Access to the seaport in exchange for official recognition of its existence. This is the essence of the trade deal between Somaliland and Ethiopia. The German newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung” reports from this country, which has maintained de facto independence since 1991 and is trying to assert its identity in relation to Somalia, risking another crisis in the unstable Horn of Africa.

By Getachew Melaku

Ali Aden Naleye, 62, is ready for the day ahead. He woke up at 4 a.m. to pray, then headed to the port of Berbera to handle a container’s arrival, manage the formalities, and oversee cargo loading onto a truck. This particular container, originating from Turkey, contained all the furnishings required for ten houses. Ali Aden Naleye would appreciate having a bit more to do—more work to occupy his time. Some weeks, there’s enough to keep him busy every day, while other weeks, there’s nothing at all. Now, in the early afternoon, with the oppressive heat bearing down, it’s time for Naleye’s afternoon nap. At 62 years old, he struggles to adjust to the brevity of the nights.

Ali Aden Naleye has a strong feeling that those days are behind him. After all, there’s this recent agreement that Somaliland has concluded with Ethiopia. That’s what everyone is talking about at the transport company. Naleye is convinced that the deal will ignite a boom in Berbera, Somaliland’s second-largest city, and will significantly bolster his company’s business.

Ali Aden Naleye, a dock worker from Berbera.

A boom. But that’s not all he’s certain about: this agreement will ultimately transform Somaliland, the nation for which he fought and was wounded, into what it could have been long ago if the world were fair: an independent state.

“Definitely,” says Naleye with conviction.

Somaliland, a rising star in East Africa with 5 million inhabitants situated in the Gulf of Aden and slightly smaller than Italy, is not internationally recognised as an independent state. It seceded from Somalia in 1991 following a devastating civil war. Since then, it has been governing itself – and remarkably successfully at that.

Somaliland may be impoverished, but it stands out as the most stable, secure, and peaceful entity in the Horn of Africa—especially when compared to the “failed state” of Somalia. It has achieved this without external assistance, which is typically reserved for recognized states. In the eyes of the international community, Somaliland is still viewed as part of Somalia rather than a distinct state.

Somaliland has won in the struggle for independence, yet for 33 years, it has been losing the battle to gain international recognition. However, a significant development occurred on New Year’s Day when the small nation signed an agreement with its larger neighbor, Ethiopia, causing ripples across the Horn of Africa. The exact wording of the deal has not been made public. Still, according to Somaliland’s version, it fulfills the lofty aspirations of both parties.

And Somaliland—arguably the most independent dependent country in the world—could potentially receive official recognition from Ethiopia.

Somaliland’s government is touting the deal as a historic triumph, citing its potential to strengthen economic ties and facilitate expanded Ethiopian trade via Berbera. Nevertheless, the agreement could also be a historic mistake, as Ethiopia’s commitment to recognizing Somaliland appears less resolute than desired by Somaliland.

On the other hand, the purported win-win deal created two disgruntled parties: Somalia, which talks of aggression and rallies its allies and residents along the coast of Somaliland where the Ethiopian flag could soon fly.

Somaliland was indeed a state, albeit briefly, for five days. On June 26, 1960, it attained independence from Great Britain and was recognized by more than 30 states. However, on July 1, Somalia gained independence from Italy, and the two territories merged. The resulting state adopted the name of the southern part—of Somalia—and its capital, Mogadishu.

This historical sequence holds particular significance for the inhabitants of Somaliland: It is Somalia that has joined Somaliland, not the other way around.

“We were deceived,” sighs Ali Aden Naleye in a café in Berbera. The people in the North desired a state for all Somalis—but what they received was one in which the South dictated everything. “Whether you wished to study, obtain a passport, or travel by air—it all had to be done in Mogadishu,” Naleye laments. Although he was not yet born in 1960, Ali Aden Naleye witnessed the dream of unity for Somaliland crumble into a nightmare under the rule of the dictatorship of Siad Barre, who served as president of Somalia between 1969 and 1991.

“Those belonging to the Isaaq clan, which is by far the largest in Somaliland, could simply be shot in the street,” he says.

Naleye’s brother joined the resistance against Barre in the early 1980s—and perished fighting the army. It was then that Naleye resolved to go underground and join the fight himself. At the time, he was in his mid-twenties and a father of two children. He was present when the rebels marched across the border from Ethiopia.

He was there when they conquered Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. When they sought shelter from the air bombardment. He was there when they encircled the port city of Berbera, the last bastion of the army, and witnessed from the beach how the commanders fled on ships towards Yemen. “We were a small militia against an entire army,” says Ali Aden Naleye. “But we knew the country. And we knew what we were fighting for.”

In 1991, after ten years of war, the rebels emerged victorious, but the country lay in ruins. Hargeisa resembled “Gaza today,” says Naleye. He still cannot comprehend how planes bearing the Somali flag on their wings—a white star against a blue background—bombed Somali cities into rubble. Today, they have placed one of those planes, a Somali Air Force Mig jet, on a stand in the center of Hargeisa as a reminder of what they endured and who inflicted it upon them.

The relative peace and safety enjoyed by Somaliland since then, unlike Somalia, is often credited to a council that commenced in April 1991 in the city of Burao. Clan chiefs convened to deliberate on a way forward and explore methods of conflict resolution without resorting to violence. On May 18, the council culminated in the Declaration of Independence.

Since then, Somaliland has been engaged in rebuilding efforts, supported by development aid and foreign investment. However, poverty remains widespread, alongside stark inequalities. In Hargeisa, beggars hold out cardboard signs with a phone number, hoping for donations through the widely used mobile phone payment system, as cash is scarce. In Berbera, paved roads are scarce, yet the port thrives with millions from Abu Dhabi.

Ali Aden Naleye says that the port’s activities have flourished for quite some time. Containers filled with furniture from Turkey, rickshaws from India, and pipes from China arrived regularly. However, he observes that they have now reached a limit, with growth stagnating. Naleye believes that Somaliland has reached its limits as a state unrecognized by the world—neither excluded nor integrated. But now, thanks to Ethiopia, opportunities are emerging.

Somaliland has all the trappings of a country: a populace, territory, anthem, political system, and independence. However, unlike an association, a state cannot be established merely by the agreement of seven adults on statutes, a president, and a name. Statehood is conferred when other states recognize it as such. Only then can a secessionist region potentially gain membership in the United Nations—similar to recent cases such as East Timor, South Sudan, or Montenegro.

Is Somaliland soon? The government is absolutely convinced—now that the first step has been taken,” says Rhoda Elmi, the deputy foreign minister. “We have been fighting for this recognition for thirty-three years, and that’s just the beginning.”

Instead of a meeting at the ministry, Elmi suggested lunch at a hotel in Hargeisa. With the Foreign Minister away on a trip—to Ethiopia, of course—she stepped in. Arriving almost punctually and alone, without a bodyguard or press officer, she ordered mango lassi and chicken skewers. Her headscarf was pink, her fingernails painted black—except for those of her middle fingers, which were purple.

Rhoda Elmi, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Somaliland

Rhoda Elmi, like many others here, was a child of the diaspora. She grew up in Sweden, where her father had sought refuge. In Gothenburg, she studied pharmacy and was involved in local politics for the Liberal Party. In 2013, she founded a distribution company in Hargeisa for medicines and hygiene products that she imported from Sweden.

A year later, she had been appointed ambassador to Sweden. She spent five years knocking on doors in Stockholm and Brussels, says Elmi, and only to receive the same response: If you seek our recognition of your country, you have to start in Africa. “That’s exactly what we’re doing right now,” she asserts.

Elmi does not disclose the specifics of what her government has negotiated with Ethiopia. But she dispels certain rumors, including the claims that Ethiopia would purchase the twenty-kilometer coastal strip in Somaliland or that Ethiopia would construct its own port, thereby competing with the port in Berbera. “None of this is true,” she asserts.

Ethiopia will be able to conduct its import and export activities through the port of Berbera and lease the coastal area for fifty years to build a naval base there. In return, Ethiopia would recognize Somaliland as a sovereign state. Rhoda Elmi has indeed noted that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has not presented this as fact in his appearances so far but as an option to be examined in an undefined future. However, she adds coldly, that does not contradict the information she has.

The fact that Ethiopia requires and will secure access to the sea, one way or another, was a point Abiy Ahmed had emphasized before January 1, leading to widespread fear of conflict in the Horn of Africa—particularly in Eritrea, which had seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, taking its entire coastline. The entire region is aware of what he is capable of since he deployed his army against the Tigray region in 2020. Therefore, Abiy has found a method to secure access to the sea without resorting to violence, though not necessarily peacefully.

US Aid supplies being loaded at the port of Berbera.

The agreement with Somaliland has been viewed unfavorably in Djibouti, which has been Ethiopia’s primary trade conduit. Additionally, the government in Somalia considers it “outrageous” and “unauthorised”. According to international law, it is their territory that Somaliland aims to lease to a foreign power.

Mogadishu protested and announced that it would defend its sovereignty by all means available, including going to war to stop Ethiopia from building a port in Somaliland. Somalia garnered support from the UN, the United States, the African Union, the European Union, Eritrea, and Egypt. Despite facing significant opposition, Rhoda Elmi remains unfazed. “That shows that we’ve set something in motion,” she asserts.

Somaliland has no reason to fear an invasion by Somalia, as the Somali army is already preoccupied with its struggle against the al-Qaeda-linked militant groups and pirates. “Somalia doesn’t even have full control over its territory,” remarks Rhoda Elmi, almost cynically.

Getachew Melaku is a writer and translator based in Addis Ababa.