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Somaliland Pushes for International Recognition

Voters in northwestern Somalia's breakaway region of Somaliland head to the polls Thursday. The upcoming legislative elections highlight the region's 14-year struggle to be recognized internationally as an independent republic.

As foreign minister Edna Adan Ismail sees it, Somaliland meets all the criteria of being an independent nation.

She refers to the self-declared republic as an "island of peace and stability in the Horn of Africa," a model for other African countries to follow.

On the line from her office in the capital Hargeisa, Ms. Ismail tells VOA there are so many historical, cultural, political, and other differences between Somaliland and Somalia as to make the two separate entities.

The big clincher, she says, is that the people of Somaliland themselves have agreed to be peaceful and to support a functioning, democratic government that maintains stability in the area.

"We are gaining from law and stability," she said. "Our economy is thriving, our people are coming back from refugee camps, we have more children going to school in Somaliland today than have ever done in our past. We have better health facilities today, we have better infrastructure today."

Home to 3.5 million people, the area in northwestern Somalia, about the size of England and Wales, unilaterally declared independence from Somalia in 1991, the year military dictator Siad Barre was overthrown.

While Barre's ouster plunged Somalia into anarchy that exists until today, Somaliland took a different route.

Initially, fighting gripped the area. But in 1993, a council of elders elected a president. Throughout the years, warring factions reconciled, tens of thousands of militiamen were disarmed, and the private sector developed.

The area, once a British protectorate, actually achieved independence for a few days in 1960 before merging with the former Italian colony to form Somalia.

An analyst at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, Richard Cornwell, tells VOA the differences in colonial administration and education is one reason why Somaliland is stable, whereas Somalia is still wracked by fighting among clans and warlords.

Another reason, he says, is that people living in Somaliland are predominantly from the Issaq clan. In Somalia, four major clans clash for control over territory.

A third reason, says Mr. Cornwell, is that when the United Nations provided drought and famine relief to Somalia in the early 1990s, it by-passed traditional elders and instead hired warlords to protect humanitarian aid convoys, something that did not happen in Somaliland.

"Because the elders and the traditional authorities managed to retain control over the inflow of external wealth and over commerce in Somaliland, they were able to prevent the emergence of a vast class of warlords who would take over and create an economy based on the political economy of disorder," Mr. Cornwell quotes from a paper from American political scientist William Reno.

While Somaliland now has its own government, constitution, democratic multi-party elections, and currency, it still lacks something it desperately wants and has been asking for - international recognition.

The current transitional Somali government, formed last year in Kenya following peace talks, itself refuses to recognize Somaliland as an independent nation.

Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari explains that his government recognizes that Somaliland is peaceful and provides a good model for the rest of the country.

But, he says, Somaliland is part of Somalia.

"We are same culture, we are same religion, we have same heritage - there is only [the difference that] Somaliland is north of Somalia. So there is no difference between those two people," he said.

A diplomatic source, who does not wish to be named, tells VOA the issue of Somaliland independence needs to be discussed and resolved by Somalis themselves within the framework of the transitional government.

If this discussion does not take place, or if Somalia's transitional government falls apart, he says, the international community might come out in favor of supporting Somaliland independence.

Somaliland's self-styled foreign minister Edna Adan Ismail tells VOA she fears that if Somaliland is denied international recognition, it could "cause the disintegration of that one small island of peace and stability."