Once upon a time there were three Somalilands, French, British and Italian, carved out of the Horn of Africa by Europeans in a region that had known only rule by contentious Somali clans and sub-clans for a thousand years.  The time before that is a historical blank.

Until the Europeans arrived at the end of the 19th century, Somali contact with the rest of the world was mostly through traders from the Muslim world across the Gulf of Aden and merchants to and from the interior of East Africa.  The Somali clans had adopted Islam around the 9th century, regularly fought each other for water and pasture and periodically battled with Ethiopia about where the border should be.

Fate has recently put the three Somalilands into the headlines.  They got there along very different paths to very different situations.  The least understood of them is a place once again called Somaliland.

After the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Britain and others needed an Arabian port to refuel ships on the Asia route, and to supply fresh food.  Aden, just across from the Horn of Africa was that port.  Aden’s source of fresh meat was the Horn.  Overcoming stubborn local resistance, Britain established a small colony, British Somaliland, on the northern coast, but was content to let colony-deprived Italy take the bigger Somali territory to the south to keep it out of French hands.  France eventually developed its own tiny Somaliland colony and port at Djibouti, on its other side.

Fifty years ago last week (June 26, 1960), British  Somaliland became independent.  It had already decided to unite with Italian Somaliland, which became independent 5 days later.  The result was Somalia, the first time that the Somalis ever had something other than clan rule other than a few Arabia-oriented local emirates that came and went over the centuries. (French Somaliland was both tiny and had a notable non-Somalia Afar minority.)

The British colony was dominated by the Isaaq clan, while the rest of Somalia had other clan loyalties.  Many northerners had opposed the union with the south, and other divisions also emerged in independent Somalia, leading to a civil war  in the 1980s.  When the dust settled, the government of Somalia was gone (1991) and replaced by….nothing.  Nineteen years later there is a nominal government in Mogadishu that even with outside help can claim only a small part of the city and nothing more.  In the rest of Somalia, local and factional rule prevail.

Except in the former British Somaliland, which declared its independence in 1991, reclaimed its former colonial borders and set up a government which has proven remarkably enduring.  Combining traditional institutions with a parliamentary system, it has created a political space where life is relatively normal despite the violence next door, some of which crosses the border from time to time.

However…a big however…not a single country has officially recognized the government of Somaliland.  It has no diplomatic relations, though some governments and international agencies have an informal presence.  It has a written constitution, and when the president died in office in 2002 (of natural causes), he was duly replaced by the vice president. The peaceful transition was widely noted, but deserved international recognition did not follow.

A few days ago an even more unusual event took place.  Several peaceful elections had already taken place in Somaliland, with the party in power remaining in power. This time, on July 1, the opposition was declared the winner. The defeated president publicly accepted his defeat.  A peaceful transfer of power to the political opposition is an achievement that many countries, not just ex-colonies in Africa, have yet managed.

No other country in the Horn of Africa has come close.  For example, in May Ethiopia’s ruling party got 99.6% of the votes. Eritrea has never even had an election at all.  Djibouti has a handcuffed and irrelevant opposition.

Somaliland is hardly without serious problems.  Several eastern districts are claimed by Puntland (on the tip of the Horn), which is autonomous but is nominally still part of Somalia.  Other problems also exist.  But compared with the widespread authoritarianism in much of Africa, to say nothing of the anarchy next door, Somaliland is a major success that deserves support and encouragement. To begin, it deserves recognition.

Altering borders in post-colonial Africa has been considered taboo because once that door is opened, it has long been feared, scores of separatists would rush through.  As a continent, Africa decided in 1964 to reject any and all border adjustment claims and accept colonial boundaries as fixed to avoid the nightmare that would follow.

This principle  has been followed, though not absolutely.  The formal separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993 tampered with it. With international approval,  South Sudan will vote next January on whether to secede from Sudan.

But Somaliland, despite impressive success in creating a functioning state, is given little support.

Is it that no one wants to be the first to recognize Somaliland?  Would others follow if someone led?  There are occasional rumors that Israel wants diplomatic relations, but much as Somaliland wants a breakthrough, Israel is obviously the wrong candidate.

Both the nearly fictional Transitional Federal Government propped up by African Union troops and foreign money, and the various groups that flourish in the rest of the former Italian Somaliland, reject Somaliland’s demand for independence.

It is cruel and irrational for the world to insist that Somaliland be prevented from correcting a tragic mistake made in 1960.  It claims, quite reasonably, that independence does not violate the principle of respect for pre-independence borders.

It’s time for the world to do the right thing and recognize Somaliland’s deserved independence.