Somaliland is not seeking to be a “banana republic”. It is more like a strategically located haven of stability seeking to secure a place for itself despite being next to a hotspot of unrest. This combination of Somaliland’s strategic location as a Red Sea gateway, Ethiopia’s human, agricultural and water resources and the financial and investment assets of the Emirates, can change the face of the region.
Let us start the discussion with a hypothesis that could have settled current issues: if Somaliland had been an oil-rich country, it would have been an independent country today, and it would not have needed to go through the testing unity with Somalia, a country mired in conflicts from its founding day until now.
There are common historical traits between the Gulf protectorates and the Somaliland protectorate. At roughly the same time, the two regions were politically under British influence at its apex during the rule of the British Empire. Just as influential sheikhs with a deep-rooted history in the Gulf region ruled protectorates that turned into states following independence, Somaliland was ruled by sultans with a long history and a prominent status at home.
Britain dealt with the Horn of Africa, South Yemen and the Gulf as part of its empire in India. The focus on these regions of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula was not fortuitous. Interest in that part of the world preceded the opening of the Suez Canal. But the importance of the Gulf of Aden and its shores rose with the shift of maritime traffic towards the Red Sea then reaching the Mediterranean through the newly-opened canal. The Indian currency, the rupee and paisa, was also that of Somaliland, Aden, the sultanates of Arabia’s southern coast, Muscat and the sheikhdoms of the Gulf. Indian post office stamps bearing the names of these protectorates were at the time an essential part of dealing with the world. The British army did not intend to abandon its positions there, and in fact, fought Italian attempts at expansion.
Somaliland was affected by the first steps of British withdrawal from East of Suez. For ten years, between 1960 and 1970, Britain departed first from Somaliland, then from Aden, the South Arabian region and then from the Gulf. The day it decided to exit Somaliland, it left behind, at least in theory, an independent state with a national council. No less than 35 countries recognised the modern state. Somaliland even received a congratulatory message from the US Secretary of State. But international pressure forced Somaliland’s council to abandon independence and become part of the modern state of Somalia. Within a few months, problems started to emerge between the people of Somaliland and the populations coming from the south. The independence declared by Somaliland in 1991, after the collapse of government in Mogadishu, was a continuation of its position in 1961, the first year of unity. The region was prey to abuses of authority by the late Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre and his relatives.
The civil war in Somalia and the chaos crated by terrorism and piracy from 1991 to date have been destabilising factors. What does Somalia have to offer Somaliland after more than 30 years of civil war? Somaliland is more like a strategically-located haven of stability seeking to secure a place for itself despite being next to a hotspot of unrest. Setting aside historical considerations, are not 30 years of chaos enough for rational forces, in a place that is well-equipped to be geographically independent, to steer away from tragedy?
It suffices to look at the legacy of the last three decades. Many countries with the characteristics of Somaliland were established since the 1990s after artificial political unions became untenable. So is Somalia as a united country more important than the Soviet Union, the heir to the Russian Tsarist Empire in Europe and Asia? Or is it more important than Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia in Europe? Indeed, is Somalia more important than Sudan, which became two states when coexistence proved impossible? What about Eritrea, which seceded from Ethiopia?
In the Horn of Africa, Somaliland appears more than qualified for independence.
The Ethiopian factor is important in the push for independence. The memorandum of understanding signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland is a preliminary step in a multi-fold political and economic dynamic. The Eritreans are still settling scores with the Ethiopians and will not grant them a convenient sea outlet in the foreseeable future. Despite the calm prevailing over politics in Djibouti, the most this country can offer Ethiopia is a toll-based access to a port, while what Addis Ababa seeks is a sea port with full amenities, both commercial and military.
Ethiopia is an important state with a lot of potential. While countries like Egypt and Sudan were preoccupied with political problems, Ethiopia was engaged in political and economic rebuilding. This construction drive, which has made considerable progress under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has caught the attention of some in the Arabian Gulf, especially in the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE competed with Turkey and Qatar in Somalia, then became convinced that Somalia is a region of instability not worth the investment. It turned its attention to Ethiopia via Somaliland. What began as a port development contract turned into a vast project extending from the coast of the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, to deep into Ethiopia’s agricultural lands.
This combination of Somaliland’s strategic location as a Red Sea gateway, Ethiopia’s human, agricultural and water resources and the financial and investment assets of the Emirates, can change the face of the region.
This is a region exhausted by civil wars, conflicts, piracy and terrorism, where many opportunities have been squandered. No need to imagine how Somaliland could end up if what one sees now in Mogadishu also spreads there.
The objections expressed by Somalia’s authorities, its government and the warlordscouncil, will fall on deaf ears in Hargeisa or Berbera. If there were anything worth saying, it would have been said since 1991, and even since independence in 1961.
If there were other alternatives, Addis Ababa would have sought them without risking a crisis with a neighbouring country. Can someone like Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki be trusted? We all remember how he turned against Arab countries which backed Eritrea’s independence, rushing to establish relations with Israel right after independence. Can Ethiopia compete with a French base in Djibouti? Is there a sane person who would invest in Somalia today?
Ironically, fragile states are described in the West as “banana republics”. Until the late 1980s, one could find Somali bananas in the country’s markets. But Somalia’s warlord state destroyed even banana cultivation and trade and deprived the country of its revenues.
Somaliland did not enjoy the oil fortunes that would have allowed it to shield its independence in the 1960s. But today it seeks to shield itself from neighbouring chaos and it refuses to become a “banana republic.”
Mogadishu had its chance. Now, Hargeisa and Addis Ababa have theirs.