We are not happy with neutrality, but this is the fact of the situation now. And we are happy dealing with our situation with Britain on that basis so far. But we are not happy with their position currently. We wish they could have done more for us like the Americans did in South Sudan and the Portuguese did in East Timor.
You know, Somalialand has been doing well for the past 22 years with little help from the international community. We hope the British and Americans and the rest of the world will reward good behavior and people who are doing a good job in rebuilding their country. Because right now they’re spending billions in Somalia, which is proving to be fruitless.
The security of Somaliland has been built by the Somaliland people and we’ve established a government with a fully functioning parliament, a central bank, a constitution, police and military forces, currency, passports, and so on. We have everything a modern nation needs and we’ve done this by ourselves. Somaliland is one of the countries in the Horn of Africa where there is no piracy. We use the army and security forces to maintain security and control terrorism. Somaliland is doing its part and more. And currently it looks like the world is ignoring all the good things that Somaliland is doing.
You did mention that the British have provided some support, though. What specific things have the British done without providing recognition?
Britain supports our country in some areas like the training of our security forces, health, and education. But in our eyes that is not enough.
So when do you think some nation, any nation, will grant you recognition?
I don’t want to say names but there are many countries that are impressed with our progress and achievements and they have discussed it within themselves. I think it will be in the very near future.
Why has it taken so long? Why haven’t you been recognized by any nations yet?
I don’t know. I think that is to be answered by the rest of the world. But the way I see it, we couldn’t yet get the support of those we thought should support our cause.
Somaliland has no problems with its independence legally. We just cancelled our union like Syria and Egypt cancelled their union.
The fact of the matter is we were expecting that Britain and America would do more and say to the rest of the world that it is time to grant the Somaliland people what they deserve, which is their political recognition. That is what they did for South Sudan and East Timor. What did South Sudan prove that we cannot prove? Nothing. They were never independent. We were.
It is time for them to realize that it is in their interests to give Somaliland’s people what they deserve. Otherwise we are really worried about unemployment and our population growth and the young people who are graduating from the universities and are not able to find jobs.
What do you think people should be investing in?
The most important thing that we as Somalilanders expect the world to help with is the road network. Somaliland has a very poor road network hindering the movement of people and trade. We have no doubt that as soon as that road network is improved there will be even better economic growth in Somaliland. Also, there are a lot of resources that are unexplored and we have been inviting international organizations to look into our minerals and oil prospects.
Many places in Africa have gotten that sort of development—roads and such—by striking deals with China, where the Chinese get access to mineral rights and build infrastructure in exchange. Are you looking at anything like that?
I think China is a very cautious country and will be considering a lot of things before they make a decision. Also because of the Taiwan factor they will not be quick to react to Somaliland—but that is my personal view. There are countries discussing this with us though.
How fatigued and frustrated are you as a mission after 22 years without recognition?
That’s a very good question, but let me say this: The people of Somaliland have had a very difficult history of oppression under Barre in the late 1970s and 1980s, and the elders remember that those days were days of hell which we do not want to see again.
The President of Somaliland said just a few months ago in an annual speech to the house of parliament that the country is ready to wait, to work hard, and to do its best to get what it deserves, even if it takes a hundred years. That is the people of Somaliland’s mindset. We do not expect any of our people to get fatigued.
We are doing our day-to-day business better than Somalia and better than many other countries. We are living in a country where there is democracy, free press, rule of law, elected government, a justice system, and a legal system.