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Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership
Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iran’s ‘New’ Partnership With China Is Just Business as Usual
Iran’s ‘New’ Partnership With China Is Just Business as Usual
Report 110 / Africa

Somaliland: Time for African Union Leadership

On 18 May 2006, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland marked fifteen years since it proclaimed independence from Somalia. Although its sovereignty is still unrecognised by any country, the fact that it is a functioning constitutional democracy distinguishes it from the majority of entities with secessionist claims, and a small but growing number of governments in Africa and the West have shown sympathy for its cause.

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Executive Summary

On 18 May 2006, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland marked fifteen years since it proclaimed independence from Somalia. Although its sovereignty is still unrecognised by any country, the fact that it is a functioning constitutional democracy distinguishes it from the majority of entities with secessionist claims, and a small but growing number of governments in Africa and the West have shown sympathy for its cause. The territory’s peace and stability stands in stark contrast to much of southern Somalia, especially the anarchic capital, Mogadishu, where clashes between rival militias have recently claimed scores of lives. But Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which is still struggling to overcome internal divisions and establish its authority in southern Somalia, also claims sovereignty over the territory, and the issue is becoming an increasing source of tension. The African Union (AU) needs to engage in preventive diplomacy now, laying the groundwork for resolution of the dispute before it becomes a confrontation from which either side views violence as the only exit.

In December 2005 President Dahir Rayale Kahin submitted Somaliland’s application for membership in the AU. The claim to statehood hinges on the territory’s separate status during the colonial era from the rest of what became Somalia and its existence as a sovereign state for a brief period following independence from Great Britain in June 1960. Having voluntarily entered a union with Somalia in pursuit of the irredentist dream of Greater Somalia (including parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti), it now seeks recognition within the borders received at that moment of independence. Despite fears that recognition would lead to the fragmentation of Somalia or other AU member states, an AU fact-finding mission in 2005 concluded the situation was sufficiently “unique and self-justified in African political history” that “the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a pandora’s box’”. It recommended that the AU “should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case” at the earliest possible date. On 16 May 2006, Rayale met with the AU Commission Chairperson, Alpha Oumar Konare, to discuss Somaliland’s application for membership.

Somaliland has made notable progress in building peace, security and constitutional democracy within its de facto borders. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people have returned home, tens of thousands of landmines have been removed and destroyed, and clan militias have been integrated into unified police and military forces.  A multi-party political system and successive competitive elections have established Somaliland as a rarity in the Horn of Africa and the Muslim world. However, the TFG continues strongly to oppose Somaliland independence.

Peacemakers have so far opted to tackle the issues sequentially: first trying to establish a government for Somalia and only then addressing the Somaliland question. European diplomats warn Crisis Group that even raising the Somaliland issue at this time could destabilise the peace process in the South. This approach risks both sides becoming more entrenched and the dispute over Somali unity more intractable. If the TFG’s authority expands, the dispute over Somaliland’s status is likely to become an ever-increasing source of friction, involving serious danger of violent conflict. Somaliland has reacted angrily to the TFG’s calls for the UN arms embargo on Somalia to be lifted so it could arm itself and has threatened to increase its own military strength if this happens. The prospect of a return to the major violence of the late 1980s is neither imminent nor inevitable but it is genuine enough to merit urgent AU attention. 

For both sides, the issue of recognition is not merely political or legal – it is existential. Most southern Somalis are viscerally attached to the notion of a united Somali Republic, while many Somalilanders – scarred by the experience of civil war, flight and exile – refer to unity only in the past tense. For a generation of Somaliland’s youth, which has no memories of the united Somalia to which young Southerners attach such importance, Somaliland’s sovereignty is a matter of identity. 

Resolving Somaliland’s status is by no means a straightforward proposition. A vocal minority of Somalilanders, including some communities along the troubled border with neighbouring Puntland (North East Somalia) and a violent network of jihadi Islamists favour unity. Some observers fear that, in the absence of a negotiated separation, the relationship between the two neighbours could potentially become as ill-defined and volatile as that which prevailed between Ethiopia and Eritrea prior to their 1998-2000 border war.

There are four central and practical questions:

  • should Somaliland be rewarded for creating stability and democratic governance out of a part of the chaos that is the failed state of Somalia?;
     
  • would rewarding Somaliland with either independence or significant autonomy adversely impact the prospects for peace in Somalia or lead to territorial clashes?;
     
  • what are the prospects for peaceful preservation of a unified Somali Republic?; and
     
  • what would be the implications of recognition of Somaliland for separatist conflicts elsewhere on the continent?

These questions need to be addressed through firm leadership, open debate and dispassionate analysis of the issues and options – not ignored, ostrich-like, in the hope that they will disappear. “The AU cannot pretend that there is not such an issue”, a diplomat from the region told Crisis Group. “The issue cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely. It must be addressed”. Somaliland’s application to the AU offers an entry point for preventive diplomacy. The AU should respond to Somaliland’s request for recognition by seizing the opportunity to engage as a neutral third party, without prejudice to the final determination of Somaliland’s sovereign status.

Hargeysa/Addis Ababa/Brussels, 23 May 2006

Iran’s ‘New’ Partnership With China Is Just Business as Usual

Originally published in World Politics Review

The recently finalized 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement between Iran and China has been referred to in the media as a “game-changer,” a “breakthrough” and a “major geopolitical shift,” but in reality, it is much ado about nothing. Signed with great fanfare on March 27, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Tehran, the deal does provide Iran with a political and rhetorical win in the context of its ongoing negotiations over the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal. Beyond the optics of the agreement with China, though, the substance follows the same playbook that Beijing and Tehran have developed over decades of bilateral relations: agreeing to deepen ties but on vague terms that are scant on details and concrete commitments.

The deal itself has not been made public, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took pains to highlight that the agreement with China was not a treaty, removing the requirement for parliamentary approval. He also denied that it outlined any specific figures—despite reports of $400 billion in promised Chinese investments—or obligations for either side.

Leaders of the two countries first publicly discussed their growing partnership when Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Iran in 2016. During the visit, Xi and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, pledged to expand their bilateral ties and to boost two-way trade from $32 billion to $600 billion over the next 10 years—an ambitious goal. Xi agreed to increase Chinese investments in Iran’s energy, infrastructure and even nuclear sectors. The plan also covered greater defense and military cooperation, something Iran was starved for after a decade-long arms embargo. But notwithstanding these pledges, progress on building ties remained slow.

Reports of a formal 25-year strategic partnership to deepen relations between the two countries first emerged last July. A leaked 18-page draft document reportedly outlined a vast expansion of Chinese investments in various sectors in Iran, including telecoms, transport, infrastructure and banking, with Beijing receiving a guaranteed supply of discounted Iranian oil in return. The document also referred to the potential deployment of Chinese forces to Iran to protect their investments, as well as a Chinese lease of the strategically located Kish Island in the Persian Gulf. The leaked document caused an uproar inside and outside Iran. Some Iranians equated the draft agreement with the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, under which Tehran conceded several territories to Russia, and which has become a symbol of bitter defeat to Iranians.

Following Western efforts to isolate Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Beijing became an important player for Tehran.

2021 is a fitting year for a major deal between the two countries, as it marks the 50th anniversary of Iran-China diplomatic relations. Following Western efforts to isolate Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Beijing became an important player for Tehran. The Iranian leadership valued China for its ability to block coercive action through its veto power at the United Nations Security Council—though it never actually used it on Iran’s behalf—and its willingness to expand economic, political and military relations with Iran at a time when most other countries were not.

From the start, Sino-Iranian relations always had a few key premises: They would not come at the expense of the two countries’ relations with other major powers, the U.S. in particular; they would be transactional, based on mutual interests and necessities; they would be mutually convenient, with Chinese and Iranian leaders working together only when it suited them; and there would be no strings attached.

The relationship has had its ups and downs, though. China’s economic involvement in Iran increased as sanctions around it were tightened throughout the 2000s, making it an invaluable partner to Tehran. But many Iranians had reservations about Beijing. For example, they believed Chinese products to be of poor quality, and lamented that the Chinese dragged their feet when it came to implementing projects that they had pledged to support. In 2013, Iran expelled the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., or CNPC, from development work on the flagship South Pars natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, alleging the company had failed to carry out promised work.

From Tehran’s perspective, China also wasn’t always reliable when it came to standing up to the West’s sanctions on Iran: China supported every U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran that came up for a vote between 2006 and 2010, and reduced its imports of Iranian oil during Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. In 2019, CNPC, which had earlier returned to work on the South Pars project under a new contract, pulled out of the project, likely to avoid U.S. sanctions.

Today, the relationship between the two countries is on the same trajectory. It is fundamentally transactional and growing, but slowly, and with some hiccups along the way.

From [Iran's] perspective, the past five years proved that the U.S. and Europe couldn’t be counted on

China, like Iran, has been careful not to put all its eggs in one basket. After all, it can’t afford to risk its ties with the oil-rich Gulf Arab states that are key to its energy and economic growth needs. Iranian officials may not like this, but they have also made peace with the idea that they must work with the Chinese. From their perspective, the past five years proved that the U.S. and Europe couldn’t be counted on, not even to deliver on their obligations in a deal they agreed to. This led Tehran to build what it refers to as its “resistance economy,” and to “look East,” a view now shared by both conservative politicians and more pro-Western Iranian officials.

Given its apparently vague terms, the deal is best seen as a roadmap for improving bilateral relations between the two countries, outlining areas for cooperation and exchanges in energy, infrastructure, cultural endeavors, and defense and counterterrorism, to name a few. Much of the promised deepening of economic ties will remain somewhat dependent on the lifting of U.S. unilateral sanctions, as China doesn’t want to openly flout them. Sino-Iranian relations can only reach their intended potential if the nuclear crisis between Iran and the U.S. is resolved.

All of this suggests that the deal is unlikely to have much of a concrete impact on the nature of Iran’s relationship with China. Despite Zarif’s insistence that that deal does not concede any territory, basing rights or exclusive access to Iranian territory to China, many Iranians remain suspicious of Beijing, with some protesting that the new cooperation pact will sell their country out. Many will also read the lack of concrete figures as signaling a relatively loose commitment. While discussing the agreement on the Clubhouse app, Zarif defended the deal against criticism, but also added, “I don’t believe in the [policy] of looking to the East or the West.” Rather, he said, Iran would have to engage all, based on its interests and goals.

It is a political win for Tehran, at a time when efforts to revitalize the 2015 nuclear deal by bringing Washington back into the fold are stuck in limbo.

But the new pact with China may nevertheless prove useful to Iranian leaders in demonstrating that isolating Iran is not so simple anymore. It is a political win for Tehran, at a time when efforts to revitalize the 2015 nuclear deal by bringing Washington back into the fold are stuck in limbo. The pact also signals to Washington and its allies that there will likely be limits on their ability to impose another “maximum pressure”-style campaign. After all, sanctions are most effective when they’re universal, not when a military and economic powerhouse such as China stands outside them. Perhaps for this reason, Tehran has also looked to deepen ties with Russia, announcing the signature of a military cooperation agreement on April 10.

Ultimately, Iran’s recent cooperation pact with China gives Tehran a political and rhetorical boost vis-à-vis the outside world, and the U.S. in particular. It formalizes the growth in Iran-China ties and could establish the groundwork for protection against future international isolation. But for now, the fundamentals remain the same: The two promise to work together, based on mutual interests and necessities in a compartmentalized manner and with no strings attached—the same way they’ve dealt with each other over the past 50 years.