Gavin Williamson – 2022 Speech on Somaliland

The speech made by Gavin Williamson, the Conservative MP for South Staffordshire, in the House of Commons on 18 January 2022.

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.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)

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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)

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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)

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.

Gavin Williamson

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.

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

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 the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)

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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)

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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

Kim Johnson (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab)

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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)

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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)

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.

Gavin Williamson

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.

Stuart Anderson (Wolverhampton South West) (Con)

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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)

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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)

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.

Gavin Williamson

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.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)

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.

Gavin Williamson

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.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab)

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 the Member for Sheffield South East (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 the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)

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?

Gavin Williamson

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.

James Daly (Bury North) (Con)

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.

Gavin Williamson

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.

Mr Mitchell

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.

Gavin Williamson

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.