Somaliland is on a roll. Early last month, a U.S. Congressional staff delegation visited Hargeisa, the first such trip in more than a decade if not two. In Washington, DC, two former national security advisors, three former assistant secretaries of State for African Affairs, and a previous U.S. ambassador to Somalia have all praised Somaliland if not endorsed formal ties if not independence. Nor is Somaliland’s diplomatic momentum limited to the United States. The establishment of Somaliland-Taiwan ties augmented awareness of Somaliland internationally. Kenyan diplomats will soon arrive to staff an embassy already established near the Ambassador Hotel. European delegations come more frequently and, slowly but surely, Somaliland diplomats make progress in both western and southern Africa. Several airlines are in the final stages of negotiations to serve Berbera’s new international airport.
Contrast that with a decade ago, when an air of diplomatic desperation surrounded Somaliland. Today, diplomatic momentum and expanding ties give Hargeisa leverage. It is against this backdrop that Somaliland’s government should reassess and rebalance the country’s ties with Turkey.
Certainly, Somaliland should value the fact that Turkey has long maintained a consulate in Hargeisa at a time when many countries shunned the nation. Such praise requires an asterisk: While Turkish diplomats may live in Hargeisa, but Turkey accredits them to Mogadishu. That may be standard given Somaliland’s unrecognized status, but what is not are violations of regional sovereignty, for example, distributing aid with Turkish and Somalia’s flag to villages well within Somaliland’s internationally recognized borders.
Over the last several years, Somaliland’s balance of payments and balance of trade have skewed increasingly heavily toward Turkey. Turkish clothes, food, and electronics increasingly fill Somaliland markets, but Somaliland livestock and animal products seldom reach Turkey. As a result, far more money flows from Somaliland to Turkey than vice versa. While that is a testament to the diversity of Turkey’s economy and its manufacturing power, the problem is that Turkey delivers nothing diplomatically to compensate for the imbalance and the tens of millions of dollars it takes from Somaliland.
If such Turkish trade imbalance is to continue, then Ankara should compensate in other ways: First and foremost, the Turkish Foreign Ministry should accept reciprocity for Somalilanders. Rather than condemn Somaliland’s representative to conduct business in Ankara coffee shops, Turkey should allow Somaliland to establish an office and treat it with the same respect that Somaliland treats Ankara’s consulate in Hargeisa. When I visited Ankara two decades ago to meet representatives of Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Turkish government was hardly on speaking terms with them but still allowed them to maintain official offices. Somaliland deserves no less.
The same holds true for passports and visas. Somaliland officials accept Turkey’s passports and readily provide visas to Turkish businessmen. It is a diplomatic insult that Turkey refuses to recognize Somaliland passports and often treats visa applicants—both businessmen and students studying at Turkish universities—harshly and with disrespect. The issue is not just biometrics; Turkey will accept many other passports that are on par technologically with Somaliland’s.
Reciprocity should extend beyond simple diplomatic protocol: Somaliland does not interfere in Turkey’s security by establishing separate ties, for example, with Kurdish groups whose actions Turkey says undermine its internal security. Yet, Turkey consistently subordinates its relationship with Somaliland to the dictates of Somalia and increasingly provides President Mohamed Farmaajo’s expired presidency and its inner-circle with lethal weaponry which they might use against Somaliland.
That same subordination of interests is also evident in Turkish Airlines. Turkish authorities repeatedly brag about the rapid expansion of Turkey’s national airlines into one of Africa’s major carriers. In 2011, the airline served 14 African destinations; eight years later, it flew to 52 African cities. It should be 53, but out of deference to Farmaajo, Turkish Airlines boycotts Hargeisa even though it could be financially viable.
Turkey’s economy is faltering and, happily, Somaliland today has more friends. Turkey is not in the command position it once was. Rather than let Turkey continue to operate in Somaliland without restriction, it is in the interests of all Somaliland to use Hargeisa’s growing leverage to insist on the reciprocity inherent in normal diplomacy or, alternately, to scale down the opportunities Turkey enjoys in the country.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute