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What is the Ethiopian leader’s interest in mediating talks between Somalia and Somaliland?

On 1 June, Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi officially inaugurated the first 12 km of Berbera Corridor, a trade and transport route that connects landlocked Ethiopia to Somaliland’s Port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden.

The Addis Ababa-Berbera highway is being funded by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development. Together with the US$442 million expansion of the Port of Berbera by another Emirati company, Dubai’s DP World, the highway will turn Berbera into a major regional trading hub.

On one level, Somaliland is merely investing in what is likely to be a lucrative commercial venture, attracting more exports and imports from its much bigger and richer neighbour. But the Berbera highway clearly also has a more strategic purpose – to put an important political fact on the ground.

That is, to make Berbera an integral part of Ethiopia’s economic network – and therefore also Somaliland. To the degree that Berbera becomes indispensable for Ethiopia, to that degree is Somaliland recognised – though only implicitly of course – as an independent state.

Achieving such recognition has been Somaliland’s eternal quest – so far with no apparent success. Neither Ethiopia nor any other country explicitly recognises it as a sovereign nation. All officially still consider it to be a wayward province of Somalia. And there are no signs on the immediate horizon that any country is about to take the plunge and be the first to recognise the independent state of Somaliland.

Yet because of its implicit recognition of Somaliland, the Berbera Port-highway project has annoyed Somalia. Two years ago when Somaliland and DP World ceded 19% of the Berbera Port project to Ethiopia, Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo, without mentioning names, warned foreign countries and companies not to ‘cross the line and put to question the sovereignty of Somalia.’

Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed Ali’s government duly pledged respect for Somalia’s sovereignty a few months later. Yet Abiy, who ascended to Ethiopia’s prime ministership in April 2018, has shown no signs of abandoning the Berbera project. The corridor is important to Ethiopia’s strategic imperative of access to the sea. This is especially because cooling relations with Djibouti since Abiy’s rapprochement with Eritrea have placed something of a question mark over Ethiopia’s main maritime outlet through that country.

However Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is also exercising diplomatic skill. In February this year he hosted a meeting between Farmaajo and Bihi in Addis Ababa to try to help them patch up their quarrel.

The encounter seems to have borne some fruit as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, James Swan, told the Security Council earlier this month that ‘in regard to Somalia-“Somaliland” relations, we are encouraged that dialogue is ongoing at senior levels and that both sides have indicated a willingness to maintain communication and pursue further discussions.’

Abiy’s intervention as mediator is intriguing. One might think it would be Somalia that would consider Ethiopia a biased referee since Addis Ababa has a material interest in the offending Berbera project. Also Ethiopia is one of only three countries – along with Djibouti and Turkey – to have opened consulates in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s main city.

Conversely, though, Abiy would probably not want to see a peaceful Somaliland weakened by Mogadishu. Ethiopia shares a border with Somaliland that is almost as long as that with Somalia, and a strong Somaliland provides a buffer for Ethiopia against al-Shabaab. So Abiy is walking a delicate tightrope on this issue, it seems.

There is also a wider dimension to the Somali-Somaliland standoff. Middle East powers are pursuing proxy rivalries in the Horn, with the UAE backing Somaliland in part to counter Turkey and Qatar’s courtship of Somalia.

What the secretive Somali-Somaliland negotiations to which Swan referred might produce is hard to envision. With Somaliland demanding complete independence and Somalia demanding complete unification, the theoretical compromise would be incorporation with a high degree of autonomy within what is already a federal Somali state. But it’s difficult to see Somaliland agreeing to that, and certainly not while Somalia remains locked in its bloody, existential struggle with al-Shabaab and protracted conflicts with federal states.

Ironically in his report, Swan urged that the commitment to dialogue and cooperation exhibited by Somalia and Somaliland should be extended to relations between the Somali federal government in Mogadishu and the federal member states. That was a reminder that some of these states are just about as ‘independent’ in practice as Somaliland. Swan noted with regret that ‘it has been more than a year since the President and all Federal Member State leaders have met.’

So one might think Farmaajo would want to get his own house in order before considering adding another fractious member to the family. On the other hand, despite putting more solid facts on the ground, Somaliland looks as though it will have to settle for de facto, not de jure, independence – at least for a long while.


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