Somalia-Somaliland: A Halting Embrace of Dialogue
Somalia-Somaliland: A Halting Embrace of Dialogue
A soldier of Somalia's breakaway territory of Somaliland stands guard during an Independence day celebration parade in the capital, Hargeisa on 18 May 2016. MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB / AFP
Commentary / Africa 11 minutes

Somalia-Somaliland: A Halting Embrace of Dialogue

Ethiopia, the U.S. and the EU have brokered surprise talks between the Somalia and Somaliland administrations, which are historically opposed, though progress has stalled while both sides prepare for elections. The parties should cooperate on technical issues, pending a shot at deeper dialogue.

Somalia and Somaliland, which have been locked in a decades-long standoff over Somaliland’s 1991 claim of independence and Mogadishu’s rejection of it, are talking again. Previous efforts at dialogue have repeatedly failed, with both sides fundamentally at odds over Somaliland’s claim to sovereignty. This impasse, in turn, has bled into disputes over territory, the management of resources and security cooperation. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has worked to cajole Somalia’s President Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” and Somaliland President Muse Bihi to come back to the table, as have U.S. and EU officials. In a surprise move, the two leaders convened in the Djiboutian capital on 14 June. While the talks produced no meaningful progress on sovereignty questions, the resumption of dialogue provides a basis to improve cooperation on a number of important technical matters relating to international aid, airspace management and security cooperation. The parties should pursue further work in these areas, recognising that the time to tackle the big issues that divide them will likely not come until after both have held forthcoming elections.

From Deadlock to Dialogue

Relations between Somalia and Somaliland are both influenced by and of significant concern to a wide range of outside parties. Competing Gulf actors have tightened their ties to both sides, increasing tensions, while governments from Addis Ababa to Washington see the bad blood between Mogadishu and Hargeisa as a threat to their interests and to regional stability. Among other things, fraught relations contribute to active militarisation of border areas, imperil regional cooperation in combating Al-Shabaab and complicate collaborative arrangements to address security around the Red Sea.

Against this backdrop, outsiders have played a central role in getting the parties back to talks after a five-year hiatus. It has taken some coaxing. Abiy hosted Farmajo and Bihi for a face-to-face meeting in Addis in February 2020, but Somaliland resisted a proposed follow-up meeting among the three in Hargeisa. Officials from the Somaliland side noted to Crisis Group that they viewed the proposal as precipitous – especially given concerns that Farmajo might use the visit to make claims about Mogadishu’s sovereignty over Somaliland, which would have been negatively received by the public. Hargeisa also read Abiy’s proposal as a sign that he was not attuned to their sensitivities. In mid-June, however, Somaliland’s president agreed to sit down with his counterpart in Djibouti. One Somaliland diplomat who spoke to Crisis Group suggested that it was not just Abiy’s pressure that did the trick. Hargeisa agreed to take part after a sustained push from the U.S., which together with the EU was also trying to facilitate a return to the table.

The talks are a welcome development. Tensions have been building between Mogadishu and Hargeisa, and delaying a return to the table had the potential to make matters worse. Mogadishu’s relationship with Somaliland, frosty ever since the latter broke away from Somalia in 1991, has suffered in recent years as the federal government sought to curtail Somaliland’s relations with international actors on a number of fronts. In 2018, Mogadishu rejected the continuation of a special arrangement that permitted international assistance to flow directly to Somaliland instead of via the federal government, and in 2019 Somalia assumed airspace control from the International Civil Aviation Organization, which as a specialised UN agency had previously managed the airspace of both Somalia and Somaliland. This move reversed a previously negotiated plan that would have established a joint regulatory body in Somaliland’s capital, with Hargeisa and Mogadishu sharing the revenues accruing from overflights.

At the same time, there have also been positive developments that may have helped set the stage for the Djibouti meeting. In early 2020, Somalia made significant progress on international debt relief, to the point where in March it cleared its arrears to the World Bank, allowing it access to concessional financing. Insofar as Mogadishu will now have the capacity to seek direct assistance from international financial institutions that can benefit Hargeisa, the latter has a major incentive to improve bilateral working relations to secure its portion. For Mogadishu’s part, comments to Crisis Group from government officials and diplomats involved in the talks suggest a growing sense that in order for Somalia to make advances on key state-building priorities, such as finalising its still-unratified provisional constitution, it will need to participate in addressing Somaliland’s political status.

There are limits to what Farmajo and Bihi will be willing to put on the table, as both likely will be preoccupied by political developments at home.

There is an important wrinkle, in that the June talks came just as both sides face forthcoming polls. With Farmajo’s term ending in February 2021, Somalia is heading into what is expected to be an intense electoral cycle, with elections anticipated for the end of 2020. Pre-election power games have already contributed to parliament’s 25 July ouster of Prime Minister Ali Khayre, a potential rival to Farmajo. Somaliland is also overdue for parliamentary elections, now planned for 2020 as well. While they are likely to be less dramatic than the leadership contest in Mogadishu, these polls may present a tough challenge for Bihi’s ruling Kulmiye party, particularly given unresolved divisions stemming from its victory in the 2017 presidential race (the results of which were initially contested). The bottom line is that there are limits to what Farmajo and Bihi will be willing to put on the table, as both likely will be preoccupied by political developments at home and hesitant to expend political capital on compromises that could antagonise nationalist constituents.

The Djibouti Talks

The June talks in Djibouti were the first direct discussions the two sides have held since 2014. The last dialogue round before that, hosted by Turkey, broke down in 2015 after Somaliland became upset at the inclusion in Somalia’s negotiating team of individuals who trace their roots to Somaliland. (Hargeisa views such individuals as undermining its independence narrative by choosing to work for Somalia instead of their native Somaliland.) After the dialogue fell apart, the implementation of various technical agreements also stalled, with the Farmajo administration going back on deals reached by its predecessors as noted above. Neither Turkey’s continued outreach nor meetings arranged by private organisations were able to rekindle the dialogue; instead, Ethiopian, U.S. and EU involvement paved the way for resumed contact.

Significant hype preceded the June meeting, with diplomats telling Crisis Group of the possibility of a major breakthrough, including potentially a “grand bargain” that would address questions around Somaliland’s sovereignty. That aim, however, was unrealistic, and it was not surprising that the summit bypassed the core dispute of Somaliland’s political status and focused instead on improving working relations on technical issues as a prelude to building more political trust. The final ministerial communiqué on 22 June called for the creation of three sub-committees on humanitarian assistance and development aid, security, and co-management of Somaliland’s airspace, all aspects of the relationship that had previously been discussed between 2012 and 2014, but on which no lasting agreement had been hashed out.

In this manner, the Djibouti talks ultimately represent more revival than replacement of the previous Turkish-supported approach, albeit with a shift in external patrons. While Western diplomats expressed disappointment to Crisis Group at the lack of discussion aimed at deeper political reconciliation between the sidesthe outcomes leave ample room for continued, constructive engagement – although sustained outside pressure is likely going to be necessary to ensure that the talks maintain momentum.

The Facilitators

In recent years, outside governments and groups with an interest in reconciliation between Somalia and Somaliland have wrestled with the question of who might take the lead in trying to bring the sides back to the table. Tensions between Turkey, on one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the other, have meant that certain Gulf actors would likely contest Ankara’s leadership of the process. The African Union might have been a plausible choice to lead discussions, especially if backed by a “group of friends” that would include both sides’ key external partners, but Addis Ababa tends to pursue peacemaking initiatives in the Horn without a great deal of multilateral involvement. In the end, it was a combination of Ethiopian diplomacy and donor pressure from Washington and Brussels that moved the needle. In each case, there was a clear motivation.

For Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, there is both a political and policy logic to efforts to close the divide between Somalia and Somaliland. At the political level, Abiy is besieged at home by surging factionalism and violence. A visible diplomatic success would burnish his image. The role he played helping broker the recent talks is a reminder of the work he has done to forge peace agreements in the region – notably between Ethiopia and Eritrea – which helped earn him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

Ethiopia maintains strong interests in a smooth relationship with Somaliland.

At the policy level, Ethiopia also has specific geopolitical interests in an improved Somalia-Somaliland relationship. At different times it has gravitated to each of Hargeisa and Mogadishu. Although most recently, Addis Ababa has tended to embrace Mogadishu and give it explicit support, Ethiopia maintains strong interests in a smooth relationship with Somaliland. Its Berbera port, in which Ethiopia maintains a 19 per cent stake, could be a key outlet for landlocked Ethiopia in its quest for sea access. But it will be harder for Ethiopia to achieve this objective if Somaliland’s political status remains unresolved and hostility between Hargeisa and Mogadishu continues. Fostering reconciliation would help ensure that Ethiopia’s economic involvement in Berbera is in step with its overall deepening political relationship with Somalia. More broadly, ending the rift between Hargeisa and Mogadishu would serve Abiy’s goal of expanding economic integration in the Horn of Africa region.

As for the U.S., its ambassador to Somalia, Donald Yamamoto, a veteran diplomat in the Horn, has been a keen supporter of the talks and spearheaded his country’s involvement. U.S. interests revolve around the rising importance of Somaliland’s location near Bab al-Mandab, where the Red Sea empties into the Gulf of Aden, the likelihood that large oil deposits lie off Somalia’s coast, and mushrooming competition with China and Russia in the Horn and elsewhere.

Complementing Washington’s efforts, the European Union also pressed for talks, reflecting the EU’s longstanding interest in the security and stability of the key Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes.

For both Washington and Brussels, Somaliland’s unresolved status represents a loose end. To the extent that it is not tied up, it could allow other external actors to exploit uncertainty about the Somalia-Somaliland relationship to the detriment of a wide range of U.S. and EU interests, while complicating cooperative attempts at regional security.

Hurdles and Challenges

While the talks are a step in the right direction for Somalia-Somaliland relations, they face sizeable obstacles.

One relates to the distractions created by impending elections. Already, follow-up on the items to which the parties agreed in Djibouti has been delayed. The joint sub-committees on humanitarian assistance and development aid, security, and co-management of Somaliland’s airspace were due to meet two weeks from the talks’ conclusion – meaning at the beginning of July. This deadline has passed, and Mogadishu is asking for more time to prepare. The date for a ministerial meeting that the parties had agreed to hold in Djibouti 45 days after the June talks (so at the beginning of August) for purposes of reviewing progress has consequently also slipped. The delays demonstrate how election-related hurdles in Somalia – most immediately, the selection of a new prime minister and the next round of discussions over election modalities among major Somali election stakeholders in Dhusamareb, scheduled for mid-August – will impede progress.

Another challenge that Mogadishu will have to face is how to accommodate various domestic demands and expectations.

Another challenge that Mogadishu will have to face is how to accommodate various domestic demands and expectations. In particular, the Djibouti talks triggered tensions between Mogadishu and Puntland, a semi-autonomous federal region of Somalia that shares a border with Somaliland. Puntland’s leaders (whose relations with the Farmajo administration are already strained) feel that Mogadishu is giving short shrift to a long-running dispute over the Sool, Sanaag and Cayn areas at the border between the two regions, parts of which may be rich in untapped oil. A Puntland official also complained to Crisis Group that the delegation to Djibouti did not include a representative from either Puntland or the contested areas, unlike previous dialogues with Somaliland under Somali Presidents Sheikh Sharif and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Puntland’s president, Said Deni, vowed that his administration would not respect the outcome of any discussions in which it is not involved, and a group of traditional leaders from Sool, Sanaag and Cayn also issued a statement condemning the talks. If their concerns are not addressed in future rounds of talks, they could fester and emerge as major point of contention.

Still, the overarching challenge remains the divergence between Mogadishu’s views of the future and Hargeisa’s, especially when it comes to Somaliland’s sovereignty. Both leaders gave opening speeches in Djibouti that highlighted their starkly opposed positions. Bihi laid out the case for Somaliland’s independence and talked about the legacy of “state-sponsored genocide” perpetrated against the Somaliland people by the Siad Barre government in Somalia – referring to the former Somali dictator’s brutal campaign to repress Somaliland’s dominant Isaaq clan after they rebelled against Somalia in the late 1980s. Farmajo in turn referenced the historic Arta peace process in Djibouti in 2000, which paved the way for the re-establishment of central governance in Somalia, but in which Somaliland conspicuously did not participate – an intimation of Mogadishu’s desire to resurrect its union with Somaliland. More than just public posturing, the speeches reflected how the parties approached the talks, with Somaliland focusing on technical matters and opportunities for greater cooperation, and Somalia wanting to discuss knottier issues relating to unification.

What Happens Now?

Especially given the distractions of forthcoming electoral cycles, leaders in both Somaliland and Somalia will find it difficult to resolve their longstanding differences relating to Somaliland’s status in the short term. Some of these differences will continue to be prominently displayed. Indeed, Somaliland has appeared eager to take advantage of the attention created by the talks and present itself internationally as a sovereign state. Since Djibouti, it has hosted high-level delegations from Kenya, Egypt and Ethiopia, all of which discussed upgrading the status of their relations with Somaliland, and announced that it would exchange representatives with Taiwan.

Still, the momentum generated by the Djibouti talks need not be squandered. Continuing to seek progress on technical areas of cooperation – for example, encouraging the joint technical subcommittees to keep meeting to hammer out details – while holding off on wider political discussions until the spectre of domestic politics no longer overshadows the dialogue, could be a good way forward, at least pending elections. Also key to success is continued international support, which will be needed to keep this newly emerging phase of dialogue on track. The U.S., EU and Ethiopia should keep up the pressure – potentially in coordination with an expanded range of partners, such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development regional bloc and the African Union. Following the conclusion of elections, those same actors should be prepared to lean on the parties to re-engage with a deeper exploration of political issues in mind.

Achieving progress in Somalia-Somaliland talks will require a commitment from Mogadishu, Hargeisa and the international community.

Ultimately, achieving progress in Somalia-Somaliland talks will require a commitment from Mogadishu, Hargeisa and the international community to address the difficult status issues that have eluded resolution to date. Until the time is riper for those discussions, however, the parties and their external partners should manage expectations, work through the technical issues that are in front of them and keep talking.


Senior Analyst, Eastern Africa
Analyst, Somalia

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