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Somaliland eyes Ethiopia's recognition amid Somalia tensions

Friday May 17, 2024
By Eshete Bekele

Somalia considers Somaliland as part of its territory even though the region has had effective autonomy since 1991Image: Eshete Bekele/DW

Somaliland is keen to conclude a controversial deal with Ethiopia that would see Addis Ababa recognize Somaliland as an independent state. Somalia's strong opposition to the deal could increase already tense relations.

Somalia's breakaway province of Somaliland is commemorating the anniversary of its unilateral declaration of independence on May 18, 1991 — even though its claims of sovereignty have remained unrecognized by the international community.  

Amid the preparations, Somaliland's authorities have been preparing to conclude a controversial deal with neighboring Ethiopia.

Once signed, the agreement would cement Ethiopia's recognition of Somaliland as an independent state — despite strong objections from Somalia's government.

In return for landlocked Ethiopia's official recognition, Somaliland will lease out 20 kilometers (12 miles) of sea access for 50 years while also allowing Ethiopia to build a military base on its coast.

Somaliland's leader, Muse Bihi Abdi, signed a memorandum of understanding in January 2024 as a first step towards a firm agreement with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Details of the memorandum were not disclosed. After its signing, Ethiopian officials hinted that the final agreement would include a commercial port for its maritime traffic, but provisions for a port specifically for Ethiopia's commercial purposes does not seem to be on offer. 

Somaliland's Berbera Port "will be available for all entities including Ethiopian business people and government to use," Somaliland Finance Minister Saad Ali Shire told DW. "So, there is no need for another port to be built."

What happens next? 

DW understands that a technical team appointed by Bihi has submitted its recommendations for an agreement with Ethiopia.

The team, which includes "specialized international law firms and Somaliland lawyers has started working on the Somaliland position paper" for the final agreement, a source close to the government told DW.

Somaliland's Berbera port offers Ethiopia a gateway to the Red Sea and further north to the Suez CanalImage: MUSTAFA SAEED/AFP

Somaliland has reportedly identified three possible sites that Ethiopia could lease for its military base.

"I'm not privy to tell exactly the names of these three areas that we are thinking about, but it's something that will be decided together with the Ethiopian counterpart," Essa Kayd, Somaliland's Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister, told DW.

"As soon as we sign the agreement and agree on the naval base and all the conditions that are attached to it, and we're satisfied — right after that Ethiopia will do the proclamation and recognize Somaliland."

"I think I'd say the coming months maybe two months or so should be finalized," Kayd added.

Why is recognition important for Somaliland?

Somalilanders have high hopes of the benefits that Ethopia's recognition will bring.

"Politically it is important because once recognized, we will have a voice in the international political platform," said Saad Ali Shire.

"We will be able to connect with the international financial system, we will be able to borrow money from the international financial institutions."

Government officials, opposition leaders and analysts in Somaliland's capital Hargeisa insist that Somaliland is sovereign. They resist terms such as a "breakaway" or a "self-declared" to assert sovereignty. 

"We flagged it, as it isn't our legal status as a country," said Fatima Omer, a communications advisor for the Somaliland Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Somaliland's journey towards 're-recognition'

The former British Somaliland gained its independence on June 26, 1960. But enjoyed it only for five days.

Then, on July 1, 1960, it united with Somalia Italiana and formed the Republic of Somalia. The merger was intended to unite all Somali-speaking people, who had been divided by the colonizers.

"It was not a project of Somalia and Somaliland, it was a project of getting back the land of Somali-speaking people," said Jama Musse Jama, an ethnomathematician and a staunch campaigner for Somaliland.

However, it didn't last long, and, according to Jama, "that was the mistake the Somalilanders have done." 

The whole world — especially the West — was against the project of creating a large Somali-speaking country that would have been the largest in the region.

"Somalilanders understood that was not working and they tried immediately to go back and get their independence," he explained.

It took Somaliland more than three decades to unilaterally declare its independence after the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's government in 1991. But the declaration was never recognized internationally.

That's something the government in Hargeisa and campaigners like Jama Musse Jama are still pushing for.

"The recognition already has been granted in 1960. We are trying to rectify those mistakes and get the re-recognition of Somaliland," said Jama.

Mohamed Warsame, a former UN staffer who now heads one of Somaliland's opposition parties, criticizes the international community for turning its back on Somaliland.

"We were funding and financing our republic, which is independent and sovereign, for the last 34 years, while the international community gave us their back," he said.

Hargeisa is the capital of Somaliland, which unilaterallyy declared its independency in 1991Image: Eshete Bekele/DW

Strong opposition from Somalia

Even now as Somalilanders feel they are close to what they have been chasing for more than three decades, their dream faces strong opposition from Somalia.

Somalia never accepted Somaliland's declaration of independence — and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud nullified the memorandum of understanding five days after it was signed, accusing Ethiopia of "attempting to annex" the territory of Somalia.

"This illegal action will cause tensions, conflict and regional instability if it is not retracted," Somalia's president warned last January.

Tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia have spiked since Somalia expelled Ethiopia's Ambassador to Mogadishu and ordered the closure of consulates in Hargeisa and Garowe, capital of Somalia's semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

Ethiopia-Somalia relations strained

"We're aware that [Somalian] President Hassan Sheikh and his group have been running around different countries and different partners to have this MoU nullified, but I don't think that there's any possibility for them to do so," Kayd told DW.

"Somaliland is a sovereign state, a sovereign government, as such we can get into bilateral relations and sign agreements with every country."

The tension between the two neighbors with a long protracted history has been a concern for the international community. But this is "irrational" for Mohamed Farah, director of the Hargeisa-based Academy for Peace and Development.

"Somaliland has the right under international law to get international recognition. Ethiopia has the right unilaterally to recognize Somaliland," he argued.

"If the government of Somaliland is able to convince the opposition parties, the public, the parliament, that this MoU and the agreement that will follow serve the best interest of the country, I don't see a big obstacle that can block the way," said Mubarik Abdulahi, the first deputy chair of the Barwaaqo political association, based in Somaliland.

Retired diplomat Mohamed Warsame, who once served as Bihi's advisor, remains upbeat about the possible recognition of Somaliland.

"If Ethiopia leads the way, we will be the 55th member of the African Union," he said.


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