Both Somaliland and Puntland have enjoyed relative peace and stability
for nearly three decades as war plagued the rest of the country.
Somaliland declared itself independent from Somalia in 1991 though no
country formally recognises it as such. Puntland is a semi-autonomous
federal state of Somalia, with its capital in Garowe. A confrontation
between them would have disastrous consequences for much of northern
Somalia but also risks contributing to instability across the country.
It also could play into the hands of the Al-Shabaab insurgency or even
the Islamic State (ISIS) branch in Puntland.
African and Western leaders, seemingly caught off guard by the looming
confrontation, should take urgent steps to head it off. The United
Nations mission in Somalia, which had been mediating between the two
sides, should renew those efforts. Ethiopia, which enjoys close ties to
both Somaliland and Puntland and has helped calm previous disputes,
should throw its weight behind UN efforts; others with influence,
including potentially the United Arab Emirates and Western donors,
should do the same. Mediation should focus on quickly brokering a
ceasefire and seeking an agreement that would entail both sides pulling
forces out of contested areas, guaranteeing access for humanitarian
assistance to populations in those areas and submitting to a longer-term
process, including third-party mediation, to find a durable solution to
the dispute. In tandem with the mediation, the UN mission also should
support local peacebuilding initiatives in both disputed areas,
involving clerics and local clan leaders to initiate bottom-up
reconciliation efforts, which have proven successful elsewhere in
Since 1998 Somaliland and Puntland have vied for control of the Sool
and Sanaag regions, together comprising a neck of land stretching from
the Gulf of Aden to the Ethiopian border. Thus far, 2018 has been an
exceptionally violent year in this contest, with about twenty armed
clashes recorded since January.
battle on 8 January saw Somaliland forces overrun Tukaraq, a town held
by a small Puntland force, straddling a major highway and trade corridor
that links Sool and Sanaag to eastern Ethiopia. The fighting left
dozens of soldiers dead on both sides.The
capture of Tukaraq, which coincided with an extensive tour of Puntland
by Somali federal government President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed
“Farmajo”, was seen as a warning from Somaliland to the Somali
government against getting involved in the contested areas.On
15 May, tensions again spiralled into violence. A militia loyal to
Puntland launched an attack on Somaliland army positions around Tukaraq.
This time, intense fighting reportedly killed close to a hundred
combatants, including fighters from both sides, making it the deadliest
confrontation the conflict has yet seen.
The loss of Tukaraq in January and the heavy casualties incurred since
have gone down badly in Puntland. Politicians and the public have
directed recriminations not only at the Somaliland government in
Hargeisa but against the administration of Puntland President Abdiweli
Gas. The president is under increasing pressure to act, especially given
elections later this year that he hopes to win. The recapture of
Tukaraq appears to be a priority. During the first weeks of June, Gas
has chaired a series of meetings to mobilise support for an offensive;
during the latest, he delivered an address to the state parliament in
which he vowed to “liberate” all areas “occupied” by Somaliland.By
ratcheting up such expectations, the president is taking a huge gamble.
In the short term, he gains political capital, especially as the public
mood hardens against Hargeisa. But a failed offensive would risk a
serious backlash that could doom his re-election prospects.
If Gas’s rhetoric is increasingly bellicose, so, too, is that of
Somaliland leader Muse Bihi, who said: “If they want war we are ready. I
will teach them the lesson that I taught [Siad Barre]”.
Indeed, the two sides’ public statements suggest both are confident in a
quick military win. They are likely miscalculating. Their militaries
are almost equally matched in combat strength, equipment and experience
so risk getting bogged down in a protracted conflict with enormous costs
(perhaps Somaliland has a slight edge but unlikely enough of one for a
fighting would likely trigger mass displacement, compounding what has
long been a humanitarian emergency in Somalia. Such a war would sow new
instability in the region, exacerbate inter- and intra-clan frictions
and perhaps allow jihadists active in remote coastal and mountain
enclaves the opportunity to recruit and extend their reach.
Puntland is particularly vulnerable to upheaval in the event of a
lengthy war with Somaliland. Its forces are overstretched, fighting
low-level but costly local insurgencies in the Galgala mountains along
the northern coast; securing restive frontiers around Galkayo, south of
Puntland in Somalia’s north-central region; and policing towns
periodically targeted by a local ISIS branch and Al-Shabaab.
with Somaliland would force it to fight on multiple fronts,
particularly because its rival potentially could stoke existing
conflicts in an attempt to further sap Puntland’s military resources.
For its part, Somaliland also has struggled to contain pockets of
discontent in recent years. President Bihi’s administration has faced a
recurrent inter-clan conflict in Ceel Afweyn, in Sanaag region, that
pits two major branches of the Isaq clan – Bicido/Habar Jeclo and Saad
Yonis/Habar Yonis – against each other. The conflict’s roots lie in a
long-running Habar Jeclo versus Habar Yonis feud that intensified during
the 2017 election, which Bihi, backed by a Habar Jeclo-led alliance,
won. That election increased regional and sub-clan rivalries, with much
of the opposition to the Bihi administration now concentrated in the
east, especially in Burco, Somaliland’s second largest city.
local opposition to Hargeisa could expand into more serious political
instability were the conflict with Puntland to escalate.
For Somaliland a conflict with Puntland also could tarnish its hard-won
regional and international reputation as a stable and well-run polity.
The crucial donor support upon which Somaliland relies for its
development is predicated not only on sustained progress in governance,
but also on its restraint in and peaceful resolution of conflicts. A war
over Sool and Sanaag risks eroding Somaliland’s standing abroad.
III. The Long Road to Tukaraq
The conflict over Sool and Sanaag has been gestating for decades. It
owes its genesis, in large part, to the collapse of Somalia’s central
state in 1991. Somaliland and Puntland went their own way but were at
political odds, with the former unilaterally declaring independence in
1991 and the latter founding itself in 1998 as a federal state
notionally loyal to a unified Somalia (though at the time no
internationally recognised central government existed). The chaotic
carve-up of territory in Somalia left large areas contested, beyond even
the nominal control of either Somaliland or Puntland, with clans in
those areas, including the Dhulbahante and Warsangeli in Sool and
Sanaag, aggrieved and disempowered.
Both Somaliland and Puntland staked claims to these areas – with
Somaliland’s bid based on boundaries drawn when it was a British
protectorate, and Puntland’s on kinship ties between its largest clan,
the Majerten, and the two main clans living in Sool and Sanaag, the
Dhulbahante and Warsangeli. All three of these clans are part of the
larger Darood/Harti clan family. This gave Garowe an advantage as it
struggled against Hargeisa to win the loyalty of the Dhulbahante and
For many years Puntland and Somaliland saw their competition as
political. Both invested in better relations with the two clans,
including paying two sets of “civil servants” to run parallel
administrations, though allowing them a large degree of autonomy in
running their affairs. Both Puntland and Somaliland co-opted senior
Dhulbahante and Warsangeli clan leaders by offering them high-level
positions in the governments in Garowe and Hargeisa. But as the contests
over the disputed territories intensified, pressure mounted on the two
clans to pick sides. Political co-optation thus had a dangerous side
effect, splintering the Dhulbahante and Warsangeli clans and
complicating the task of managing discontent in Sool and Sanaag. That
failure both catalysed the militarisation of intra-clan conflict in the
region and made it easier for local spats to escalate into fighting
between Somaliland and Puntland forces.
Beginning in 2007, Somaliland launched a series of military offensives
to expand its authority eastward, seizing a string of towns and villages
in Sool. The captured locales include Las Canod, Sool’s provincial
Presidents Gas and Bihi continue to invoke history and self-defined
principles of territorial integrity to press their claims to Sool and
Sanaag. In addition to clan ties, Puntland projects itself as a champion
of a unified Somalia. In a 23 June speech in Puntland’s parliament, Gas
rejected the validity of colonial cartography as an arbiter of the
conflict, adding it was Puntland’s “sacred duty” to “liberate” the
contested regions through force.
their part, Somaliland leaders defend the British-drawn boundaries and
assert their “right” to administer what they regard as sovereign
territory. Sool and Sanaag, they argue, have long been part of
Both sides thus characterise the dispute in stark terms, seeming to leave little room for compromise.
IV. Averting War
Somalia’s foreign partners appear to underestimate the risk of conflict
in the north. They tend to assess the north’s stability in reference to
the south – a low bar that may have meant warning signs slipped under
the radar. That the crisis has deteriorated almost to the point of open
war speaks to a number of realities. Outside powers have mostly
preferred “positive” narratives that oversell the north’s recovery – and
that of Somalia more broadly – and downplay risks. Leaders in both
Puntland and Somaliland appear wedded to brinksmanship and believe they
have little incentive to make peace. Local and international mediation
systems are disjointed and mostly reactive.
A marked exception was the early warning role played by the special
representative of the UN secretary-general for Somalia, Michael Keating.
This, combined with Keating’s shuttle diplomacy between Garowe and
Hargeisa, temporarily helped de-escalate tensions. Both sides
subsequently rejected his overtures.
renewed efforts by the UN envoy, with clear statements of support by
the Somali government and behind-the-scenes diplomacy by influential
outside powers, likely offer the best means to de-escalate the looming
President Farmajo, to his credit, has made repeated appeals for both sides to show restraint.
he lacks sufficient leverage to persuade them to step back,
particularly as his relations with both Hargeisa and Garowe are
Farmajo’s voice is important. He should continue to call on both sides
to avert war, press for UN mediation and avoid giving any sense that
Mogadishu supports Puntland’s belligerence (his statement on 26 June
2018, Somalia’s Independence Day, struck precisely the right tone).He
also should redouble efforts to smooth his own relations with President
Gas and resume dialogue with Somaliland, suspended since 2017.
Ethiopia, arguably, is the one country with longstanding ties to and
real leverage over both Puntland and Somaliland. Addis Ababa’s past
interventions were instrumental in brokering temporary truces.
time, however, Ethiopia has appeared reluctant to get involved,
possibly due in part to the complexity of the crisis – its inter- and
intra-clan conflicts, colonial borders and secession issues – and in
part to wariness that an intervention could be perceived by Somalis as
meddling and inflame anti-Ethiopian sentiment.
That said, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has stepped up
the country’s diplomatic engagement in Africa and beyond. Somali leaders
and foreign diplomats largely welcomed his visit to Mogadishu in June
as an ambitious but promising attempt to recalibrate Ethiopia’s
traditionally troubled relations with its eastern neighbour. Prime
Minister Abiy has his hands full with his reform agenda, security
concerns and a still unsettled transition at home, efforts to make peace
with Eritrea and calls for his intervention in other regional crises,
notably by bolstering Ethiopia’s role in mediating South Sudan’s civil
war. Tasking him with resolving a conflict in northern Somalia that may
appear less strategically significant might be a tough ask. But the
implications of an escalation around Tukaraq for the stability of
Somalia as a whole should be of concern to Addis Ababa. Prime Minister
Abiy should lend his country’s heft to efforts by the UN, pressing
Garowe and Hargeisa to allow for a renewal of UN efforts.
The UAE, which after Prime Minister Abiy’s June 2018 visit to Abu Dhabi
appears to have reinvigorated its cooperation and relations with
Ethiopia, and maintains close ties with both Puntland and Somaliland,
could also help defuse tensions. An escalation would clearly be
detrimental to Emirati interests, likely upsetting Abu Dhabi’s
significant investments in both Somaliland and Puntland. For now, a
visible Emirati role might not make sense, given friction between Abu
Dhabi and Mogadishu (though relations may improve, as some reports
suggest Abiy is mediating between the Emirati and Somali governments).
Even now, though, the UAE and other states could discretely encourage Puntland and Somaliland leaders to accept UN mediation.
The immediate goal of any mediation should be to quickly broker a
truce. Parties should tone down provocative rhetoric, pull combat forces
out of contested areas, particularly around Tukaraq, allow in
humanitarian aid, and submit to a process of third-party mediation,
without precondition, to find a longer-term solution to the dispute. One
option for the latter might be the African Union Border Programme,
which is part of the African Union (AU)’s Peace and Security Department
and which has a full-fledged team that arbitrates and demarcates
disputed borders. Though in principle this applies only to borders
between states, AU officials have expressed a willingness to play a
role. According to one senior AU official: "We have called on the Somali
government and written a note verbale to appeal to them to utilise the
AU Border Programme tool to resolve internal border disputes. If they
give us a try we can turn that border into one of cooperation and not
Beside renewing its mediation efforts, the UN mission should initiate
local peacebuilding efforts in both disputed areas. Such efforts should
involve clerics and local clan leaders to initiate grassroots
reconciliation efforts, which have helped bridge divisions and curb
violence in other parts of Somalia.
Puntland and Somaliland are sliding toward a protracted conflict with
enormously destabilising consequences for not only northern Somalia but
the country as a whole. War is still avoidable, but to forestall it both
sides need to take a step back, dial down their rhetoric and allow for
mediation led by the UN. Their long-running dispute over Soog and Sanaag
regions will inevitably take time to resolve. But the priority today is
for the two sides to de-escalate, arrive at some modus vivendi and
accept a mechanism for determining that status. The alternative is a war
in northern Somalia that would be extremely costly to both sides,
tarnish their international reputations, worsen an already grave
humanitarian predicament and undercut efforts to counter Al-Shabaab and
the small, but deadly ISIS branch in Puntland.