Propelled by his recent Nobel Peace Prize, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) is once more on a peacemaking mission. Only this time, the PM has taken up one of the most complicated political problems in the continent, which is bringing peace and unity to the Somali lands of the Horn of Africa. Having endured three decades of disintegration and conflict, the various territories and regions of Somalia is not yet in a hurry to give up and come together. This is even more pronounced for the breakaway Somaliland, which has existed pretty much as an independent nation during the past three decades.
But this is far from deterring the 43-year old Ethiopian PM from diving in the Somali peace process and started talks between Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo and his Somaliland counterpart Muse Bihi. Banking on his success in mediating peace between protestors and military administration that removed Omar Al Bashir from power, Abiy has reportedly facilitated an impromptu discussion between Bihi and Farmajo, , on February 11, 2020, while both of them were in Addis Ababa in connection to the 33rd African Union Summit held on February 09 and 10. This discussion, which was held in the Office of the Prime Minister, was indeed one of its kinds to be held between a sitting Somali and Somaliland presidents/top leaders.
According to various reports, the exact content of the discussion that went on behind closed doors is yet to be made public; however, it is known that the talks is something that Abiy has been attempting at least fort months now. There are reports and accounts of the Addis Ababa meeting held well over 45 minutes, the overall mood being reconciliatory.
Compounding the gains made by ushering in these talks, the president of Somalia, Farmajo, who appears to be in excellent terms with Somalia’s neighbor Ethiopia, took a surprising measure to offer a formal apology to Somaliland regarding the 1988 Hargeisa bombing that took the life of 50000 people (by Somaliland estimates).
Three days after returning from Addis Ababa, Farmajo said in a statement that as leader of Somalia he would like to offer a long-overdue apology to the people of Somaliland and underscored that the atrocities were committed by a regime and system that has ruled Somalia at the time and not by the people or various brotherly clans in Southern Somalia.
“It is not south attacking the north,” Farmajo said in his statement, adding that “nor is it a violence which is orchestrated by the clans in the south”. He in fact put the blame squarely on the government of Siad Bare, whose demise has led to the dissolution of the Somalia unity in 1991.
As far as the audience go, the message of Farmajo was well accepted. In statement issued, the Somaliland president lauded the apology that was offered by Somali president. Admitting that the Addis Ababa meeting indeed happened, Bihi expressed his appreciation for the apology and said that it sounds sincere and true.
This is where things got a bit complicated; having acknowledging the meeting with Farmajo has taken place in Addis Ababa, and graciously accepting the apology for the atrocities committed, in what seems to be a complete turnaround, Bihi adopted a hardliner stance on proposed joint heads of state visit by Abiy and Farmajo to Hargeisa.
Bihi is not alone in taking the proposed joint visit to Hargeisa very seriously. Various Somaliland politicians made their voices heard in this regard and the response was a resounding “No”. Many in Somaliland lamented PM Abiy’s swift action to reconciliation; not really for its intention to bring peace and reconciliation between these conflict parties but for the fact that it is moving at a pace that is utterly “too fast”.
It seems Abiy as well is not going to let it go that easily. Days after Somaliland announced the rejection of the joint Hargeisa visit. A high-level delegation led by the Finance Minister Ahmed Shide and Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew found its way to the Somaliland capital on what seems to be a mission to discuss the rejected join visit to Hargeisa. As to the outcome and content of this discussion is obscure even to Somaliland source who are near to the scene; but what can be certain is the fact that there is no official statement regarding the joint visit since then, indicative of no change in position.
Attempting to make sense out of the whole situation, Leulseged Girma, geopolitical analysist, points out that both Bihi and Farmajo having different goals that they want to maximize from the recent efforts of reconciliation is what is causing the confusion. To understand this, he says, we need to go back to the objective realities of both leaders in their own political space.
If you look at Farmajo, he is facing a tough reelection bid in his country and he needs a big gesture to turn the tide to his favor, Leulseged explains. “Farmajo apologized for the atrocities made by the military regime before 1991; and he was praised for doing such a thing publicly,” he continues to elaborate.
According to him, Farmajo’s hope is such that his apology is appeasing enough for Somaliland to soften their hardliner stance on rejoining the Somalia federation. “So, his aim is to consolidate the Somali proper,” Leulseged argues.
“If he succeeds,” Leulseged poses, “it might be very important for his reelections bid”. True to form, various reports coming out of Somalia indicate a tough election environment awaiting Farmajo in the coming months.
For one, his long standing rivalry with the two former presidents—who hail from one of the major clans in the nation: Hawiye — Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sharif Sheikh Ahmed looks to have entered a different stage as Somalia wind down the election timetable. Granted, Farmajo emerged victorious in 2017 election with both presidents in the race, but now the two looks to be united in their stance against him, as they went further to form a common party to work against him.
On the flip side, Leulseged is convinced that, Bihi as well is not exactly pure of hearts. He has a different agenda to address, although it is the national agenda of Somaliland. “Bihi is taking Formajo’s apology as a justification for the long thought Somaliland’s independence. Eventually this would lead to international recognition for his de-facto state, which conducts domestic and foreign affairs independent of the proper Somalia.”
As the two have divergent ideas for Somalia as a whole, “They will remain to be centrifugal and centripetal forces at least for some time to come”. Nevertheless, the notion of appeasing and convincing Somaliland until the point where they decide to rejoin is something that is outright rejected by pundits who were interviewed for this story.
Leulseged reflects; “Bringing Somaliland into the fold which is the Somali federation is not an easy task. It is also very difficult for the Somaliland and Somalia to negotiate over their differences.” He argues, its interaction with neighboring and other countries has emboldened Somaliland to continue with their political stance to seek recognition for their de facto state.
“Although there are so many political, social and economic disorders in Somaliland, it is surely functioning by itself as state. Not to mention strong domestic and foreign business community members who play a pivotal role in supporting the de facto state,” Leulseged argues forcefully.
Indeed Somaliland’s bid for independence is not merely hinged on the atrocities they have suffered while in the union. Rather they draw on their historical background where they were British protectorate as opposed to Italian domination of the South; and the fact Somaliland joined Somalia willingly in 1960 having lived as an independent state for few days after independence.
With Somalia’s determination not to let Somaliland go, as they considered it their legitimate territory, some even question what a reconciled Somalia and Somaliland might look like.
While preferring to remain anonymous, anther geopolitical expert says that it wrong to assume the option is either to rejoin or declare independence. “Not quite, there is still a confederation arrangement that would afford Somaliland and Somalia the opportunity to come together without losing much of their powers and territory. “Confederation is amicable solution for both,” he contends.
Nevertheless, Somaliland itself is facing difficult external environment as they were not able to get recognition for their de facto state status from the international community. For Leulseged, recognition could be very hard to come by these days since the world has learned from the cost of Eritrea’s and South Sudan’s independence in recent years.
“Eritrea was bitterly in war with Ethiopia because of border lands. South Sudan and Sudan have issues unresolved which is also in connection with border problems. The world is taking stock of peace and security situation in these countries and the wider Horn of Africa region in connection to the birth of a new nation,” he elaborates. The Somaliland issue is not different, according to him, and conflict on border issues might not be inevitable with the proper Somalia if Somaliland is recognized.
In fact, the Somalilanders blame their immediate neighbors and allies like Ethiopia for hesitating to bestow recognition. In effect, Ethiopia, in spite of strong security and economic ties to Somaliland across successive regimes, has not yet formally recognized Somaliland as a full-fledged nation.
For the anonymous expert, this approached pursued by successive administration of Ethiopia is the only path available for a neighborly country with vested interest and one that is fighting a narrative of interference in domestic politics of that nation. “The Somalis has to take their course without any clear interference from Ethiopia; since recognition could amount to interference and shaping outcomes in the the greater Somali territory,” he maintains.
Meanwhile, it looks like the time for Abiy’s mediation efforts in Somalia is not yet done. And the coming months could be a time of great consequence in the horn of Africa.