MARCO WERMAN, HOST:
The leader of the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland is in Washington this week. Muse Bihi Abdi is seeking international recognition for Somaliland as an independent country separate from Somalia. The World’s Africa correspondent, Halima Gikandi, spoke with President Bihi. Before we hear your interview, Halima, remind us where Somaliland is and just the basics of what we need to know about the place.
HALIMA GIKANDI, BYLINE: So Somaliland is a self-governing, democratic region of around three million people, and it’s in the northern part of what is globally recognized as the Federal Republic of Somalia. But for more than 30 years, Somaliland has been advocating for its independence from Somalia and has its own constitution, its own government, its own passport, and its own military. And Somaliland makes the case that for its independence by pointing out that, in fact, at one point it was independent from the rest of Somalia. After the end of colonialism, it was a British protectorate, whereas the rest of this region was under the Italian colonialism. After colonialism, they both had their own independence, but then decided to join together as the Somali Republic. That didn’t work out, and over a couple of decades, there was a lot of political strife that eventually led to a civil war where more than 50,000 people in Somaliland died. And that’s really the origin story of Somaliland’s desire for independence, which still today the federal government of Somalia rejects. And globally, it’s still not recognized. But Somaliland has tried to make its case by becoming a democratic country, having competitive elections, being secure and trying to establish itself as this more democratic, better alternative to Somalia.
WERMAN: And as for Somaliland’s President Bihi, the man you spoke with. What can you tell us about him? Like, how does he fit into all of this?
GIKANDI: Well, President Bihi is the fifth president of Somaliland, and he was born in the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa. But for a long time, he worked for the government of Somalia or the Somali Republic at the point it was still unified with Somaliland. And in fact, he held very high-ranking positions in the Somali government, including in the Somali Air Force and even as a military attache at the Somali Embassy in Washington, DC. So it’s not his first time here. In many ways, his personal journey reflects the journey of his country, and I began the interview with President Bihi by asking What are your objectives with this visit in Washington?
BIHI: My primary objective to my visit to Washington or to any capital in the world is to explain the government, the people of that country we are visiting, the case of Somaliland. That Somaliland has the right legally and morally, politically to be recognized.
GIKANDI: And you’ve said in past interviews that reunification with Somalia isn’t an option. Why not?
BIHI: Several reasons. Somalia, now, as you have seen for the last 30 years, is not in a peaceful way. The leaders of Somalia and Mogadishu, they are failure leaders. They could not protect their country from Al-Shabaab. Still, they cannot unite Somali people in Somalia. And we have not reconciled. They have never admitted the atrocity, the massacre, they have done to our people. So unless you reconciliate with the people who did so, we cannot unite with them, and we will never forget the massacre of all our people, the destruction of our cities, the destruction of our infrastructure. So I think we will not be unified with them in the long term. Maybe a hundred years later, it will be a change. But now, no
GIKANDI: One country that Somaliland has established diplomatic relationship with recently is Taiwan, which is also a self-governing democracy in many ways an independent country, but is also not really recognized globally. Do you see Taiwan as a possible model for Somaliland?
BIHI: In a way yes, and in a way not. Taiwan and Somaliland, they have the same experiences. Taiwan, they have the experience to sustain their life and their country and their economy without recognition. So we must learn that experience. In a way, no, because the United States and the Europeans were supporting them in security and economically. But the people of Taiwan were very efficient, hard working, intelligent. So though we have not a back up country as they had, we will learn their experience, how to work and build a country without recognition. And we have good relations and agreement. We are friends. We are not the enemy for China Republic. Also, we are trying to convince them of our case peacefully. So that’s our mission. But we will gain their experience of how they built their country.
GIKANDI: And do you think Somaliland can sustain itself the way Taiwan has without official recognition?
BIHI: Yes, we can do it.
GIKANDI: Then why is official recognition for independence so important for you and for the people of Somaliland? What would that official recognition mean for you and your people?
BIHI: It means that we would have an interaction with the other world. We cannot now have a relationship or bilaterals with governments. We cannot have transactions with the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade, all international organizations. So we need the recognition to interact with all the countries in the world.
GIKANDI: Did you travel here on a Somali man passport?
BIHI: Yes, but they have not…they asked me a lot of questions. And I have not another passport. So we managed.
GIKANDI: President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland. Thank you so much for your time.
BIHI: Thank you very much, Halima.
WERMAN: President Muse Bihi Abdi Somaliland there, speaking with the world’s Halima Jakande.
This transcript was created on deadline and may be updated. The World’s authoritative record is the audio record.