Skip to main content

Sunday 14 July 2024


What Remains of the Dreams of Unity?

9 July, 2024
Somali flag
Photo: Via Pinterest
Somalia and Somaliland need more good faith dialogue and an honest and amicable divorce, so that two independent Somali republics can live peacefully side-by-side

The 64th anniversary of Somaliland’s independence was marked on 26 June this year. The former protectorate gained its independence in 1960, while Italian Somaliland gained its independence six days later, following the end of a period of Italian-administered UN trusteeship.

This anniversary is an occasion to revisit the complex relationship between the federal project and Somaliland. Somaliland achieved independence and international recognition five days before Italian Somaliland, then voluntarily merged with it to form the Republic of Somalia. The union lasted until 1991, when Somaliland declared a self-styled republic, claiming the borders of the old British Protectorate. With the exception of Taiwan, which itself isn’t a recognised state, the international community has passed over the declaration with little more than a glance. 

After the unified state 

The unified state collapsed 31 years after its establishment, leading to divergent fates for the two partners. Southern Somalia descended into protracted chaos and civil war, with a peaceful period of rule by the Islamic Courts Union sandwiched between an era of warlords and another of a civil war between the federal government and al-Shabaab. 

The Islamic Courts established a form of grassroots public authority and achieved considerable stability until their fall in 2006, following the deadly intervention of Ethiopian forces supporting the Transitional Federal Government. The Somali novelist, Nuruddin Farah, was an emissary between the TFG and the Islamic Courts and even he was forced to admit he admired what they’d achieved in a city which had known lawlessness for over a decade. “In a series of fierce battles from March to June last year, they had routed the warlords and pacified Mogadishu,” he wrote for the New York Times. The government established itself in Mogadishu in 2007 and is the recognised international authority representing the state of Somalia. Writing in 2007, Farah urged both sides to begin talks, lest the country get mired in internecine violence “and the rest of the world will continue to use land as a playground for intervention.” A decade on and tentative mediated talks appear to have been re-started but Farah’s warning still rings true. 

Somaliland embarked on a different journey, beginning with the declaration of independence at the Burao Conference in 1991, followed by the Borama Conference in 1993. Violence in the north settled as power configurations deemed satisfactory emerged among the clans there. This marked the start of reconstruction and the building of state institutions rooted in indigenous practices that protected power-sharing and popular will, hailed by Ali Mazrui as an “object lesson” for other parts of Africa.

As both Mogadishu and Hargeisa marked their 64th anniversary of independence, relations are experiencing one of their darkest periods. This follows Somaliland’s signing of a memorandum of understanding with Ethiopia in early 2024. Neither country has yet publicly divulged the totality of what has been agreed but Somaliland has said Ethiopia would recognise its independence. Ethiopia has communicated much clearer what its goals are. Addis Ababa wants a base in which to anchor its navy and wants to take over a port. Ethiopia has also said the deal would be permanent, whereas Somaliland says it would last 50 years. Somalia has accused Ethiopia of attempting to annex its territory, and if history is anything to go by, its concerns aren’t unfounded. Recent language used by prime minister Abiy Ahmed, blended what sounded like a request that Somalia consider its need for port with language that suggested there was no choice in the matter. “This is a big country that has a big army, big people”, he said, adding it was not a question which could be suppressed “by demanding for it not to be asked.” He also said all his other neighbours swatted away his overture. 

This memorandum has been signed in a context where Somaliland’s position is increasingly precarious too. With the exception of Ethiopia, which has not confirmed that it wants to recognise Somaliland’s independence, no other countries have come forward. Some Tory MPs, now out of government in the UK and members of the Republican party have expressed interest but they don’t reflect their government’s position. Although Somalilanders have made strides in building up their major cities and a functioning government, 33 years on, its leaders have not made much progress on the crucial question of recognition. Professor Ahmed Ismail Samatar put it starkly in a recent press conference: “we haven’t earned it.” If Somalilanders want to be recognised as different from other Somalis he said, they need to consider how they intend on demonstrating that? 

Doubly complicated are the challenges in the east. Hargeisa’s challenges in the Sool and Sanaag regions mirror those Somalia faces with it. The major clans in that region, the Dhulbahante and the Warsangeli, didn’t play an important role in the self-declared republic’s founding, and attitudes there have generally migrated between rejection and ambivalence. The majority of the Sool region and parts of Sanaag are administered today by local forces, hostile to the idea of secession and preferring re-entry into Somalia’s federal system confounding elite’s in Hargeisa as to whether they should use a strategy of cooptation or violence to wrestle back control. Adopting the latter strategy (a military campaign), which failed in the summer of 2023, has badly harmed Somaliland’s international reputation as an island of peace in a sea of turbulence. 

On its western flank, Somaliland is currently entangled in a diplomatic dispute with significant national security implications. If the memorandum proceeds and Ethiopia secures an alternative sea route, Djibouti’s influence over Addis Ababa as its primary international trade gateway would diminish, affecting its regional standing. Ismail Omar Guelleh has vehemently opposed the pact. Earlier this year, no Somaliland officials were invited to Djibouti's ruling People’s Rally for Progress party congress, indicating strained relations between Hargeisa and Djibouti. More recently, Muse Bihi publicly accused Guelleh of supporting rebel groups from the Awdal movement which seeks to seize territory from Somaliland in a manner similar to what happened in the Sool and Sanaag regions. Ali Bahar, leader of the Awdal State Movement, has been hosted by Guelleh and has been enjoying his hospitality.

The last meeting between Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi took place in Djibouti, hosted by President Ismail Omar Guelleh, two days before the signing of the memorandum of understanding. Posting on X after the memorandum was declared, a furious Abdikarim Hussein Guled, who met with his Somaliland counterparts said: “The Ethiopian government’s actions today constitute a blatant disregard for international norms and legal frameworks, representing a brazen violation of Somali territorial sovereignty and undermining the  progress achieved through ongoing dialogue between FGS and Somaliland that was nearing a resolution.” Bihi claims HSM was made aware of the deal. 

They agreed on several points, including resuming political negotiations focused on crucial issues to reach a lasting solution; establishing a road map for these talks with technical committees; addressing the wrongs done to the people of the northern regions by the central government; and cooperating in security and crime-fighting efforts. But that has now all gone up in flames. 

What does Mogadishu offer? 

Not much was expected from this meeting, as it was preceded by nine meetings in various international capitals, without any significant outcomes. The core of the disagreement lies in Somaliland’s persistent desire for independence, contrasted with southern Somalia’s insistence on unity. Somaliland’s leadership and populace view the unity experiment as a voluntary decision by independence leaders, and by the same principle, they believe they have the right to retract it, especially after the collapse of the unified state 33 years ago and the general chaos prevalent in parts of the south. Mogadishu unfortunately hasn’t made a great pitch to Hargeisa which stands on its own merit. Given the outcomes of the ten rounds of talks, Mogadishu has not provided Hargeisa with any reassurances regarding the form of the union it thinks would work. The meetings, starting with the Istanbul meeting in 2013, stipulated the establishment of a council to monitor air traffic, headquartered in Hargeisa, with a technical committee of four members, two from each side. This has not been achieved after 11 years, and if established, this council would signal Mogadishu’s willingness for a new form of union, granting Somaliland equal partner status rather than one subordinate to the federal system. 

Mogadishu’s vision for Somaliland’s future is clarified through the 2012 interim constitution, which does not mention Somaliland’s case at all, implicitly considering it part of the state boundaries. This constitution also threatens the dismantling of Somaliland by stipulating the right of two or more provinces—according to the administrative division before 1991—to form a federal state. Neither the current constitution, nor the ongoing amendments seek to remedy this issue. Somaliland remains aloof from constructive talks, and Mogadishu doesn’t reach out with the aim of making progress as the most recent amendments demonstrate. Puntland’s decision to withdraw from the federal system is a cautionary tale for Somaliland. 

Although constitutions can be amended, the process is not easy; federal states will not accept any arrangements that grant Somaliland powers exceeding theirs. Thus, proposals such as establishing a confederation between the two sides seem unrealistic, as they may prompt states like Puntland and Jubaland to demand the same status.

Moreover, the people of Somaliland have legal, historical, and humanitarian arguments against reuniting with southern Somalia, including marginalisation and crimes committed by the unified state’s governments against the region, in addition to the fact that they now strongly identify with their new start-up nation. 

Somaliland hasn’t been offered a compelling incentive to reconsider its path to independence. Rejoining Somalia at present would mean merging into an unstable state with high levels of corruption, whose elites frequently argue and fight. Besides acting on the fraternal relations shared by all Somalis, little else is being offered. Somaliland does participate in the Somali government’s 4.5 system, but this is widely unpopular and often does not reflect the region's true popular attitudes as represented by its MPs and senators. In contrast, Somaliland established an electoral system in 2002 that grants its citizens the right to run for office and for some to vote directly, a milestone that Mogadishu has yet to achieve.

The Two-state option 

Recognising Somaliland’s independence, which is to acknowledge the facts on the ground, rather than doing any favours is an obvious solution. It helps that such a divorce would be smoother as Somaliland doesn’t have legal or institution entanglements with Somalia. How we get there is the major challenge. What kind of roadmap would make it possible? 

A significant challenge in Somaliland is the communities that do not want to establish their own separate republic. Referendums have been suggested as a solution, but questions arise about how such a vote would be organised. Would the results be recognised as a collective choice for all people within the former British protectorate’s boundaries? Or would they be assessed region by region, allowing those who support “Som-Exit” to leave the union and allowing the rest to stay? In such an event what kind of state would emerge? And who would be the guarantor ensuring the outcome is respected? 

Regarding the memorandum of understanding with Ethiopia, contrary to public sentiment, Ethiopia is not seen as a political adversary to southern Somalia by many of its elites. States like Puntland, Jubaland, and Southwest maintain strong relations with Ethiopia. Hassan Sheikh has also acknowledged Ethiopia’s general right to access the sea signalling his own willingness to provide a port in Somalia. However, he objected to the “illegal” approach taken in the memorandum which sidelines him. 

Mogadishu seems willing to accommodate Ethiopia in exchange for its withdrawal from the memorandum of understanding. To this end, Somalia’s foreign minister agreed to meet his Ethiopian counterpart, invited by the Turkish foreign minister. They participated in an indirect meeting in early July in Ankara, but it failed to achieve any breakthroughs because Mogadishu insisted on Addis Ababa withdrawing from the memorandum before negotiations. This indicates that Somalia yielded to pressure from Turkey, which is keen to maintain relations with both countries, and consequently announced a second meeting in September.

In conclusion, if the current situation persists without genuinely addressing Somaliland's demand for independence, Hargeisa will continue to intensify its efforts in more creative ways to achieve its goal. While aligning its foreign policy more closely with Addis Ababa has implications domestically and for Somaliland’s foreign relations, the Bihi administration has shown a readiness to take risks and accept the consequences. Somaliland’s defence minister infamously quit declaring Ethiopia an enemy number 1, whilst several major poets have joined al-Shabaab since the memorandum was announced. However, a sincere dialogue between Hargeisa and Mogadishu could prevent further encroachment by Ethiopia and leave room for the possibility of a cooperative relationship emerging between two free and independent Somali republics, side by side.