III. Getting to New Talks: Challenges and Opportunities
A. The Case for Talks
Any resumed dialogue should focus on how Mogadishu and Hargeisa can improve cooperation in mutually beneficial ways. Much as it will be important to resolve the political conflict over Somaliland’s status and overcome a major obstacle to regional stability and economic integration, the time is not yet right. The gap between the parties is too great and could be widened by the likelihood that, with Somalia’s parliamentary and presidential elections coming up (they are planned for 2020 and 2021, respectively), Mogadishu would be under pressure to take hardline positions.
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Regional actors may also object to any talks they deem too ambitious in scope. Abu Dhabi especially has shied away from dealing with the Farmajo government on major policy matters since the Gulf crisis of 2017. The UAE is likely to prefer waiting for Somalia’s next elections – which they hope will replace Farmajo with a new leader more sympathetic to their stance – before proceeding with negotiations in which Somalia might push Somaliland to make substantial concessions that could affect UAE interests. Abu Dhabi may in particular worry about the prospect that talks could shift the balance of power between Mogadishu and Hargeisa to their disadvantage, put Mogadishu in a position to interfere with commercial and military contracts signed solely with Hargeisa, or benefit a rival, such as Qatar or Turkey, that enjoys close ties to Somalia.
Enhancing security cooperation would help both sides reduce the threat from Al-Shabaab.
Against this backdrop, the best course right now would be to pursue preliminary agreements on relatively non-sensitive, technical matters in order to build mutual confidence and pave the way for more sensitive political negotiations.
Much can be done within that framework. To begin, enhancing security cooperation would help both sides reduce the threat from Al-Shabaab, a priority likely to become yet more urgent as the African Union mission (AMISOM) draws down. Intelligence sharing would help, as some of Al-Shabaab’s leaders belong to Isaq, Somaliland’s majority clan, and the group maintains a strong foothold in its territory.
Talks between Hargeisa and Mogadishu likewise could facilitate the resolution of the volatile military standoff between Somaliland and Puntland. Somaliland is more likely to withdraw troops from the front line – an essential step toward de-escalation – if it can secure credible assurances that Mogadishu will not weigh in politically or militarily on Puntland’s side. Although, as outlined above, relations between Mogadishu and Puntland are tense, Mogadishu is still closer to Puntland – a federal member state that has representation in the parliament and government in Mogadishu – than Somaliland.
Somaliland and Somalia also stand to gain from greater economic cooperation. Agreements enabling freer cross-border movement and trade could boost exports from both sides of the border through Somaliland’s Berbera port, including livestock exports to the Arabian Peninsula, and help Somalia’s and Somaliland’s economies. Somaliland’s ambitious Berbera corridor project linking the port to Addis Ababa could similarly stimulate economic growth in Somalia provided the governments agree on how to work together. Agreement on joint management of civil aviation and its revenues – something the two governments achieved in past talks but never implemented (and over which Somalia has recently been working to gain full control) – could give a boost to that sector, with gains for both sides. Somaliland’s banking sector, which is stronger than Somalia’s, might begin working to both sides’ benefit if they agree to bolster integration of their respective financial services.
Recent developments on the economic front underline the need for both sides to work together. Since his appointment in 2017, Hassan Ali Kheire, Somalia’s reformist prime minister, has made the pursuit of debt relief, which would be a major financial windfall for the country, a central goal. Successfully implementing any agreement on debt cancellation, however, would require consensus between Hargeisa and Mogadishu on how those benefits would be shared. In the same vein, Western companies have shown a growing interest in exploring for oil and gas in shared territorial waters. The federal government in Mogadishu has – over the bitter objections of the federal member states – asserted that it will take the lead in these negotiations because it is the internationally recognized sovereign government. But as a practical matter, Mogadishu will need to cultivate consensus with Hargeisa and federal member states to ensure that the agreements it negotiates can be effectively implemented in areas where it has little to no control.
For the Somali nationalists, there is no question that Somaliland belongs in a unified Somalia.
By contrast, the costs of continued non-cooperation could be high. A deepening rift between Hargeisa and Mogadishu could trigger greater instability and possibly prompt violence, especially in the militarized areas contested by Somaliland and Puntland. The growing division could also leave both sides open to manipulation by outside powers seeking to play out transplanted rivalries. The Gulf States may be particularly tempted to intervene as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on the one hand, and Doha on the other, continue to vie for influence in and around Somalia. These rival powers funnel resources to their competing allies in Somaliland and Somalia, elevating some over others and exacerbating social and political schisms within both systems.