The self-declared republic of Somaliland and Puntland, an autonomous Somali region, are engaged in a perilous standoff over long-contested areas Sool and Sanaag. After repeated deadly clashes since the start of 2018, both sides are using incendiary rhetoric, are massing forces in the contested areas and have shunned UN diplomacy.
Why does it matter? An escalation would likely herald a protracted conflict with devastating consequences for northern Somalia and the potential to fuel further instability across the country. It could provoke enormous displacement and create space for the Islamist Al-Shabaab insurgency and a small local Islamic State branch.
What should be done? The UN should renew its mediation, with the Somali government and Ethiopia, which enjoys ties to Puntland and Somaliland, backing those efforts. Priorities are brokering a ceasefire and ensuring both sides commit to withdraw troops, allow in humanitarian aid, quieten inflammatory rhetoric and conduct future talks to resolve the dispute.
A longstanding military standoff between Somaliland and Puntland over the disputed Sool and Sanaag regions is in grave danger of escalating. Both sides are reportedly massing large numbers of troops close to Tukaraq, a strategically located town that has become a front line in the battle for control. The tempo of artillery and mortar shelling around the town appears to have increased since 22 June 2018. Leaders on both sides have stepped up inflammatory rhetoric. Efforts to mediate have petered out.
Both Somaliland and Puntland have enjoyed relative peace and stability for nearly three decades as war plagued the rest of the country. Somaliland declared itself independent from Somalia in 1991 though no country formally recognises it as such. Puntland is a semi-autonomous federal state of Somalia, with its capital in Garowe. A confrontation between them would have disastrous consequences for much of northern Somalia but also risks contributing to instability across the country. It also could play into the hands of the Al-Shabaab insurgency or even the Islamic State (ISIS) branch in Puntland.
African and Western leaders, seemingly caught off guard by the looming confrontation, should take urgent steps to head it off. The United Nations mission in Somalia, which had been mediating between the two sides, should renew those efforts. Ethiopia, which enjoys close ties to both Somaliland and Puntland and has helped calm previous disputes, should throw its weight behind UN efforts; others with influence, including potentially the United Arab Emirates and Western donors, should do the same. Mediation should focus on quickly brokering a ceasefire and seeking an agreement that would entail both sides pulling forces out of contested areas, guaranteeing access for humanitarian assistance to populations in those areas and submitting to a longer-term process, including third-party mediation, to find a durable solution to the dispute. In tandem with the mediation, the UN mission also should support local peacebuilding initiatives in both disputed areas, involving clerics and local clan leaders to initiate bottom-up reconciliation efforts, which have proven successful elsewhere in Somalia.