Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Somalia must reconsider its policy towards Somaliland amidst the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU

By Mohamed Rage Hassan

I.  Introduction

The broader and multifaceted underpinning Somaliland’s pursuit of self-determination is not adequately discussed. The cause encompasses historical variations, the enduring impact of colonial legacies, discontent stemming from the 1960s union, and the subsequent marginalization of power that has influenced the emerging post-colonial state political structures. Additionally, the tragedy that Somaliland people faced during the reign of the Siyad Barre regime, further contributes to the complex backdrop. Certainly, there is a legal-rational justification that Somaliland relies on to assert its position, which it perceives as having been involuntarily merged with another state colonized by Italy.

The Somali elite in Mogadishu is unwilling to acknowledge the bitter reality unfolding before them, nor are they making any efforts to make sacrifices that would convince the people of Somaliland about the advantages of the union. The intentional refusals by the Somali elite from the former Italian Somalia will not streamline the type of union they are seeking to establish in the long run, as the elites in Hargeisa feel a sense of being forcibly taken. Before exploring the conversations around unionism and separatism, it is crucial for Mogadishu to recognize that Somaliland joined Italian Somaliland involuntarily, forming the Somali Republic with the aim of pursuing the perished irredentism concept of greater Somalia. This acknowledgment could cultivate a sense of mutual acceptance and commitment on both sides. However, at present, Mogadishu tends to assert that Somaliland is part of it, similar to the existing clan-based federal states. In theory and according to international law, the world still views Somaliland as a part of Somalia. However, in practice, Somaliland is a fully-fledged state that has fulfilled all the necessary conditions for statehood, and it is independent from Somalia since it withdrew from the union in the early 1990s.

The political alienation experienced by Somaliland throughout its existence has led to play a dangerous game, and Ethiopia capitalized on this sense of alienation. However, Somaliland’s inability to join international systems and gain recognition from the international community has compelled it to make unconventional moves. For instance, establishing diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which angered the superpower, China. To break free from this vicious cycle of political alienation, Somaliland recently signed an unprecedented and dangerous Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Ethiopia.

In the backdrop of these political realities, especially at this critical moment in which the Ethiopian regime is attempting to take Somali people’s sea territory of Lughaya and Sayla’ through any means possible, there is a need for some form of agreement between Mogadishu and Hargeisa. The question remains: Can any advancements be made in the protracted deadlock between Somalia and Somaliland, which has persisted over the past decade, especially at this critical juncture when Somaliland is under the imminent threat of Ethiopian occupation? While there is a potential for progress, it appears that both parties are not fully dedicated to engaging in negotiations regarding these crucial matters, particularly in the face of a significant threat from a neighboring state that aims to gain access to the sea. However, it is apparent that Mogadishu, currently perceiving itself as a burgeoning government on the brink of establishing some semblance of peace, is overlooking Somaliland, which has faced serious crises over the last year.

These crises, marked by delayed elections and the conflict in Las’ano, have significantly tarnished the reputation of Somaliland. If Mogadishu continues to uphold its stance while taking advantage of the exposed weaknesses of Somaliland, the likelihood of reaching an agreement to collaborate on the defense of the sea coast together will be slim. This article explores possible engagements that could facilitate collaborative efforts between Somaliland and Somalia in defending their territorial sea. It attempts to examine options for political understanding that could be established between the parties

 I.  Analysis of the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU

On January 1 of this year, a meeting was held in Addis Ababa where the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, and the President of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). In this agreement, the President of Somaliland conveyed, on behalf of his government, the leasing of a 20km seaport and military base located in the western coastal area of the Awdal region. This agreement has been analyzed from different perspectives, and the challenges and opportunities it presents to Somaliland are quite apparent.

It is evident that Somaliland will not derive any benefit from this agreement, even if the Ethiopian government clarifies its position on the recognition of Somaliland. It is unlikely to garner recognition from a series of countries based on the traditional norms of recognition. No country has received recognition in the manner that Somaliland seeks from Ethiopia, inviting it to occupy its sea territory. Despite meeting the criteria for statehood, Somaliland has not been formally recognized as an independent state so the arguments in favor of the deliberate land and sea handover to landlocked Ethiopia are based on the notion that it would enable Somaliland to attain recognition and elevate its international standing. It is clear that a recognition given to Somaliland by Ethiopia will not significantly contribute to Somaliland’s endeavors to secure international recognition. If we consider the premise that this agreement might somehow advance Somaliland’s cause, is it rational to exchange our land for this? Moreover, considering Ethiopia’s current global reputation, marked by significant economic difficulties, ethnic divisions, human rights violations, and internal conflicts, raises questions about the impact its stance on Somaliland could have on the international stage.

After the Tigray war, Ethiopia has experienced a diplomatic decline, with Western nations—key players in shaping global international relations and states’ reputations—now perceiving it as inconsequential. It can be asserted that Ethiopia has lost its global reputation. This refutes the arguments that certain intellectuals in Somaliland are presenting in an attempt to convince the public to endorse this agreement. On the other hand, if this agreement, which faces opposition from a significant portion of the Somaliland population, is forcibly implemented or through any other means, the potential impact on the Somaliland economy, heavily reliant on exports and imports, is difficult to comprehend.

Somaliland stands to lose significant tax revenue from the port, and the Berbera port will solely cater to the local market, estimated to be no more than 3-3.5 million people. This will profoundly impact both the government’s tax-dependent revenue and ordinary citizens involved in business along the Ethiopia-Somaliland border. Ethiopia, in turn, will effortlessly supply its populace through the accessed port, imposing taxes on exports and imports, thereby bolstering its annual budget. However, a notable challenge posed by this agreement is that Somali regional state, traditionally having robust trade relations with Somaliland, will now be compelled to redirect their livestock exports and necessary imports to the accessed commercial port in Ethiopia. This shift may potentially alter the existing trade practices between these Somali regional state and Somaliland, moving them to areas where Ethiopia plans to supply its country. Additionally, there is a possibility that the roads Ethiopia is planning, particularly those from Sayla, might pass through either the Oromo region or the Afar region instead of a more direct route to Jigjiga or Diredawa.

Ethiopia has a well-thought-out, long-term strategic plan to safeguard its interests in the sea, particularly if it secures the opportunity to establish control over the coastal area in the Awdal region. Initially, the focus is on asserting its authority over the land between the port and its border shared with Somaliland. Subsequently, there are plans to settle Oromo people in that area, ultimately bringing it under the jurisdiction of the Oromo regional state in Adama. The assertions made by the Ethiopian government and the narratives surrounding leasing and investment are indefensible. The primary motivation for some individuals supporting this agreement appears to be the annoyance it causes to Somalia, which questions the sovereignty of Somaliland and perpetuates the narrative that Somaliland people are secessionists (Gooni-goosato). This characterization is entirely incorrect, as the people of Somaliland had willingly joined Somalia in the pursuit of a greater Somalia in the past. It is disconcerting that southern politicians argue the country is being divided by secessionists, on the other hand, it is crucial for Somalilanders not to move towards granting land to a country that has ambitions to claim it.

II.  Assessing Somalia’s Current Policy

Somalia maintains a steadfast policy regarding Somaliland, continually emphasizing the unity of what they term Somalia. Their primary justification rests on the fact that both states signed and united under the Act of Union in the 1960s. They assert that Somaliland has no right to withdraw from the union, a decision made by its elected representative. Nonetheless, there are individuals lacking awareness and politicians with biased perspectives who even not acknowledge that Somaliland was once an independent state with its own governmental structures. Apart from the conflicting debates where Somaliland and Somalia each argue to defend their positions and determine who is right or wrong, the issue lies in Somalia’s unchanged stance regarding Somaliland since its declaration of independence from the rest of Somalia.

What mostly drives Somalia to maintain its stance are two factors. Firstly, the a lack of maturity among the leading politicians in Somalia, who often fail to present viable initiatives to break the deadlock and do not offer a range of options that would satisfy Somaliland. The underlying reason is that these politicians strive to demonstrate unwavering loyalty to Somali unity and a strong commitment to preserving it, seeking support from the population in the process. Secondly, the African Union, the United Nations, and the international community have distanced themselves from considering Somaliland’s case for self-determination. Instead, they have deferred the matter back to the involved parties, namely Somalia and Somaliland, urging them to negotiate their issues and arrive at a resolution. These international organizations, along with the broader international community, are expected to respect the outcome of these negotiations. These two factors simplify the Somaliland issue from the perspective of Somalia. In relation to this, Somali politicians can be divided into two camps regarding how Somalia should address the Somaliland issue.

One faction believes that there is no entity called Somaliland, considering it a project championed by a specific clan seeking to get substantive power-sharing. They argue for engaging in serious negotiations with this particular clan, persuading them to return under Mogadishu’s rule otherwise suggest considering alternative means to bring them under the administration in Mogadishu. Another group believes it is crucial to engage with Somaliland as a distinct entity, although they are not significantly different from the other group in their approaches and the options presented to Somaliland.

At this moment, Somaliland is grappling with various internal challenges presented by the current government under the leadership of Muse Bihi. One notable issue is the conflict in Lasanod, where the government suffered a loss of reputation as it was compelled to withdraw without a strategic plan, resulting in the devastation and demoralization of the Somaliland military forces. Another concern is the postponed election, which the current government is unprepared to conduct, whcih might plunge Somaliland into chaos. There are various schemes in motion, orchestrated by a specific group, aimed at undermining the existence of Somaliland. This group regards Somaliland as a long-term threat, particularly after acquiring significant armaments and military equipment from Somaliland during the withdrawal of its military forces in Lasanod. Presently, these individuals seek to play a role in the downfall of Somaliland, intensifying tensions with clans that perceive unfair representation in Somaliland’s power-sharing arrangements. Under all of these circumstances, Somalia perceives Somaliland to be currently in a state of decline and in a vulnerable condition. Somalia is making efforts to exploit the situation, taking advantage of Somaliland’s weakened state. Overall, this is counterproductive, as the entire perspective that Somalia politicians have held regarding Somaliland disrespects the case of Somaliland, which has both legal and political foundations.

 III.  Why a Reconsideration is Necessary

At this juncture, as the Ethiopian government is contemplating the annexation of certain parts of Somaliland, it is crucial for Somalia to reassess its policy towards Somaliland. If the deadlock persists, it becomes increasingly feasible for the Ethiopian government to fulfill its aspiration of annexing that territory. The politicians in Mogadishu must alter their mindset, as currently, the Somali people are at risk of losing control of their coastline. It is essential to protect it collectively, as individual efforts may not be sufficient. First and foremost, it is crucial to highlight that the people of Somaliland categorically reject the idea of being part of what is commonly referred to as federal member states. The people of Somaliland firmly believe that they cannot share the same status with the so-called federal member states located in Garowe, Jowhar, Dhusamareb, Baidoa, and Kismayo. They view this scenario as improbable, akin to the sun rising in the west if the Somali politicians, including the president, appear to be endorsing something akin to the “the sun rising in the west.” If they have alternative proposals, those should be thoroughly analyzed and discussed collectively, as it may prove beneficial.

The significance of implementing such critical measures is underscored by the imminent risks posed by the current Ethiopian regime to Somaliland. Any other options that entail a collective effort to address this risk would be highly appreciated. Currently, a viable option is the confederal system, which appears feasible if it is seriously considered and brought to the discussion table. The geopolitical dynamics currently unfolding, with the Ethiopian government planning actions that could severely impact the Somali people as a whole, demand thoughtful analysis by Somali politicians. The current government in Mogadishu should refrain from merely claiming authority over Somaliland territory, as such a stance does little to alter the trajectory of policy. Instead, it should present a variety of options that acknowledge the concerns of Somaliland.

If the Ethiopian regime attempts to seize the Somaliland coastline, there should be an agreement between the people of Somaliland and Somalia, paving the way for collaborative defense of the territorial waters of Somaliland allowing the people of Somalia to move freely within the Somaliland territory and participate in the potential defense. The resistance the Somali people are expected to mount in defense of their territorial waters requires the involvement of inclusive Somali militias, military forces, and anyone devoted to defending Somali dignity. Achieving this scenario is only possible if Somalia changes its position towards Somaliland.

 IV. Conclusion

The complex issues surrounding Somaliland’s pursuit of self-determination are rooted in historical variations, colonial legacies, dissatisfaction with past union, and the political aftermath of the Siyad Barre regime. Despite Somaliland’s legal-rational justification for asserting its position, the unwillingness of the Somali elite in Mogadishu to acknowledge and address the underlying causes perpetuates the stalemate. The geopolitical dynamics, especially with Ethiopia’s involvement and potential annexation, necessitate a reconsideration of Somalia’s current policy towards Somaliland.

The agreement between Somaliland and Ethiopia, particularly the leasing of a seaport and military base, presents a significant threat, also its benefits for Somaliland’s recognition are questionable. The existing deadlock between Somalia and Somaliland, coupled with external challenges in Somaliland, calls for a pragmatic approach and cooperation to safeguard the territorial intact. The confederal system is a potential alternative, and its serious consideration may pave the way for collaborative efforts against the Somali enemy. 

Mohamed Rage Hassan
Email: [email protected]  

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Related articles:

1.What will become of Abiy Ahmed’s ‘acts of aggression’ against the Somali people? By Dr Aweys Omar

2. A pact cast adrift: Navigating the legal maelstrom of the Ethiopia-Somaliland accord By Dayib Sheikh Ahmed (faracadde)

3. The escalating Ethiopia-Somalia rift: A precarious path to conflict By Hassan Tahir  

4Has Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed failed history at the school? failure in history may lead him to failure in leadership By Prof Abdisalam M Issa-Salwe and Abdullahi Salah Osman

5 Abiy Ahmed’s MoU with Muse Bihi threatens Horn of Africa stability By Abdirahman Baadiyow

6-Calculated ambiguity: A sovereign port, access to the sea or a naval base? By Prof Ezekiel Gebissa

7-The historical search for a sea outlet and leadership legacy By Faisal A Roble

8.Ethiopia and Somaliland deal: A declaration of war against Somalia By Hassan Zaylai


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