Few other leaders outside Sudan will have watched the country’s referendum on partition more closely than Ahmed Mahamoud Silanyo, president of the self-declared but to-date internationally unrecognised Republic of Somaliland.

Somaliland is not yet recognised by any countries, although many, such as Ethiopia and Djibouti (both of which Mr Silanyo visited recently), have informal relations with its government. These two countries work with Somaliland on security and trade issues, and are the only ones that accept Somaliland passports. Others, including a few from Europe, offer tacit support through aid, believing that supporting any modicum of stability in Somali territory can only be beneficial for the rest of the north-east Africa.

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As such, it is a widely held view in Somaliland that formal independence would allow it to truly move forwards. Mr Silanyo believes that the yes vote on the independence of South Sudan, along with a peaceful aftermath, could pave the way for official status for his country.

Regardless of the result, he will have many obstacles to overcome, as the Arab League, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations and the African Union all state their preference for maintaining the existing Somali borders. However, opinions could be changing: in 2005, an African Union mission visited Somaliland and in a report recommended the consideration for recognising Somaliland’s independence. Yet it will take a considerable effort by the president and his ministers to achieve statehood, and he is reluctant to put any sort of timetable on when this could happen.

Independent steps

Mr Silanyo was in London in December 2010 on a two-week visit pressing business leaders and politicians to invest in and recognise his country. He was elected into office in a July 2010 election deemed fair by international observers such as the US-based International Republican Institute. Since his election he has managed to maintain stability in the country, and is now pushing ahead with his two main priorities: statehood and the development of Somaliland’s economy.

In an exclusive interview with fDi Magazine, a deliberate but succinct Mr Silanyo said on the issue of statehood: “It is very difficult to say when it is going to happen. But we can say that we in Somaliland have always sought and struggled to get the independence and recognition we need. We know that’s not an easy thing to achieve immediately, but it remains our main goal.

“However, we also know that we have been working with the international community and the international community has been engaging with us, giving us assistance and working with us in our democratisation and development programmes. And we are very happy with the way the international community has been dealing with us, particularly the UK, the US, other European nations and our neighbours who continue to seek recognition.”

Internal growth plans

Mr Silanyo, who has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in economics from the University of Manchester in the UK, also went into more details for his five-year term. He says he intends to improve Somaliland’s infrastructure, make its political system more transparent and make its civil and financial services sectors more efficient. As it stands, the majority of the government’s revenue comes from remittances from the diaspora, something he desperately wants to change.

The president, who was flanked by his minister for national planning and development Saad Shire and foreign minister Mohamed Omar, says that he had spoken to many businesses during his UK visit about investment opportunities in Somaliland’s mineral, fisheries and agricultural sectors. While he described these meetings as “encouraging”, he did admit that no deals had been signed on his visit and that potential investments were still very much in a preliminary phase. Nonetheless, he believes that FDI will play a large part in the country’s development, and is offering foreign companies three-year tax holidays and 100% ownership of projects.

The security question

Undoubtedly, one of the main concerns of foreign investors is that of security and stability, and Mr Silanyo was not afraid to address the topic, nor did he try to suggest that these were not important concerns. When it comes to neighbouring Somalia, he said he is dedicated to helping reach some kind of peace agreement, though he sees no room for negotiation with Islamist group Al Shabab, which controls many key areas in the country. But he understands that a stable Somalia is in everyone’s interest.

As it stands, his country must spend a significant amount of its resources on defending its borders and making sure the conflict does not spill over into Somaliland. There have been a few skirmishes in the past few years, mainly at the time of the past two elections, but these were minor incidents compared to the mayhem in Somalia. Mr Omar believes the key for the Somali government is to engage with the people and provide them with what they need to win their support. He believes that, at the moment, Al Shabab is doing this more effectively, and consequently is showing few signs of backing down. 

Commenting on security issues and the larger conflict, Mr Silanyo says: “We do not engage with Al Shabab at all. We try as much as possible to get the support of the local population, the elders, the religious leaders, the various groups, but we do not deal or negotiate with Al Shabab. Because I think once you open the door for them, they go for nothing else but all the way. And I can’t see our government negotiating with Al Shabab.

“With the Somalia government, I do not know how far they can go. But they are in a different position than we are. So I don’t know if the government has any choice but to deal with them. However, I can’t see Al Shabab settling for anything else but taking over the whole country. They want to take over, it’s simple. They don’t go for compromises. I don’t think the African Union has put up enough forces to fight them. The African Union should be prepared to put up more forces.”

Strong silence

Answering questions in a serious and contemplative manner, with noticeable and cautious pauses between responses, Mr Silanyo is guarded when it comes to revealing personal information or forecasting the future of his country. Asked if he has any hobbies or interests outside of his job, he says he is not young anymore and “doesn’t have time for sports or anything like that”, and that he only has time for his family and his job. Asked if his years in the UK (his English is nearly flawless) influenced him personally or politically, he smiles and just says that his time in the UK was many, many years ago.

Similarly, he is just as coy about his political future. Somaliland’s constitution limits Mr Silanyo to two terms as president. His first term will end in 2015, but he would not reveal any hints as to his own plans. He merely says: “I hope to finish out my term, and after that, we’ll have to see.”