In July 2019 Somalia’s president his excellency Mohamed Abdillahi “Farmaajo” set up a commission to revive talks with Somaliland. His move came three years after Somaliland’s former president Silanyo appointed Dr Edna Aden to lead on the talks. No one paid attention to the commission until 21st January 2020 when the commission’s deputy, Abdirahman A. Hussain “Guulwade” (now forced to resign), a former general in Siyad Barre’s para police force, caused uproar in an interview he publicly condoned the late eighties war crimes committed in Somaliland. The commission is coming up, they tell us, with a new way of engaging Somaliland. It is designed to have a longer shelf life than the Somalian government’s office term and is expected to function as a permanent aide to their state until it achieves its unstated but ultimate objective of bringing Somaliland back into the fold of the union. The commission’s chairperson, Dr Badiyow, a diehard greater Somalian nationalist, the opposite of Somaliland’s iron lady, Dr Edna Aden, personifies this ultimate aim.
So there is emphasis on continuity and perhaps also a realisation the commission is in for a long haul. It has already started working trying to piece together what went wrong with the failed union and find out why for heaven sake hot headed northern brothers despise the sacred Somali unity. It appears Farmaajo is listening to these wise men when as per their advice he half-heartedly shouldered Somalia’s responsibility for the war crimes committed against civilians in Somaliland and though he did not stop short to equally blame rebel forces for taking up arms against the then regime rendering his apology tokenistic for most Somalilanders, the Somaliland government welcomed it as a reasonable gesture because in the past, successive leaders in Somalia have consistently refused to acknowledge that the military government they replaced had committed any war crimes.
Wised up by the experiences of the past sixty years, Hargeisa struggles to trust Mogadishu and so Farmaajo’s motivation to reignite the talks was quickly interpreted as an attempt to propel his re-selection campaign — in fact the same can be said about Somalia’s strategy in the talks which is to massage her nationalistic ego. His new commission’s first engagement with the media confirms this perception; they nonchalantly suggest that all is needed is reconciliation, genuine reconciliation; they make no secret that their ultimate aim is to convince Somaliland swallow grievances and return to the fold of the wishful state-making scheme; and their stipulated way of addressing the issues is first to generate trust, create an atmosphere of mutual understanding and finally pave the way for welcoming back Somaliland.
i) Is it about the talks, or about terms of the talks?
There is no dispute the two sides agree on the importance of the talks but, as you can appreciate, they differ on the urgency and on the ultimate expected outcome. Farmaajo thinks the sooner he brings back his northern brothers into the revival of the Somali national pride the better. Regardless. As far as he is concerned, Somaliland declared independence because of imperfections of the nineteen sixty questioned “union” and because they are resentful for the late eighties “genocide” suffered: two unintended but rectifiable slip ups. He is clearly eying to enjoy watching ballot boxes dispatched to Somaliland for the 2024 presidential elections. In reality the question is much more complicated than he conveniently presents it. Proof: his new commission contemplates a prolonged showdown.
It is in nobody’s interest for the drama to drag on. Just listen to Farmaajo’s counterpart, his excellency president Muse Bihi Abdi (MBA). MBA has repeated time and again that the Somaliland’s case is a historical one dating back to the colonial border demarcations of the Somali peninsula. And he characteristically laughs off the reductionist thinking of the greater Somali state sentiments; to him meaningful talks are subject to meeting the minimum requirements of going to the table as equals and never misses an opportunity to hammer home the message of achieving two sisterly independent states. Just the thought of facing him, has kept Farmaajo silent for two years.
Farmaajo can be forgiven, for in every sense of the word, the battle-hardened MBA embodies the sovereign aspirations of the people of Somaliland. He is well positioned to explain that the “union” imperfections and the merciless military operations were merely symptomatic of the impossibility of the single grand state Somalis wanted to establish, that the attempted nineteen sixty unification came generations too early given the institutional capacity of the Somali society and so that defaulting back into separate states was in the end inevitable and the genocide a blessing in disguise. Well, it is common knowledge that pathological nationalism aside, the egalitarian nature of the Somali society, the desolate economic basis of their livelihood and the level of their civic institutions all make it impossible to establish a grand state for all Somalis in the peninsula. Yes, no one in their right mind would want that at the moment, but then again why would one then want to isolate Hargeisa from the rest and bring it under Mogadishu? Expansionism, Somalilanders will tell you.
ii) Anything to learn from the botched talks?
Exercising the self-determination rights the rest of the Somali territories enjoy, Somaliland simply left a questioned union with Somalia, and without offence abstained from direct political dealings with Somalia for the simple reason that there was no serious partner to engage with. Things changed in February 2012 when under international pressure she conceded to talk with the then transitional federal government which was then showing illusory flashes of recovery and receiving applause from the international community. I don’t think anyone would contest that nothing tangible emerged from these first rounds of the talks other than agreeing to refrain from provocative actions, to de-escalate tension and to work together in the fight against terrorism and piracy. Somalia failed the first test of trustworthiness when an agreement reached in Ankara in 2013 for the two administrations to jointly manage air space control which the international civil aviation organisation (ICAO) was transferring from Kenya ended up in Mogadishu. Hargeisa felt conned.
Worst yet, Somalia violated the spirit of the talks; it embarked on a mission to derail Somaliland’s economic recovery. In March 2018 her makeshift parliament tried, though failed, to block a rare investment opportunity in the Berbera seaport and in June 2018 her planning minister wrote to international donors advising not to renew their special arrangement partnership with Somaliland. It is difficult to reconcile the greater Somali state doctrine she wants to champion with these sinister intentions. To many in Somaliland such behaviour is just a reminder of Somalia’s hostility.
Somaliland has learnt her lesson and she is now treading carefully to avoid the rabbit holes of the talks. There were then in 2012 no more reasons for the fledgling Somalian government to seriously engage in talks, than there are now for Farmaajo to appoint a commission. To be fair it is not only the wasteful talks with Somaliland, the Mogadishu administration has with the exception of a few administrative facelifts, miserably failed to achieve its overblown expectations of holding a “one Somali one vote election” not once in 2016 but twice as it is unlikely this will happen in 2020. Now it’s trying to settle for setting up a virtual constituency for Somaliland and is pretending this would pass as a representative democracy but in reality chances are dim for popular elections in the foreseeable future. Why on earth did they ever commit to adopt a ‘tribal’ federal constitution?
The botched talks made no headway not because they were not binding and not because they lacked a monitoring mechanism but because Mogadishu had other priorities. The talks also failed because, vaguely defined in terms of trust building, they lacked cogency which Silanyo’s ad hoc negotiating team misinterpreted as a carte blanche they could use to their advantage. They got it wrong, it was rather Somalia that capitalised on the opportunity for nationalistic ego boosting. In any case, Somaliland decided to freeze them until a mediating third party comes on board and I understand that there is now the suggestion that Turkey, Djibouti and Sweden are tipped to play this role, and we know that Ethiopian, Qatar and UAE may want to have some influence. In my view with the exception of Sweden, the rest of these countries either lack necessary expertise with what is at stake or impartiality. Turkey and Djibouti are particularly suspects. However, the question remains: will the talks now become a priority for Somaliland?
iii) Sorry what was the “it” again we wanted to talk about?
Just like the idea of two states is taboo in Mogadishu, so is the thought of joining up again distasteful in Hargeisa. In this polarised situation the question is how long can Somalia sustain the idea that she can bring back Somaliland into the fold and how long can Somaliland withstand international pressure to drop her search of de jure recognition? Eventful times are ahead if and when the talks get going. One wonders when the two sides eventually resume talks how soon the key issue of one state/two states will feature on the agenda. This is, after all, the sticking point. That is, the dispute between the two is one of sovereignty, which makes arbitration and juridical settlement a must. The schism seems unbridgeable and so the talks, then, will in the end come to a test of the will.
Farmaajo has his plate full. He is struggling to wrest full sovereign control of his country away from al-Shabaab and from the federal member states, and send home Amisom forces his life depends on. Needless to say he does not command much legitimacy in vast sways of his country and the challenge is that he is tasked with the responsibility of leading his country up the creek without a pedal. That it would be absurd for Somaliland to jump into the bandwagon is the least he should be expected to admit; and that Somaliland is better off waiting until such time when either the federal system takes permanent form (hard to achieve), or replaced by a central form of governance (highly unlikely) should likewise be everybody’s understanding. He is juggling these impossible options, and is calling on his talks commission to help him find a balance. He feels he has no other option but to pull as many strings as he can and as some argue even dishing out dollars. The problem, though, is that while he does have a mandate for considering the two state solution as an option and start focusing on his own state consolidation, he senselessly prefers to have the situation drag on, a resource depleting option. The approval of his country’s constitution is in limbo and his country’s plebiscite aspiration hamstrung by the expectation Somaliland will return to the fold.
Reincarnating the pseudo-nationalistic parody in the heyday of the Siyadist era, Farmaajo is not doing himself any favours; he is not stoic either and like his predecessors he is lured into the hollow mantra that he presides over Somaliland. His country lacks coercive powers to compel Somaliland toe the line and with Somaliland already having suffered the worst of the wrath of Somalia’s military force, there is no room left for military means even if dispensable. Yet despite all these odds stacked against him, he is a social media savvy, a strategist, surrounding himself with competent technocrats who deliver. He cannot be written off that quickly.
Avoiding the pitfalls of the previous talks, MBA is treading carefully. He appears to have taken a leaf from the Eritrean strongman Isaias Afwerki in that he takes a principled approach towards the talks, he brushes aside Farmaajo’s string pulling, and does not waiver on his principle of demanding a neutral venue for the rendezvous and most importantly of meeting as equals. He is reassured that Somaliland is starting the talks from a position of strength, Somalia from a position of weakness. As a former military commander he knows that Somaliland has history on his side and geography too; he knows all too well that Somalia poses no military or economic threat and that she lacks political leverage. Why bother?
However, on the flip side though, MBA faces the stark reality that Somaliland’s claim to sovereignty remains incomplete without Mogadishu nodding yes. He has a few options if the talks fail: the first one is open war. Eritrea and South Sudan refused to beg their mother states. The second one is shrewd diplomacy, but like his predecessors, his achilles heel is his foreign department. Somaliland foreign policy has always been disappointingly toothless. The third option involves getting ready for the worst that can happen which is people out of frustration taking up to the streets or security situations getting out of hand. Without exaggeration this forms the daily prayers of the elite in Mogadishu, but it is hard to imagine anyone else would want to see this scenario happening, because neighbouring countries benefit from Somaliland’s stability. Violence spills over. Just like Somalia’s instability has dogged life in Kenya, so may Djibouti and Ethiopia worry if Somaliland goes up in flames. Farmaajo’s commission should consider arbitration, the northern brothers cannot be reconciled, or rather conned, back into the union.
Mohamed Obsiye, Ph.D.