Somalia-Somaliland: The Perils of Delaying New Talks


Somalia and Somaliland have been at odds since the latter’s 1991 declaration of independence, which the former rejects. The dispute has cooled after heating up in 2018, but lingering tensions could threaten regional stability. To restart dialogue, the two sides should meet for technical talks.


What’s new? Relations between Somalia and Somaliland, while back from the brink after a difficult 2018, remain tense. International actors are leading efforts to revive dialogue between the two sides.

Why does it matter? Absent progress toward dialogue, the parties’ relationship is likely to deteriorate in ways that could endanger regional stability.

What should be done? The two sides should agree to technical talks as a step toward negotiations on more sensitive political subjects. These talks should focus on security and economic issues where tangible gains can build mutual confidence. Discussing Somaliland’s political status could create counterproductive dynamics, including with Gulf states, and should happen later.

Executive Summary

Tensions between Somalia and Somaliland remain high. The core bone of contention is still Somaliland’s political status in light of its 1991 declaration of independence, which Somalia rejects. Relations frayed in 2018 when troops from Somaliland and Puntland, a semi-autonomous regional state in Somalia notionally loyal to the federal government in Mogadishu, clashed over disputed territory. Somaliland’s deal with an Emirati conglomerate and Ethiopia to manage its main port – which Mogadishu saw as challenging its claim to sovereignty there – deepened antagonism. But frictions have eased in 2019, and outside pressure has created some momentum toward renewed negotiations between the two sides, which last gathered to talk in 2015. The two sides should meet for technical talks, focusing on security and economic matters of mutual concern, and avoiding for now the polarising issue of Somaliland’s political status. A neutral party such as the African Union ought to convene the talks, so that none of the many states vying for regional influence sees the mediation as threatening its interests.

Getting back to talks will likely not be easy. In addition to historical grievances and decades of separate rule, efforts to restart dialogue face political opposition on both sides. With parliamentary and presidential elections approaching in 2020 and 2021, respectively, Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” is particularly susceptible to pressure from his nationalist support base to shy away from talks and the give-and-take they may entail. Somaliland leader Muse Bihi, a former rebel commander who fought against the government in Mogadishu in the late 1980s, is less open to compromise than his predecessor. He will also face political pressure from hardline separatists, including other former insurgents, for whom any concession to Somalia is anathema.

Moreover, Gulf states could very well use their influence with leaders and others in Somaliland and throughout Somalia (including in its federal member states) to play the spoiler if talks are not carefully designed to take their interests into account. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular enjoys close relations with the Somaliland government in Hargeisa and is unlikely to welcome a negotiation in which Somaliland is pressed to yield decision-making power to Mogadishu on issues that affect its interests. The Emiratis would likely prefer to engage on weighty matters with Somalia after its next elections in the hope of dealing with a federal government more sympathetic to their concerns.

But there are issues short of Somaliland’s political status that the two parties could meaningfully tackle to the benefit of both. Some relate to security. Defeating Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency will require Mogadishu and Hargeisa to share intelligence and pool resources. And calming the volatile military standoff between Somaliland and Puntland over contested territories along their border will require Hargeisa to commit to de-escalation and Mogadishu to support, as it did in 2018, UN-led mediation efforts.

 International mediation will be crucial to achieving progress [between Somalia and Somaliland].

Other mutual interests are economic in nature. Agreements on freedom of movement and trade are essential in order for businesses in Somalia – especially livestock farmers – to benefit from the upgrade of Somaliland’s Berbera port and development of the trade corridor between it and Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Both Somalia and Somaliland also have incentives to cooperate on sharing the benefits of debt relief packages under discussion with international financial institutions and on negotiating access to shared territorial waters for companies interested in oil and gas exploration.

Given high levels of suspicion between Somalia and Somaliland, international mediation will be crucial to achieving progress, but roles need to be assigned carefully. While Turkey and Ethiopia have been diplomatically very active in both Mogadishu and Hargeisa, neither is ideally positioned to play the lead role. Turkey’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which also has deep interests in both Somalia and Somaliland, is too fraught. And despite Ethiopia’s recent improvement of ties with the Farmajo administration, it has historically enjoyed too close a relationship with Somaliland for Mogadishu to trust it fully.

The most promising approach might be for the African Union to convene the talks, ask an eminent statesperson to lead them and solicit technical assistance from a “group of friends” that might include countries like Turkey, Ethiopia, Sweden and Switzerland – which have been at the forefront of efforts to encourage talks – as well as the European Union.

The time for serious discussions about Somaliland’s political status will likely come after Somalia’s next elections. But waiting until then to have any talks at all would be dangerous: tensions between the two sides persist, regional powers are competing for advantage at a cost to local stability, and Somaliland and Puntland remain at loggerheads as forces gather in border areas. Against this backdrop, drifting along with no movement toward reconciliation raises risks of conflict. Engaging in technical talks about common security and economic challenges might help defuse those tensions and could build mutual confidence and create good-will for the more difficult negotiations down the road.


 The question of Somaliland’s sovereignty is, of course, at the centre of tensions between Mogadishu and Hargeisa. 

Tensions between Somalia and Somaliland centre on a dispute over Somalilanders’ claim to political independence, which they declared in 1991. Neither Somalia nor any other country has ever accepted the claim. But the frictions are rooted in events several decades earlier.

When they gained independence in 1960 from two different colonial powers – Somaliland from the British and Somalia from the Italians – the two territories unified to become the Somali Republic. But many Somalilanders both felt that the new country’s government in Mogadishu was dominated by representatives from the south (which it was) and blamed economic policies set in Mogadishu for their region’s underdevelopment.

The situation boiled over in the 1980s, when the Somali National Movement (SNM), led by members of Somaliland’s dominant Isaq clan, launched an insurgency against military dictator Siad Barre, who in turn ramped up repression of Isaq civilians in the north. In 1988, the Barre regime responded to insurgent attacks on Hargeisa and Burcao with a brutal bombing campaign that left Hargeisa in rubble and forced some half a million Somalilanders to flee to Ethiopia. Barre’s regime came to an end in 1991, when rebel movements in the south ousted it from Mogadishu and the SNM routed it from the north. As warlords continued to fight for dominance in the south, Somaliland’s leaders decided to break away. On 18 May 1991, they proclaimed the independent Republic of Somaliland.

Since then, Somaliland has developed many trappings of a state. It has its own civilian administration, armed forces and currency. It administers its own elections, which international observers have broadly described as free and fair. Its private sector, especially in the export of livestock, has driven local economic growth. As discussed below, Somaliland and donors also struck a “special arrangement” under which donors channel their support directly to Hargeisa. Nevertheless, no country recognises its statehood.

The question of Somaliland’s sovereignty is, of course, at the centre of tensions between Mogadishu and Hargeisa. During previous rounds of talks between 2012 and 2015, the two sides made progress on practical issues of cooperation, such as airspace management, but failed to close the gap on the fundamental issue of Somaliland’s status. While negotiations were ongoing, tensions eased. Yet after talks collapsed in 2015, relations deteriorated once again, taking a dramatic turn for the worse.

This report looks at how and why the dispute between Somalia and Somaliland heated up – and then cooled down – over the last two years. It then makes the case for renewed talks between the parties, suggesting ways of making those discussions as productive as possible while limiting acrimony. The report also assesses the role of outside powers, primarily the Gulf states, Turkey and Ethiopia, in Somalia-Somaliland dynamics and the ways in which they might contribute to mediation between the two sides. It is based on interviews with serving and former officials, journalists, civil society representatives and diplomats, in Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Nairobi, conducted in the period February-May 2019, as well as follow-up telephone interviews with these sources, and supplemental interviews with officials in Abu Dhabi, Ankara, Doha and Riyadh.

II.Mogadishu and Hargeisa: To the Brink and Back

In 2018, Somalia-Somaliland relations frayed to such an extent that renewing talks became, at the time, untenable.

The downward spiral began with military clashes between Somaliland and its neighbour, Puntland, a semi-autonomous region that remains part of Somalia. In January 2018, Somalia’s minister of planning, investment and economic development, Gamal Mohamed Hassan, angered the Somaliland government by making an unannounced visit to Badhan town in his home region of Sanaag, one of two regions claimed by both Somaliland and Puntland. The territorial dispute is longstanding. But Gamal’s was the first visit to the region by a minister from Mogadishu since Somaliland declared independence in 1991. Hargeisa perceived the visit – and the fact that Mogadishu did not consult with Somaliland before Gamal appeared in Badhan – to be a form of meddling in the contested areas and a signal that Somalia did not respect Somaliland’s claims there. Hargeisa warned the move could “jeopardise the relationship” between Somaliland and Somalia and might “lead to clashes”.

It did. Days later, on 8 January, Hargeisa ordered Somaliland forces into Tukaraq, a strategic town then held by Puntland forces on the trade corridor that links the two disputed regions, Sool and Sanaag, with eastern Ethiopia. The fighting left dozens of soldiers dead and sparked an escalation that led to more bouts of fighting between Somaliland and Puntland forces in May, June and November 2018.

Although Mogadishu sought to defuse the situation that it had helped spark by calling for restraint on both sides, it is ill suited to the role of peacemaker. Hargeisa continues to see it as an adversary and obstacle to its territorial claims. Moreover, throughout the Farmajo presidency, Mogadishu has been in a tug of war with Puntland, along with all of Somalia’s federal member states, over both power and resources. The role of mediator accordingly fell principally to the then special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia, Michael Keating. The situation on the ground remains volatile and the two parties continue to clash periodically.

 As Mogadishu and Hargeisa came to see each other as allies of opposing Gulf powers, their antagonism intensified. 

There were other sources of tension as well. In March 2018, Farmajo’s government reacted angrily to the conclusion of a deal between Hargeisa and the Emirati conglomerate, DP World. The deal provides for DP World – a public company in which the Dubai government indirectly holds a majority stake – to modernise and manage Somaliland’s primary port at Berbera. Mogadishu formally protested to the Arab League, declaring the contract null and void and “a violation of Somalia’s sovereignty”.The cabinet also introduced a bill, which was passed by both houses of parliament and signed into law by President Farmajo, rejecting the deal and banning DP World from operating in Somalia. In Hargeisa, Bihi called Somalia’s opposition to the Berbera deal “a declaration of war” and – in light of what he described as “uncalled-for hostility from Somalia” – halted preparations then under way to restart dialogue with Mogadishu.

The intensity of Mogadishu’s reaction in March 2018 marked an escalation from what had previously been more measured opposition to the Berbera deal. After DP World first announced the venture in September 2016, neither then-President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud nor the Farmajo government when it took power had much of a public reaction at all. The UAE maintained that it had an oral agreement with Mogadishu that it could move forward with the project so long as Abu Dhabi continued to uphold a one-Somalia policy.

Two factors might explain Somalia’s subsequent shift in tone. First was the early March 2018 announcement that neighbouring heavyweight Ethiopia would take a 19 per cent stake in the Berbera project – a move that Mogadishu may well have seen as a strategically threatening demonstration of growing closeness between Addis Ababa and Hargeisa. And second was growing antagonism between Mogadishu and the UAE.

The rift between Mogadishu and Abu Dhabi was of particular importance. It had been expanding since June 2017, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut off ties with and imposed a blockade on Qatar. At that time, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi pressed countries across the region, including Somalia, to cut their ties with Doha. Farmajo asserted that he would not take sides in the dispute, but UAE officials were convinced that, as a practical matter, he had aligned himself with both Qatar and Turkey. In response, Abu Dhabi increased its support to Somaliland and the federal member states, several of which had announced their support for the Saudi-led bloc during the crisis. This move exacerbated tensions between Abu Dhabi and Mogadishu. As Mogadishu and Hargeisa came to see each other as allies of opposing Gulf powers, their antagonism intensified.

After Somalia enacted legislation against DP World, Mogadishu and Hargeisa hardened their respective positions. Foreign aid delivery became a battleground. In June 2018, Mogadishu opposed a donors’ proposal to renew the Somaliland “special arrangement”, which came into force in 2013 and expired in 2016, and which permitted donors to bypass Mogadishu (the normal channel for delivering aid to the federal member states) and send assistance directly to Hargeisa. The Farmajo government expressed concern that “singling out an individual state or region for special arrangements could have serious impact on the efforts to deepen federalism and nation-building”. Western donors pushed back, arguing that Somaliland’s “special circumstances” merited a different approach. Hargeisa viewed Mogadishu’s opposition to formal renewal of the “special arrangement” as a hostile act.

 Both Hargeisa and Mogadishu say they are ready to reengage in talks. 

The dispute also played out in the immigration arena. In mid-2018, authorities on both sides took measures to hinder travel between their territories. Somaliland stamped Somalia passports with a visa, on the grounds that Somaliland was a separate country. For their part, Somalia immigration officials began confiscating passports that contained such visa stamps, replacing them with clean ones at a cost – thus penalising citizens of Somalia who travelled to Somaliland.

Mogadishu also asserted itself in the field of airspace management. In March and June 2018, the federal government took significant steps toward assuming full control of the airspace over Somalia and Somaliland from the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which had been playing this role out of Nairobi since the 1990s. These steps ignored a 2013 agreement Hargeisa had struck with the previous Somalia government during talks in Turkey, according to which a new body based in Hargeisa would jointly manage both territories’ airspace and revenues from air traffic.

Tensions have eased a bit since 2018. For the most part, the first half of 2019 saw a de-escalation in rhetoric and action. On the positive side of the equation, both Hargeisa and Mogadishu say they are ready to reengage in talks, likely as a result – at least in part – of international pressure. In conversations with Crisis Group, a high-level Somaliland official described Somaliland and Somalia as “partners” and recognised the need to resolve their disagreements. The Somalia government has appointed a point person for talks in the presidency, Dr Nur Dirie Hersi Fursade, who says Mogadishu is ready to talk “without preconditions”.

But there is also less positive news, including Somalia’s decision to pull its delegation out of a 25 June 2019 consultative meeting convened in Nairobi by a private Swiss-based organisation. While Mogadishu’s decision could reflect fraying bilateral relations with Kenya – which is embroiled in a diplomatic dispute with Somalia over a maritime boundary – the incident illustrates the challenges of designing a workable framework for talks.

Moreover, Somaliland’s ongoing efforts to project itself as a sovereign state and build support elsewhere in Africa are a continuing source of tension between Mogadishu and Hargeisa. Recently, Somaliland’s foreign minister visited Kenyan foreign ministry officials in Nairobi, after which Nairobi provocatively tweeted that the talks had covered issues of concern to “both countries”. Shortly after that, President Bihi travelled to Guinea where he was given a red-carpet welcome. Somalia responded with ire in both cases. It formally protested the Kenyan tweet as an “affront to Somalia’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity”, and announced that it was cutting diplomatic ties with Guinea.

III.Getting to New Talks: Challenges and Opportunities

A.The Case for Talks

Any resumed dialogue should focus on how Mogadishu and Hargeisa can improve cooperation in mutually beneficial ways. Much as it will be important to resolve the political conflict over Somaliland’s status and overcome a major obstacle to regional stability and economic integration, the time is not yet right. The gap between the parties is too great and could be widened by the likelihood that, with Somalia’s parliamentary and presidential elections coming up (they are planned for 2020 and 2021, respectively), Mogadishu would be under pressure to take hardline positions.

Regional actors may also object to any talks they deem too ambitious in scope. Abu Dhabi especially has shied away from dealing with the Farmajo government on major policy matters since the Gulf crisis of 2017. The UAE is likely to prefer waiting for Somalia’s next elections – which they hope will replace Farmajo with a new leader more sympathetic to their stance – before proceeding with negotiations in which Somalia might push Somaliland to make substantial concessions that could affect UAE interests. Abu Dhabi may in particular worry about the prospect that talks could shift the balance of power between Mogadishu and Hargeisa to their disadvantage, put Mogadishu in a position to interfere with commercial and military contracts signed solely with Hargeisa, or benefit a rival, such as Qatar or Turkey, that enjoys close ties to Somalia.

 Enhancing security cooperation would help both sides reduce the threat from Al-Shabaab. 

Against this backdrop, the best course right now would be to pursue preliminary agreements on relatively non-sensitive, technical matters in order to build mutual confidence and pave the way for more sensitive political negotiations.

Much can be done within that framework. To begin, enhancing security cooperation would help both sides reduce the threat from Al-Shabaab, a priority likely to become yet more urgent as the African Union mission (AMISOM) draws down. Intelligence sharing would help, as some of Al-Shabaab’s leaders belong to Isaq, Somaliland’s majority clan, and the group maintains a strong foothold in its territory.

Talks between Hargeisa and Mogadishu likewise could facilitate resolution of the volatile military standoff between Somaliland and Puntland. Somaliland is more likely to withdraw troops from the front line – an essential step toward de-escalation – if it can secure credible assurances that Mogadishu will not weigh in politically or militarily on Puntland’s side. Although, as outlined above, relations between Mogadishu and Puntland are tense, Mogadishu is still closer to Puntland – a federal member state that has representation in the parliament and government in Mogadishu – than Somaliland.

Somalia and Somaliland also stand to gain from greater economic cooperation. Agreements enabling freer cross-border movement and trade could boost exports from both sides of the border through Somaliland’s Berbera port, including livestock exports to the Arabian Peninsula, and help Somalia’s and Somaliland’s economies. Somaliland’s ambitious Berbera corridor project linking the port to Addis Ababa could similarly stimulate economic growth in Somalia provided the governments agree on how to work together. Agreement on joint management of civil aviation and its revenues – something the two governments achieved in past talks but never implemented (and over which Somalia has recently been working to gain full control) – could give a boost to that sector, with gains for both sides. Somaliland’s banking sector, which is stronger than Somalia’s, might begin working to both sides’ benefit if they agree to bolster integration of their respective financial services.

Recent developments on the economic front underline the need for both sides to work together. Since his appointment in 2017, Hassan Ali Kheire, Somalia’s reformist prime minister, has made the pursuit of debt relief, which would be a major financial windfall for the country, a central goal. Successfully implementing any agreement on debt cancellation, however, would require consensus between Hargeisa and Mogadishu on how those benefits would be shared. In the same vein, Western companies have shown a growing interest in exploring for oil and gas in shared territorial waters. The federal government in Mogadishu has – over the bitter objections of the federal member states – asserted that it will take the lead in these negotiations because it is the internationally recognised sovereign government. But as a practical matter Mogadishu will need to cultivate consensus with Hargeisa and federal member states to ensure that the agreements it negotiates can be effectively implemented in areas where it has little to no control.

 For the Somali nationalists, there is no question that Somaliland belongs in a unified Somalia. 

By contrast, the costs of continued non-cooperation could be high. A deepening rift between Hargeisa and Mogadishu could trigger greater instability and possibly prompt violence, especially in the militarised areas contested by Somaliland and Puntland. Growing division could also leave both sides open to manipulation by outside powers seeking to play out transplanted rivalries. The Gulf states may be particularly tempted to intervene as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on the one hand, and Doha on the other, continue to vie for influence in and around Somalia. These rival powers funnel resources to their competing allies in Somalia and Somaliland, elevating some over others and exacerbating social and political schisms within both systems.

B.Managing Nationalist Politics

The presidents of Somalia and Somaliland face political constraints and expectations that shape their manoeuvring room. They will need to navigate them carefully to maximise chances for successful talks.

Of the two leaders, Farmajo faces the greater limitations and is likely to be the more reluctant to entertain a return to negotiations. Having come to power in 2017 touting a nationalist message, he has emphasised the importance of a strong central government even as he struggles (not always successfully) with leaders of federal member states. Toward the end of 2018, state leaders, frustrated with what they described as Farmajo’s failure to consult them on key issues (including resource sharing, the balance of power between them and Mogadishu, and Mogadishu’s alleged efforts to swing elections in federal member states in favour of candidates it backs), threatened to cease all cooperation with the central government. Early the next year, Farmajo sought to mend fences, publicly apologising for his part in the souring of relations. Still, tensions remain high.

Against the backdrop of these disputes, and amid Al-Shabaab’s continued security threat, Farmajo’s once-broad base has begun to erode. With the presidential election approaching, he likely will be cautious about moves that could cost him further support, including initiating negotiations with Hargeisa in which he inevitably would be pressed to make concessions. He will doubtless be especially wary of making compromises relating to Somaliland’s sovereign status. For the Somali nationalists who form the bedrock of Farmajo’s political base, there is no question that Somaliland belongs in a unified Somalia.

In Hargeisa, President Bihi has more flexibility. Many Somalilanders are drawn to the idea of talks that could advance their claims to independence. Moreover, he faces no presidential vote until 2022, affording him more time than Farmajo before he must turn his attention to campaigning.

Still, Bihi would confront his own internal challenges should he wish to re-embark on talks. Influential hardline separatists would likely pressure him to refrain from moving toward greater cooperation with Mogadishu.Many from Bihi’s generation lost loved ones in the late 1980s when the Siad Barre regime attacked northern cities. They prize the level of autonomy that Somaliland obtained and chafe at the prospect of conceding anything on that point. Bihi himself, a former commander in the Somali National Movement (the insurgent movement that fought against Siad Barre), is less open to compromise than his predecessor Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Silanyo”. As for the generation of Somalilanders who became politically aware after 1991, they may wonder why the current state of limbo – which is all they have ever known – needs to be addressed at all.

Bihi also faces other claims on his attention and political capital. Tensions with Puntland continue to trigger bouts of fighting in contested areas and inter-clan clashes in Sanaag also seem to be on the rise. In addition, Bihi is under pressure to resolve a dispute with the opposition party, Waddani, which contests the electoral commission’s credibility, so that long-delayed parliamentary polls can take place this year.

 There has been a resurgence of international interest in Somalia-Somaliland relations. 

In seeking to minimise political obstacles on both sides, as well as demands on political leaderships’ time, the parties could borrow from the two-tiered structure they employed with some success during the 2012-2015 discussions. At the time, small delegations often met at the technical and ministerial levels in the absence of the two presidents.They steered clear of status-related issues, worked on building a positive rapport and kept their sights set on more achievable confidence-building measures – such as an agreement on the management of airspace and division of associated revenues. The presidents met less frequently and focused primarily on endorsing points agreed upon at the working level and committing to further talks. Although talks broke down in 2015 over an issue related to the composition of the Somalia delegation, past participants remain positive about the two-tiered structure.

Officials tasked with preparing the ground for talks also could work with private-sector and civil society leaders including elders to foster domestic support for dialogue and potentially encourage them to engage in track-two talks.

C.Harnessing International Interest

As the Horn of Africa’s strategic importance has grown – the combined result of the Yemen war, proximity to important shipping lanes, and concerns over the presence of terrorist groups Al-Shabaab and, in still relatively small numbers, the Islamic State in Somalia – there has also been a resurgence of international interest in Somalia-Somaliland relations. The greater interest is reflected, in part, in growing competition among various outside actors for influence, notably between the U.S. and China but also among regional states.

Regional interest is especially high among both Gulf powers and neighbours on the continent. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, are all competing for influence, as are the U.S. and China. The UAE has made a major investment in Somaliland’s long-term future; beyond the port, DP World in 2018 signed an agreement to create a 12 sq km economic free zone in Berbera. Abu Dhabi separately secured rights to a military base nearby. The road connecting Berbera to the Ethiopian border is being renovated with financing from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development.At the same time, both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are keen to ensure that none of their primary rivals – Qatar, Turkey and Iran – can gain access to the Red Sea coastline, of which Somaliland controls 850km. Already, they are keeping a wary eye on Turkey’s construction of its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu. So long as Mogadishu remains close to Doha and Ankara, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh will likely resist Somali federal government control over Somaliland. It remains to be seen whether they might become more open to compromise after Somalia’s next elections if there are significant changes suggesting that Mogadishu will be friendlier to their interests – for example, if Somalis elect candidates willing to support rescinding the legislation barring DP World from the country.

As for neighbours on the continent, landlocked Ethiopia has a significant stake in the Berbera port deal and is eyeing the economic opportunities offered by a modernised port and trade corridor to link it to the coast. Egypt, which has traditionally backed Mogadishu, has begun signalling that it seeks a warmer relationship with Somaliland, partly due to Mogadishu’s close relations with its rivals in Doha and Ankara. And as described above, Kenya seems intent on strengthening relations with Somaliland – a move it is making against the backdrop of a recent escalation in its longstanding maritime border dispute with Somalia.

Among these countries, Turkey and Ethiopia have shown particular interest in facilitating renewed dialogue between Mogadishu and Hargeisa.

Turkey has worked hard both to foster close relations with Somalia – which it sees as central to its regional strategic interests – and to position itself as an honest broker in its talks with Somaliland. From 2011, when it provided humanitarian relief amid a biting famine, Ankara has built close relations with Mogadishu. In 2016, it opened a new embassy, physically its largest in the world. It has offered scholarships to thousands of young Somalis, and Turkish companies operate the city’s principal sea port and airport. But it also sought to maintain ties with Somaliland, and between 2012 and 2015 it was the driving force behind the Mogadishu-Hargeisa talks.

 Ankara and Addis Ababa would more usefully contribute to the next phase of talks by playing a supporting role in the process. 

Turkey has also taken a number of steps to restart negotiations. In December 2018, Ankara appointed Dr Olgan Bekar – who served as ambassador in Mogadishu from 2014 to 2018 – as its special envoy for Somalia-Somaliland talks. Bekar visited Hargeisa and Mogadishu in early February 2019 and elicited the views of the main parties and international partners on a new framework for talks, though he has not yet released a plan.

For its part, Addis Ababa has also tried – through its own separate initiative – to act as a mediator between Somalia and Somaliland. Ethiopia historically has had better relations with Hargeisa than Mogadishu (and, to the latter’s chagrin, cultivated relations with Somalia’s federal member states), yet since taking office in April 2018, Abiy has made an effort to develop a relationship with Farmajo. But Abiy appears to have moved precipitously in proposing to accompany Farmajo in a visit to Hargeisa in March 2019, and Somaliland officials rejected his request.

In any case, given regional dynamics, Ankara and Addis Ababa would more usefully contribute to the next phase of talks by playing a supporting – rather than leading – role in the process.

Ethiopia is still too close to Somaliland to play the role of mediator. Mogadishu is of course keenly aware that Addis Ababa historically has enjoyed warmer ties with Hargeisa than itself. Somalia has also watched closely as Ethiopia has recently taken steps to integrate its economy with Somaliland through the Berbera port trade corridor in seeking to reduce its dependence on Djibouti for access to the sea. To be sure, Prime Minister Abiy has somewhat flipped Ethiopian policy since coming to office by building stronger ties with Farmajo than all his recent predecessors. But Mogadishu still sees the Ethiopian security and foreign policy establishment as hewing to its traditional approach to Somaliland and doubts that Addis Ababa can project true impartiality.

Moreover, the idea of Ethiopian mediation could face opposition in Hargeisa, too, as Abiy’s failed attempt to broker a Farmajo visit soured some officials there on the prospect of Ethiopia playing this role.

As for Turkey, the reaction from its regional rivals could well be highly negative. Chief among the objectors would likely be Saudi Arabia, which sees Mogadishu as an historical ally, a key part of its western security flank in the Horn of Africa, and a place where it has been working to claw back influence after the strain created by the Gulf crisis of 2017. Riyadh would likely bristle at seeing an adversary like Turkey play a lead role in any talks – all the more so given that the kingdom saw its already poor relations with Turkey decline yet further following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate in October 2018. In light of Turkey’s closeness to Qatar, and Riyadh’s deep mistrust of Qatari influence in Somalia, Ankara would also have to go to significant lengths to demonstrate that it is not in lockstep with Doha. And the kingdom would not be alone in its concerns: Abu Dhabi would almost certainly react to any hint of Qatari involvement in talks. Egypt, too, would likely follow Riyadh’s lead in opposing Turkish leadership given Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo treats as its nemesis.

 Turkish officials suggest that both Mogadishu and Hargeisa are open to Ankara taking the helm. 

Turkey believes that it is nonetheless well suited to a leadership role. Turkish officials suggest that both Mogadishu and Hargeisa are open to Ankara taking the helm. They point to Ankara’s deep and longstanding work in Somalia – including support for social programs, military training for Somalia’s national army, relief operations and encouragement of private investment – and note that they began many of these efforts before the Gulf players began to take a greater interest in Somalia.

Whatever the merits of Ankara’s arguments, the risks are too great. Blowback from mistrustful Gulf powers is the last thing the nascent talks need. Gulf interference could prove particularly destabilising to any mediation effort. Each of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar has cultivated local politicians and community leaders throughout various parts of Somalia, whom they can call upon to act in pursuit of external interests. These allies can easily play the spoiler, and there is a chance that in so doing they could set off an escalating chain of provocations.

A less contentious way forward, under discussion among Western diplomats in Nairobi, would be for the African Union to convene the talks with the support of what they call a “group of friends”. Under this arrangement, the African Union would appoint an eminent person to lead the talks, much like Kofi Annan led an AU-convened mediation effort during the post-election crisis in Kenya in 2008. Countries that have led efforts to bring the parties back to the table – including Turkey and Ethiopia as well as Sweden and Switzerland – could join the European Union and other supporters of the talks in offering technical support. By placing the AU at the forefront and affording roles to multiple concerned countries, such an approach would allow those with strong interests and influence to support the process while avoiding the kind of high-profile involvement that might backfire.


As the 30th anniversary of Somaliland’s declaration of independence approaches in 2021, Hargeisa and Mogadishu have important unfinished business. While political realities likely dictate that they neither can nor should immediately grapple with the paramount issue between them – the question of Somaliland’s political status – they can take steps to avoid renewed escalation and pave the way for more sensitive political talks. With support from within the region and further afield, the parties might be able to initiate a technical dialogue focused on issues of mutual interest – such as countering terrorism and stimulating economic growth. These discussions ought to be convened by a neutral party – perhaps the AU – to avoid backlash from regional powers whose support can maximise chances of the dialogue’s success and whose opposition would almost surely spell its failure.

Nairobi/Brussels, 12 July 2019

Appendix A: Map of Foreign Interests in the Ports of Somalia and Somaliland

Intentional Crisis Group





  1. There are two take aways from this report:

    Security cooperation in order to defeat extremists.
    Economic cooperation and sharing of “shared waters” for oil explorations.

    Both of these are benefit to the international community which has invested so much in Somalia and not to the stand off between Somaliland and Somalia. It will not make the Horn more stable or bring a lasting peace. Somaliland people need clarification of their status so they can make economic, political and social progress and ensure peace prevails in the region. To have cooperation between the two on issues that are more pressing for IC interested group but continue to keep 4 million people out of international economy and systems will not bring lasting stability in a volatile region in which all its government are susceptible to violent shocks.

    It’s time the IC think out of the box and press for substantial talks that centre around Somaliland independence. The report should never have used the word “separatisms” in relation to Somaliland after referring to the historical differences between the two at the beginning.


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