Credit: Kelly Ranck/World Concern. Gawsawayne, Somaliland, March 2014.

When a Country Is Not a Country

In the last 25 years, more than two dozen new countries have been recognized by the international community. But secession isn’t easy, as Somaliland’s success story proves.

The streets of Hargeisa are filled with traffic: dusty cars and pedestrians in colorful garb and donkeys carting wagons. Gas stations, cafes, and shops line the roads. Overhead, power lines that carry electricity to homes and businesses stretch across the city. There isn’t much in the way of tourism, but city dwellers have the necessities: a bank, grocery stores, a local mobile phone company called Telesom, restaurants, and a daily livestock market. The city is home to more than a million people and, by many measures, functions as peacefully as can be expected of a large city in the developing world. 

Despite all this, Hargeisa is a capital city of a country that doesn’t officially exist. To the international community, Hargeisa belongs to the northern region of Somalia. To those who live in the city and around the region, it is part of Somaliland, a self-governing nation that won its independence from Somalia in 1991. The northern non-nation is home to over three million people who live far from the violence and turbulence of Mogadishu and southern Somalia. Since ending its ties with Somalia after a lengthy civil war, Somaliland has written a constitution, held three elections that were followed by peaceful transitions, built and maintained a prison for pirates captured along the coast, and printed its own currency. 

In 1997 the government even created the Somaliland War Crimes Investigation Commission, tasked with uncovering war crimes committed by the militaristic Somali government of the 1980s. The commission hopes to locate the remains of victims from the conflict with the regime of Somali military dictator Siad Barre and bring the perpetrators to justice. Some officials expect to find as many as 200 mass graves filled with tens of thousands of victims. The problem is that there are few paths to justice for a country that’s not a country.

Hargeisa is a capital city of a country that doesn’t officially exist. To the international community, Hargeisa belongs to the northern region of Somalia.

As commission Chairman Kadar Ahmed told the New York Times, “We can’t get any recognition from any court or any individual.” 

Being unable to seek legal redress for war crimes is only one of the myriad difficulties faced by an unrecognized nation. Somaliland can protect its borders and issue passports, but it can’t rely on neighboring countries for military assistance if Somalia ever decides it wants Somaliland back. It can secure private investment from the likes of Coca Cola Co., but it can’t apply for grants and foreign aid it might otherwise receive as a developing nation. It captures and prosecutes pirates, but it isn’t a member of regional government unions like the African Union.

“People of Somaliland have done a lot without receiving much external support. If you google pictures of Somaliland major towns in 1991 and compare with that today… you will know the difference and be witness what Somaliland people have done for themselves,” says Fardus Awil Jama, executive director of Candlelight, a Somaliland nonprofit that provides support and development in health, education and the environment. 

“I would love to see my country recognized and connected to the world,” Jama said by email. “My people can’t travel because my passport is unrecognized, my people can’t trade, can’t seek access to the medical quality services, can’t access to outside universities. We are blocked/locked.”


Somaliland is hardly the first region to secede from its country. At the end of European colonization and again with the fall of the Soviet Union, the map of the world was completely redrawn. In the past 25 years alone, more than two dozen new countries have been recognized by the international community. Dozens more separatist groups continue to seek independence around the world.

The issue of self-determination came into the news again in America in September, when Scotland held an independence referendum. Although the outcome was that Scotland would remain a part of the United Kingdom (55.3 percent voted against independence while 44.7 voted in favor), the issue exploded in international media. Celebrities like J.K. Rowling and David Beckham voiced their opinions on the matter; the Simpsons' Groundskeeper Willie gave an impassioned speech for Scottish independence; and news comedian John Oliver begged the Scottish not to leave the United Kingdom.

What was it about the Scottish referendum that so invigorated an audience across the ocean?

What was it about the Scottish referendum that so invigorated an audience across the ocean? Was it our love of an underdog story? A lingering disapproval of British political tactics to keep what remains of its empire in one piece? Or did the vote resonate with something deeper, a part of our psychology that clamors for recognition and inclusion in a special group, an identity that separates us from them? As French philosopher Alain de Benoist wrote, “The group and the individual both need to be confronted by ‘significant others.’ Therefore it is nonsense to believe that identity would be better preserved without this confrontation; actually, it is the opposite: confrontation makes identity possible.” The Scottish fight for independence, while unsuccessful, helped the Scots further assert that they are different from the British. But do differences of ethnicity, culture, race, and language mean two groups of people can’t live together peacefully? 

At the beginning of World War II, the Allied powers issued a statement called the Atlantic Charter that defined their goals for the world at the conclusion of the war. Although it was never a legal document, the charter paved the way for a future world in which nations would strive for economic and political cooperation. A key stipulation of the charter was that all people had the right to self-determination, or the ability to choose their sovereignty. An earlier document, the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States of 1934, defines what constitutes a state in international law: a permanent population in a defined territory with a legitimate government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.

In the aftermath of World War II, nations that had once been colonies of European powers broke free and claimed their independence. They built governments and began interacting with other countries. The same thing happened at the end of the Cold War when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Since that time, there have been two ways for territories to become members of the international community: They can seek recognition by other countries on an individual basis, or they can try to earn membership at the United Nations.

“The UN can’t recognize anything, only states can recognize states, but membership to the UN says, not always but in the majority of cases, you’ve got recognition from the international community,” said James Ker-Lindsay, a Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Economics.

But the international community is increasingly hesitant to recognize new nations, out of fear of upsetting the status quo or harming their relationship with other countries.

“The fear is always that it will create instability. That it will set a dangerous precedent and encourage other secessionist movements elsewhere, thereby leading to the risk of conflict and war in other states,” said Nina Caspersen, a senior lecturer at the University of York and the author of Unrecognized States: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Modern International System.

But Caspersen added that the prospect of recognition doesn’t necessarily have an effect on the emergence of secessionist movements.

“If it did, we would not see nearly as many [secessionist groups] as we do—after all, very few secessionist movements manage to gain independence,” Caspersen said by email. In other words, the low success rate of regions striving for independence doesn’t seem to be a deterrence to secessionist groups—in every case, they are inspired primarily by the hope of belonging to a better nation.

While decolonization triggered a cascade of emerging countries in the mid-20th century, more recent secessionist movements have been focused largely on ethnocentrism. From Tibetans seeking independence from China to the Kurds, scattered across Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, hoping to establish a nation, ethnicity has come to play a large role in a people’s decision to secede. Oftentimes these people are part of an oppressed minority and want the chance to govern their own territory. 

But for those minorities who sometimes do successfully secede from their country of origin, there can continue to be problems. Despite their own experiences with disenfranchisement and discrimination, new nations don’t necessarily place a higher value on minority rights in the governments they form. 

One example is South Sudan. The country broke away from its northern neighbor, Sudan, in 2011 after a lengthy civil war. The southern Sudanese are Christian while the north is Muslim, and had long felt marginalized by the northern government. But now, the new nation is embroiled in yet another brutal civil war between two tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, with each side claiming the other is attempting to oppress them. Instead of having a country with equal opportunities for representation, South Sudan has become a bloody battleground between tribes.

The right to self-determination is very different than the right to secession. Citizens of democracies around the world are already self-governing; they would appear to have no reason to secede. But sometimes when a specific group of people, such as the Scottish, feels alienated from the seat of power in their nation, secession may seem to be a better choice. This problem has been voiced by people across Europe, from the Basque lobbying for independence in Spain to the Montenegrins who have succeeded in withdrawing from Serbia.

While Somalia has drowned in a morass of security problems, Somaliland has created a stable democracy and is working to improve the growth of its sluggish economy.

Photographer Narayan Mahon debated the relative merits of multiculturalism versus self-determination when he set off on a project to document life in five unrecognized nations.

“When I started, I thought that self-determination was really important. And I still think it’s really important. I strongly believe that,” Mahon said. “It brought into conflict my equally strong belief in multiculturalism where everybody, all different groups in a state should be able to live together, get along and cohabitate this area. I believe that. I couldn’t imagine not believing that.”

The time Mahon spent in the five non-countries (Somaliland, Transnistria, Abkhazia, North Cyprus, and Nagorno-Karabakh) has only complicated his view of the world and of politics in the US.

“Not everybody in US society enjoys the same privileges and freedoms and rights, whether that’s the law or not. The law says everybody gets the same things, but it’s not what is practiced. If they don’t perceive themselves having the same privileges and rights, then they don’t have them,” Mahon said. Not that he thinks any part of the United States is going to secede, no matter what rumblings might be coming from Texas.

Though his “Lands in Limbo” project may have brought into question some of his ideologies, Mahon came away from the experience convinced of one thing: Somaliland is unique in the world of unrecognized nations.

“When you look at Abkhazia you can wonder, was it really worth it to break away? Is your life really better than it was in Georgia?” Mahon said. “Somaliland wanted to break away because it was this dictatorship. Just in my own sensibilities that seems like a pretty good reason instead of, ‘I just don’t like those people, those are different people than us.’”


Somaliland, despite having declared its independence, still belongs to Somalia, one of the more homogenous countries in the Horn of Africa: 85 percent of citizens are ethnic Somalis, 85 percent speak Somali, and 99 percent are Sunni Muslim. The issues that drove Somaliland to split from Somalia were based on politics, not differing religion or ethnicity, and the decision to do so has been a fortuitous one. While Somalia has drowned in a morass of security problems, from piracy to Islamic extremism, Somaliland has created a stable democracy and is working to improve the growth of its sluggish economy. There’s no real reason for Somalilanders to look back and wonder if they should’ve ended their union with Somalia.

“Somalia has nothing but recognition and Somaliland has everything but recognition,” Mahon said. “And that’s why there are refugees that come from Somalia to Somaliland to escape the fighting and escape the chaos. Nobody from Georgia is going to Abkhazia.”

“Somalia has nothing but recognition and Somaliland has everything but recognition.”

Still, Somaliland is not without its problems. Extreme poverty is widespread, as is illiteracy. According to Candlelight’s statistics, there are only 61 doctors and 222 nurses in the country, allowing one doctor per 20,278 people and one nurse per 5,600 people. But the unrecognized country is not mired in a civil war like South Sudan, nor has it been reliant on foreign aid to get its start like East Timor was when it became independent in 2002.

“Of course, it confuses me when I see the international community are neglecting and overlooking the rights of Somaliland people,” Jama says. “It frustrates me, but what can I do except to look up the future for better.”

“There’s a lot of movements trying to get independence and very few succeed,” says Ker-Lindsay. “In the case of Somaliland, no countries recognize it yet, but it does actually have quite a high degree of legitimacy.”

This limited engagement with the rest of the world might be no more than a tantalizing taste of what it’s like to be recognized, but it might also be a sign of change. It’s impossible to predict the future for a non-country like Somaliland, but there is some reason to hope that the tides may be turning. There are ongoing talks between the Somali government and Somaliland officials. According to Somaliland foreign minister Mohamed Bihi Yonis, Somalia is willing to make concessions and recognize Somaliland. But the process is a slow one.

“We deserve to be recognized,” Jama says. “We are very much mature and even better than the situation that the world gave recognition of South Sudan. We are very much enthusiastic that one day the world will look us up and regret their past irrational judgment of Somaliland for so long.”