I am very grateful for the privilege of being able to bring this Adjournment debate to the House today.
In 1960, Somaliland emerged independent from the British empire after many years as the British Somaliland protectorate. For five days it was independent, before it took the step to merge with what was then the Trust Territory of Somaliland, historically Italian, to form a union. Both nations entered that union with optimism—a sense and a view of creating a pan-Somalia where all Somalis would be able to come together. The hope, for so many of those in Somaliland, was that this would be a union of equals.
Sadly, over the following 30 years, those hopes and aspirations for what might have been were not fulfilled. Instead, as the years progressed, the situation got worse, with military dictatorships and, tragically, people from the north of Somalia in historically British Somaliland being discriminated against. What started to emerge was attacks on civilians. There were mass killings of tens of thousands of Somali civilians. It was one of the few conflicts where fighter jets took off from cities in one area in order to bomb the cities that they had taken off from, indiscriminately killing thousands of civilians.
My constituency has a very large population from Somaliland, whose families suffered, as the right hon. Gentleman has described, in that conflict. Last year, Somaliland celebrated 30 years since the declaration of independence. It has built up its own independent Government, its own currency and democratic elections. It has shown the capability to establish a state. Is it not time that the UK Government formally recognise its right to self-determination and its need to be an independent state?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. The key reason for this debate is to discuss the fact that Somaliland has developed so much. In those years of conflict—where so many Somalilanders had their lives under threat, and so many hundreds of thousands were displaced, both internally within Somaliland and externally—that dream and that vision of creating their own homeland once again and re-establishing those old territorial borders burned bright, and that is what they were able to achieve in 1991.
I draw the House’s attention to my interest as one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on Somaliland. It has been a privilege to work with the right hon. Gentleman on these issues. Will he also pay tribute to my predecessor, Alun Michael, and the many members of the Somalilander community in Cardiff and across the UK for exposing those atrocities at the time, including in this House and elsewhere, and explaining what had gone on to the world? Will he commend them on what they did at that time?
I pay tribute to the hon. Member’s predecessor and the many people who live in his constituency. In his constituency is a very established Somaliland community that has been there probably far longer than he or I have been on this earth. This country has deep links with Somaliland that go back not just many decades, but a century and more, with many Somalilanders calling Britain their home, as well as Somaliland itself.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has secured this important debate. Many of us have been supporting Somaliland as an independent state, and we very much welcome the fact that he is here. On that point, he will know no doubt that many of Her Majesty’s naval ships for 100 or more years have had lascars from Somaliland—stokers and others—who built the first mosques in this country. Does he not agree that recognising the Somalilanders here in the UK is also about recognising our own past and our own future together as investors in a new Africa? It would demonstrate that independent states that govern themselves well in democracies can succeed, and we can partner with them.
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee is absolutely right. By taking the brave step to recognise Somaliland, we would not just be opening up opportunities for Somaliland itself, but opportunities for British investors and British business to go there and work, very much creating the gateway to the whole of the horn of Africa.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has brought this most important subject to the Floor of the House. I visited Hargeisa when I was Secretary of State for International Development, and we spent quite a lot of time on exactly the issues that he and my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee have just raised. There is an enormous degree of normalcy there. The democratic structures, when they have elections, have held in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. There is proper governance. I have travelled on a bus in Hargeisa that was a result of British investment. The case that my right hon. Friend is making about Somaliland becoming an independent state is one where the Foreign Office normally takes the view that it does not want to lead it, but it would support it. Is he aware that the African Union is at least passively acquiescent in that view, if not actively supportive?
On both areas that my right hon. Friend raises, he is absolutely right. One flies into Hargeisa airport, and it is a safe place to visit. One can get a bus to the centre of Hargeisa, as he did. When I visited, I must confess I did not get a bus, but I will endeavour to do so the next time I visit. He is equally right that this is an opportunity. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office so often wants to be led on these issues, but there is sometimes a moment for Britain to lead, as against to be led.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about leading the world. Throughout the world, where western nations do not get involved, China does, and recently we have had many discussions about China’s influence. Does he therefore agree that when we look at development taking place in Somaliland, we can see that it is in our strategic interests and that of western countries not just to see what happens but to take an active, leading role and not allow that vacuum to be filled with those who, perhaps, we have difficulties with?
My right hon. Friend is so correct. If we look to Djibouti, to the north of Somaliland, we see the Chinese investment that is going in. Where there is a vacuum, others do step in. If this country showed the leadership that it can by recognising Somaliland, that would show the Somaliland Government the value that we put on their friendship and partnership.
I commend my right hon. Friend for securing the debate. I am honoured to represent a Somaliland community in Swindon. Building on the points made by right hon. and hon. Members about Somaliland’s strategic importance, and in particular its proximity to international shipping lanes, we all know that with British leadership under our good friend the noble Lord Hague, we led the way in dealing with piracy emanating from the horn of Africa. Is this not another opportunity for Britain to show leadership and recognise stable government in a region that is in pitifully short supply of such a quality?
My right hon. and learned Friend is accurate in his assessment. Even though we are not yet in a position of recognising Somaliland, we already have that level of co-operation with Somalilanders. When I visited Somaliland as Defence Secretary, I saw at first hand the co-operation that British forces already had with Somaliland in protecting its coastal waters—and by doing so, keeping them safe for the international community.
I thank the right hon. Member for securing this important debate and commend the Government on the support they have been providing to the Administration in Somaliland. Liverpool Riverside has a long-established Somali community and Somalilanders. Will he join me in calling for the UK Government to support a binding referendum within two years to allow Somalilanders to express their democratic will, guaranteed by the international community?
I am not sure whether you are an expert on Somaliland affairs, Madam Deputy Speaker, but this is the opportunity for you to brush up on them. The hon. Lady makes an important point, but there has already been a referendum in Somaliland, and it was absolutely clear about the wishes of the Somaliland people: they want to see recognition, to be independent and to have that independent state. However, if that is a hurdle to establishing international recognition for Somaliland, the Somaliland Government may wish to look at that.
The right hon. Gentleman has been extremely fortunate not only in the House allowing him a lot of time to debate this important topic but in the number of hon. Members in their places supporting him and the cause of Somaliland. Wembley has a huge Somaliland community of expatriates who have said to me that, in all likelihood, a new Somaliland would desperately want to join the Commonwealth. Does he agree with them?
From my visit to Somaliland and my discussions with so many Somalilanders in the UK, I have a real sense of kinship between Somaliland, Britain and other Commonwealth nations. I think that Somaliland would very much want to join the Commonwealth, and I hope that the Commonwealth would welcome them with open arms.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I have the privilege of chairing the all-party group on Somaliland, and we have a large Somaliland community in Sheffield. The way he described the formation of what is currently legally Somalia was really interesting. Immediately on gaining independence, Somaliland was an independent country, and it voluntarily chose to enter into a union. The concerns about changing post-colonial boundaries do not apply in the case of an independent Somaliland; post-colonial boundaries, it was an independent country. The idea that Mogadishu now has any remit in Somaliland is a piece of nonsense, and it is time the Government recognised that.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. The boundaries being proposed are exactly the same as those that were agreed between Britain, Italy, and Ethiopia, and with the French in numerous treaties prior to that. Somaliland is not asking for a change to the boundaries, as they are very much what was there in 1960. There are precedents when it comes to unwinding acts of union and confederacies. One need only look to the other side of Africa, at the confederation between Senegal and Gambia, which was unwound in the late 1980s. This is not unprecedented. We are suggesting going back and recognising what were well-established international boundaries that we ourselves recognised and drew up.
I thank my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. The Defence Committee has just produced a report on the Navy and the importance of the sea in defence, and he mentioned his visits as Secretary of State for Defence. Does he agree that it is vital that we recognise Somaliland, given the strategic importance of the location in terms of defence?
My hon. Friend is accurate in pinpointing the strategic importance of Somaliland. That is one of many reasons why it is so vital that not just Britain, but the United States and other NATO members lead the way in recognising Somaliland—not just because of the many brilliant things that have been done there, but because of the country’s strategic importance. The question is how we reinforce and support that Government.
If I may pursue that point, is it not desirable for a stable state in a region that is becoming increasingly unstable to achieve that level of recognition? We talk a lot about supply chain vulnerability; this is one of the most vulnerable places we have found. Even one ship blocking the Suez canal caused ripples right the way throughout industry. We should also recognise the importance of enabling communities here and in Somaliland to move freely, have passports that are recognised, conclude international agreements, and unleash the country’s energy. Having a properly administered state in the region would enable those communities to do those things. Is it not time that we grasped the nettle and recognised Somaliland?
There is a level of consensus bubbling up that is not always typical of debates in this House. It is incredibly important to demonstrate the will and feeling of the House on this important issue. The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point about supply chains. DP World already invests in the port of Berbera, and the welcome investment from British International Investment—the old Commonwealth Development Corporation—amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. The Government recognise the importance of Somaliland, and we are willing to invest hundreds of millions of pounds there, because we realise that it opens up so much of the horn of Africa to British goods and investment. However, we still do not recognise the state of Somaliland, which is a real tragedy. It is so sad to see that so many Somalilanders have difficulty travelling to Somaliland. They cannot fly direct from the UK, but have to go via either Addis Ababa or Dubai. By taking the step of recognising Somaliland, we can make so many British citizens’ lives easier.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate; the attendance shows the strength of feeling across the House. Does he agree that recognition can take several forms, and that the Government could take interim steps to show willing, and to demonstrate progress towards the formal recognition that we all want? That could include the Department for International Trade—or the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which has responsibilities to DIT—channelling food and aid through Somaliland. That way, Somaliland will not be at the wrong end of the supply chain; it often ends up with a raw deal.
That is absolutely correct. For so long, international development aid has been channelled through the Federal Republic of Somalia and the Government in Mogadishu, which sadly means that people in Somaliland have often not had the assistance that this Government expected them to get. A perfect example of that is vaccines. A large supply of vaccines was sent to the people of Somaliland, but it was channelled through the Government in Mogadishu. By the time it arrived in Somaliland, sadly, there was only a few days left in which to dispense most of the vaccines.
I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. I do not have any Somalis in my constituency, but I have a great love for the country because my ayah came from Somaliland when we lived in Aden. I remind the House that the Aden Protectorate and the Somaliland Protectorate were very closely linked; I remember my father flying over to Somaliland as part of the Aden Protectorate Levies when there was that close link. The people of Somaliland have a real affection for this country. That goes back a long time, and it would be absolutely right of our Government to encourage, support and allow Somaliland to be a real nation.
We have seen the people of Somaliland pay a price for the defence of this nation in both the first and second world war. If people go to Somaliland, they can see the Commonwealth war grave cemetery. So many Somalilanders gave their life in defence of this country and beat fascism on the horn of Africa. We owe a debt of honour to the people of Somaliland, and should restore to them the freedom that they fought to preserve for us.
I congratulate the right hon. Member on securing this debate, which has demonstrated an exceptional degree of unity across the House in support of his proposal. He makes a good point about the debt of honour that we owe to the people of Somaliland. My hon. Friend Mr Betts highlighted that we have a strong community of people who owe their origins to Somaliland in our city. In recognition of that, the council passed a resolution in 2014 adding its voice to the demands for independence. Does Gavin Williamson agree that the parliamentary and local elections held last year were another successful democratic moment in Somaliland, further reflecting the maturity and strength of democracy in the country, which is an essential building block for recognition of statehood, and which the Government should recognise?
I do not often advocate that a Government should follow the leadership of Sheffield City Council, but on this occasion I certainly do. The Government should try to catch up with what that city council has been doing. So many communities—Sheffield, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, Swindon; we could go on and on—have welcomed Somalilanders, and Somalilanders have made these great cities and great communities their home, and will continue to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman has demonstrated just how important this topic is to all of us here. Newport is home to the second-largest Somaliland community in Wales, and I want to place on record my thanks for the community’s amazing contributions to the city over the years. Has the right hon. Gentleman given any thought to how the devolved Governments can play a role in supporting the people of Somaliland as they continue to seek formal recognition?
I strongly believe that this is a United Kingdom endeavour, in which we can all move forward in strengthening the bridges that already exist between the United Kingdom and Somaliland. Many steps have already been taken in municipal and devolved government to encourage the links between our great nations of the United Kingdom and Somaliland, but now is the time for the UK Government to take the lead—for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office not to be shy, and not to think that policy is stuck in the 1960s.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing a debate on such an important subject. There has been unanimity this evening on the many reasons why we should recognise Somaliland, but does he, as a former Education Secretary, view and accept Somaliland as a champion of education in Africa for both boys and girls? We have heard about how the devolved Administrations and this Government can assist, develop and support Somaliland. In that context, the education system is not only something to be treasured, but perhaps a way in which we can provide support.
One of the most precious things that a nation can have is democracy. That means justice, but it also means the education that we give our children. Those who have the privilege of visiting Somaliland will see both boys and girls being educated. There is no discrimination there; Somalilanders want to educate all, because they recognise that that is what will strengthen Somaliland for the future.
My right hon. Friend has heard representations from people in a number of places where there are large Somaliland communities. Does he agree that the level of remittances to Somaliland from the diaspora is enormous? Some years ago, it was about six times the annual state budget. Perhaps, following this debate, the Minister could consult his officials on trying to make remittancing easier, so that there is more competition and lower charges, and the enormous Somaliland community in the United Kingdom can send money back through the remittancing structure without paying exorbitant fees.
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of remittances going to Somaliland. This Government do not make that easier for people. Their view that Somaliland is locked in with Somalia makes it much more difficult for businesses to operate there, and to ensure that a flow of money from the diaspora community in this country goes back to Somaliland. The FCDO, working with Her Majesty’s Treasury, could take up this practical issue and consider how it could make improvements. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to respond to that point at the end of the debate.
Somaliland is a country that has incredibly proud links with our country. When we have been in need and have asked for help, it has responded by sending its young men to defend our values and our freedoms. In 1991, it emerged from years of subjugation to the regime in Mogadishu—from having so many citizens, including children, killed in cold blood—and it was able to establish its borders once more. It was able to put in place the structures for a legal system and elections. All across Africa, we are always asking for countries to have proper legal systems, to educate their boys and their girls and to ensure the establishment of democracy. In May last year, we saw the parliamentary elections in Somaliland. They were peaceful; they were calm; they were fair. We saw the roll-out of iris-recognition technology, the first use of that technology anywhere on the continent of Africa, to ensure that they were fair and properly run.
All that goes to show the maturity of this country. In Somaliland, we have seen different parties enter government and leave it without questioning the veracity of their opponents’ claim. Indeed, as I recall, one presidential election was won by a margin of 80 votes. That vote was accepted, and we saw a peaceful transition. I cannot help thinking that there are some western democracies where, if the margin was quite so close, there might have been a little bit more controversy than we saw within Somaliland.
Somaliland has been an amazing, shining beacon of everything we want to see flourish in Africa. It is the example we want others to follow, but it needs our help and our assistance, because around it are real challenges. To the south, in Somalia, we see the challenges of al-Shabaab. We see the disorder and difficulties in Ethiopia and some of the real security challenges in Djibouti.
Somaliland is a country that wants to be our friend. It is a country that turns to us and asks us to show leadership. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, instead of delivering the pre-prepared brief that no doubt every Foreign Office Minister has read out for the past 60 years, to show some guile, some leadership and some imagination—to show that he is a politician, not just a tool of Foreign Office officials to read their words. I have worked with him in the Whips Office; I saw some moments of merit.
As politicians, and as this House, we must show leadership on this issue. We must show our friends in Somaliland that we are willing to defend them as they have defended us. Even if the Minister cannot give us all the promises we would like to hear—even if he cannot say at the Dispatch Box today that we can recognise Somaliland—he needs to go away, sit down and work out how we take the next steps. We cannot spend another 30 years pretending that the reality on the ground, an independent Somaliland, does not exist because it is not on the Foreign Office map. We must respond to those realities. We must lead on foreign policy. We must show our Somaliland friends that we are there for them and that we will deliver for them—that we will not just talk about our history, but talk about how we can make history together in the future.
It is an unusual pleasure to be able to speak in an end-of-day Adjournment debate, because of the time. I congratulate Gavin Williamson, the former Defence Secretary, and thank him for securing this debate. It has been hugely powerful, and the voices that have been heard on both sides of the House show the strength of feeling among hon. Members and Somaliland communities here in the UK on many of the issues he raised.
I declare my interest as one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on Somaliland, which has existed for a long time in this place. In the spirit of this debate, I am pleased to say that it includes Members from all parties and both Houses. Many of them, like the right hon. Gentleman and I, have travelled to Somaliland and seen for ourselves the hugely impressive progress that has been made, particularly since those very dark days that he started his speech by discussing—the atrocities that were committed and the literal levelling of Hargeisa, the capital city—and the remarkable progress since, largely driven by Somalilanders themselves and members of the diaspora. Mr Mitchell, the former International Development Secretary, who is still in the Chamber, mentioned the importance of remittances, and the role of Somaliland communities here in the UK in raising funds and supporting projects in Somaliland has been absolutely crucial to that rebuilding since those dark days.
I also want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Alun Michael, who did so much in this place to raise Somaliland’s concerns and to work with people from many different parties, communities and civil society groups, and with different parties in Somaliland, to ensure that our friendship and the progress that we had seen continued.
The all-party group visited Somaliland just a few years ago. It was the first visit we had been able to undertake for some time, and it was remarkable. I had heard so much about Somaliland from Somalilanders in Cardiff and then I was able to see it with my own eyes. We met civil society groups, women, young people, members of the legislature from both houses, and members of the Government. We also saw some of the progress that was being made and heard about the work the UK Government had done to support development projects, trade, economic development and security.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as Government recognition, we should also recognise, as he has, the important contribution that Somalilanders have made to the development agenda? The Government’s decision to cut the aid budget from £121 million in 2020-21 to £71.2 million this year is setting the nation back, so the Government need to reconsider that.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. She knows my views on the aid budget—I have expressed them in this place many times, and I know they are shared by many Conservative Members. There have been some welcome investments in Somaliland through the aid budget and, as the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire mentioned, through the investment made by the former Commonwealth Development Corporation—now British International Investment—in Berbera port and the DP World partnership there, which has been very important and welcome. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that those cuts have impacted on our ability to work on a whole series of issues in a whole series of countries and strategic locations, and they were an error, as we have debated many times in this place.
As has been mentioned, the history of the Somaliland community and our friendship links goes back well beyond all of us in this Chamber. In fact, in Cardiff they go back to the middle 1800s. Cardiff was one of the largest coal ports in the world, exporting to the world and setting the price of coal, and friendship links, particularly with the horn of Africa, the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere, were absolutely crucial. That is one reason why there is such a strong Somaliland community in Cardiff, as well as a strong Yemeni community and many other communities from around the world, which made up the incredible part of the community I live in—Butetown or Tiger Bay.
At the heart of that has been the incredible contribution from Somalilanders, which continues to this day. They take great interest in what happens not only in Somaliland but, crucially, at home in Cardiff, and they are key in many of our community organisations and institutions. It has been a pleasure to hear from many of them in advance of this debate—I do not want to name names, because I will upset people by missing them out, but all those who contact me regularly know who they are, and they continue to stand up for the interests of Somaliland and Somalilanders.
Somalilanders have a proud history in Cardiff, which also stretches to military history, with those involved in the Somaliland Camel Corps and the Somaliland Scouts. Those Somalilanders, along with many people from across the Commonwealth—from across the former empire and dominions—fought alongside us in world war one, world war two and many other conflicts. That is often overlooked, but we in Cardiff recognise those contributions regularly. We also recognise the contribution made by those who served in our merchant navy. Every year when we celebrate merchant navy memorials in Cardiff bay and elsewhere and look at the lists of names, we see Somali names and names of people from countries all around the Commonwealth that we have friendships with.
I well remember Somali soldiers coming across from the horn of Africa to the Aden protectorate and my father having the honour to command really good soldiers and decent men.
Absolutely. The hon. and gallant Gentleman makes an important point. We as a country need to recognise far more that our friends from across the Commonwealth have made contributions, and in some cases the ultimate sacrifice, in conflicts throughout many generations.
I want make a few practical points. First, we should recognise the strong links between so many cities across the UK and Somaliland. There are many British-Somaliland dual nationals, yet they experience many difficulties with travel, visas, restrictions—all sorts of things go on. We must ensure that support is available to them. That is difficult given the current situation in Somaliland, and we heard from many members of the British-Somaliland community on our visit about issues that arose if they lost a passport or wanted documentation authorised. They asked why the British Council did not have a bigger presence there.
I met young people who want to come and study here in the UK and build links between UK universities and educational institutions in Somaliland. They are often denied those opportunities. We could be doing so much more at a practical level to support those with dual nationality and dual heritage.
I support my hon. Friend’s point about the need for the British Council to be located in Hargeisa. Does he agree that the Government may need to think about the funding to enable that to happen and to develop relationships with Somaliland?
Absolutely. The British Council plays a key role around the world. The cuts to it have been deeply concerning and have been raised by hon. Members from all parties in the House. The issue was specifically raised when we were there, and I hope our links in that area can develop.
Huge progress has been made in health and development in particular. I have had the pleasure, as many across the House have, of meeting the remarkable former first lady and Foreign Minister Edna Adan on many occasions. If hon. Members have not listened to her “Desert Island Discs” and other fantastic interviews with her, I would strongly encourage them to do so. She is one of the most remarkable women I have had the pleasure of meeting, and I had the pleasure of visiting the hospital that Edna helped to resource and establish. She provided significant funding out of her own pocket. It is a maternity hospital; a training hospital to improve maternal health outcomes in Somaliland. Remarkable work is being done there, but so much more could be done if we were to develop our friendships further and ensure that the support was there for that.
We have seen remarkable progress in education. I visited Hargeisa University, a remarkable place doing brilliant work, where the majority of students are women and girls. That is exactly the sort of example that we want to set around the world, ensuring that young women and girls are able to thrive and seize all the opportunities that should be available for them, whether in Somaliland or elsewhere on the global stage.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful contribution to an extremely good debate. Does he agree that Somaliland stands as a beacon of hope and shows what can be achieved where there is democracy, and that that is part of the reason why the UK Government should officially recognise it for the work that it does and the leadership it can offer within Africa?
The leadership and the example that Somaliland has shown is there for all to see, and it is certainly there for those who have had the pleasure of visiting, as I have. Its progress in so many areas has been long overlooked. Progress has been made in trade and we met many businesses that wanted to expand their trading relationships with the UK and with their neighbours. Indeed, that is one of the crucial driving factors behind the investment in Berbera port by DP World, the UK and others. It is critical, not least when other trading routes may be more difficult and may be in the interests of strategic—I do not want to say “opponents”—challenger countries in the world that may have a different agenda. It is crucial that we are getting in there and supporting the development of trade links.
The politics has already been mentioned. Significant progress has been made in elections and democracy. Multiple elections have been held at both presidential and parliamentary level. I have met representatives of all the parties and civil society. Not everything is perfect, but significant progress has been made over recent years, and the UK has played a key role in supporting the practicality of elections and ensuring that they are free and fair. Election observation missions have often had strong UK support and included UK contingents.
Hon. Members have mentioned the security situation. I would love to see the day when a more reasonable approach is taken to travel advice about Somaliland. There have been recent improvements, but unfortunately some of the advice that is given at the moment puts people off travelling and building those links. I urge the FCDO to look again at the travel advice to Somaliland and see whether it can be more open, because in reality it is a very safe place to engage in business, education and travel. We do not want to see potential friendships and links pushed away.
Several hon. Members, particularly the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire, rightly raised the strategic location of Somaliland. There is very serious concern about the activities of opponents—Russia, China or others—operating in the region. We have a strong friendship; Somaliland wants a strong friendship with the UK. It is a key strategic location, and we would be very foolish not to recognise that in our global Britain strategy and our wider strategic posture around the world, not least in relation to a place that wants a close friendship with us.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Gavin Williamson on securing the debate. Stephen Doughty raised the specific issue of strategic placement. Does he agree that if we use our Commonwealth connections across Africa, we can highlight not just Somaliland’s strategic importance for military and diplomatic links, but its strategic place within the future development of the Commonwealth?
That point has been raised with me on a number of occasions by the Somaliland Government and members of the Somaliland community. Although at the moment Somaliland cannot attend the Commonwealth summit as a full member, our all-party group has raised the question whether observer status or attendance in another capacity might be possible even now.
Building links through the Commonwealth and other international organisations will certainly be critical. As I mentioned, it was a delight to have the support of the Inter-Parliamentary Union for our APPG links, because there is a huge opportunity for mutual training, exchange and links between our Parliaments. There is a real desire for that on both sides; again, the Commonwealth could be key.
I end by re-emphasising the huge contribution that Somalilanders have made to Cardiff and to the UK, and the huge benefits of that mutual relationship of friendship and respect. It is a relationship that has not had enough attention; it needs far more, both from our Government and in this place. I am delighted by the voices that we have heard speaking up today in friendship, support and solidarity with Somaliland: they send a very strong message to the Government. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is an absolute pleasure to contribute to this debate. I often make contributions to Adjournment debates, but they are usually interventions, so perhaps tonight I will get the chance to say a wee bit more.
I congratulate Gavin Williamson on securing the debate. He said many things that I totally agree with. He mentioned the words “union of equals”; I hope that that will take place. There has been much talk of Somaliland citizens having the support of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland through and alongside their participation in wartime activities. That is very important—that strong relationship is clearly there. I hope that our Minister will reply very positively.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which the right hon. Gentleman and others referred to, I wish to draw the House’s attention to something that concerns me: the situation of Christians in Somaliland. It is heartbreaking that so few Christians remain in Somaliland because most have been driven out by extreme persecution or even killed. It is estimated that only a few hundred Christians live there today, but it is impossible to know the exact number because of the secrecy that they are forced into as a result of the divisive clan mentalities and vigilantism that pervade the country.
Christians suffer ostracism and discrimination from their wider families and communities wherever they are discovered. The few Christians remaining in Somaliland are forced to worship in secret for fear of attacks from extremists. The extremist group al-Shabaab, which the right hon. Gentleman referred to, propagates anti-Christian ideology and threatens converts to Christianity with execution on discovery.
Many women in Somaliland are under threat. The situation is even worse for those who are discovered to be Christians—fearing rape, forced marriage or being stoned to death. I hope that tonight’s debate will illustrate and raise awareness of those things, and perhaps they can be addressed through the requests that we are making.
Our Government have made it central, in the Ministers who have been appointed, that in foreign policy we have a particular focus on religious persecution, the persecution of ethnic minorities and human rights issues. Those are key to my approach. I make a plea to the Minister for improvements in those things to be central to any steps forward that we all wish to see.
I do not have anyone in my constituency from Somaliland, as far as I am aware, but that does not lessen my support for what the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire said. Those who have Somalilanders in their constituencies, such as Stephen Doughty, who has a strong community, know that political factors are at play in the conflict. The religious motivation for attacks in the region cannot and should not be denied, with Christians suffering the worst of the persecution.
All the contributions tonight have clearly shown that we wish to help Somaliland economically, but central to any agreement must be human rights guarantees and religious freedom. We must help if we can. Others have referred to the democratic process and the education opportunities that we can build on, with jobs, a strong legal structure and improvements to health through covid vaccines, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.
There has been much talk of the history that unites us, but it is important—I love history: it is probably one of the few subjects that I enjoyed at school and did fairly well at—that we also look to the future. The UK Government have stated that they will not formally recognise Somaliland as a sovereign state until it initiates a process to do so with the Federal Government of Somalia, but human rights issues and religious liberty need to improve. I agree that it is important that the UK retains diplomatic relations and a supportive presence in Hargeisa through this process, to ensure that there is no breakdown in relations between Somaliland and other African countries.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter to the House. This debate has benefited from the presence of a large number of Members who all want the best for Somaliland. I believe the Minister wants the best for Somaliland and its people too, and that is what we are trying to achieve. Somaliland needs our help, and perhaps the debate tonight will be our opportunity. Let us not be found wanting. The time has arrived and the contributions from everyone tonight are an indication of our request to the Minister and the Government to do well for Somaliland.
I did not intend to speak tonight, but I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words. I congratulate Gavin Williamson on securing the debate today.
When I was first elected in 2005, I was only selected as the candidate for my constituency about 10 weeks before polling day. During that short election campaign, I was approached by people from the Bristol Somaliland community. It was the first that I had even heard of the place, but by the time I came here I was a firm supporter of the need for recognition.
My hon. Friend Stephen Doughty paid tribute to his predecessor, Alun Michael, and news of my support had somehow reached Alun on the grapevine. I remember him accosting me in the Division Lobby on my first vote and saying that we needed to campaign on Somaliland. He was on the Front Bench at the time, but a year later in 2006 we set up the all-party group, and I am pleased to have been an officer pretty much ever since. I congratulate my hon. Friend on being the mainstay of that group, organising all our meetings and being an expert source of information on what is going on in Somaliland.
As has already been said, Somaliland is a beacon of democracy not just in the horn of Africa but in Africa. It has held peaceful elections, and the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire referred to the election in 2003 when the presidency changed hands by 80 votes. If Donald Trump had lost by that amount, we would never have heard the end of it.
What was slightly disappointing about the most recent election is that, although there was yet another peaceful handover, quite a lot of progress still needs to be made on female representation. There was one woman MP, but now there are zero, out of 82 elected MPs. There was also low turnout in some areas. Through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy or other mechanisms, I hope we can do a bit more work on that front.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth in paying tribute to Edna. I, too, have visited the hospital in Hargeisa and she is a formidable woman. Indeed, I have met many formidable women campaigning on issues such as FGM, maternal health services and recognition for Somaliland.
I echo what my hon. Friend said about the economic opportunities that would be available if we recognised Somaliland. I have heard there is amazing scuba diving on the north coast by Berbera, which could be opened up as a peaceful tourist destination if it were not associated with Somalia. Many other economic avenues could be explored, and I share the concerns of people who are worried about Chinese influence if we do not step in.
The main thing I want to say is that Somaliland is clearly an independent country, and it has functioned as such since 1991. It established itself as a post-colonial independent country, albeit for a very short time, before it went into partnership with Somalia. The message that the UK will recognise Somaliland but we want to be the second to do so is frustrating. There is sometimes a bit of concern about being seen as too colonialist and it being rather patronising that we are the ones who grant nationhood on the country.
Mark Malloch-Brown was a very good Minister for Africa in Gordon Brown’s Government, and he really engaged with the APPG on Somaliland. I thought we were getting somewhere. He had had conversations with various African countries and the African Union, and it looked like we were almost there on recognition. The last we heard was the current Minister for Africa, Vicky Ford, say in November 2021:
“Our policy remains that it is for Somaliland and the Federal Government of Somalia to decide their future”.
It has nothing to do with the Federal Government of Somalia.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. That is effectively giving the final say, the decision-making power, to a country that does not have free and fair elections, that does not have judicial and legal systems and that does not educate boys and girls. We are effectively rewarding poor behaviour and being harsher on those who demonstrate the type of behaviour and the type of system we want to encourage.
That is exactly my point. The future of Somaliland has nothing to do with the Federal Government of Somalia, and it should not be in their hands. We need to be brave and step up to the plate. The Minister needs to find a country that will go first so that we can go second—I think some of the Scandinavian countries, Canada and some African countries have talked about it. If we do not do that, we will find ourselves here in another 10 years’ time as Somaliland celebrates its 40th anniversary of de facto independence without being recognised.
I finish with a plea to the Minister. Will he step up? If we will not be the first, could he find someone who will be?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend Gavin Williamson for securing the debate, and I have learned of his long-standing and enthusiastic engagement with Somaliland. I am afraid that, probably like so often in the past, I might well disappoint him a tiny bit today, but I will try to answer many of the points he made.
I am also grateful for a debate that has been a pleasure to listen to, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions—the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty); my right hon. Friends the Members for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell); my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland; the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat; the hon. Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner); my hon. Friend Stuart Anderson; John Spellar; my right hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart); the hon. Members for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Newport West (Ruth Jones); my hon. Friend James Daly; Lilian Greenwood; my hon. Friend Mr Holden; and the other Members who made speeches. They all demonstrated the depth of passion that there is for Somaliland, and many described how their constituents from Somaliland are so active in such a positive way in their constituencies, which I think is a testament and a tribute to them for making such a positive contribution.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire detailed Somaliland’s proud links and friendship with the UK, and I would like to think that what he detailed is absolutely correct. The Minister for Africa—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend Vicky Ford—would have been delighted to take part in the debate, but she is currently visiting east Africa, so it is my pleasure, as Minister for Europe and in post for less than a month, to respond on behalf of the Government.
Somaliland has a remarkable and unique story, and its people are rightly proud of their homeland and its achievements. Our relationship with Somaliland dates back to at least the 19th century, when a number of seafarers and merchants settled in Britain, and later the UK established a protectorate. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned not just the contributions of people from Somaliland to the city that he represents and to the United Kingdom, but the deep links and communities they have formed across Cardiff and beyond. Quite rightly, indeed, he mentioned his predecessor and his role in establishing the all-party group in this place, as well as the interest that has grown from it.
Today, we enjoy a really close partnership with Somaliland. We are the only western country with a permanent office in Hargeisa, through which we engage with the Somaliland Government on a range of issues—from trade and investment to climate change and development. The Somaliland authorities also have an office in London, and we have regular contact with their UK representative and his team.
The Government understand the strength of feeling towards Somaliland and the interest, which has obviously been demonstrated in this Chamber today, about the issue of recognition. In recent years, Somaliland has made great strides towards an inclusive democratic process, and that forms the bedrock of its stability. That was detailed in some ways by Kerry McCarthy and a number of other hon. Members. Last May, we saw successful local and parliamentary elections, and I am glad to say that the UK was the largest donor to that process, including in funding a mission to observe the elections.
I would be delighted to tell the House, but not at this point in time, because I am going to continue my contribution—
If my right hon. Friend wants me to come to that point, I shall happily do so, but possibly later in my speech.
It is now important to ensure that the presidential elections and reforms to the Upper House of Parliament go ahead as planned. In a region where democratic transitions are not always the case, Somaliland, as detailed by many right hon. and hon. Members, has demonstrated that one person, one vote elections are possible and that inclusive democratic processes can be achieved. I heard the salient and wise speech on religious freedom from Jim Shannon, and I thank him for that contribution.
Somaliland is also making great progress in trade and investment. The development of Berbera is the most notable example. By 2035, trade through there could support more than 50,000 jobs in Somaliland. We have also forged a partnership with Dubai Ports World to invest in logistics facilities along the Berbera corridor, which runs from the coast of Ethiopia. These investments have the potential to drive economic growth and boost stability across the Horn of Africa. Again, those are hugely positive developments, and again, we are proud to play our part. British International Investment, the UK’s development finance body, is investing in the port with Dubai Ports World as part of a $1.72 billion investment into freeports in Africa. We are using official development assistance to construct a new road bypassing Hargeisa that means that journeys past the city will take, we hope, just 30 minutes instead of up to 12 hours because of congestion. Those investments will not only boost prosperity but bring greater regional integration, which will support peace and stability.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about the fact that the UK Government have felt able to invest in the port of Berbera and in the infrastructure of Somaliland. Does he think that such a level of investment would have been able to be done in Somalia? I think the answer would be no because of the security implications. Will he lay out what, in his view, are the defining characteristics of a nation state, and then comment on whether he thinks Somaliland corresponds to any of those defining characteristics?
I was about to come to the point about security, because we have also collaborated on security. The UK has supported training on human rights for Somaliland’s police and security services, and has contributed to 20 years of work on mine clearance. Happily, we expect Somaliland to be declared mine-free in the near future.
In the spirit of debate, which is of course what this Chamber is for, is my hon. Friend able to respond to either of my questions as to whether he thinks it likely that the British Government would have been able to make the same investment in Somalia that they have done in Somaliland, and whether he could set out what he believes are the defining characteristics of a nation state, both of which I think he should be able to respond to as a Minister?
As my right hon. Friend asked me a question that he then answered in the same question, I will continue with my speech.
Somaliland has also made strong progress in development, which we have been proud to support. Education, particularly for girls, is a priority, as it is across all our work. Our Somali girls education programme has reached over 13,000 girls in Somaliland to support their learning and transition from primary to secondary school, a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North noted well. Through the Global Partnership for Education, the United Kingdom has supported the development of Somaliland’s College of Education and trained nearly 2,200 teachers.
Sadly, climate change is having an increasing impact on Somaliland and the wider region. We are very concerned about the current drought, which has resulted in acute water shortages and reduced food security, particularly for 80,000 people living in rural areas. Early action is essential and the UK is developing a package of measures to address the drought. We are also working with international partners to ensure that additional funding is made available as soon as possible.
The strength of the partnership between the United Kingdom and Somaliland is clear, but I know that sovereignty remains at the top of the agenda for many people from Somaliland, so I want to address that question. I acknowledged earlier the strength of feeling on the issue, which is of real importance to people in the region and in diaspora communities around the world. There is a range of views on the subject and strong convictions exist on all sides of the debate. In part, that reflects the complex and at times painful history that followed the brief independence, in June 1960, of what had been British Somaliland.
The United Kingdom Government’s position on this matter has been consistent, and it will not come as a surprise to my right hon. Friend, as it is exactly the same as it was when he was in government. We value the close and productive relationship with Somaliland, but in line with the rest of the international community, we do not recognise it as an independent state. We firmly believe it is for Somaliland and the Federal Government of Somalia to decide their future. It is for neighbours in the region to take the lead in recognising any new arrangements.
I want to draw a parallel to the country I was born in—Bangladesh. The UK Government took a leadership role and supported the right to self-determination of the country in which I was born during the war of independence between Pakistan and Bangladesh. It did not say that Pakistan should determine the future of the independence of what became Bangladesh. Does he not see how ridiculous the position he is taking is?
No, I do not. I believe it is completely correct for neighbours in the region to take a lead in recognising any new arrangements.
If we take the position that the Minister is espousing at the Dispatch Box, which is that he wants there to be discussions between Somaliland and the Federal Republic of Somalia, that is something that people have engaged with extensively for many years. Does he also recognise that there cannot be a situation where the Federal Republic of Somalia can have a veto over independence? Britain has a role in convening and leading the discussions, especially as the UN penholder on Somaliland and Somalia.
My right hon. Friend makes a proper point, as he always does, but the UK Government’s position on the matter has been consistent. It was consistent at the time that he was in government and it remains the same. We have long encouraged dialogue between the authorities in Mogadishu and Hargeisa on the future relationship, and we continue to do so.
A nation state, according to me, is a grouping of people who all speak roughly the same language and have similar heritage. They become a nation state when people recognise them. I do not think it is fair that Somaliland becomes a nation state only if the people around it, who are traditionally against it, agree to that. We could take the lead, and I plead with my hon. Friend—a very good friend—to put it back to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office that we should be changing our attitude on that.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his point and the constructive manner in which he put it. My colleagues in the FCDO will doubtless be watching the debate, and will have seen the positive and supportive nature of it.
As Minister for Europe, I am afraid I cannot give my right hon. Friend that information, but I will happily write to him.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. On a practical point and in the light of the interventions that have been made, the Minister is well aware that there is currently huge political instability in the Federal Republic of Somalia, including huge chaos and infighting among the Government, along with many other problems. With whom should the Somaliland Government be having discussions? That is a practical question that they have raised with me, given the chaos we have seen in Mogadishu in recent months.
The answer is with their neighbours, the African Union and those who are properly interested. Indeed, there is a representative body in this country with which we engage. Those conversations should obviously continue through the appropriate routes. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, I am a politician and I understand that that position obviously cannot please all parties. I recognise that the supporters of Somaliland independence will quite rightly continue to make their case.
Let me conclude by assuring the House that although we believe that it is for Somaliland and the Federal Government—
Motion lapsed (
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Solloway.)
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire and I will remember our happy days in the Whips Office—interesting House procedures do step in every now and then.
Let me draw my remarks to a conclusion by assuring the House that although we believe it is for Somaliland and the Federal Government of Somalia to decide their future, we remain committed to a close and productive partnership. We will continue to support the Hargeisa authorities and the people of Somaliland on their democratic journey. We will do that by investing in Somaliland, in pursuit of trade and prosperity, by building security for all Somalilanders and by supporting development and resilience to the impact of climate change.
I again thank all Members for their contributions to this excellent debate, which I have truly enjoyed. I look forward to having similar debates in the near future.
Question put and agreed to.