From Deadlock To Dialogue In Somali-Somaliland Relations

The Growing Geopolitical Importance of Somaliland and the Zero Sum Game Players’ Dilemma

Somalilandsun: Ethiopia, the US, and the EU have been in the process of brokering surprise talks between Somalia and Somaliland administrations in recent months, focusing the conversation on the issue of Somaliland’s sovereignty. Somalia and Somaliland have been locked in a decades-long standoff over Somaliland’s 1991 claim of independence and Mogadishu’s rejection of it.

Somaliland has been a distinct region from Somalia since the late 17th century. The territory was under a British protectorate until 1960, later merging with present-day Somalia who was then under Italian rule. This began the long and often violent struggle for independence in the fall of the colonial era.  

A rebel group, the Somali National Movement (SNM), emerged in Somaliland beginning in the 1980s, bolstering the need for independence. In 1991, the group formally called for Somaliland’s independence from Somalia following the ousting of military dictator Siad Barre. Over the next decade, a new constitution was created for the self-determined state. Today, Somaliland is an autonomous region in northern Somalia. No foreign power has recognized its sovereignty, yet the state is self-governing with functional independent government institutions and democratic elections.

A few prominent SNM members

The act of state recognition is a powerful one. Though it does necessarily signify a desire to establish or maintain specific diplomatic relations, it opens up said state to global markets, access to international institutions, and a voice on the international stage. The act of recognizing an autonomous entity is often viewed as controversial in the international community, as it often leads to backlash. Though a rare occasion and by no means an easy feat, global recognition grants states the opportunity to propel themselves forward in terms of economic, political, and social growth.

Somaliland has been relatively successful in its state-making endeavors despite its lack of recognition by the international community. Somaliland has proven to be successful in its operation as a hybrid political order where a range of state and non-state entities provide substantial security, representation, and social services to its population, acting as a rare success story in terms to provide relatively stable and democratic governance within the region.  

Somaliland female army officers in training with male counterparts

The state has its own currency, its own military, issues its own passports and holds its own governmental elections, which have been praised by international partners like the European Union. The state is also an anomaly in the study of state-making — though poor by regional standards, Somaliland is more stable than Somalia, and has faced little terrorist activity since 2008. Somalia, of course, is another story.

International recognition sounds like a no-brainer — yet it poses significant problems regionally. Fears exist within the African Union that the formal recognition of Somaliland would encourage other secessionist movements across the continent to also seek independence.

Previous efforts at facilitating diplomatic dialogue between the two states have repeatedly failed, with both sides fundamentally at odds over the nature of Somaliland’s claim to sovereignty. This has in turn bled over into disputes over territory, the management of resources, and security cooperation. 

Relations between both states are influenced by and of significant concern to a wide range of external actors. Competing Gulf states have tightened their ties to both sides, further increasing tensions, while governments across the globe from Addis Ababa to Washington see the bad blood between Mogadishu and Hargeisa as a prominent threat to their interests and to regional stability.

In recent years, exterior state governments and groups with interest in reconciliation between Somalia and Somaliland have wrestled with the question of who might take the lead in trying to bring both sides back to the negotiation table. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had been working adamantly to convince both sides to return to the negation table; to Ethiopia, there appears to be both a political and policy logic to efforts to close the divide between Somalia and Somaliland. In a surprising turn of events, the two leaders — President Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” of Somalia and President Muse Bihi of Somaliland — convened in the Djiboutian capital on June 14, 2020, to restart the discussion.

Horn of Africa diplomacy will fail without serious investment
Diplomats, presidents, and prime ministers gathered in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti to attend the Consultative Summit on relations between Somaliland and Somalia

Washington and Brussels have recognized the issue that comes with the conflict’s unresolved status. Both note that the longer the issue is not tied up, the more time it allows for other external actors to exploit uncertainty about the Somalia-Somaliland relationship to the detriment of a wide range of US and EU interests, while further complicating cooperative attempts at regional security.

Over the passing months, these conversations have reached little meaningful progress on solving the question of sovereignty, yet the resumption of dialogue provides a fundamental basis to improve cooperation between both states on a number of important technical matters. This includes weighted topics of international aid, airspace management, and security cooperation. Fraught relations contribute heavily to active militarization of border areas, imperial regional cooperation in combating Al-Shabaab and complicate collaborative arrangements to address security around the Red Sea. This backdrop of security threats weighs heavily on regional stability.

Afyare Elmi, an assistant professor at Qatar University, notes three opportunities brought about by these discussions. “The first and most important, Somaliland failed its quest to get recognition, and they were forced to find alternatives; and Somalia failed to form a government in Mogadishu that doesn’t include Somaliland,” he said. “This is a mutually hurting stalemate. They both hit their heads on the wall, they are forced to seek the next best option.”  Elmi proposes that international interest in solving the conflict rarely existed before; both sides now have an audience to state their case — in this case, the Ethiopian, US, and EU mediators.

Resume Somaliland-Somalia Talks initiated in Djibouti-UK Government
Somaliland president Muse Bihi and his Somalia Counterpart Mohamed Abdilahi Farmajo shake an unfreindly hand and share a cosmetic smile and handshake in Djibouti

Yet this progression has met an important wrinkle. Diplomatic talks have stalled in recent months as both states prepared for elections. If they continue is a matter left up to the two participants — yet the talks represent a welcomed development in diplomacy within the region.

Somaliland is certainly eager to take advantage of the international attention generated by the talks in order to prevent insult to the international system as a functional, sovereign state. The momentum generated by these discussions is not one to be ignored. Progress towards regional diplomacy takes a great deal of work and patience from all actors. Achieving progress in these endeavors will require consistent commitment from Mogadishu, Hargeisa, and the international community.

By: Madison Winter for

A few prominent SNM commanders 

1Abdiqadir Koosar (3rd SNM Chairman) Tuur (5th SNM Chairman & first Somaliland President)
3.Lixle (Leader of Mandheera jail break freeing hundreds)
4. A. Turki (one of the founders of SNM)
5.Ibraahim Koodhbur(Leader of Birjeex jail break)
6.Hussain Dheere (Leader of battalion that overrun biggest SNA base in the north located in Cadaadley)
7. Mohamed Ali (Leader of Sayid Cali battalion & head of first rebel group that predated SNM)
8. Ahmed Miire (leader of SNM battalion that entered Burco in 1988)
9. Saed Mohamed Nuur (SNM central command spokesman)
10.Awil Adaami (leader of hijacking of Somali arilines 1984)
11. Hasan Kayd Walanwal (Leader of 1963 coup & senior SNM officer)
12.Hasan Shire Libaaxe (Leader of Qoorotag operation in Xudun)
13.Yusuf Talaabo (Leader of SNM battalion based in Kulmiye, Sanaag)
14.Haragwafi (Leader of military operations in Oodweyne area)
15. Madaxdiin (Military operator in Oodweyne-Burco area)
17. Ismaaciil Xaaji Nuur (SNM logistics management for Sanaag)
18. Yaasin Miire (first SNM Mayor 1989-1997 -Ceerigaabo and military commander in Sanaag)


  1. These 18 prominet SNM futures would criminale in the face of amy court Considering what they did to the population of Somaliland. They killer more Somalilanders than Siyad Barre regime.