The rivalry between Mogadishu and Hargeisa could be overcome by the common interests nurtured by the two countries but is blocked by the respective nationalisms that prevent the emergence of a genuine and serious political dialogue.

By Pasquale Pagano


The tensions between the Republic of Somaliland and Somalia remain high and concern the independence of Somaliland, which occurred in 1991, immediately after the outbreak of the civil war that followed the fall of the Siyad Barre regime.

Mogadishu has never accepted the loss of territories in the north. During the colonial phase of the thirties and forties, Somalia was under the fascist yoke, while Somaliland was under the British rule. In 1960, at the time of Independence, the two distinct territorial identities decided to unite, creating the Republic of Somalia. With the advent of Dictator Siyad Barre, the northern Isaq clan saw a gradual erosion of its political representation to the benefit of the southern Somali clans. The economic policies launched by Siyad Barre prevented a real economic development of the northern regions that formed British Somaliland.

The discontent of the northern clans led to armed resistance in the 1980s, when the Somali National Movement (SNM), led by the Isaq clan, predominated in the north. In 1988 Siyad Barre suppressed the revolt by attacking the rebel-controlled cities of Hargeisa and Burao. The massive bombing to conquer the two cities forced half a million people to take refuge in Ethiopia.

The SNM suffered huge losses and lost controlled territories. Its drastically weakened military strength and the defeats suffered forced the armed group to a low-intensity partisan war. Government troops were seen by the population of Somaliland as occupation forces.

The SNM resources to the fall of Siyad Barre, in 1991, reconquering the territory, strengthened by a federal army in disarray, unable to put up resistance, the political and military leaders of the SNM declared the secession, creating the Republic of Somaliland, with capital Hargeisa. The move saved tremendous suffering for the Isaq clan.

While Somaliland population lived in peace and started a modest but progressive economic development, the rest of Somalia fell victim to the civil war.

The various rebel forces that had contributed to the fall of the regime, supported by Western powers with conflicting interests, including the United States and Italy, failed to form a Government of national unity and began an interminable conflict for total supremacy. Not even the intervention of the multinational force, under UN aegis, was able to extinguish the conflict.

After the withdrawal of the multinational force, the various “War Lords” continued to confront each other, ending up being defeated or incorporated by a new military-political force: the Islamic Courts. Under them, Somalia experienced a brief period of stability and peace that ended in 2007, with the invasion of Ethiopian troops supported by the United States, which did not tolerate the Islamic courts for their religious tendencies, even if moderate. A puppet government was established and the Ethiopian intervention created the resistance of radical Islam, carried out by the Al-Shabaab terrorist group. In a short time, this terrorist group managed to conquer the majority of Somalia and was aiming for the invasion of Somaliland.

The invasion never occurred due to the intervention of the African multinational force, supported by the United Nations, the African Union, the United States, and the European Union. This military force, composed mainly of Ethiopian, Ugandan, Burundian and Kenyan troops, regained control of the territory, allowing the formation of a Government, even if very weak and unstable. The Al-Shabaab, though weakened, still pose a serious threat and have recently joined the Daesh.

The Government of Mogadishu has never renounced the integration of the northern territories within the Republic of Somalia, taking advantage of the fact that the international community has never recognized the independence of Somaliland.

The discrimination and violence suffered by the southern clans during the period of Siyad Barre, the chaos observed in Somalia after its fall, and the ability to administer the territories of the north allowing peace and relative economic development are the main factors that drive Somaliland to maintain the independent state address and refuse to enter a federal system proposed by Somalia.

The dispute between Somaliland and Puntland was also encouraged by Mogadishu in response to the controversial economic agreement between the Hargeisa government, the multinational Emirate’s DP World and Ethiopia on the project of modernization and expansion of the port of Berbera. Mogadishu officially protested at the Arab League, declaring the contract illegal as, according to his view, Somaliland is an integral part of Somalia temporarily occupied by rebel forces. According to this logic, the agreement violates the territorial sovereignty of the Republic.

Mogadishu, in the face of this refusal, has used semi-autonomous states, such as Puntland, to trigger conflicts over proxy, weaken Somaliland’s military capacity and economy. In January 2018, Somali Minister Gamal Mohammed Hassan visited the disputed city of Badhan between the two countries, declaring it Somali territory. A Few days later, Somaliland troops conquered the nearby cities of Tukaraq Sool and Sanaag in Puntland, in response to the provocation of the Government of Mogadishu, initiating a conflict with Puntland.

The rivalry between Mogadishu and Hargeisa could be overcome by the common interests nurtured by the two countries but is blocked by the respective nationalisms that prevent the emergence of a genuine and serious political dialogue.

Between 2020 and 2021 both countries will be affected by the presidential elections. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo is under severe pressure from Somali nationalist forces to re-establish Somaliland with the use of force. The leader of Hargeisa, Muse Bihi, former SNM commander, has adopted an intransigent line in defense of independence, supported by Somaliland Army and Parliament hawks, who consider any meeting with Mogadishu to be blasphemy.

Added to this situation are foreign interferences. The Gulf countries have strong interests in Somaliland. In particular, the United Arab Emirates, which does not take kindly to any effort aimed at a federal regime with Somalia. Their tactic is to manage the two countries separately. If in Somaliland diplomatic and economic relations are giving excellent results, in Somalia the Emirates encounter serious problems with the current government and are financing the opposition, in the hope of a favorable regime change.

Somaliland has acquired greater geostrategic importance with the war in Yemen. Not only are the Arab Emirates very close to the Government of Hargeisa. Other international players are establishing economic relations, even if they still do not recognize Somaliland as an independent sovereign entity. These include the United States, Iran, Kenya, and China.

As a counterweight, Qatar and Turkey support Mogadishu. Turkey is building its first military base abroad in Somalia.

Somalia and Somaliland, despite these profound divisions, share many common interests that could be the basis for engaging in meaningful dialogue and resolving contrasts closely linked to their respective nationalisms.

In terms of security, Al-Shabaab threatens both countries and military cooperation would be effective to inflict the last blow and eradicate this terrorist group.

There are obvious common economic interests. The livestock trade allows Somalia to access imports and exports by exploiting the port of Berbera and the commercial corridor that is being created between Ethiopia and Somaliland. Furthermore, joint ventures could be launched to exploit oil and natural gas present in both territorial waters.

Despite these points of common interest, the two countries remain hostile and the risk of latent conflict. To avoid this, we need international mediation capable of overcoming rivalries and making the respective nationalistic forces reason. Ethiopia and Turkey have proposed to play the role of mediator, but they are two unsuitable powers as they support Somaliland and Somalia respectively, therefore not able to ensure the role of the third party.

The only international entity suitable for mediation capable of initiating a serious and fruitful dialogue is the African Union, in collaboration with the United Nations and the European Union. The biggest obstacle is that Somaliland continues to demand to be recognized internationally as a sovereign and independent state.

Hargeisa is preparing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the declaration of independence and nationalistic forces increase their opposition to any opening of dialogue with Mogadishu. The commitment of a neutral entity such as the African Union would have concrete possibilities to make the two historical rivals think, making it clear that détente and any form of federal or cooperative unity would offer obvious economic advantages for both countries and would strengthen stability and regional peace. Is the African Union ready to take on this responsibility? At the moment the question remains unanswered.

Original Italian language story titled “Somalia e Somaliland: quella lunga rivalità tra Nazioni gemelle” by L’Indro, an Italian newspaper and we translated using google translator

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