We are buffer zone for Ethiopia – Somaliland Foreign Minister

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Essa Kayd Mohamoud is the foreign minister of Somaliland, a de-facto state that has yet to be recognized by the international community, including the African Union and the United Nations. Essa was in Addis Ababa last week not to attend the AU summit, as his counterparts on the continent were, but to lobby African states to support his country’s efforts to gain international recognition. The Reporter’s Samson Berhane met with the Ministry at the Hilton Hotel, where he stayed during his latest visit to Addis. The Minister discuss his country’s position in the current internal conflict in Lasanod, as well as the status of the de-facto state’s relationship with Ethiopia, and thus Africa.

The Reporter: To begin with, I wanted to ask you about the relationship between Ethiopia and Somaliland because, in the last four years, there has been some confusion over the relationship between the two, especially after the new administration came to power. There has been an assumption that the relationship is deteriorating and that Ethiopia is somehow lifting the de facto recognition that it gives to Somaliland. But when we see the trends of the past year, we have also seen some improvements. Can you tell us what the relationship between the two countries is like, especially in the last four years?

Essa Kayd Mohamoud (PhD): Well, I believe there were a few hiccups between the two governments in the last four years, but that have been resolved. I think the relationship is great now. This is a country with which we share a lot of values, culture, and people. As you know, we have people that are from either side; you find Ethiopians in Somaliland and Somalilanders in Ethiopia. Ethiopia, for example, offers a large number of scholarships to our online students right now, and there are a lot of Ethiopians who work in Hargeisa.

In terms of government, we have a very good relationship, and we have established official embassies in each other’s countries. We support each other, have a working relationship, and trade is also a big thing that we do with the port of Berbera, which is doing well. Recently, we came to talk to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) less than a month ago, and prior to that, there were also other meetings, and we are on the same page in terms of making sure that we take care of each other and that the insurgents, elements, or terrorists do not come through here.

So, we are buffer zone for Ethiopia.

As you have pointed out, trade is a big factor in the relationship. For long, people, especially traders in the eastern part of Ethiopia, have wanted to use Berbera port, but due to the absence of a transit agreement, they were not able to do so. On a visit to Hargeisa six or seven months ago, I was told that Ethiopian traders are not able to use that. But I think Ethiopian officials went there and signed a certain agreement with your government. Can you tell us the status of the transit agreement?

It is an ongoing matter. Ethiopia being a landlocked country, we have a lot of interest in making sure that the two countries benefit from the Berbera port. We met the delegation led by the Minister of Transportation at that time, and we are in the process of working on the trade and transit agreement. We’re welcoming that relationship, and we want to continue having Ethiopia as our partner in that area. Since we have the Berbera Corridor that goes all the way to Wochale, which is a border city, I think it’s convenient for Ethiopia to use Berbera, and we are in the process of discussing how the agreement should be framed and what should follow up on that.

Can you tell us the progress being made on the Berbera Corridor and what it means for Ethiopia as well when the construction of the road and other infrastructures are completed? Can you also reflect on how that area is a gateway for some contraband items to Ethiopia, which has been taking stringent measures to avoid contraband items getting through that corridor? What efforts is the Somaliland government making, particularly in combating illegal trade?

Of course we’re fighting illegal trade, human trafficking, wildlife trafficking, and the dumping of waste in ports along our coasts. We would like to do business in a way that could benefit both countries. I believe that in light of the previous meeting that we had with Ethiopia and with the delegation that is going to come, this is going to be something that will be addressed by the two parties.

Another roadblock, as we know from the trade between the two countries, is khat. There have been some issues lately, and some say the khat trade is being politicized, coupled with Ethiopia’s measure to double the price of the product. There were also rumors that Somaliland put a ban on khat, which was lifted later.

I think there were a few days after we met with the Minister of Transport and Redwan Hussien, who was also one of the officials present in that meeting. We did not stop trading khat. What happened was that Ethiopia raised the price of khat, so we taxed as a result, but there is no longer a problem.

We would like to bring everything back to where it was and make sure that people can fully trade without having to deal with price hikes. But they wouldn’t put any other ban on the fruits, for example, that come from Ethiopia. So, I don’t think there’s any issue. These are the two major imports we get from Ethiopia.

There is some concern that the khat trade is being ethnized in both countries and that it is becoming a roadblock to facilitating the trade. Is that a claim that you agree with? If you want me to be specific, I’ve been reading research on the matter, and some say that the khat trade and the problems that your countries have been facing lately are the outcome of the trade rift between the Somali and the Oromo khat traders. So, is that a claim that you agree with?

No, I don’t think so. Other than the price hike by the Ethiopian government, I don’t think we have done anything to stop or slow trade. I think it continues to be what it was and will continue to exist.

The other issue I have is regarding the port. I was the one who asked the question of whether Ethiopia still has a 19 percent stake in Somaliland when I visited the port of Berbera last year to Somaliland’s Minister of Finance. After that, the Ethiopian government reacted and issued a statement as if Ethiopia had not lost the chance to acquire that stake. But from what I understood from Somaliland’s side, they haven’t taken Ethiopia’s share; rather, this happened because Ethiopia failed to meet the conditions put in place to acquire the stake. Can you make all the conditions surrounding it clear?

Let me start from the beginning. When the 19 percent stake was first initiated, there was never a memorandum of understanding, a contract, or anything else. Ethiopia stated that it wants a stake in the port but did not provide any details. Then there was the DP World, and another company called BAI had invested in the port. Recently, when Ethiopia asked for the 19 percent, our government was still open to talking about it. But as you know, all this will go through our Parliament. The two governments will continue to negotiate, but the final decision will be made by Parliament.

But is it possible given that the port is already being developed, the share has already been given to DP World, and Somaliland also has its own share? How can Ethiopia be given the chance to own 19 percent, or is it maybe on another port that’s going to be developed in the future?

The two governments are discussing the existing Berbera port and how Ethiopia should get the 19 percent stake. They said they were open to the possibility, and we’re still open to seeing how we can better achieve a good result.

Can you tell us how much DP World and the Somaliland government own in the Berbera port?

Somaliland has a 35 percent stake, and DP World currently has a 65 percent stake. The agreement was that Ethiopia would receive 19 percent from both parties. DP World is interested in having the port work and be involved in Ethiopia, and so are we. We just have to agree on how to work on the issue and talk about its ministerial commissions and technical committees.

Is there any opportunity for Ethiopia to develop its own port in Somaliland, maybe similar to the agreement you have with DP World?

There aren’t any. No other port has been offered to Ethiopia.

But if Ethiopia or any other Horn of Africa country wants to develop their own ports, is there any way to do that in Somaliland?

Currently, no. We haven’t offered that to any country. Berbera’s port is now the only one that is operational and eager to welcome anyone interested in business, trade, transit, and everything else. If another port is needed, we will assess the need as well as the technicalities of how it will be built and who will be present, but as of now, we have not offered any ports to any other country.

Now let’s talk about the issue of Las Anod. I’ve read some stories online, but I would appreciate it if you first told us about the conflict that’s happening right now.

Well, Las Anod is part of the eastern part of Somaliland, and there has always been some extremist element there. Since 2009 and up to 2022, several high-ranking leaders or officials from Somaliland have been killed in Las Anod. We weren’t able to find them right away, so we apprehended some of them later, and they are now in Hargeisa awaiting trial.

The unrest came after the last killing of one of the Somaliland officials, who was actually in the opposition party. And then there was unrest because people did not understand who was responsible for this and accused Somaliland of not doing its job to capture the people who were terrorists.

There was also confrontation, and I think after that it became a major problem because the people who were behind this were al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab was driven out of the central part of Somalia. They want to make Las Anod a safe haven and brought a large amount of weaponry, provoking the military.

Our government decided to bring the army outside Las Anod to the outskirts so that it could de-escalate the problem when we saw that it could escalate further. Nonetheless, elements of al-Shabaab and other extremist groups were attacking Somaliland’s military bases near Las Anod.

Of course, the military must defend itself, but the President directed that we not attack and instead defend ourselves. Then, we called for a stop to the fighting on our own, but neither the extremist group nor the militia stopped fighting. We also wanted to involve the elders on both sides.

In the Somali culture, as you know, elders play a major role in conflicts. We are dispatching a team that will probably go see the leaders and the elders to see if we can find a peaceful solution. We, as a government, are looking for a peaceful solution. The discussions and negotiations are the one thing that we want to happen as soon as possible, so that there’s no more violence and loss of life.

We think al-Shabaab and other extremist groups purposefully dispersed these people from Las Anod in order to use it as a base from which to attack Somaliland and occupy and attack surrounding nations. They want to occupy the Golgotha Mountains all the way to the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia. So that was their plan, and unfortunately, there’s been a lot of displacement and a loss of life. We are very concerned about that.

We want this to be resolved peacefully. There are Members of Parliament who went there to see if they could find a solution. Unfortunately, the elders who were there at the beginning are pretty much hostages of these armed militias and elements of al-Shabaab are now present there.

We will get back to the claim that al-Shabaab is behind this, but I want to first understand the historical context of this conflict. According to reports, the Dhulbahante people who live in that area want to be a part of Somalia, while Somaliland claims it is part of its territory. What has the Somaliland government done to create a balance between the two? Have you done anything to address the claim of the Dhulbahante’s living in that area, and if it is something that they want, what can you do about it? Or is it something that you consider a red line?

Well, the territorial integrity of Somaliland is something that is even upheld by the AU. The borders of the country should be left as the community has drawn them, and that area is part of Somaliland. We’re not going to accept that, and they cannot be part of Somalia because they’re located in Somaliland. So we see it as a no-brainer.

The Dhulbahante people who’ve been living with us have good representation within the government. The speaker of the house is a Dhulbahante, and we have been administered by Dhulbahante. We built the city of Las Anod almost from scratch when we took it over from Puntland, which was occupying it.

But looking at territorial integrity is something that we’re not really discussing or letting happen. So, we’ll continue peacefully to bring about a durable solution that could involve both parties. What we do know is that there are many well-known al-Shabaab elements operating now, and this instability is likely to continue because that is how it gains territories and secures safe haven in those areas.

But al-Shabaab has denied having a presence in Las Anod. Many analysts are also saying that the Somaliland government is trying to internationalize the conflict or get help from other countries by saying that al-Shabaab is behind the attacks. What’s your response to such claims?

Well, The Guardian actually reported something that was not correct. It was misinformation, and we have the facts—al-Shabab captives. Anybody who disputes that is not well informed, so al-Shabaab is there, and more will continue to come. It’s real; we’re not trying to politicize that; it is something that already exists.

We know that there are famous names; for example, al-Shabaab uses different names and different colors to incite the people of Las Anod to continue fighting with the government, and that is something that has been confirmed. Around 35 of them were captured, and I think they’re waiting for due process in Hargeisa. So, we’ve done everything to make sure that the tension de-escalates. As I said, leaders and elders are trying to take the necessary steps to restore law and order.

I’ve heard that the Somaliland government is worried that the Puntland government wants to get involved in the last fight there and start a military offensive there. Is that true?

It’s true. When they captured prisoners, the government in the federal state of Somalia called Puntland was actually heavily involved in the war and was bringing a lot of weaponry to the militia that is fighting there.

Well, have you tried to make contact with the Puntland government to settle that?

Yes, we have asked Puntland to stay out of this problem between Somalilanders. They shouldn’t use the tribal shirt because they want to say that they are brought out to the front and they will fight against Somaliland to make sure that area is free from Somaliland.

What’s your response to the claim by Puntland that these areas should belong to them? You are aware that they claim ownership of the clan, Dhulbahante, in order to make that area part of their territory.

Somaliland’s territorial integrity is still intact, as it was when the British left. That cannot be in any way discussed. Puntland is trying to destabilize Somaliland and make room for itself because at one point they were occupying the region of Las Anod and Tukarak by force, and then the military recaptured these areas.

If we say there are Somali people in Region Five, then we have to fight just like this. It doesn’t make sense. It’s against the integrity of our territory. Somaliland is capable and committed to resolving its internal affairs, as we have done for decades, keeping our peace and our democracy alive.

The other question I have is regarding your relationship with the Somalia government. Once it sent an invitation to the government of Somaliland to discuss all the issues regarding their relationship. Can you tell us how that process went?

There have been talks between Somalia and Somaliland in the past. If I’m correct, there were 12 talks between Somalia and Somaliland. Some happened in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Turkey, and the UK, and everything that was agreed upon back then was just trashed, and nothing came out of those meetings. So we’ve decided not to meet with them anymore because we’re not getting any results.

Now, the new government of Somalia wants to restart talks, and we are open to it as long as it is fruitful and respects the sovereignty of Somaliland. So, we welcome talks between Somaliland and Somalia, and I think they may actually happen very soon. Then we’ll see what the problem is and what they can do to correct the previous agreements that were entered during these 12 meetings.

Is there, however, a precondition for Somaliland to seek negotiations with Somalia?

Well, the precondition is first that we talk and know that Somaliland’s sovereignty is not something that we can discuss. We will remain sovereign, and then we will see if we can deal differently and have other relationships. We have a lot in common, but it is unacceptable to jeopardize or undermine Somaliland’s integrity and sovereignty.

As you know, we’ve been independent before them; when we went and joined them on June 26, 1961, we became the first Somali country that was independent from a British colony, and we have noticed that that union did not work. There was the genocide of Siad Barre at that time, the destruction of the whole city of Hargeisa. Almost a quarter of a million people were killed. We’re still seeing mass graves in Hargeisa, and we were able to retake our independence in 1991. Since then, we’ve sat down, and one of the good things is that most of the tribes in Somaliland came and sat together and decided to rebuild the country. Dhulbahante was actually one of the strongest pillars, so we have had all this in the past.

Is there any way for Somaliland to become a confederate state of Somalia?

Other governments brought it up, but there is no chance of confederation with Somalia. It’s not something that the government wants.

The other question concerns your relationship with the US government. Can you tell us about the US National Defense Authorization Act (NDDA) that Joe Biden signed with Somaliland?

Right. All that started in 2021, and prior to that, we’ve always had a relationship with the US. In 2021, when we went to Washington, we started meeting representatives and officials to explain our position and our democracy, as well as how we could cooperate. I believe that the NDAA will actually send reports to Congress detailing the advancements made by the Somaliland government.

As you know, the port of Berbera and Somaliland is located in a strategically isolated area that is free from other parts of the world. I mean, we don’t have China in that area, for example, and we’re probably the only country that does not host China. So that’s in the US’s interest, and then, for the stability of this region, to come to Somaliland and have some of the Africans come regularly to see how they can deepen the relationship between the US and Somaliland.

According to the Act, Somaliland would receive military assistance from the US. So, are you going to let the US get a military base?

The Defense Act will determine how the US will proceed. Right now there are no talks about the base, but there is talk about the Act and having Africans and Americans come to Berbera more often. Then we’ll look at how we can improve our political and strategic relationships.

So, those were the main things President Muse Bihi Abdi did when he visited in March 2022 with a delegation to further engage with the US government. As a result of the Somaliland Partnership Act, US Senators and company have worked with the Subcommittee on Africa and global health policy, which was introduced in March of 2022. The Act will require the Department of State to report to Congress on its engagement with Somaliland and to conduct a feasibility study in consultation with the Secretary of Defense regarding the establishment of a partnership between the US and Somaliland.

What does this Act imply for Somaliland’s bid for international recognition? What could it add to your efforts to gain international recognition?

Well, it could be an element, but definitely not the main thing. It will help us keep our country safe and stable, and this Act is in the interests of both countries, Somaliland and the US, because of our strategic position and the 850 kilometers of coastline that we have. It is critical to protect it from anything that could escalate and threaten the stability of the Horn of Africa.

There have been noises concerning your relationship with China, especially in light of your close ties with the Taiwan government. So, first of all, can you tell us why you have a strong relationship with Taiwan? I know we share some values, but isn’t that impacting your relationship with China?

Well, as we said, to China and to every other country around the world, our doors are open to anybody who wants to have a relationship with us. The only requirement is that there be no strings attached. We’ve never said no to China or told them they couldn’t come, but we have told them they can’t tell who can and can’t come to our country. The relationship with Taiwan is based on the democratic values that we have—free elections, free enterprise—and the fact that Taiwan and the US are examples of the way forward. But we’ve never shut the door on China or any other country around the world.

Concerning your current visit to Ethiopia, it looks like you are lobbying to become a member of the AU. Can you tell us what the purpose of your visit here is and what you have achieved thus far in your attempt to be part of the AU?

Well, we know that Somaliland’s recognition should start with the AU. We’re a sovereign nation, but recognition is another thing. We have all the legal evidence to support that Somaliland has the legal status to become its own country.

For instance, in 2005, there was a delegation sent to the AU to report on Somaliland, and they said that it was a unique situation and we deserved to be recognized. Our visit here is, of course, the best way to engage with as many African countries as possible to see what we can do together and raise people-to-people relations.

We already have six or seven embassies in our representation in Hargeisa: Ethiopia, Djibouti, Taiwan, Turkey, the EU, and the UK have offices in Hargeisa. So, in that spirit, we’re attempting to continue engaging with African countries and telling them our version in order to serve our case that we were a country that existed before Somalia. We voluntarily joined, and then we claimed our sovereignty in 1991, and we’ve met with several countries.

They have been very positive about our case, and we will continue to engage more African countries to see how we can first of all work together on people-to-people relations. Whether it becomes official or unofficial, we want to show African countries and the world that we are a democratic country. We have free elections and have had five presidents and a safe transition of power.

So, in other words, during the elections we had, we were using iris biometrics, which haven’t been used anywhere, to make sure that we had fair and free elections. Some African countries actually admired our capacity and how we’re able to achieve all that with multipartyism. We have a free enterprise, and we are open to any country that is willing to have official or unofficial relations with us.

Regarding the election, there has been some concern that opposition groups are not given the room to do what they want in Somaliland, especially during the election. Is that true? What is your response to that?

Every 10 years, the license of an opposition party expires. So, there were only three opposition parties, and all the other licenses had expired. Now we have encouraged the creation of a political association that people could actually go to for elections. The good thing about that is the political association that we currently have is very inclusive, whereas at the beginning, most of the three parties were mostly from the center.

We will hold elections for the next political association now that we have encouraged inclusive associations and begun voter registration. In our Constitution, only three parties are allowed at a time to be elected, and the president comes from one of the three.

So where do you want to see Somaliland in the next 10 years?

We want to prosper and have peace and stability. We want to be recognized by the international community and exploit our natural resources. As you know, we have a lot of gas, oil, and minerals, so we want to make sure that our country prospers and continues to be democratic. So those are the things we want: a very peaceful, prosperous economy with employment opportunities. For example, because we have a lot of natural resources, we are trying to create employment opportunities for the youth, who represent 70 percent of our population and are actually under the age of 40.

Regarding the gas that you have in Somaliland, I believe that a British company was working on the project. Can you tell us about its progress?

All of this research has been done by a company called Genel. It is British, but a Taiwanese company called CPC is also exploring and plans to begin drilling in the first quarter of this year. It is very encouraging and hopeful that we will explore and utilize our natural resources. On the other hand, we have a small economy, which is something that we cannot ignore. We have fisheries and a huge coast that need to be taken advantage of.

The Reporter

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