The president of Somaliland is wrapping up a U.S. visit without the formal recognition he had sought for the self-declared republic. But he nonetheless is viewing his trip as a success.
"The most important thing to us which we discuss with people is recognition" as an independent sovereign nation and not as part of Somalia, Muse Bihi Abdi told VOA's Somali Service in an interview Saturday.
He arrived March 13 for a series of meetings to court support from U.S. government officials, U.N. personnel, think tanks and civil society leaders. He plans to return to Somaliland later this week.
While the U.S. State Department emphasized the Biden administration's commitment to a unified Somalia, it also held out the possibility of stronger ties with Somaliland.
"Welcomed the opportunity to meet … and discuss strengthening U.S. engagement with Somaliland within the framework of our single Somalia policy," the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs tweeted March 14 after Bihi met with its assistant secretary, Molly Phee.
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee's ranking member, Republican Jim Risch of Idaho, responded by tweeting that the United States "should not limit ourselves to a 'single #Somalia' policy." He added that the administration "should explore ALL areas of engagement in the region."
Risch and two fellow committee members – Republican Mike Rounds and Democrat Chris Van Hollen – introduced a bill last week that would require the State Department to report to Congress on its engagement with Somaliland and would authorize a study on the feasibility of establishing a direct U.S.-Somaliland partnership.
Bihi – who was welcomed at a bipartisan congressional reception Thursday – has invited the United States to establish a diplomatic presence in Somaliland's capital, Hargeisa.
Somaliland projects itself as a comparatively calm and stable partner in the tempestuous Horn of Africa region, where Somalia has been battling al-Shabab militants for more than a decade and neighboring Ethiopia has been caught up in civil war since November 2020.
The breakaway state also is strategically located on the Gulf of Aden, near Djibouti — home to the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa and the first overseas base for China — the Heritage Foundation pointed out in introducing Bihi's keynote address last week at the conservative think tank's Washington offices.
Talks have faltered
Somaliland in 1991 declared its independence from Somalia, which views it as a northern breakaway region, not a separate nation. The two sides have held repeated rounds of talks, most recently in June 2020 in Djibouti, when they agreed to appoint technical committees to continue discussions. No meetings have taken place since then.
Bihi blames the stalemate on the Mogadishu government, saying it doesn't want to negotiate with Somaliland.
"Despite nine rounds of talks … the status of Somaliland never materialized," he said in his Heritage Foundation remarks.
Somaliland sees "no future in the continuation of that dialogue with Somalia and is prepared to pursue all available avenues for its international recognition," Bihi continued. "Somaliland believes that the international community has a moral obligation to support Somaliland's pursuit of international recognition."
But he noted in his interview with VOA, the United States "stood where other governments and Europe stand, which is 'this issue is for Africa'" to determine.
The African Union has not recognized Somaliland as a sovereign and independent nation, nor has any individual country.
Somali's presidential palace, the ministry of foreign affairs and the information minister did not respond to VOA's requests for comment on Somaliland.
But last June 26, three decades after Somaliland gained independence from Britain, Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed expressed hope for a unified country.
"I ask Allah to realize our dream, which is the return of our unity," said Mohamed, widely known as Farmaajo. "The people in the North and South need each other. Let us come back to each other and leave out minor interests."
Relations with Taiwan
Speaking with VOA, Bihi compared Somaliland's status with that of Taiwan, an East Asian self-governing island that China has considered part of its territory since the Communist takeover in 1949.
"Taiwan and us: We have the same cause. We are two countries that are not recognized," Bihi said.
Somaliland's leader said the Taiwanese "are developed economically, successful in education. We need to learn from their experiences on how they maneuvered."
Somaliland and Taiwan established diplomatic relations in July 2020. At the time, Taiwan's foreign ministry said of the agreement to establish good relations: "We're thousands of miles apart but share a deep-seated love of freedom & democracy."
Somalia and China, which has veto power on the U.N. Security Council, condemned the move.
But Bihi said Somaliland-Taiwanese ties were not meant to antagonize any other government.
China has "no right to get angry," he said. "We are an independent country, and we can establish relations with anyone we want.
"We are ready to have good relations with China," Bihi said of Somaliland. "China needs us, we need them. We would like to have good relations. We don't harbor ill will toward them, and we hope it's the same on their side."
This report originated in VOA's Somali Service.