II. Mogadishu and Hargeisa: To the Brink and Back

In 2018, Somalia-Somaliland relations frayed to such an extent that renewing talks became, at the time, untenable.


The downward spiral began with military clashes between Somaliland and its neighbor, Puntland, a semi-autonomous region that remains part of Somalia. In January 2018, Somalia’s minister of planning, investment and economic development, Gamal Mohamed Hassan, angered the Somaliland government by making an unannounced visit to Badhan town in his home region of Sanaag, one of two regions claimed by both Somaliland and Puntland. The territorial dispute is longstanding. But Gamal’s was the first visit to the region by a minister from Mogadishu since Somaliland declared independence in 1991. Hargeisa perceived the visit – and the fact that Mogadishu did not consult with Somaliland before Gamal appeared in Badhan – to be a form of meddling in the contested areas and a signal that Somalia did not respect Somaliland’s claims there. Hargeisa warned the move could “jeopardize the relationship” between Somaliland and Somalia and might “lead to clashes”.

It did. Days later, on 8 January, Hargeisa ordered Somaliland forces into Tukaraq, a strategic town then held by Puntland forces on the trade corridor that links the two disputed regions, Sool and Sanaag, with eastern Ethiopia. The fighting left dozens of soldiers dead and sparked an escalation that led to more bouts of fighting between Somaliland and Puntland forces in May, June and November 2018.

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Although Mogadishu sought to defuse the situation that it had helped spark by calling for restraint on both sides, it is ill-suited to the role of peacemaker. Hargeisa continues to see it as an adversary and obstacle to its territorial claims. Moreover, throughout the Farmajo presidency, Mogadishu has been in a tug of war with Puntland, along with all of Somalia’s federal member states, over both power and resources. The role of mediator accordingly fell principally to the then special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia, Michael Keating. The situation on the ground remains volatile and the two parties continue to clash periodically.

As Mogadishu and Hargeisa came to see each other as allies of opposing Gulf powers, their antagonism intensified.


There were other sources of tension as well. In March 2018, Farmajo’s government reacted angrily to the conclusion of a deal between Hargeisa and the Emirati conglomerate, DP World. The deal provides for DP World – a public company in which the Dubai government indirectly holds a majority stake – to modernize and manage Somaliland’s primary port at Berbera. Mogadishu formally protested to the Arab League, declaring the contract null and void and “a violation of Somalia’s sovereignty”. The cabinet also introduced a bill, which was passed by both houses of parliament and signed into law by President Farmajo, rejecting the deal and banning DP World from operating in Somalia. In Hargeisa, Bihi called Somalia’s opposition to the Berbera deal “a declaration of war” and – in light of what he described as “uncalled-for hostility from Somalia” – halted preparations then underway to restart dialogue with Mogadishu.

The intensity of Mogadishu’s reaction in March 2018 marked an escalation from what had previously been more measured opposition to the Berbera deal. After DP World first announced the venture in September 2016, neither then-President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud nor the Farmajo government when it took power had much of a public reaction at all. The UAE maintained that it had an oral agreement with Mogadishu that it could move forward with the project so long as Abu Dhabi continued to uphold a one-Somalia policy.

Two factors might explain Somalia’s subsequent shift in tone. First was the early March 2018 announcement that neighboring heavyweight Ethiopia would take a 19 percent stake in the Berbera project – a move that Mogadishu may well have seen as a strategically threatening demonstration of growing closeness between Addis Ababa and Hargeisa. And second, was growing antagonism between Mogadishu and the UAE.

The rift between Mogadishu and Abu Dhabi was of particular importance. It had been expanding since June 2017, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut off ties with and imposed a blockade on Qatar. At that time, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi pressed countries across the region, including Somalia, to cut their ties with Doha. Farmajo asserted that he would not take sides in the dispute, but UAE officials were convinced that, as a practical matter, he had aligned himself with both Qatar and Turkey. In response, Abu Dhabi increased its support to Somaliland and the federal member states, several of which had announced their support for the Saudi-led bloc during the crisis. This move exacerbated tensions between Abu Dhabi and Mogadishu. As Mogadishu and Hargeisa came to see each other as allies of opposing Gulf powers, their antagonism intensified.

After Somalia enacted legislation against DP World, Mogadishu and Hargeisa hardened their respective positions. Foreign aid delivery became a battleground. In June 2018, Mogadishu opposed a donors’ proposal to renew the Somaliland “special arrangement”, which came into force in 2013 and expired in 2016, and which permitted donors to bypass Mogadishu (the normal channel for delivering aid to the federal member states) and send assistance directly to Hargeisa. The Farmajo government expressed concern that “singling out an individual state or region for special arrangements could have a serious impact on the efforts to deepen federalism and nation-building”. Western donors pushed back, arguing that Somaliland’s “special circumstances” merited a different approach. Hargeisa viewed Mogadishu’s opposition to formal renewal of the “special arrangement” as a hostile act.

Both Hargeisa and Mogadishu say they are ready to reengage in talks.

The dispute also played out in the immigration arena. In mid-2018, authorities on both sides took measures to hinder travel between their territories. Somaliland stamped Somalia passports with a visa, on the grounds that Somaliland was a separate country. For their part, Somalia immigration officials began confiscating passports that contained such visa stamps, replacing them with clean ones at a cost – thus penalizing citizens of Somalia who traveled to Somaliland.

Mogadishu also asserted itself in the field of airspace management. In March and June 2018, the federal government took significant steps toward assuming full control of the airspace over Somaliland and Somalia from the International Civil Aviation Organization, which had been playing this role out of Nairobi since the 1990s. These steps ignored a 2013 agreement Hargeisa had struck with the previous Somalia government during talks in Turkey, according to which a new body based in Hargeisa would jointly manage both territories’ airspace and revenues from air traffic.

Tensions have eased a bit since 2018. For the most part, the first half of 2019 saw a de-escalation in rhetoric and action. On the positive side of the equation, both Hargeisa and Mogadishu say they are ready to reengage in talks, likely as a result – at least in part – of international pressure. In conversations with Crisis Group, a high-level Somaliland official described Somaliland and Somalia as “partners” and recognized the need to resolve their disagreements. The Somalia government has appointed a point person for talks in the presidency, Dr. Nur Dirie Hersi Fursade, who says Mogadishu is ready to talk “without preconditions”.

But there is also less positive news, including Somalia’s decision to pull its delegation out of a 25 June 2019 consultative meeting convened in Nairobi by a private Swiss-based organization. While Mogadishu’s decision could reflect fraying bilateral relations with Kenya – which is embroiled in a diplomatic dispute with Somalia over a maritime boundary – the incident illustrates the challenges of designing a workable framework for talks.

Moreover, Somaliland’s ongoing efforts to project itself as a sovereign state and build support elsewhere in Africa are a continuing source of tension between Mogadishu and Hargeisa. Recently, Somaliland’s foreign minister visited Kenyan foreign ministry officials in Nairobi, after which Nairobi provocatively tweeted that the talks had covered issues of concern to “both countries”. Shortly after that, President Bihi traveled to Guinea where he was given a red-carpet welcome. Somalia responded with ire in both cases. It formally protested the Kenyan tweet as an “affront to Somalia’s sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity”, and announced that it was cutting diplomatic ties with Guinea.

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