In this interview, we are speaking with Mr. Michael Rubin who is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches Arab politics, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds, terrorism, and Turkey. Mr. Rubin has recently returned from Somaliland where he visited for the first time.
Somaliland Chronicle: Let’s start with your recent visit to Somaliland, tell us what prompted you to visit Somaliland for the first time?
Michael Rubin: I had first heard about the success of Somaliland more than a decade ago when I read about the establishment of its cell phone network in some British or American financial newspaper. After that, I started paying attention. Friends who visited in various capacities had spoken very highly about what they saw. When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Mogadishu in 2015, I wrote my first piece on Somaliland, but I wanted to learn and write more.
I work at the American Enterprise Institute, a non-profit strategic studies institute which gives me the ability to write openly for an American audience to try to correct U.S. foreign policy. We don’t lobby and we don’t take money from foreign governments, but rather we work as individuals to engage in debates about ideas and policies. One of the broad themes of my work over the past 15 years is that the United States needs to treat democracies better and reward countries for doing the right thing. Therefore, it was important to visit Somaliland to learn more. I also teach for the U.S. Navy, and so learning more about Somaliland will help my teaching.
Somaliland Chronicle: What was your overall impression of Somaliland generally and more specifically in terms of peace, security and governance?
Michael Rubin: I was very impressed. Whether or not people voted for Musa Bihi Abdi or favored his predecessor, it was clear that most Somalilanders had confidence in the system and were rightly proud of what they had accomplished politically and in terms of security. I knew that Somaliland had largely prevented al-Shabaab from infiltrating its territory, but I did not know beforehand just how much of its budget Somaliland spends on security and how little outside support it receives. Hopefully, that will change because security in Somaliland should be an interest not only for Somaliland itself, but it is important for the broader region.
Before I visited Somaliland, I had no idea about how successful Somaliland has been at integrating what historically were various militias into a cohesive and unified military. This really can be a selling point for Somaliland on the global stage. Think, for example, about how many billions of dollars the United States has spent trying to promote unity among Iraq’s armed forces. Somaliland has an experience and model which other countries can replicate, if only they were more aware of Somaliland’s history and progress.
That said, there are obvious problems that need to be rectified. The delay in the parliamentary elections must end. Even if the election commission term ends before the elections can be held, there are ways to work around the problem, for example, by ensuring that current commissioners and new commissioners, some perhaps as advisers, in order to ensure continuity. Not only is an elected parliament important for democracy, but ending the delay in parliamentary elections will deny enemies of Somaliland the ability to deny its democracy.
Somaliland Chronicle: As you noted in your latest article, Somaliland’s democracy is not perfect, and you used the delayed elections as an example of this imperfection. Are there other issues you have noticed in Somaliland that damage its case for international recognition?
Michael Rubin: The biggest problem right now is the international community’s mistaken belief that Somalia’s stability requires channeling all funding through Mogadishu and also denying Somaliland’s progress. The State Department in general and Ambassador Donald Yamamoto in particular are replicating all the historical mistakes that led to Somalia’s collapse. Indeed, there is a rich academic and policy literature on how the flood of aid and corruption compounded Somalia’s failure. That Somaliland’s government has sent very active representatives to Washington, London, and elsewhere is hugely important. Somaliland needs to make its case more consistently and aggressively regardless of the administration in Hargeisa.
Somaliland Chronicle: As both Somaliland and Somalia have internal issues that should be prioritized over dialogue, particularly Somalia due to its lack of basic stability and limited government control. What do you think of the Somalia and Somaliland talks in general, is it the right time?
Michael Rubin: Certainly, it makes sense for Somaliland and Mogadishu to have some dialogue, but the two are not equal. Somaliland has run its affairs for more than 30 years, while authorities in Somalia really have no control over their own society. Put another way, Somaliland’s government has broad democratic legitimacy while Somalia’s government does not. While dialogue can be useful, Somaliland should not sacrifice its freedoms and successes for some ephemeral theory to which Yamamoto subscribes.
Somaliland Chronicle: All the previous talks mediated by Turkey have ended in failure and were a disaster in Somaliland partly because there were no enforcement mechanisms in the agreements and other factors. Does it make sense that Somaliland seek out experts from countries like East Timor, Eritrea and possibly South Sudan who have successfully gained independence?
Michael Rubin: It would be useful for independent scholars and diplomats in Somaliland to compile the lessons learned from East Timor, Eritrea and South Sudan. None of these countries was particularly successful in their post-independence years, and it would be worthwhile for Somalilanders of all political perspectives to understand the mistakes each made in order to avoid their replication.
The problem with Turkey’s mediation is that Turkey is not truly interested in peace and reconciliation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has both ideological and financial motives for his investment in Somalia. He is hostile to the type of moderation that exists inside Somaliland. That said, the fact that Turkey maintains a consulate in Hargeisa is important. Rather than over-rely on Turkey, it would be better if Somaliland sought to broaden mediation to include Denmark, the United Kingdom, and other states.
Somaliland Chronicle: Somalia continues to pursue a Pan-Somalia ideology from the fifties, which is why it is reluctant to let Somaliland go. This same ideology led to the Shifta wars in Kenya and the Ogaden wars in Ethiopia. Do you think Somalia’s regional neighbors such as Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya take this dormant ambition seriously and its potential to destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region?
Michael Rubin: I agree with you about the danger. It’s not just that the ideology can be dangerous to regional stability, but also because it distracts Somalis from fixing their own country. There are over 20 Arab states; two Romanias (Moldova, after all, is basically Romanian); and two Albanias (because Kosovo is largely Albanian). The notion that all Somalis must be in a single state is a dangerous delusion at odds with the reality of every international precedent.
A better strategy would be for Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia to each develop as they see fit and to become the most peaceful, successful, and economically vibrant states they can be. If, at some indeterminate point in the future they wanted to unite, that should be their democratic right if the peoples of each all agreed. But to try to force them into unity the way Yamamoto proposes for Somalia and Somaliland would risk democracy, stability, and security.
Somaliland Chronicle: In your recent article, you have argued against the United States essentially dumping money into Somalia in an effort to shore up security in that country. The former Minister of Finance and member of the parliamentary budget committee in Somalia recently stated in televised program that Somalia had a $92-million dollar black budget slush-fund used by the Federal Government to destabilize regional states, of which he stated the majority is used on Somaliland, if this is true. Is there any oversight to ensure that US taxpayer funds are not misused and possibly destabilize Somaliland?
Michael Rubin: I have no inside knowledge to judge the veracity of his claim, but Transparency International—a widely respected and objective NGO—did rate Somalia to be the world’s most corrupt country, more so than even Afghanistan and Venezuela. It is clear that U.S. taxpayer money and international humanitarian aid is being misappropriated and wasted. It really is scandalous, not only because of the waste, but also because fueling such endemic corruption makes Somalia’s recovery even harder.
Somaliland Chronicle: You have been very critical of Turkey and we happen to agree with you. In the context of Somaliland, Turkey’s diplomatic mission in Somaliland does not issue visa on Somaliland passport while Ethiopia and UAE have been doing so for a while, is there any value in Somaliland continuing a nonexistent diplomatic relationship with Turkey?
Michael Rubin: I think the precedent of having a Turkish consulate is useful, but I also believe requiring Turkey to recognize the Somaliland passport should be a prerequisite for Somaliland recognizing any Turkish mediation, even as part of a broader basket of countries.
Somaliland Chronicle: Even though it was recently announced, what do you think of the US Africa Policy and how effective it is in countering countries like China and Russia who disregard serious violations such as human rights abuses in pursuit of gaining a strategic foothold in African countries such as Sudan, Djibouti and possibly Somalia?
Michael Rubin: There seems to be a huge discrepancy between the Africa policy which National Security Advisor John Bolton announced and the policy which Yamamoto is implementing. If Bolton’s speech represented Trump’s Africa strategy, it really seems as if Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is asleep at the switch and Ambassador Yamamoto is actively seeking to undermine the new Africa policy.
Somaliland Chronicle: US AFCOM Commander Gen. Thomas D Waldhauser in a testimony to the Senate subcommittee on Armed Services on February 7th said this about Somaliland’s “Berbera’s location, close to the entry and exit point of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, will be strategically valuable for both Somaliland and with whomever they choose to partner.” On the same testimony the General noted the “preponderance of foreign forces” in Djibouti. As someone who has worked with the Pentagon, what is your take on this?
Michael Rubin: One doesn’t need to have spent time in the Pentagon to recognize the fundamental strategic geography of Somaliland. With regard to Djibouti, the massive Chinese investment in the country has raised broader concerns about whether China might leverage its interests in Djibouti to force the United States out.
Somaliland Chronicle: Staying on General Waldhauser’s testimony and statement about Berbera Port and its strategic value, Somaliland has granted permission to the UAE to use the former Berbera airport as a military base in exchange for development programs and training of Somaliland military. Even though Somaliland is unrecognized can this agreement between the UAE and Somaliland governments be considered a de facto Status of Forces Agreement?
Michael Rubin: I can’t give a legal opinion here as I’m not a lawyer. At the very least, though, Somaliland’s government must ensure that the United Arab Emirates does not take Somaliland for granted and that the partnership pays diplomatic dividends for Somaliland.
Somaliland Chronicle: Somaliland maintains an excellent diplomatic relationship with many countries and generally their representatives have visited Somaliland some frequently with one notable exception – the United States Ambassador to Somalia Mr. Donald Yamamoto. Despite the fact that many high ranking US officials have visited Somaliland in the past including Mr.Yamamoto’s predecessor Mr. Schwartz and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer. What is the risk that lack of diplomatic contact from the United States could open the door to other interested parties namely Russia or China?
Michael Rubin: Bolton should be aware that Yamamoto’s policy choice to effectively starve Somaliland into submission not only is bound to fail—Somaliland has been through far worse over its history—but it also provides an opening for countries like Russia and China.
Somaliland Chronicle: Speaking of Russia, there have been unconfirmed reports that Russia is interested in Somaliland for possible military base in Zaila, less than 50 kilometers from Djibouti and arguably the actual gate of Mandab. Should this worry the US and other NATO allies?
Michael Rubin: From a U.S. perspective—and, admittedly, that’s the only perspective from which I write—it should be a huge concern. Ultimately, Somaliland has to do what is in Somaliland’s interests, however.
Somaliland Chronicle: What is your view of Somaliland’s effort as it relates to pursuit of international recognition, are we doing enough?
Michael Rubin: Changing the status quo will be difficult, but ultimately I believe Somaliland has history, legality, and morality on its side. It will take a concerted national effort on the part of Somaliland to press its case, but ultimately it will just take one or two countries to recognize Somaliland before many other inclined to do so but afraid to be the first also recognize Somaliland. I am 47-years-old and believe that I will witness Somaliland’s independence not only in my lifetime, but before my 6- and 3-year-old children graduate high school.
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