B. Managing Nationalist Politics

The presidents of Somaliland and Somalia face political constraints and expectations that shape their maneuvering room. They will need to navigate them carefully to maximize chances for successful talks.


Of the two leaders, Farmajo faces greater limitations and is likely to be the more reluctant to entertain a return to negotiations. Having come to power in 2017 touting a nationalist message, he has emphasized the importance of a strong central government even as he struggles (not always successfully) with leaders of federal member states. Toward the end of 2018, state leaders, frustrated with what they described as Farmajo’s failure to consult them on key issues (including resource sharing, the balance of power between them and Mogadishu, and Mogadishu’s alleged efforts to swing elections in federal member states in favor of candidates it backs), threatened to cease all cooperation with the central government. Early the next year, Farmajo sought to mend fences, publicly apologizing for his part in the souring of relations. Still, tensions remain high.

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Against the backdrop of these disputes, and amid Al-Shabaab’s continued security threat, Farmajo’s once-broad base has begun to erode. With the presidential election approaching, he likely will be cautious about moves that could cost him further support, including initiating negotiations with Hargeisa in which he inevitably would be pressed to make concessions. He will doubtless be especially wary of making compromises relating to Somaliland’s sovereign status. For the Somali nationalists who form the bedrock of Farmajo’s political base, there is no question that Somaliland belongs in a unified Somalia.

In Hargeisa, President Bihi has more flexibility. Many Somalilanders are drawn to the idea of talks that could advance their claims to independence. Moreover, he faces no presidential vote until 2022, affording him more time than Farmajo before he must turn his attention to campaigning.

Still, Bihi would confront his own internal challenges should he wish to re-embark on talks. Influential hardline separatists would likely pressure him to refrain from moving toward greater cooperation with Mogadishu. Many from Bihi’s generation lost loved ones in the late 1980s when the Siyad Barre regime attacked northern cities. They prize the level of autonomy that Somaliland obtained and chafe at the prospect of conceding anything on that point. Bihi himself, a former commander in the Somali National Movement (the insurgent movement that fought against Siyad Barre), is less open to compromise than his predecessor Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Sillanyo”. As for the generation of Somalilanders who became politically aware after 1991, they may wonder why the current state of limbo – which is all they have ever known – needs to be addressed at all.

Bihi also faces other claims on his attention and political capital. Tensions with Puntland continue to trigger bouts of fighting in contested areas and inter-clan clashes in Sanaag also seem to be on the rise. In addition, Bihi is under pressure to resolve a dispute with the opposition party, Waddani, which contests the electoral commission’s credibility, so that long-delayed parliamentary polls can take place this year.

There has been a resurgence of international interest in Somalia-Somaliland relations.

In seeking to minimize political obstacles on both sides, as well as demands on political leaderships’ time, the parties could borrow from the two-tiered structure they employed with some success during the 2012-2015 discussions. At the time, small delegations often met at the technical and ministerial levels in the absence of the two presidents. They steered clear of status-related issues, worked on building a positive rapport and kept their sights set on more achievable confidence-building measures – such as an agreement on the management of airspace and division of associated revenues. The presidents met less frequently and focused primarily on endorsing points agreed upon at the working level and committing to further talks. Although talks broke down in 2015 over an issue related to the composition of the Somalia delegation, past participants remain positive about the two-tiered structure.

Officials tasked with preparing the ground for talks also could work with private-sector and civil society leaders including elders to foster domestic support for dialogue and potentially encourage them to engage in track-two talks.

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