Somaliland can’t be underrated in Horn of Africa’s realignments

I have been reading some reports on changes in the Horn of Africa by one commentator and I found myself confronted by what US President Trump has now famously branded as “fake news.”

It has been insinuated that the Horn of Africa’s regional economic integration pact bringing together Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia will leave Somaliland as the biggest losers.

One report titled “Winners and Losers in Horn of Africa’s regional economic pact” created a totally misplaced opinion on Somaliland.

As a Somaliland citizen working for a respected civil society umbrella organisation that deals with regional foreign policy in depth, I feel compelled to respond directly to the Somaliland aspect of the report.

Misplaced argument being fronted is that the warming of relations and a trilateral pact harkens the isolation of Somaliland from the geopolitics and economic relations of the region. Some commentators claim the recent diplomatic movements prove Somalia is committed and willing to flex its muscles in ways that threaten Somaliland’s long-term dream of being recognised for the independence it reclaimed in 1991, after dissolving its failed union with Somalia.

This judgment presents a misreckoning and misunderstanding of the dynamics at work.

This would not be a problem except for the fact that the conclusions only serve to feed the chauvinism of Somaliland’s most unsophisticated and cynical detractors, while painting a false and shortsighted view of the Horn’s regional geopolitical history, with the peace and reconciliation that is transpiring being a win-win situation for all involved.



Some commentators have overlooked the strategic importance of Somaliland’s territorial positioning. This territory is under the full control of the government of Somaliland, with the government in Mogadishu having no ability or jurisdiction to decide what happens there, and this concrete material reality cannot be easily wished away or ignored when it comes to regional politics.

DP World, the United Arab Emirates and the Federal Government of Ethiopia understand this reality, which is why they signed an agreement in Dubai in March for the expansion and management of the Berbera Port.

This agreement immediately changed the dynamics of the region, transforming trade discussions between Somaliland and Ethiopia from an incremental trade and transit deal, to talk of Somaliland being a key economic hub in the region’s regional economic integration initiatives.

Berbera Port is one of the oldest and most strategic maritime transit points in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and was the source of fierce competition during the bipolar international politics of Cold War rivalries, when it served as a military naval base alternatively used by the Soviet Union and the US, as regional alliances shifted. It is still seen as vital among international powers in this imminent of multipolar politics, as is clear by the enthusiasm with which the UAE agreed with the Somaliland government to establish a military base there.

Construction for this project is already underway.

The Berbera Port modernisation deal is expected to serve as one of the key regional strategic initiatives boosting trade connectivity, enlarging regional and international economic integration, infrastructure development, and a creating conducive environment for international foreign investors. Many Somalilanders see this as a time of optimism and hope for an economically transformed future — we would hope that journalists and commentators would do the same.

Furthermore, there is a long-standing relation of mutual necessity between Somaliland and Ethiopia, with the former serving an indispensable importer of goods and frontline partner in defending against terror and other threats for the latter. Addis Ababa, is only 700km from Hargeisa, whereas the distance between Addis and Mogadishu is twice that, meaning Somaliland is able to impact and support Ethiopia in a way Somalia cannot.

This geographical and socioeconomic proximity has made Somaliland the second largest trade client, with Ethiopia gaining $900 million yearly in trade. These factors, combined with the potential benefit of landlocked Ethiopia from Somaliland’s coastal access and the twice-daily flights from Addis to Hargeisa, show just how intertwined the fates of Somaliland and Ethiopia is in the long run.

Some authors undervalue Somaliland, compared to the many other supposed ‘winners’ and losers’ of these regional changes, and failed to accurately report on the legitimacy of its claims to independence, and the solidity of existence. They fail to interrogate or question the claim Somaliland is a ‘breakaway’ region of Somalia.

With that in mind, I would like to set the record straight. Somaliland won its political independence from the British Empire on June 26, 1960, five days before Italian Somalia gained its own independence, the same day (1 July) that the two separate entities voluntarily joined together to form the Somali Republic. It took no longer than six months for the legal basis of the merger to be called into question, given the ambiguous nature through which Italian Somalia decolonized, and the faulty and illegitimate way in which the act of merger was acceded to.

Nevertheless, Somaliland citizens became de facto part of a merger that failed to deliver on the hopes of the original union, and instead resulted in civil war, of which Somalilanders were the primary victim. As such, in 1991, the people of Somaliland overwhelmingly decided to legally dissolve the merger, and reclaim their independence.

While Somaliland citizens hope their neighbours in Somalia return to a climate of peace and safety, we are clearheaded enough to recognise that what is currently considered the government of Somalia is not one that can manage its own internal political and security affairs. Somalia has remained under the occupation of African Union troops for more than a decade, and that its unelected and unaccountable president is protected by foreign troops, while the country’s innocent civilians suffer every day from shelling, killings, and bombing.

Moreover, regional dynamics remain in flux, with no clear winners or losers but a complex set of trade-offs and openings that could lead to progress or failure. For example, today, Ethiopia faces its own sets of particular predicaments, with a political and socioeconomic crisis in certain cases leading to violent clashes and conflict across sectarian and ethnic lines.

To solve these crises, especially in the Somali-predominant east of the country, Ethiopia will rely on the strategic partnership it has cultivated with Somaliland over many years. This partnership is indispensable, as Somaliland works closely with Ethiopian authorities to maintain of their shared 750km borders, including during the turmoil that transpired in the Somali region of Ethiopia in August, when Somaliland helped contain and manage the fallout.


Somaliland and Somalia entered into bilateral talks in 2012 as a means to advance and sustain regional and international peace, in the name of turning a two-state reality into a two-state solution. What is required for these talks to succeed is a political leader for Somalia that is an honest broker, one who can be effective in his foreign policy and can deliver at home as a representative of his people.

Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, has taken the path of aggression and realpolitik over dialogue and persuasion in an attempt to win back Somaliland. This path will never succeed, as Somaliland’s democratically-based and consolidating state-building process, is irreversible, and can never functionally integrate in the agonising situation of Somalia.

Somaliland has contributed extensively to regional and international peace through its struggles against terrorism, piracy, and international crimes. To gleefully paint a picture of Somaliland’s current position in the region is thus not only cruel and misinformed but also equally stands on the side of a less peaceful and more extremist world. In any event, the region’s leaders are wise enough to realize that any regional economic and security integration will necessarily involve Somaliland as a strategic and competent partner.

Somaliland possesses vast strategic resources on onshore and offshore and is able to defend its territory responsibly. This is a reality that cannot be erased by articles demanding respect for Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

To invigorate the bilateral relations between Somalia and Ethiopia, it will not come through the everyday beseeching of the international community, nor will it come through undertaking pernicious and underhanded actions against Somaliland or even Djibouti. Such nebulous and shortsighted steps will only bring those regional populations that have escaped Somalia’s mayhem into the fray, spreading instability at a time when lasting peace in the Horn has never been more promising. The Somali people, in general, have had integrity and pride, and there was a time they were aspiring to lead the region of the Horn of Africa. However, steps such as those taken by President Farmajo show a different type of Somali leader — one more reminiscent of Siyad Barre — that uses division and deception to try and secure their domestic ambitions, rather than one who does what is best for the common people.

The sweeping, high-velocity changes happening in the region — which have both inter-state and intra-state dynamics — have only just begun, and it is too early to explain how they will play out. IGAD remains a loose and largely untested institution, and any sustainable and solid regional integration will take leadership and strategic vision to emerge. This will require an assessment of common interests and the division of economic and political labours, rather than cynical assessments of winners and losers.

Now is a time to foster bilateral and multilateral cooperation amongst regional actors, rather than sow divisions, so that the Horn of Africa may become more peaceful, secure and prosperous.


Mohamoud (Barawani),

This post is also available in: Somali

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