Somalia in the cross-hairs of changing Red Sea–Horn dynamics

Beyond the rapprochement with Eritrea, Abiy pushed early for a collaborative axis in the Horn of Africa based around Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. However, this initiative appears similarly to have largely stalled.53 The three countries signed a ‘Tripartite Agreement’ in September 2018 to promote regional cooperation, which was reaffirmed with a ‘Joint Plan of Action’ in January 2020. Both declarations lacked specifics. That said, the meetings have provided a platform for multilateral engagement over regional issues. There has also been an uptick in somewhat regular bilateral meetings at the ministerial and head-of-state levels since Abiy took office. Abiy’s positive relations with Farmajo and the FGS have complicated Ethiopia’s links to Somaliland over the Berbera port investment and corridor plans. The Farmajo administration has also been able to leverage Ethiopian support in strengthening its position domestically.

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Given the intersection of coastal and security dynamics, the governments of Somalia and Somaliland have also been caught up in the evolving agenda of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The FGS appears to be making the most of the intersection of these trends, which is unsettling a pattern of relative weakness for the FGS in its relations with the federal member states (FMS).54 In particular, Somalia’s federal and regional governments have been drawn into the Saudi–Emirati–Qatari rift since 2017; this has affected the relations of the FGS and the FMS with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, and complicated relations between the FGS and FMS as well as those between the FGS and Somaliland.

The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf has created a problem for the Farmajo administration, which was elected in early 2017 and enjoyed strong backing from Qatar

When the diplomatic crisis erupted in mid-2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought support from the Horn of Africa in isolating Qatar. This created a problem for the Farmajo administration, which was elected in early 2017 and enjoyed strong backing from Qatar. The FGS sought to remain neutral and offered to help resolve differences between the two sides. However, the UAE, in particular, had expected more definitive support from Somalia, given the security assistance it provided to the FGS.55 Given that the UAE is an important source of rents for the FMSs, the FGS’s approach to Gulf situation was also a key issue for the regional administrations. The FMSs criticized the Farmajo administration and formed the Council of Interstate Cooperation (CIC) that announced its support for the Saudi–Emirati position against Qatar.

Similarly, Somaliland has backed the UAE, which was a convenient pressure point on the FGS. Since Somaliland had reached an agreement with Dubai Ports World in late 2016 and early 2017 to redevelop Berbera port, it had additional incentive to support the Emirati position. At the time, this upended an internationally supported tendering process for the development of the wider Berbera trade corridor between Somaliland and Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s road network had already been significantly upgraded to the Somaliland border (Ethiopia has a medium-term target for 20 percent of its trade to be conducted via Berbera). Ethiopia’s concerns over the role of the UAE in the project were allayed over the subsequent months as negotiations between Ethiopia, Somaliland and the UAE reached an accommodation deal in March 2018 just before Abiy came to power, giving Ethiopia a 19 percent stake in the port and road upgrade project, with 51 percent for Dubai Ports World and the remaining 30 percent for the Government of Somaliland.56 Notably, although neither country has formally recognized Somaliland’s sovereignty, they, in effect, violated Somalia’s sovereignty by negotiating directly Somaliland. Furthermore, the Emiratis also began to accept visa applications on Somaliland passports.

For the Emiratis, the agreement with Ethiopia and Somaliland achieved two objectives. First, it further cemented the UAE’s influence over the development of port infrastructure in the western Indian Ocean and the Red Sea—alongside its position in Assab (Eritrea) and Bosasso (Puntland)—after its unsuccessful attempts for concessions to run Mogadishu port (which were given to a Turkish company) and make upgrades to Mombasa port in Kenya (given to a Chinese company). Dubai Ports World was similarly under pressure in Djibouti, where a dispute over its flagship Doraleh container facility saw it lose out to a Chinese company (although a legal dispute in this case is ongoing).57 Second, the agreement was accompanied by a parallel deal with Somaliland to host an Emirati military base adjacent to the port. This base would complement the UAE military presence in Assab and a base established on the Yemeni island of Socotra off the Somali coast.58

Between the March 2018 announcement of the Berbera corridor accommodation deal and Abiy’s June 2018 visit to Mogadishu, President Farmajo leveraged the controversy created by the Berbera deal to significantly bolster his position vis-à-vis the federal parliament and to push back on pressure from Saudi Arabia and especially the UAE to break ties with Qatar. In turn, this has helped Farmajo assert his administration’s position against the regional FMS administrations—with some assistance from Ethiopia and sometimes over the objections of the international community. During April 2018 Farmajo’s stand-off with parliament over the response to the Berbera accommodation deal enabled Farmajo to force the resignation of Mohamed Osman Jawari—the speaker of the lower house of parliament, who had been in place since 2012 and overseen frequent attacks by parliament on the previous administration.59 The Somali security services’ seizure of $9–10 million in cash carried into Somalia in April by an Emirati flight brought the tensions with UAE to a head. Somalia announced it was suspending security cooperation with the UAE; the Emiratis, in turn, withdrew security training missions in Mogadishu and in Bosasso and closed a hospital built in Mogadishu, severing diplomatic relations with Somalia.60

In June, following the break in diplomatic ties, Abiy arrived in Mogadishu to meet with Farmajo: the two leaders promised ‘brotherly’ cooperation and Abiy, somewhat surprisingly, announced that Ethiopia would jointly invest in four Somali port projects.61 Details of which ports were not mentioned, but one was assumed to be Berbera. The move may have been an attempt by Abiy to smooth diplomatic relations as it seemed to re-announce the Berbera accommodation deal but with support from the FGS.

In September 2018 the FMSs announced they would sever relations with the FGS, ostensibly over the FGS’s sharing of aid flows. Farmajo then sought to reinforce his position against the FMS administrations, beginning with the election process in South West State of Somalia. Farmajo called on Ethiopian assistance to prevent Muktar Robbow from winning election as FMS president. Robbow, who enjoys strong clan constituency in south-west Somalia, is a former senior leader within al-Shabaab who was purged from the group in 2013 and then defected to the government in 2017. In December 2018, Robbow was detained, reportedly with support from Ethiopian forces, and remains under house arrest in Mogadishu. When the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Somalia, Nicholas Haysom, raised concerns about the electoral process, Farmajo’s administration expelled him.62 Farmajo’s preferred candidate Abdiaziz Laftagareen subsequently won the South West State of Somalia presidency. During 2019 Farmajo sought to extend his administration’s influence over the FMS election processes in Galmudug and Hirshabelle; both of these administrations are suffering from significant internal infighting, already leaving them more open to influence from the FGS. Farmajo also tried to influence the August 2019 elections in Jubaland, supporting rival candidates to incumbent FMS president Ahmed Madobe.

The Farmajo administration’s intervention in the Jubaland elections raised tensions between FGS and Kenya, which supports Madobe’s FMS administration. Somalia–Kenya relations area already strained over the issue of their disputed maritime boundary. Jubaland’s territory runs the length of the Kenya–Somalia border, the maritime portion of which is the subject of an ongoing legal dispute. The stakes of the dispute are high, connected to the exploitation of offshore oil and gas. Kenya has already awarded licences for exploration based on its version of the boundary, while the FGS has been developing the framework for the oil and gas sector. Tensions have been building on this issue since the formal international recognition of the FGS as the sovereign government of Somalia in 2012. A hearing on the boundary dispute is set at the International Court of Justice in June 2020. Tensions in Jubaland, thus, link to a wider security and economic issue.63

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