In 2020, Somaliland’s internationally and regionally isolated status has dramatically changed with the establishment of new diplomatic engagements. These new friendships have created foes and friends for the de facto nation state.
For many years gone by, Somaliland had been a silent actor in regional dynamics because of its lack of international recognition and the absence of incentives from regional players and global actors. However, three major geopolitical changes are re-shaping Somaliland foreign policy: the Ethio-Egyptian dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Taiwan-China relations and the regional rivalry between China and the U.S. over the control of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
With these geopolitical changes in the region, Somaliland is shifting from its long-held diplomatic stances.
Since 1991, Somaliland has become an island of stability in a region affected by intra- and inter-state conflicts.
In the early years of the 1990s, Somaliland demobilized its armed militias, turning them into a military and police force. Inter-clan hostilities were ended through reconciliation and dialogue, with more than 39 reconciliation conferences held throughout Somaliland without any international or regional support. Somaliland’s peace-building process took a home-grown, culturally rooted, and bottom-up approach.
This process was the key success story of Somaliland.
Based on a new political settlement reached at the Borame Conference in 1993 by the key founding stakeholders of peace and order in Somaliland between political elites, business communities, and traditional leaders, Somaliland succeeded in establishing a governing institution that protects the security, promotes stability and safeguards the welfare of its citizens.
Since 2002, Somaliland has held six popular elections, making it one of the successful democracies in Africa
Despite all these remarkable achievements in its post-colonial state reconstruction, Somaliland’s bid for international recognition has thus far failed.
During those years, millions of dollars had been spent, offices were opened in foreign countries and Somaliland had taken its lobby for international recognition at inter-governmental organizations including African Union (AU), United Nations, Arab League, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
Successive Somaliland governments have, to the extent of their power, invested in the constitution, and tirelessly advocated for Somaliland’s unique case and achievements. However, none of these have succeeded in putting Somaliland on the world stage by gaining what it has been looking for: international recognition.
Egypt-Ethiopia-Somaliland: new strategic manoeuvring
Egypt has long been known for its opposition to Somaliland’s quest for independence.
As a dominant political force both at the AU and Arab League, Egypt has blocked all AU-led initiatives about the case of Somaliland. A good example was the 2005 AU-driven fact-finding mission led by the former Deputy Chairperson of the African Commission, H.E Patrick Mazimhaka, whose findings were that the case of Somaliland had to be seen from a historical perspective and that the AU should find a special method to deal with this outstanding African issue; Egypt blocked this when it was presented to the heads of the state and governments.
Egypt has long been an adversary of Somaliland’s long-awaited independence because of two main driving factors: Egypt’s dependence on the Nile and Ethiopia’s growing economic power, both of which require Egypt to take preventive measures against Ethiopia’s growing ambition regarding the Nile. As part of its strategic calculus, Egypt has long been a supporter of the unity of Somaliland and Somalia to counterbalance Ethiopia’s hegemonic regional ambitions.
On the other hand, Ethiopia’s ruling party under governments preceding those led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed maintained a close, non-formal diplomatic relationship with Somaliland. With Ethiopia, Somaliland shares a significant border and has a trade relationship that rivals its other neighbors combined, Djibouti and Somalia.
In addition, cross-border trade and security cooperation between the two countries have been the foundational factors for their diplomatic relationship for the last three decades. For Somaliland, Ethiopia is its gateway to the rest of the world, and a silent ally for its quest for international recognition. However, with the election of the new prime minister, and a new regional integration process led by Abiy, the President of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed ‘Farmajo,’ and Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki, the Ethiopian alliance was about to change, and Somaliland was pushed to the sidelines.
On request from FGS, Ethiopia relegated its diplomatic relationship with Somaliland by not appointing its diplomatic representative to its Liaison Office in Hargeisa, a sign that Addis Ababa had changed its policy towards Somaliland and Somalia. For Somalia, Abiy was a good friend and ally, and Somaliland felt that its long-time partner has abandoned it and sided with its rival in Mogadishu.
With the growing dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt on the GERD, Somaliland has become an important player for both Ethiopia and Egypt.
In July 2020, a high-level Egyptian delegation arrived in Hargeisa for talks with Somaliland government. In a press statement, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Liban Yusuf Osman, said that Egypt and Somaliland had discussed bilateral trade and investment in areas of livestock and fisheries. But the real story behind the Egyptian visit in the midst of its escalating dispute with Ethiopia over the Nile waters is yet to be disclosed.
It was reported that the Egyptian and Somaliland officials had agreed to set up offices in Hargeisa and Cairo. For Egypt, establishing a physical presence gives it a vantage point to closely watch Ethiopia, and for Somaliland to have Egypt present in its territories is signal of Somaliland’s disgruntlement over Ethiopia’s Mogadishu-focused policy.
Both Egypt and Ethiopia have long been interested to have a naval base in Zaila, Somaliland’s historical coast town.
For Ethiopia, Zaila would serve as an alternative to its dependence on Djibouti’s port and also prevent Egypt from having a physical presence on its doorstep. For the last two decades, Ethiopia has been keen to sway the Somaliland government to lease to Zaila in exchange for more trade and formal diplomatic recognition. But Somaliland viewed this as a national security threat, fearing that Ethiopia would use gunboat diplomacy to annex parts of its territory to gain permanent access to sea; a red line in Somaliland’s sovereignty over its territory.
By contrast, Egypt is interested to lease a naval base in Zaila, ostensibly to safeguard sea lines of communication to the Suez Canal, but really as a deterrence to Ethiopia’s growing influence in the Horn of Africa.
With Egypt establishing a diplomatic relationship with Somaliland, Addis Ababa has realized it had made a gross strategic mistake in neglecting Somaliland’s interests.
Consequently, on 21 July, Abiy sent a high-level delegation led by Finance Minister Ahmed Shide to Hargeisa. It was agreed that Ethiopia should resume its normal diplomatic relationship with Somaliland by sending its ambassador to Hargeisa. This new engagement of Ethiopia with Somaliland is presumably to prevent perceived Egyptian interests in Somaliland.
The Ethio-Egyptian dispute over the GERD has worked in the favor for Somaliland: it has shown the Ethiopians that Somaliland’s geostrategic location cannot be ignored, that Ethiopia’s national interests lie with Somaliland even as Abiy has courted Farmaajo, and that Ethiopia’s regional strategic competitors would establish diplomatic relations with Somaliland should Ethiopia fail to balance its relationship between Somaliland and Somalia.
The 1 July was a historic day for Somaliland and the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Somaliland and Taiwan have a shared historical context: both are unrepresented and unrecognized by the international community; have established democratic governance structures; face threats from Somalia and China respectively; are aligned with the Western world; and have geostrategic value for the rest of the world.
Despite these similarities, Taiwan is an economic power on the world stage and far more advanced than Somaliland. Taiwan’s partnership with Somaliland places a strategic position for it to closely track its powerful rival, the People’s Republic of China, given that China’s People’s Liberation Army base in Djibouti is 154 miles away from Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, the location of Taiwan’s new office.
This is worrisome to China.
In protest against this new Taiwan-Somaliland relation, the Chinese ambassador to the Federal Government of Somalia, Qin Jian, met with president Farmajo. In a press release, President Farmajo of Somalia reiterated Somalia’s support for the ‘One-China policy.’ In Beijing, policy-makers were unhappy with the new Taiwan’s move in expanding its diplomacy in the Horn of Africa, a strategic location for China’s BRI project. The spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, accused Taiwan of undermining Somalia’s territorial integrity by establishing bilateral ties with Somaliland. China strongly opposes, he added, Taiwan and Somaliland relations through opening offices in their respective capitals.
However, with Taiwan expanding its diplomatic presence at the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, China in effect dramatically changed its policy stance in supporting what it describes as the ‘One-Somalia’ principle by reaching out unliterally without the involvement of the FGS.
On 7 August, a top diplomatic delegation led by China’s Special Representative for the Forum on Africa-China Cooperation (FOCAC), Ambassador Zhou Yuxiao, met with H.E Muse Bihi, president of Republic Somaliland. Driven by their concerns over the relationship between Somaliland and Taiwan, China has offered to Somaliland hard infrastructural projects—ports, airports and industrial parks—in exchange for Somaliland to totally cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but that offer was declined. Somaliland’s strategic calculus with Taiwan is twofold: through Taiwan, Somaliland will be able to have better bilateral strategic relations (mainly security and economic) with the U.S. and to attract foreign direct investment to exploit untapped natural resources.
In Washington, positive remarks arose about the new bilateral ties between Hargeisa and Taipei.
It was unprecedented that the U.S. government, which has always been backing the weak, internationally-supported government in Mogadishu, welcomed the new partnership between Somaliland and Taiwan. On 9 July, the National Security Council (NSC), the U.S. president’s principal forum for national security and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials, welcomed the news and said it was great to see Taiwan stepping up its engagement in East Africa in a time of such tremendous need.
This new development could demonstrate the beginnings of a change in U.S. policy towards Somalia.
Driven by its War on Terror strategy, the U.S. has always viewed Somalia as a potential safe haven for terrorists and deal with Muqdisho accordingly. In light of China’s aggressive diplomacy in the Gulf of Aden, the U.S. has re-evaluated its policy towards Somaliland.
Risking China’s retaliation?
Unlike the Western world, China, through its global economic power, has invested both in trade and infrastructure in Africa, leading some states to become indebted to China.
In 2019, China-Africa trade value is estimated to be worth $185 billion, according to China-Africa Research Initiative, John Hopkins University. China is Africa’s biggest creditor, and public debt in Africa has become a soaring and complex problem. Debt sustainability and debt stress to many African countries, most of them least-developed countries, is giving the Chinese a soft power to influence policies.
China’s African involvement has increased in the last two decades, meaning China is more engaged-trade and concessional loans in Africa than the U.S. or Europe. This new trend between China-Africa relations challenges the rules of the game of the U.S.’s uncontested hegemonic power over Africa.
However, Somaliland has not received any concessional loans from China due to its lack of international recognition. This status makes Somaliland a debt-free country with no external creditors influencing its internal policies. However, most of the Horn of Africa countries, Somaliland’s neighbors, are heavily indebted to China, with Ethiopia and Djibouti taking the lead.
Djibouti, Africa’s top-ranking country in debt to China, with 58 percent of its public debt owed to China, is also a close ally to Somaliland (John Hopkins, 2020). Likewise, over the past decade, Ethiopia has received more than $8.6 billion concessional loans from China to finance infrastructure. It is estimated that 32 percent of Ethiopia’s public debt is owed to China, making it the largest creditor.
With this soft power, China may be able to block Somaliland’s efforts to gain international recognition from highly indebted Ethiopia, which can sway the approaches of states in the region.
This could also be used to downplay regional diplomatic relations with Somaliland, which, if it happens, would isolate Somaliland from playing an active role in the changing geopolitical dynamics of the region. The AU, Somaliland’s prime target for its international diplomacy, is highly influenced by Beijing, and this could have a negative impact on how Somaliland engages with the AU. In addition, China as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, would block any future recognition of Somaliland in New York.
China-U.S. rivalry shockwaves
The strategic importance of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden has been acknowledged by both regional powers and global superpowers.
With the changing geopolitics, despite its ongoing quest for international recognition, Somaliland seems to be moving from an isolated political actor in the region to a more active partner both at commercial and military levels. These bilateral relations cracked the politica secessionem deserendam (political secession) that Somaliland has been struggling for the last thirty years.
Under the leadership of President Muse Bihi, a liberation war veteran elected in 2017, Somaliland has aggressively campaigned to put itself on the international political map by attracting foreign investments and establishing international strategic partners such as Taiwan and Egypt. Musa Bihi’s wolf-warrior diplomacy strategy will be tested against how Somaliland will navigate unharmed through these unchartered terrains.
In recent years, however, the political landscape of the Red Sea has radically changed with both regional and global powers establishing a physical presence at the Red Sea. Djibouti, Somaliland’s neighbor, has become an international theater for the strategic competition of the control of the Red Sea. Djibouti’s transformation from a French enclave to an important strategic crossroad has been driven by three factors: Somalia’s three-decade-long state failure has given Djibouti an uncontested geopolitical position to host large naval bases; the lack of international recognition for Somaliland has been a blessing for Djibouti; and with sanctions on Eritrea, which turned it into a pariah state, Djibouti has been unchallenged in the geopolitical political marketplace of the Red Sea.
The U.S.-China strategic competition over Djibouti is central to the geopolitical game being played by these two global powers. This geopolitical change has not only affected Djibouti’s loyalty to its long-term partner, the U.S., but has also created a strategic rivalry between Djibouti and Somaliland.
Somaliland could be used as an alternative maritime and military partner should U.S. fears about China’s dominance over Djibouti significantly heighten.
The 2016 concession agreement between the government of Somaliland and DP World, a United Arab Emirates-owned port operator, is a good example of how Somaliland has benefited from the fallout of China’s dominance in Djibouti.
Planned to be completed in January 2021, DP World has invested in Berbera port an initial $120 million in financing the first phase (a 400-meter container terminal) which, after it becomes operational, will compete with Djibouti. DP World intends to challenge Djibouti’s near monopoly of Ethiopia’s import and export cargo from Berbera. With the completion of the Berbera Port and the construction of the road between Berbera-Wajaale (financed by United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom), Djibouti’s share of Ethiopian cargo will be reduced to 30 percent, according to the 2016 Port Utilization Agreement between Somaliland and Ethiopia, in which Somaliland can handle 30 percent of Ethiopia’s cargo from Berbera.
In these unpredictable times, Somaliland is charting a new geopolitical discourse which focuses on its needs not to act fast, but rather systematically and prudently.
Somaliland has to play a more neutral, non-aligned Cold-War style game whereby it directs its consideration to benefit from these Nile water-driven impasses affecting Abiy’s changed policy and could use Egypt as a stabilizer factor for Ethiopia’s “One-Somalia policy”.
On the other hand, Taiwan-Somaliland relations are a breakthrough for Somaliland’s quest for recognition, and using its geostrategic leverage wisely will ultimately bring Somaliland to become part of regional affairs with a position independent of Chinese leverage in debt negotiations.
However, with all that said, Somaliland is entering a new era of international and regional diplomatic warfare. The current regional and international diplomacy requires a written and contextualized foreign policy framework on the part of Somaliland that promotes new gains and contains potential risks.