Will Somaliland Deal Move Forward?


The Institute of Foreign Affairs hosted the second round of its Horn Dialogue Series at the Skylight Hotel on April 19, 2024. Themed ‘Navigating the Complexities: Fostering Regional Security in the Horn of Africa,’ the event focused on the region’s critical security issues.

The conference brought together a distinguished group of participants, including Mesganu Arga, minister of State for Political and Economic Diplomacy, and Jafar Bediru, executive director of the IFA. Scholars, international experts, researchers, diplomats, and other notable guests were also present.

The conference pushed for a collaborative approach involving both the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU) to address widespread conflict in the Horn. The goal was to propose solutions that would enable bilateral collaboration among the region’s countries to tackle shared challenges and reach a consensus on key issues.

Drawing from a wide range of experts and experiences, the conference sought to chart a course towards a safer and more prosperous future for the Horn of Africa through collaborative efforts and a shared vision.

Addis Ababa’s role as the hub for regional diplomacy was reaffirmed, but Ethiopia’s internal conflicts remain a serious problem in the Horn. As do strained relations with some of its neighbors.

Matt Bryden is a strategic advisor at SAHAN (Pathfinders in Policy and Practice) and an expert in Horn of Africa politics. He was part of the dialogue, where he argued that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland earlier this year was legally sound.

Bryden observes the relative stability and effective governance enjoyed by Somaliland over the last three decades validates its bid for international recognition. A stable population, well-defined borders, and a functioning government capable of foreign diplomacy and internal governance, Bryden argues, are enough to warrant statehood in Somaliland, as they did in South Sudan and Eritrea.

The Reporter’s Abraham Tekle sat down with Bryden for his outlook on the significance of the MoU, the challenges it could herald, and the potential outcomes for Ethiopia and Somaliland. EXCERPTS:

The Reporter: Since the signing of the MoU, tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia have escalated, partly due to external interference. How far do you think this dispute will go? What could be a final resolution?

Matt Bryden: Well, it is a serious problem at one level. Somalia has decided to make it an international dispute and has tried to involve the AU, IGAD, the UN, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to bring them in. The reason Somalia is doing this is because it is not fully a sovereign state. It exhibits, as I mentioned, what is often called negative sovereignty. It doesn’t have de facto authority in the country. It survives because the international community has decided it should survive. Somalia’s neighbors, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya, have all guarded Somalia’s border for the last 30 years, even when it was a failed state, and now they are involved in providing its domestic security against Al-Shabaab.

The fact is that Somalia cannot do that for itself and it has no control of Somaliland. The only thing the Somali federal government can do is appeal to the international partners to enforce its sovereignty and to take its side in this dispute. The real issue, though, is not a dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia. Yes, Ethiopia’s recognition can be seen as provocative, but Ethiopia’s recognition comes after 30 years of cooperation between Ethiopia and Somaliland, including security and economic cooperation. While some say that it shouldn’t have waited that long.

The issue that Mogadishu doesn’t want to talk about is that Somaliland has been functioning as an independent state for more than 20 years, and the majority of its population doesn’t want to be part of Somalia. They see the dysfunctions and problems in Somalia and have chosen to go in different directions, and Mogadishu doesn’t want to acknowledge that. The governments of Somaliland and Somalia have met more than ten times over the last decade, and not once has Mogadishu agreed to discuss the political disputes between the two. So, in some ways, you could say that this dispute is something Somalia is making rather than Ethiopia.

If Somalia had engaged with Somaliland ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago, perhaps this dispute would never have emerged. So, don’t blame Ethiopia for the fact that Somalia has a weak, fragile, and endangered government that cannot and does not exercise its effective authority. That is not Ethiopia’s fault. Ethiopia has been supportive for the last two decades and more. So, I think this is really the issue. Mogadishu should be talking to Hargeisa rather than accusing Addis Ababa.

At the conference, you mentioned Al-Shabab’s impact on the region and international military and financial backing to maintain national security in Somalia. If this support were withdrawn, how much stronger could Al-Shabaab become?

Al-Shabaab has been strong and appears to be resetting itself. I wouldn’t say it is getting stronger; I think it is relatively stable. It was pushed out of Mogadishu into the rural areas of Somalia by African Union forces, of which more than 20 thousand were deployed in 2007. They cleared Mogadishu around 2010 and 2011, as well as other major towns. Now, as the AU is drawing down and preparing to leave this year, we see Al-Shabaab coming back. Whether Ethiopia stays along the western border or not is not the question. The real question is whether Al-Shabaab is able to threaten Mogadishu, the towns around Mogadishu, and the very existence of the federal government. And once again, in the absence of AU troops, that’s what is going to happen.

What Somalia has done is request a new mission to start in 2025 with up to 10,000 AU troops. The purpose of this mission is to protect the federal government and ensure that Mogadishu is not overrun, along with some other towns. We don’t know whether that proposal will be accepted because it is now in the hands of the AU and will go to the UN. Some donor governments will be asked to pay for it, but they seem reluctant to do so. Even if it does come to fruition, it will be a much smaller force, unable to secure all of Somalia. Therefore, the real danger now is that Al-Shabab will return to the parts of Somalia it lost and start threatening Mogadishu again.

What’s Ethiopia’s perspective on the MoU, and what are the potential solutions or next steps for the country?

It is important to understand that Hargeisa has almost no relation with Mogadishu, not just politically, but also economically. Somaliland’s trade is primarily with the Gulf States and Ethiopia, with very little commerce with Mogadishu. Consequently, there is virtually no political relationship between the two sides, nor is there any security assistance. Somaliland’s security partner is Ethiopia, and it plays a vital role in providing security functions for Ethiopia by guarding the North Eastern border and the Gulf of Aden.

The partnership between Ethiopia and Somaliland has existed for a long time. In some ways, recognition is simply acknowledging this fact and ensuring that it continues, formalized and legalized. However, this is very difficult for Mogadishu to accept, as the breakup of any state is challenging to come to terms with. Nevertheless, it is the reality. If Somaliland wishes to be recognized, it will remain a neighbor to Somalia, and both sides will need to learn how to be good neighbors. They should strive to move away from the current disputes and hostilities that appear to be poisoning the Horn of Africa.

The Somali government has been quite vocal, irrespective of whether the reaction is justified. What do you anticipate will be their next move?

Politically, the Somali government has the right to behave similarly to any government that faces the recognition of a breakaway territory by its neighbor. However, this does not imply that the Somali government is legally or logically correct in its arguments. In fact, I would argue that Somalia has only harmed itself, particularly because its most significant neighbor is Ethiopia, and engaging in an unnecessary fight with Ethiopia is unwise.

Somalia is entangled in multiple disputes. It has a border dispute with Kenya, an ongoing dispute with Ethiopia, and it is likely to face a future dispute with Somaliland. Moreover, due to a constitutional crisis, it has lost control over the northern territory of Puntland. Therefore, the government in Mogadishu is not acting in its own best interest. After reconciling with the Somali people, it should prioritize reconciling with its neighbors.

When President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud assumed office, his slogan was “Somalia: peace with itself and peace with its neighbors.” However, at present, there is neither peace within Somalia nor peace with its neighbors, and I believe this is a grave mistake.

You brought up the situation in Puntland. How do you believe that case will influence the MoU dispute?

Although it may not directly impact the MoU issue, the situation serves to emphasize the weakness of the government in Mogadishu and the questionable nature of its sovereignty. Currently, Mogadishu lacks control over its own territory, and even the most established federal member state of the Federal Republic of Somalia has temporarily seceded from the Federation. This clear indication of trouble in Mogadishu is further compounded by the fact that other federal member state leaders may also express their discontent with the behavior of the federal government, particularly its attempts to rewrite the constitution.

It is evident that Mogadishu has engaged in an ill-advised confrontation, diverting attention from crucial matters such as internal stability and security. Instead of engaging in diplomatic disputes with its neighbors, Mogadishu should prioritize addressing its internal affairs.

What are potential solutions? Is there any way out of this? Is it possible that these solutions could result in the termination of the MoU?

There appears to be no viable solution. In what aspect is there a need for an escape? Is it from the accusations raised by Mogadishu? But does that really matter? Mogadishu’s influence is so feeble that it hasn’t even demanded Ethiopia to withdraw its forces from Somalia. It says you are an aggressor and annexing our land but please keep your troops in our land. So, what exactly is Ethiopia concerned about in this agreement?

Ethiopia’s concern should stem from the possibility of facing international condemnation for Somalia’s position, as it wishes to avoid being perceived as a destabilizing power in the Horn of Africa. Therefore, Ethiopia must ensure that its stance is clearly communicated to significant allies and neighboring countries, while collaborating with Somaliland to champion this matter within the African Union and other multilateral bodies. Ethiopia certainly does not want to act unilaterally in a way that could create uncertainty, anxiety, and instability throughout the region. However, this presents a diplomatic challenge that needs to be overcome.

Does this imply that Somaliland is being granted statehood recognition, or not?

I believe Somaliland has already achieved statehood. The issue of recognition needs to be approached from a different perspective. If Ethiopia refuses to recognize Somaliland, what purpose does it serve? You claim that Somaliland is part of Somalia and is governed from Mogadishu, but the existence of its own political system, army, and government should not be disregarded. In my opinion, Somalia should acknowledge the autonomy of Somaliland. Failing to do so will only contribute to destabilization and potentially lead to further conflict.

As I mentioned before, Ethiopia could adopt a different approach by engaging with other governments. They should convey the message to Mogadishu that their actions are not hostile and that accepting the recognition of Somaliland would be in the best interest of the region. Ethiopia can offer to support Mogadishu’s interests and address any concerns they may have. What assurances does Mogadishu require if Ethiopia and other governments recognize Somaliland? By fostering good neighborly relations, avoiding conflicts, respecting the rights of minority groups, and ensuring positive trade, security, and relations between Mogadishu and Hargeisa, other governments can assist in managing such a situation. However, to say no is not an option.

What impact would the failure to resolve the situational problem as anticipated have on the political affairs of the region?

Regardless of whether Ethiopia chooses to recognize it or not, the situational problem in Somaliland will ultimately be resolved. However, if Ethiopia refuses recognition, there is a risk of Somaliland regressing into a state of destabilization. This is concerning for Ethiopia as an unstable Somaliland is not in anyone’s best interest. Therefore, if Ethiopia withdraws from the MoU deal, along with Mogadishu, it jeopardizes the partnership between Ethiopia and Somaliland. On the other hand, if Ethiopia proceeds with the deal, as I mentioned earlier, it should do so in a manner that involves other international partners and ensures that the relationship with Mogadishu is handled appropriately.

Is that the viable outcome?

Indeed, there have been numerous instances in history where states have been recognized against their initial wishes. For instance, Indonesia had to acknowledge East Timor’s independence, despite its reluctance to do so. Similarly, Sudan did not want South Sudan to secede, but it ultimately accepted the situation under pressure. Additionally, there are regions in the world where recognition remains stuck, such as the Western Sahara or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as Morocco objects to its recognition. The situation in Kosovo is also somewhat unresolved. Therefore, it is in the best interest of both Ethiopia and Somaliland to proactively work towards avoiding a scenario of partial recognition.

What do you make of rumors and reports suggesting that Ethiopia is pulling out of the deal?

What would Ethiopia get by doing that if Mogadishu would come down? But would Mogadishu become a more reliable, more stable, and more effective partner? No, not in a single future. And if Somaliland is destabilized in the process, then Ethiopia will lose on both fronts.

Any final observations on the deal?

I perceive Ethiopia proceeding with cautious determination, likely through a robust multilateral effort and partnership, to clarify its position and persuade partners who currently find themselves in a state of confusion where no alternative is visible. The only viable alternative would be the emergence of a strong government in Mogadishu. However, it seems that this solution is distant, considering the extensive international investment in the matter since 2012, or perhaps even earlier, as Ethiopia initiated the first transitional federal government in Somalia back in 2004, which has proven ineffective.

Therefore, if the scenario of a strong Somali government capable of negotiating with Somaliland and accommodating its interests were realistic, it would be an ideal outcome. However, since this is not currently a plausible scenario, what choice does Ethiopia have?

The Reporter Ethiopia