The Future of the Negotiation Track between Somalia and Somaliland: Chances and Challenges

Ahmad Askar | 29 Jun 2020

On 14 June 2020, Djibouti hosted a new round of negotiations between the governments of Somalia and Somaliland under regional and international auspices after an interruption of nearly five years. The aim of the negotiations was to stir the still waters, proceed towards normalizing relations between the two sides, and agree on some unresolved issues between them, mainly the attainment by Somaliland of independence from Somalia, something which the latter continues to reject for fear of its future implications at home. This has constituted a challenge to the success of the talks at this round despite agreement on a number of items that could be built upon in the period ahead of continuing dialogue between both sides.

The recent round of negotiations has coincided with a distinct stage experienced by the Somali government in view of the elections to be held in late 2020 and amidst regional and international efforts that aim at reinforcing regional stability and maximizing strategic interests in the Horn of Africa without any of the parties gaining advantages at the expense of the other. This paper sheds light on the positions of local and international powers on the resumption of negotiations, the goals of the actors therefrom, and the chances of and challenges to reaching an agreement between Mogadishu and Hargeisa. It also attempts to foresee the future of this process and its reflection on the geopolitical scene in the Horn of Africa during the period ahead.

Significance of the timing

  • Somalia expects an important event during the next few months, namely the holding of the Somali general elections. This renders the issue of improving relations between the central government and the Somaliland administration an important electoral card in the hands of President Farmaajo to regain part of his declining popularity because of the mismanagement of internal crises, especially that he wants to appear as the conciliatory president who wants to unify the country and meet his electoral promises which he launched after he came to power in 2017 that he would stick to the option of unity between north and south.
  • Negotiations between Mogadishu and Hargeisa were resumed amidst clear Ethiopian and Djiboutian efforts that aim at enhancing the regional roles of both Ethiopia and Djibouti, maximizing their economic and strategic interests, and attaining successes on regional issues that could be utilized at home to enhance the popularity of the regime of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed which had been damaged by the ethnic tensions and domestic troubles as a result of the decision by the Ethiopian government to delay the parliamentary elections indefinitely, and the rising activity of the political opposition against the regime of President Ismail Guelleh in Djibouti during the recent period.[1]
  • The negotiations took place amidst continuous international pressures that aim at normalizing relations between Somalia and Somaliland and the demand by Washington that the Somali central government cooperate with the federal states. This has led to the temporary two-year recognition by Mogadishu of the Jubaland government. Worth mentioning also is the proxy rivalry in Somalia whereby Somaliland receives Gulf support in the face of a Turkish-Qatari support for the central government in Mogadishu. This escalates the confrontation between the two local sides which could lead to the collapse of the upcoming negotiations due to the severe conflict of interests.[2]

Position on the resumption of the negotiations

  • The Somali federal government has welcomed the resumption of the dialogue with the Somaliland administration, indicating that President Farmaajo is open to all efforts that would lead to fruitful negotiations with Somaliland and that such a meeting reflects Farmaajo’s conciliatory approach for the sake of unifying the Somali state.[3] However, at the same time, Mogadishu expressed its opposition to the separation of Somaliland for fear of the disintegration of the Somali unity. It also opposed aspects of the Summit’s final communique, such as the talk of the “relationships between the two countries” and “the two peoples interests”, considering that the talks are not between two countries. The Djiboutian government soon saved the situation by releasing another communiqué that took Somali concerns into account.[4]
  • The Somaliland administration did not release any official statement on the meeting, and there are variations in the positions of the political parties in Somaliland regarding the recent meeting: while the opposition party “Waddani” welcomed the resumption of the dialogue and the talks between the two sides, the leader of the For Justice and Development party (UCID) opposed the meeting between Farmaajo and Bihi, considering that the time was not right. He rejected the initiation of a dialogue with the federal government because, according to him, it would harm Somaliland and constitute a repudiation of the previously signed agreements.[5]
  • Puntland State in northeastern Somalia opposed the holding of this meeting, saying that it did not understand the goal of the meeting given that Puntland did not take part in it despite being directly contiguous to the territory of Somaliland. Puntland also expressed its rejection of any results of the talks between the two sides as long as Puntland was not part thereof, especially after the central government ignored Puntland’s request to take part in the meeting, considering that a territorial dispute exists between Puntland and Hargeisa over parts of the Sool and Sanaag provinces.[6]
  • Somalia’s international partners[7] welcomed the dialogue between the federal government and the Somaliland government as an important step towards enhancing understanding and normalizing bilateral relations and communications, and considering that it would encourage the joint technical committee to achieve fruitful and tangible results.[8]
  • Washington supported this process, welcomed the bilateral talks between the federal government and the Somaliland administration, and called on all Somalis to take part in the internal peace process.[9]
  • In contrast, some consider that the recent meeting constitutes a call for the disintegration and division of Somalia to curb the calls for the foundation of Greater Somalia that extends geographically to areas under Ethiopian and Kenyan control. Accordingly, advocates of this opinion believe that there is a hidden regional intention to implicitly recognize the independence of Somaliland in a way that would permit the avoidance of any differences with the central government. This argument may be supported by some of the items of the final communiqué regarding refraining from politicizing development assistance and investments. In other words, Somaliland has the right to sign agreements and attract foreign investments. Furthermore, some of the sentences in the initial version of the meeting’s final communiqué ‒ such as the resumption of “dialogue on the relationships between the two countries”, before they were modified in the second version upon opposition by the federal government, and the use by some Ethiopian newspapers of the expression “the reconciliation process between the two East African countries” ‒ indicate that this is intended to measure the extent of satisfaction or rejection by the Somali public opinion with regard to the issue of settling the differences through unity or separation.[10]

Goals of the actors

The federal government: there is interest in the resumption of dialogue and talks with the Somaliland administration to underline the federal government’s absolute rejection of allowing Somaliland to gain independence and recognition as an independent state and ease the internal political pressures placed on the Somali government by the opposing political powers and federal states. The federal government also fears the implications of the attainment of independence by Hargeisa and the fact that such an occurrence might pave the way for enhancing the separatist inclinations of some opposing federal states. At the economic level, the Port of Berbera is expected, upon the completion of its development, to negatively affect the other Somali ports, especially that it will attract many international powers and companies and further foreign investments. In addition, there is a desire by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo to score a moral victory that would enhance his chances of getting re-elected in the forthcoming elections at the end of 2020.

The Somaliland government: the attainment of international recognition has been the ultimate end of the successive Somaliland governments since 1991. However, they have failed to gain any regional and international recognition of Somaliland as a sovereign state, and all countries continue to consider it a Somali province with separatist motives. Thus, it would not be easy for Somaliland to accept the return to Somali sovereignty and destroy all the efforts it had made over the last three decades to achieve full independence from Mogadishu. Therefore, the central government is seen by Hargeisa as the main obstacle to Somaliland’s attainment of independence and international recognition. Furthermore, the central government puts pressures on Somaliland by obtaining more international support for the central government, implementing an economic embargo on Somaliland and preventing international investments from entering Somaliland. However, over recent years, Somaliland has been carrying out a regional and international mobilization to enhance its position on this issue through opening prospects of cooperation with actors in the Horn of Africa region. Somaliland also attempts to set up economic and strategic relations and ties with neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti to help it gain independence from Somalia by benefiting from the climate that followed the separation of South Sudan in 2011.

Djibouti attempts to play a leading regional role in enhancing the regional peace process in the Horn of Africa by hosting the recent meeting between the two sides and hosting the talks and meetings between the technical committees that were agreed upon according to the meeting’s final communiqué. In addition, Djibouti seeks to enhance its relations with the Somaliland administration with a view to increasing cooperation in the field of seaports so that the operation of the Port of Berbera would not negatively affect the revenue and operation of the Port of Djibouti in case Hargeisa gains independence.

Ethiopia: Addis Ababa shows great sensitivity in its dealing with this issue. It puts pressure with the aim of reaching an agreement between the two sides in order to protect its interests in Somalia as a whole. At the same time, it has strategic interests in Somaliland, being one of three countries, the other two being Djibouti and Turkey, that have opened consulates in Hargeisa. Furthermore, Ethiopia has an immediate common border with Somaliland that constitutes a buffer for Addis Ababa to protect it from being an easy target to the activity of the al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement. Besides, the main Ethiopian strategic target is to economically link the Port of Berbera to Ethiopia for fear of future shifts in the relations with Djibouti due to the Ethiopian-Eritrean rapprochement. This was demonstrated in the acquisition by Addis Ababa of a 19 percent share in the Port in 2018 within the framework of an agreement that included the Somaliland government and the company Dubai Ports World. According to some observers, this amounts to an implicit recognition by Addis Ababa of Somaliland as an independent state. Thus, Addis Ababa does not desire that Somaliland be weakened by the federal government in Mogadishu. This has driven President Farmaajo to warn all foreign countries and companies against encroaching on Somali sovereignty.[11]

Chances of and challenges to reaching an agreement between both sides

Chances

  • The possibility of improving economic, trade and investment relations in the region in a manner that would serve the aspirations for economic integration in the Horn of Africa where the Port of Berbera represents a promising maritime outlet for Ethiopia, considering the huge economic benefits it could bring for both sides, such as job creation for the youth and enhancing tourism sector of both sides. The Port also contributes to the engagement by Hargeisa and Addis Ababa in balanced trade relations and serves their common interests in case Somaliland becomes a promising attraction point for foreign investments.[12]
  • Reaching an agreement between Somalia and Somaliland constitutes an essential part of the confidence-building measures that aim at promoting peace-building and development in the Horn of Africa. The continuation of talks between the two sides in good faith constitutes the only way of moving forward for the sake of enhancing security in the region.[13]
  • The commitment by both sides to the previously signed agreements between them regarding some secondary issues can be relied upon in reaching an agreement on the main issue of the independence of Somaliland from the Somali state, considering that this would help build a confidence bridge between them.
  • The demonstration of political will by both sides which would converge viewpoints between them on some pending issues and the drive towards the continuation of negotiation rounds in the stage ahead despite the failure of the recent meeting in reaching positive results regarding the recognition of Somaliland.
  • The continuation of rapprochement efforts and rounds of negotiation and dialogue between both sides might constitute a strong motive for initiating a dialogue between Mogadishu and some opposing federal states, especially that they share with Somaliland the endeavours to gain independence from the Somali state.
  • The existence of regional and international support for normalizing the relations between Mogadishu and Hargeisa with the aim of supporting internal stability in Somalia and enhancing regional integrity and cooperation in the Horn of Africa region.

Challenges

  • The continuous terrorist threats by the al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement and the Islamic State (IS) organization in some Somali regions play an important role in the deteriorating security, political and economic conditions in the country. This issue constitutes one of the big pressure cards used by the political opposition against the ruling regime in the country, especially that such threats could disrupt reaching agreements between the government and some opposing regional states in light of the continuing differences between them and the accusations made against the central government of playing a weak and diminishing role in restoring stability and security across the country.
  • Rejection by some opposition parties in Somaliland of the idea of dialogue with the federal government and the rising opposition activity against the government of Muse Bihi such as the emergence of some armed insurgent fronts such as the Awale Liberation Front which announced itself in August in the city of Borama, in addition to the announcement by some other insurgent groups of themselves in Las Anod in the Sool region and the Sanaag region. Those movements believe that Muse Bihi is monopolizing power, and have declared their readiness to go to war against the government of Somaliland.[14]
  • Continued insistence by each side on its position on the separation issue without reaching an agreement that takes the interests of all parties into account. This complicates the problem and reduces the chances of holding other rounds of negotiation and dialogue between both sides.
  • The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a challenge for both sides in light of the damage sustained by the main economic sectors as a result of the epidemic and its ramifications in Mogadishu and Hargeisa which may contribute to the disruption of some of the upcoming dialogue rounds between both sides.[15]
  • The authoritarianism exercised by the former ruling regimes on the citizens of Somaliland has generated a negative historical heritage against any ruling regime in Mogadishu. Despite the apology offered by the Somali government for the behaviour of former regimes, this heritage continues, in one way or another, to play a role in hampering efforts to reach an agreement between both sides.[16]  
  • Continued intervention by the central government in the affairs of Somaliland and the disruption of the arrival of development assistance and the execution of foreign investments there. This was reflected by the disagreement between the two sides over the Port of Berbera,[17] and the reiteration by the Somaliland administration that it is not part of Somalia[18] and that it will continue to work with its regional and international partners.

Potential scenarios for the future of the negotiations between Somalia and Somaliland

Despite the announcement of the failure of the recent Djibouti-hosted meeting to reach an agreement on the main issue between the two sides, namely the attainment of independence by Somaliland, the prospects of those negotiations continue to be open over the period ahead. The relevant scenarios can be outlined as follows:

First scenario: continuation of the negotiation rounds and success in reaching an agreement regarding some of the secondary issues, with the implicit de facto rather than de jure recognition of Somaliland or according to an agreement signed by both parties. This scenario is currently considered the strongest and most likely due to the insistence by the Somali government on the unity of the country and its fear of the disintegration of the Somali state, in addition to the relative lack of international and regional desire to shake the regional stability in the Horn of Africa region.

Several factors contribute to the materialization of this scenario, including the continuous international calls for the resumption of the state of dialogue and negotiation between Somalia and Somaliland, the acquisition by the latter of some advantages as a result of the negotiations, and the deferral of the idea of attaining independence and recognition to a forthcoming stage. However, this scenario will be difficult to materialize if both sides continue to be obstinate regarding reaching a comprehensive settlement. This would mean the collapse of the negotiations and insistence by Somaliland on gaining independence from the Somali state.

Second scenario: the attainment by Somaliland of recognition by the Somali central government: this scenario is considered the least likely due to the state of strict rejection adopted by the Mogadishu government in this respect, which resulted in the failure of the recent meeting in Djibouti. It could also enhance the likely faltering of the resumption of negotiations in the period ahead and the failure by Somaliland to mobilize international support to back it in its demands.

This scenario may materialize in case of increasing international and regional pressures on the Somali government to recognize Somaliland as an independent state and the success of the next negotiations between both sides in achieving their disengagement. However, this scenario could be difficult to materialize due to the continued adherence by the central government in Mogadishu to the unity option for fear of the disintegration of the Somali state and the rise of other separatist trends in the country in addition to the failure by Somaliland in garnering international support to recognize it as an independent and sovereign state.

Third scenario: failure and interruption of the negotiations without reaching an agreement. This scenario is implausible, considering the international acclamation of the resumption of the dialogue between Somalia and Somaliland and the desire by both sides to achieve positive results in the negotiations to serve various political and economic goals, in addition to the agreement by both sides in the recent meeting to form joint committees to continue talks on common issues.

This scenario may materialize in case of escalation by one of the parties and their continued adherence to the positions that led to the failure of the Djibouti meeting, in addition to the diminishing international will to provide support on this issue. On the other hand, the scenario would be difficult to materialize in case the international and regional pressure increased on both sides, the influential leaders in both Mogadishu and Hargeisa had the political will, and work continued by the joint committees established as a result of the recent meeting between them.

Potential implications for the geostrategic scene in the Horn of Africa

The current shifts in the Horn of Africa have potential implications for the efforts to re-engineer the regional architecture. In case an agreement is reached between Somalia and Somaliland in the period ahead, this would be a twofold weapon: on the one hand, it may enhance the state of regional stability in the Horn of Africa, amounting to more foreign investment inflows, and on the other hand, this could open the door to the emergence and rise of further separatist inclinations in some countries of the region such as Somalia and Ethiopia.

In case a final agreement is not reached between the two sides, this would herald the outbreak of a conflict between the federal government and the Somaliland government and the continued deterioration of Somali conditions in general. It could also open the door to the emergence of differences between Somalia and some neighbouring countries that maintain good relations with Somaliland and reflect negatively on efforts to enhance security and build stability in the region.

Conclusion

  • Settling the Somaliland issue is extremely difficult, especially at this stage when the Somali state is experiencing multiple challenges such as the rising terrorism and the internal troubles. This could probably force the federal government in Mogadishu to accept the de facto rather than de jure or agreed independence of that region. This situation could last for a long time.
  • It is difficult to conceive the potential output of the forthcoming negotiations between both sides, especially in light of Somaliland’s insistence on demanding full independence and the corresponding reiteration by the government in Mogadishu of the issue of the country’s territorial integrity.
  • In the long run, perhaps the optimal solution for Somaliland would be to accept integration into a federal Somali state based on a high degree of autonomy. However, it may be difficult for Hargeisa to accept such an option.
 

[1] Saeed Maeed, “Overview of the meeting between the presidents of Somalia and Somaliland in Djibouti”, the Mogadishu Center for Research and Studies, 14 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2CxGTdJ

[2] Peter Fabricius, Abiy helps Somaliland put more facts on the ground, Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies, 5 June 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3dpp0dV

[3] “Somalia and Somaliland: Return to the negotiation process”, the Mogadishu Center for Research and Studies, 14 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3hR4jek

[4] “Release of two communiqués on the talks between Somalia and Somaliland in Djibouti”, The New Somalia Media, Research and Development Corporation, 14 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3151a4z

[5] “Division in Somalia and Somaliland in the forthcoming meeting between Farmaajo and Bihi”, The New Somalia Media, Research and Development Corporation, 14 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3hRfYJV

[6] “Puntland President rejects any results of the negotiations between Somalia and Somaliland that do not involve his province”, qiraatsomali.com, 15 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2V7hNJ0

[7] The list of international partners includes: African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Ethiopia, European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, and the United Nations.

[8] Horn Diplomat, International partners welcome the dialogue between Somalia and Somaliland, 16 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2NjVwTZ

[9] “The US welcomes the initiation of the talks between Somalia and Somaliland in Djibouti”, The New Somalia Media, Research and Development Corporation, 14 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3dnQwbD

[10] “The Djibouti consultative meeting: is it a glimpse of hope or the start of dismantling Somalia?”, The New Somalia Media, Research and Development Corporation, 16 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2VaWx5f

[11] Peter Fabricius, Abiy helps Somaliland put more facts on the ground, op. cit.

[12] Wendimagegn, Berbera Port first phase construction nearing completion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Press Agency, 12 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3eqmTrw

[13] Horn Diplomat, EU praises resumption of dialogue between Somalia and Somaliland, 16 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3er22Ef

[14] Shefa Alafari, “A new front in Borama in Somaliland announces an armed insurgency against the government and calls on all foreigners to leave”, Salam Horn newspaper, Djibouti, 12 November 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/2V8xC1Z

[15] Adam Duale Ali, Somaliland and Covid 19: Government Response and Socio-Economic impact, Horn Diplomat, 15 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Nn3M5A

[16] Horn Diplomat, Somaliland tells Somalia to keep off DP World work at Berbera Port, 9 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/37VvakD

[17] Somali Dispatch, Somalia Foreign Minister pledges to protect the Country from DP World, 9 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2NnV86S

[18] Somali Dispatch, Somaliland responds to Somalia’s threats to DP World, 9 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/37QVtsl

 

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