Somalia and Somaliland sometimes look so similar. But they are different.
EDITORIAL | In fact, they were once separate colonies for the British and Italians, then they merged in 1960 to create what became known as the Somali Republic. The merger, it appears, was short-lived and full of grievance.
So when Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo indicated this week he could visit Somaliland, local officials in Hargeisa remembered the atrocities committed by the past holder of Villa Somalia — Siad Barre, with anger.
“Farmaajo's visit to the Republic of Somaliland is absolutely a daydream and mission impossible,” countered Liban Yousuf Osman, the Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister in Somaliland.
“The government of Somaliland stands for the protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity at all cost,” he wrote on his Twitter page, summing up the public reaction to the move.
Farmajo had actually apologized for the deeds of his predecessors: In 1988, Siad Barre’s army bombarded what was then seen as a secessionist rebel group in Somaliland. Thousands were killed and Somalilanders have since memorialized those atrocities by turning a Barre warplane remnant into a statue in Hargeisa.
Somaliland President Muse Bihi, himself an air force pilot who fought against Barre, accepted the apology, terming it a good starting point in relations with Mogadishu. But he rejected the idea of Farmaajo or Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, perceived to be the mediator between the two, visiting Hargeisa now.
So, it appears that despite Mogadishu insisting Somaliland is part of its territory, Somali leaders need permission to visit Hargeisa. So what is the beef?
Hargeisa and Mogadishu have bickered over the status of Somaliland, especially since it declared independence from Somalia in 1991. One report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) says relations frayed further in 2018 after a border dispute between Somaliland and Puntland, Somalia’s semi-autonomous region.
This has meant that, despite international entities often dealing with the two as separate countries, no one has ever recognized Somaliland as a sovereign state. And it plays, often, in the international arena.
When Somaliland signed port deals with Emirati Conglomerate DP World in 2017, with Ethiopia joining to secure its imports, Mogadishu challenged the validity of that deal.
Now Ethiopia, under a new Premier has since tried to revitalize relations with Mogadishu, whose President is seen as a man keen to consolidate control of entire Somalia. Still, Ethiopia did not withdraw from the Somaliland deal, in spite of signing further MoUs with Mogadishu to develop three more ports.
Rashid Abdi, a researcher, and analyst for the Horn of Africa and the Gulf said a Farmaajo trip in absence of framework deal would have been viewed as hostile and an attempt to assert
“If you push Somalia, Somaliland too fast you break them. The idea of taking Farmaajo to Hargeisa is fine, but best if it comes in later stages of negotiations,” he argued.
“PM Abiy is a great tactician. He put his army training of "sudden, quick, overwhelming" attack to maximum effect in domestic politics - disrupting a lot in the process, but also achieving his goals. On SL, Somalia, he has goodwill, respect, but he ought to proceed slowly, cautiously.”
There is a good window of opportunity to boost Somalia, Somaliland dialogue, though, he said. But first, the basics.
Somaliland itself faces some form of internal turmoil, which has meant that politicians have to take resolute stances to survive. For Farmaajo, he is already perceived by some as a centralist, threatening the survival of certain federal states. How can Somaliland come in?
One suspicion was pointed out by Somali MP Sulaiman Mohamud Hashi, who referred to an erroneous map published by the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office as indicative of forced territorial control.
“This is an unacceptable illustration of Somalia map that is missing a very strategic part of it. It shows that the hidden agendas of Abiy Ahmed of #thiopia. Moreover, the said illustrations also indicate a direct threat to Somali sovereignty at whole and Somaliland in particular,” he said after the map uncharacteristically altered known boundaries. The map has since been pulled down.
But some politicians think there has been less sincerity in the whole overture. Somali Senator Ilyas Hassan and Secretary for Foreign Affairs of opposition party Himilo Qaran said the Presidency in Somalia has failed to explain the intention to the public.
“I believe, the president is not loyal towards this issue and he didn’t even give a full apology for the atrocities that the former military regime had done to the Somaliland people,” he said.
“It will be good for the president to go to Hargeisa and it’s a good step forward for reconciliation between Somalia and Somaliland.
“But what we have seen so far is that there is no clear agenda and the irony is all these issues didn’t come from the Farmajo and Somaliland either”, he told Voice of America’s Somali Service in an interview, referring to possible push from Ethiopia.
Farmajo’s overtures to Somaliland follows what ex-President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed had tried when he met with Somaliland’s then-President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo in Dubai in 2012, where they signed a series of preliminary deals to kickstart reconciliation.
But the issue remained untouched for most of the years, as leaders either assumed they were together or took tough stances to stick with what was popular with their constituents.
But it is also suspected that the issue actually needed some good offices. In 2012, it was in the United Arab Emirates interest to have good relations between Mogadishu and Hargeisa so that their investments are not in danger.
Now the Emiratis face competition from turkey and Qatar for influence in Somalia. An assessment by the ICG says neither side could support a deal that jeopardizes their interest, suggesting a continual external influence on the issue.
Yet Somalia is supposed to head to elections this year, seeking to have the first all-people-participating type of polls in nearly six decades. And Somalia’s dealings with regions, and now Somaliland has seen some politicians wary of the actual intention.
Idd Bedel Mohamed, a presidential aspirant in Somalia and a former diplomat argued Farmajo could be seeking to divert public attention on elections and get a loophole to delay it.
“A big political question is facing President Farmaajo who made the apology for crimes committed in Somaliland under the former regime.
“A nation apologizes for crimes of its past but the timing of his apology says a lot. It is not a heartfelt apology but rather electioneering. Farmaaajo wants to win votes,” he wrote.
Like past leaders, Mohamed argued those unsure of winning elections try to delay the polls to seek some sort of assurance.