C. Harnessing International Interest
As the Horn of Africa’s strategic importance has grown – the combined result of the Yemen war, proximity to important shipping lanes, and concerns over the presence of terrorist groups Al-Shabaab and, in still relatively small numbers, the Islamic State in Somalia – there has also been a resurgence of international interest in Somalia-Somaliland relations. The greater interest is reflected, in part, in growing competition among various outside actors for influence, notably between the U.S. and China but also among regional states.
Regional interest is especially high among both Gulf powers and neighbors on the continent. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, are all competing for influence, as are the U.S. and China. The UAE has made a major investment in Somaliland’s long-term future; beyond the port, DP World in 2018 signed an agreement to create a 12 sq. km economic free zone in Berbera. Abu Dhabi separately secured rights to a military base nearby. The road connecting Berbera to the Ethiopian border is being renovated with financing from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development. At the same time, both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are keen to ensure that none of their primary rivals – Qatar, Turkey, and Iran – can gain access to the Red Sea coastline, of which Somaliland controls 850km. Already, they are keeping a wary eye on Turkey’s construction of its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu. So long as Mogadishu remains close to Doha and Ankara, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh will likely resist Somali federal government control over Somaliland. It remains to be seen whether they might become more open to compromise after Somalia’s next elections if there are significant changes suggesting that Mogadishu will be friendlier to their interests – for example, if Somalis elect candidates willing to support rescinding the legislation barring DP World from the country.
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As for neighbors on the continent, landlocked Ethiopia has a significant stake in the Berbera port deal and is eyeing the economic opportunities offered by a modernized port and trade corridor to link it to the coast. Egypt, which has traditionally backed Mogadishu, has begun signaling that it seeks a warmer relationship with Somaliland, partly due to Mogadishu’s close relations with its rivals in Doha and Ankara. And as described above, Kenya seems intent on strengthening relations with Somaliland – a move it is making against the backdrop of a recent escalation in its longstanding maritime border dispute with Somalia.
Among these countries, Turkey and Ethiopia have shown particular interest in facilitating renewed dialogue between Mogadishu and Hargeisa.
Turkey has worked hard both to foster close relations with Somalia – which it sees as central to its regional strategic interests – and to position itself as an honest broker in its talks with Somaliland. From 2011, when it provided humanitarian relief amid a biting famine, Ankara has built close relations with Mogadishu. In 2016, it opened a new embassy, physically its largest in the world. It has offered scholarships to thousands of young Somalis, and Turkish companies operate the city’s principal seaport and airport. But it also sought to maintain ties with Somaliland, and between 2012 and 2015 it was the driving force behind the Mogadishu-Hargeisa talks.
Ankara and Addis Ababa would more usefully contribute to the next phase of talks by playing a supporting role in the process.
Turkey has also taken a number of steps to restart negotiations. In December 2018, Ankara appointed Dr. Olgan Bekar – who served as ambassador in Mogadishu from 2014 to 2018 – as its special envoy for Somalia-Somaliland talks. Bekar visited Hargeisa and Mogadishu in early February 2019 and elicited the views of the main parties and international partners on a new framework for talks, though he has not yet released a plan.
For its part, Addis Ababa has also tried – through its own separate initiative – to act as a mediator between Somaliland and Somalia. Ethiopia historically has had better relations with Hargeisa than Mogadishu (and, to the latter’s chagrin, cultivated relations with Somalia’s federal member states), yet since taking office in April 2018, Abiy has made an effort to develop a relationship with Farmajo. But Abiy appears to have moved precipitously in proposing to accompany Farmajo in a visit to Hargeisa in March 2019, and Somaliland officials rejected his request.
In any case, given regional dynamics, Ankara and Addis Ababa would more usefully contribute to the next phase of talks by playing a supporting – rather than leading – role in the process.
Ethiopia is still too close to Somaliland to play the role of mediator. Mogadishu is of course keenly aware that Addis Ababa historically has enjoyed warmer ties with Hargeisa than itself. Somalia has also watched closely as Ethiopia has recently taken steps to integrate its economy with Somaliland through the Berbera port trade corridor in seeking to reduce its dependence on Djibouti for access to the sea. To be sure, Prime Minister Abiy has somewhat flipped Ethiopian policy since coming to office by building stronger ties with Farmajo than all his recent predecessors. But Mogadishu still sees the Ethiopian security and foreign policy establishment as hewing to its traditional approach to Somaliland and doubts that Addis Ababa can project true impartiality.
Moreover, the idea of Ethiopian mediation could face opposition in Hargeisa, too, as Abiy’s failed attempt to broker a Farmajo visit soured some officials there on the prospect of Ethiopia playing this role.
As for Turkey, the reaction from its regional rivals could well be highly negative. Chief among the objectors would likely be Saudi Arabia, which sees Mogadishu as a historical ally, a key part of its western security flank in the Horn of Africa, and a place where it has been working to claw back influence after the strain created by the Gulf crisis of 2017. Riyadh would likely bristle at seeing an adversary like Turkey play a lead role in any talks – all the more so given that the kingdom saw its already poor relations with Turkey decline yet further following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate in October 2018. In light of Turkey’s closeness to Qatar, and Riyadh’s deep mistrust of Qatari influence in Somalia, Ankara would also have to go to significant lengths to demonstrate that it is not in lockstep with Doha. And the kingdom would not be alone in its concerns: Abu Dhabi would almost certainly react to any hint of Qatari involvement in talks. Egypt, too, would likely follow Riyadh’s lead in opposing Turkish leadership given Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo treats as its nemesis.
Turkish officials suggest that both Mogadishu and Hargeisa are open to Ankara taking the helm.
Turkey believes that it is nonetheless well suited to a leadership role. Turkish officials suggest that both Mogadishu and Hargeisa are open to Ankara taking the helm. They point to Ankara’s deep and longstanding work in Somalia – including support for social programs, military training for Somalia’s national army, relief operations and encouragement of private investment – and note that they began many of these efforts before the Gulf players began to take a greater interest in Somalia.
Whatever the merits of Ankara’s arguments, the risks are too great. Blowback from mistrustful Gulf powers is the last thing the nascent talks need. Gulf interference could prove particularly destabilizing to any mediation effort. Each of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar has cultivated local politicians and community leaders throughout various parts of Somalia, whom they can call upon to act in pursuit of external interests. These allies can easily play the spoiler, and there is a chance that in so doing they could set off an escalating chain of provocations.
A less contentious way forward, under discussion among Western diplomats in Nairobi, would be for the African Union to convene the talks with the support of what they call a “group of friends”. Under this arrangement, the African Union would appoint an eminent person to lead the talks, much like Kofi Annan led an AU-convened mediation effort during the post-election crisis in Kenya in 2008. Countries that have led efforts to bring the parties back to the table – including Turkey and Ethiopia as well as Sweden and Switzerland – could join the European Union and other supporters of the talks in offering technical support. By placing the AU at the forefront and affording roles to multiple concerned countries, such an approach would allow those with strong interests and influence to support the process while avoiding the kind of high-profile involvement that might backfire.