I. Introduction

The question of Somaliland’s sovereignty is, of course, at the center of tensions between Mogadishu and Hargeisa.


Tensions between Somaliland and Somalia center on a dispute over Somalilanders’ claim to political independence, which they declared in 1991. Neither Somalia nor any other country has ever accepted the claim. But the frictions are rooted in events several decades earlier.


When they gained independence in 1960 from two different colonial powers – Somaliland from the British and Somalia from the Italians – the two territories unified to become the Somali Republic. But many Somalilanders both felt that the new country’s government in Mogadishu was dominated by representatives from the south (which it was) and blamed economic policies set in Mogadishu for their region’s underdevelopment.

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The situation boiled over in the 1980s, when the Somali National Movement (SNM), led by members of Somaliland’s dominant Isaq clan, launched an insurgency against military dictator Siyad Barre, who in turn ramped up repression of Isaq civilians in the north. In 1988, the Barre regime responded to insurgent attacks on Hargeisa and Burao with a brutal bombing campaign that left Hargeisa in rubble and forced some half a million Somalilanders to flee to Ethiopia. Barre’s regime came to an end in 1991, when rebel movements in the south ousted it from Mogadishu and the SNM routed it from the north. As warlords continued to fight for dominance in the south, Somaliland’s leaders decided to break away. On 18 May 1991, they proclaimed the independent Republic of Somaliland.

Since then, Somaliland has developed many trappings of a state. It has its own civilian administration, armed forces, and currency. It administers its own elections, which international observers have broadly described as free and fair. Its private sector, especially in the export of livestock, has driven local economic growth. As discussed below, Somaliland and donors also struck a “special arrangement” under which donors channel their support directly to Hargeisa. Nevertheless, no country recognizes its statehood.

The question of Somaliland’s sovereignty is, of course, at the center of tensions between Mogadishu and Hargeisa. During previous rounds of talks between 2012 and 2015, the two sides made progress on practical issues of cooperation, such as airspace management, but failed to close the gap on the fundamental issue of Somaliland’s status. While negotiations were ongoing, tensions eased. Yet after talks collapsed in 2015, relations deteriorated once again, taking a dramatic turn for the worse.

This report looks at how and why the dispute between Somaliland and Somalia heated up – and then cooled down – over the last two years. It then makes the case for renewed talks between the parties, suggesting ways of making those discussions as productive as possible while limiting acrimony. The report also assesses the role of outside powers, primarily the Gulf States, Turkey, and Ethiopia, in Somalia-Somaliland dynamics and the ways in which they might contribute to mediation between the two sides. It is based on interviews with serving and former officials, journalists, civil society representatives and diplomats, in Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Nairobi, conducted in the period February-May 2019, as well as follow-up telephone interviews with these sources, and supplemental interviews with officials in Abu Dhabi, Ankara, Doha and Riyadh.

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