The two territories are stepping up cooperation as conflict and election delays cool Western optimism about Somaliland.
Hargeisa, Somaliland – This year has not been the best for Somaliland’s international reputation.
After breaking away from Somalia in 1991, the de facto independent country cultivated an image as an “oasis of stability” in the Horn of Africa, conducting disarmaments and democratic elections despite lacking international recognition.
But presidential elections scheduled for last year were delayed, and in February, long-held clan tensions erupted into fighting around the city of Las Anod (Laascaanood) leaving dozens dead and wounded, and prompting tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
The United Nations has called for an investigation into the deaths while the United States has expressed concern at the “democratic backsliding”.
But Taiwan, another self-governed territory without international recognition, has stood by Somaliland.
“I would mention to my US colleagues – Somaliland is a nascent democracy. You need to give them time to grow up,” Taiwan’s Representative to Somaliland Allen C Lou told Al Jazeera in an interview.
After losing multiple formal allies to China in the past few years, Taiwan surprised observers by announcing “highly official relations” with Somaliland in 2020.
Since then, Taipei has established a modest presence in the territory – with several dozen individuals spread across the Representative Office, Technical Mission, Medical Mission, and a recently established outpost of Taiwan’s state-owned oil company CPC.
In Lou’s view, Somaliland’s unique electoral system (which mandates three national parties as a check on clan rivalries), and inability to properly register voters around Las Anod, create practical challenges that Somaliland needs time to tackle. Lou also cites an article from the American Enterprise Institute to suggest that China is meddling in Las Anod – although researchers with extensive experience in the region doubt such claims.
These sentiments align closely with the Somaliland government’s position.
“In Somaliland, we elect our presidents. But we also elect our parties [beforehand]. It’s not easy to have so many elections. Elections are expensive, and we also have to spend money protecting our country from external threats,” said Somaliland’s Representative to Taiwan, Mohammed Hagi. “While it’s a weakness we don’t have elections on time, the reasons are technical and financial, not because our politicians don’t want to. Other than Taiwan [which has provided equipment like iris scanners], we also don’t receive anything from other countries to help with elections.”
It is not surprising that Taiwan’s stance matches so closely with Somaliland’s, given Taipei’s diplomatic presence relies on Somaliland’s de facto independence.
“Compared to other countries with diplomatic offices in Somaliland – like the [United Kingdom], Denmark or [United Arab Emirates] – Taiwan has far more specific and politically important bilateral relations, premised on a shared status as de facto states,” Jethro Norman, a researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies focused on conflict and humanitarianism in East Africa, told Al Jazeera. “Relations between the two are both an act of solidarity and a way to enact sovereignty in the absence of international recognition.”
According to Norman, the Las Anod conflict threatens to unravel Somaliland’s narrative as an independent state.
The eastern regions of Somaliland, including Las Anod, contain clans who prefer to be part of Somalia and not Somaliland. Resolving the conflict may require the Somaliland government to compromise on its sovereignty – something that might also jeopardise ties with Taiwan given that Somalia recognises China.
Much is at stake for Taiwan.
The relationship provides the island with a second formal foothold in Africa (after Eswatini) – one that allows it to support overseas Taiwanese across East Africa, counter China’s military presence in neighbouring Djibouti, and monitor vital trade lanes.
“John Bolton said how, if China [expands its] military presence in Djibouti, the balance of power in the Horn of Africa – which sits astride major shipping routes, will shift in favour of China,” said Lou. “Together with Somaliland, we secure these routes. We’re trying to prevent the Red Sea from becoming China’s.”
While Taiwan does not have formal diplomatic relations with the United States, it does have a close relationship with Washington, which is bound by law to provide the self-governed island with the means to defend itself. The Taiwan Policy Act that was passed at the end of 2022 further strengthened the security and diplomatic partnership.
Ties have grown closer as Beijing has increased pressure on the government of President Tsai Ing-wen who Beijing frames as a “secessionist” wanting independence, but who argues the people of Taiwan should be the ones to decide their future.
The increasing tension across the strait has also fed a growing wariness within the US about China’s economic and political ambitions.
Framing Somaliland’s importance within the context of those complex relationships has helped Somaliland’s representative in Washington, Bashir Goth.
“People in Washington give us their attention when they know that we hedge against Chinese influence in the region, and have relations with Taiwan,” Goth told Al Jazeera.
Goth says Somaliland’s engagement with Taiwan helped pave the way for the territory‘s president to visit Washington last March, and injected momentum into Somaliland’s efforts at US recognition.
Around the time of the visit, three US Senators introduced the Somaliland Partnership Act, which would have established de facto relations between Somaliland and the US in a manner similar to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which mandates the US to “preserve and promote extensive, close and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan”.
While the bill was shelved, some of its provisions around reporting to Congress about Somaliland cooperation were passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2023. Since then, officials from the state department and the US international development agency (USAID) have visited Somaliland government officials and the Taiwan Representative Office in Somaliland. The US military also surveyed the Port of Berbera as part of preparations for its 2023 Justified Accord training exercise.
Nevertheless, US engagement with Somaliland and Somaliland’s push for de facto recognition from Washington has become more restrained since February’s violence.
“Our friends in Congress are ready to revisit the Somaliland Partnership Act, but we need to wait for more suitable circumstances – perhaps after we hold elections in Somaliland,” said Goth.
Beyond political recognition, Taiwan and Somaliland also have complementary economic interests.
Taiwan, the world’s leading manufacturer of semiconductors, desperately wants energy and to reduce its need for rare earths from China, while Somaliland wants foreign investment in an economy otherwise fuelled by remittances and subsistence agriculture.
A significant boost to Somaliland-Taiwan economic relations came in January when British-Turkish firm Genel Energy formally announced the discovery of oil in Somaliland, after 11 years of exploration. Taiwan’s CPC has a 49 percent stake in the block where oil was discovered, and according to Lou, CPC expects to begin drilling a well in the fourth quarter of this year.
Taiwanese may have to wait years for Somaliland oil shipments, though – sufficient infrastructure for transporting oil to the Port of Berbera does not yet exist. As a precedent, CPC discovered oil in Chad in 2009, following a brief period of Chad-Taiwan ties. However, Chadian oil did not reach Taiwan until December 2020.
Besides CPC, no other Taiwanese businesses have begun operating in Somaliland, although the two countries’ Representative Offices have sponsored trade fairs and shepherded agreements around mineral exploration.
Hagi remains optimistic.
“Taiwan was closed for the first 2.5 years of our relationship due to COVID, which hindered [Taiwanese] companies’ abilities to go abroad,” he said. “But we have good relations with TAITRA (a Taiwanese nonprofit trade promotion body), and also business groups like the Taiwan-Africa Business Association. In the coming 10 years, many good things will happen between our two countries.”
Of course, it is hard to predict what Somaliland-Taiwan ties will look like in the next decade.
On the surface, at least, they do not appear under as much threat from China as those between Taiwan and its remaining formal allies.
“We’re open to building relations with every country – Taiwan, China, Russia, the US. But we want to do this with no conditions; we will not accept a dictation to stop relations with Taiwan,” said Hagi.
Indeed, unusually for an East African country, China’s presence in Somaliland feels almost invisible.
During a week in Somaliland, Al Jazeera saw no Chinese-operated businesses and encountered no Chinese people except for two middle-aged men who were travelling on an Ethiopian Airlines flight out of Somaliland’s de facto capital Hargeisa and were reluctant to elaborate on their activities.Somalilanders in business and political circles generally shared quite warm sentiments towards Taiwan, although whether the broader population shares those feelings – or is even aware of the Taiwan relationship – is another matter.
Official scepticism from Somaliland politicians towards Taiwan also remains rare although the former chairman of the Waddani Party – which won Somaliland’s last parliamentary vote and has a competitive chance at the presidency whenever elections occur – did question the wisdom of ties with Taiwan in 2021.
Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives of Somaliland, called for improved ties with Beijing, arguing that recognition required securing the support of “a government that is a member of the United Nations Security Council with veto power” and that Beijing was also engaged in “bringing vast development to the region”.
Analysts say the next election could fuel similar arguments.
“[Since] the 2021 speech from Waddani’s chairman, there have been no notable public statements from political figures that question the Taiwan relationship,” said Mohamed Farah, an expert on great power competition in East Africa and director of the Academy for Peace and Development, a Hargeisa-based think tank. “But when elections are scheduled, and parties publish their manifestos, perhaps there may be more opinions.”
For now, however, Somaliland and Taiwan can savour their still-close ties in the hope that US attention and mutual investment come together – before political circumstances shift at home and abroad.