Berbera’s history is a testament to how a small city can become a confluence of power, wealth, and influence in the geopolitical landscape of the Horn of Africa. Its strategic location and natural resources have made it a coveted piece of real estate for superpowers and regional players alike. However, it is important to remember that many of its beneficiaries have been responsible for atrocities against the people of Somaliland. 

In this piece, Ambassador Rhoda J Elmi, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Somaliland, explores the history of Berbera and its significance in the geopolitical landscape of the region.

Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, former prime minister of the Somali Republic, traveled to Washington DC in November 1962, where he met with the JFK administration with an offer of an alliance between the Somali Republic and the United States, offering the Americans, the use of the strategic Somaliland coastline and Berbera.

In exchange, Sharmarke wanted American weapons, military training for the newly established Somali military, and financial assistance for his impoverished nation.


The Americans, knowing that Somalia wanted to wage war against Ethiopia, turned down the offer due to strong, close ties that existed between Ethiopia and the US.

Spurned by the Americans, Sharmarke took his offer and shopping list to Moscow and the Soviet Union, who readily accepted it.

Berbera A Confluence Of Power, Wealth, And Influence In The Horn Of Africa
Arrival ceremonies for the Prime Minister of the Somali Republic, Dr. Abdirashid Ali Shermarke. Standing on reviewing platform in the foreground (L-R): Prime Minister Shermarke; President John F. Kennedy; Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Somali Republic, Abdullahi Issa Mohamud; Ambassador of the Somali Republic, Dr. Omar Mohallim Mohamed (mostly hidden on edge of frame). Ambassador of Nicaragua and Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, Dr. Guillermo Sevilla-Sacasa, stands in group left of platform. The Executive Office Building is visible in the background. South Lawn, White House, Washington, D.C. [Blemishes on image are original to the negative.]

What followed was 14 years of military and civilian cooperation between the Soviet Union and Somalia, built exclusively around the Berbera agreement.

As a result, this agreement produced thousands of military and civilian personnel, trained in the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries, plus the procurement of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Soviet military hardware for Somalia.

It was also under this agreement that the longest runway in Africa, which you often hear about was built in Berbera, as well as some port renovations and some other needed projects.

Now, just to name a few of the officers who benefited from the Berbera agreement include the current president of Somaliland, President Muse Bihi, Interior Minister Mohamed Kaahin, and opposition leader Faisal Ali Waraabe, who trained as an engineer.

Sadly, other beneficiaries of this alliance also include, General Gaani, the butcher of Hargeysa – General Morgan, and General Abdiaziz Ali Barre, among many others, notorious for the brutal destruction of Somaliland and its people, in the 1980’s.

The list is endless, but it’s safe to assume, that close to 80% of former Somali Republic military, air force, and navy officers owe their training to Berbera.

After the Soviets switched alliances with Ethiopia in 1977, a similar pact with similar provisions was quickly established with the Americans.

Berbera airport was then designated by NASA, as an emergency landing runaway for the US shuttle program, at a rate of approximately 50 million dollars per year.

Berbera wasn’t just “prime real estate” coveted by the superpowers. It was also, hands down, the single largest hard currency earner for the former Somali Republic, thanks in large part, to its livestock exports to the Arabian Peninsula, established by Somaliland traders, circa 1840.

The second largest source of hard currency is foreign aid.

Lastly, I hope this short dive down history lane puts into context the madness we are witnessing from Mogadishu politicians, and the Somali adage “Dawaco halkay macal ku barato ayey macaluul ugu bakhtidaa”- “A fox starves where it got plenty before” sums up best some of their insane claims.

Ambassador Rhoda J ElmiAmbassador Rhoda J Elmi,

The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs

Republic of Somaliland

Read: Shermarke, Abdirashid A., recorded interview by E.A. Bayne, on August 4, 1965, (page number), John F. Kennedy Library Oral History Program.