Somaliland and Puntland Announce Breakthrough on Security Cooperation; In the meantime, where is the U.S. driving in the region?

A major announcement from Somaliland today, as reported by IRIN:

HARGEISA, 28 September 2010 (IRIN) – Somaliland and Puntland, once-warring territories in northern Somalia, have unprecedentedly agreed in principle to work together to tackle common security threats.

Troops from both entities have clashed over disputed borderlands in the past. They also differ over the issue of sovereignty: Somaliland unilaterally declared independence in 1991, and Puntland, while asserting a degree of autonomy, recognizes Mogadishu as its own, and Somaliland’s, capital.

"You can’t choose your neighbours, whether it is a region or state; for this reason, from now on, we are going to work with the Puntland state of Somalia, in terms of security of the [Horn of Africa] region,” Somaliland’s Interior Minister, Mohamed Abdi Gabose, said on 26 September in the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa.

"Of course this does not mean we unite with Puntland or the other conflicted areas. We will discuss the [security] issues later," he said.

“From now on, we [Somaliland] want to work together on security matters because it seems there are anti-peace groups who want to threaten our peace,” he said.

The rapprochement follows renewed clashes in July in Galgala, an area on the Puntland side of the border, between Puntland’s security forces and troops loyal to Sheikh Mohamed Said Atom, a leader of an insurgency accused of having links to Al-Shabab, the main Islamist group fighting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Atom and Al-Shabab have both denied such links exist.

"Of course the [Somaliland] government has its worries when it comes to the Galgala war because if these groups win or fail, either way it is not good for Somaliland because if they win they may try to enlarge their presence deeper in Somaliland," said Gabose.

Hargeisa is faced with another security concern – an armed group claiming to be fighting to liberate – and which is named after – the Somaliland border regions Sool, Sanag and Cayn. The group rejects the legitimacy of Somaliland’s government and sovereignty and says it has set up its own administration.

Increased engagement

Puntland Information Minister Abdihakim Ahmed Guled said of Gabose’s statements: “We welcome the openness of the new government in Somaliland and its aim to solve the problems in peace and negotiations.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons magnify.gif
Puntland and Somaliland have agreed to work together to tackle common security threats

“On our side, we are happy to hear that the Somaliland government is ready to work with us on security matters because at this time, there are new groups in the region who are killing Muslim people in mosques. These groups have in the past carried out suicide attacks in Hargeisa as well as in Puntland’s port of Bosasso."

Meanwhile, there have been international moves to increase engagement with both Somaliland and Puntland, most notably by the United States, which plans to send more diplomats and aid workers there.

“We think that both of these parts of Somalia have been zones of relative political and civil stability, and we think they will, in fact, be a bulwark against extremism and radicalism that might emerge from the south,” Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnny Carson said on 24 September.

The US has stressed, however, that this initiative does not mark the beginning of a process to recognize Somaliland’s independence.

Commenting on the US move, Sally Healy, an associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, told IRIN: “Both territories are quite effectively administered by authorities that are hostile to Al-Shabab and the spread of extremism in Somalia. Their strategic position is important in terms of the security threats emanating from the Gulf of Aden.

“They have important and influential diaspora communities in the west. So it makes a lot of sense for the US to do business with them instead of putting all their eggs in the TFG basket, which remains extremely fragile.”

An op/ed piece from Puntland’s Garowe Online describes the new U.S. policy of "agressive engagement" with Somaliland and Puntland as a "U Turn" by the United States. The statement by Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson on Friday does indicate some real change in direction, but it remains a bit unclear what we are driving towards.

Some points: First, Carson’s comments on its face treats Somaliland and Puntland in parallel and equivalently. Second, Carson stated clearly that the U.S. was not moving toward recognition and seems to echo previous policy in that regard. Third, the new policy seems, then, to be entirely dependent on the "informal" status identified by Carson for initiatives to support the capacity of local authorities in "development" catagories. Fourth, changes in policy in regard to Southern Somalia are not yet clear. Fifth, this will continue to be run primarily out of Nairobi.

This is the long slow turn of sorts that I have seen transpire on Somaliland from my vantage point: When I started as Director for the East Africa office for the International Republican Institute in Nairobi in mid-2007, our status in regard to a Somaliland program was up in the air. We had previously operated a Somaliland program from Nairobi and had made a major monitoring effort for the 2005 parliamentary elections. Funding for the program had expired in 2006 and we had been given a "no cost extension" through the end of 2006. After that time, we were doing our best to maintain contacts and stay close to the situation, but had no money for travel, overhead or anything else. Regional officers in State’s Africa Bureau in Washington indicated that new funding from USAID should be forthcoming, but nothing happened until the very end of the fiscal year in September 2007. When we finally received a Request for Proposal for a funding agreement, the annual funding amount was suddenly more than tripled to $1M annually for three years and we were to open an office in Hargeisa which we had not expected. At that time, local and presidential elections in Somaliland were schedule for the spring of 2008, with the president’s term ending in April.

Nonetheless, at that time, State Department and USAID employees and direct contractors were barred from travel to Somaliland. In the spring of 2008 we had an evaluation visit from regional experts who were contracted by USAID and we were not able to secure permission for them to visit Hargeisa. During this time frame Jendayi Frazer made an initial visit to Hargeisa from an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa. This got a lot of attention in Somaliland and seems to have been a bit of a breakthrough in terms of educating American officials about the level of stability there (the degree of security was the subject of a certain amount of amusement by Somalilanders, although the bombing of the presidential office and Ethiopian facilities in late 2008 changed the environment somewhat).

At this point, Somaliland has come through a long and difficult process of voter registration, its first ever, and its second successful presidential election, with a peaceful transfer of power. IRI has been up and running in Hargeisa for two and a half years. The UNDP and a variety of NGOs have continued to work "on the ground". Foreign investment is increasing and awareness is growing of economic opportunities.

I certainly welcome the new realism reflected in Carson’s statement, and I do think that there will be opportunities for the U.S. to do more to help–and the government in Somaliland and the authorities in Puntland have welcomed it as well. At the same time, I wonder how far ahead we are looking and what we see in future years if we are discouraging hopes for eventual recognition for Somaliland (and do we mean to send that message?) There seems to be a broadly shared consensus that the policy of supporting the Ethiopian invasion in December 2006 displacing the UIC in Southern Somalia was short-sighted and has ultimately proven to be a fiasco leading to worse conditions now and worse options going forward. Is there some vision of a federated Somalia including Somaliland someday? If not, do we seriously think that the AU will someday move forward on recognition for Somaliland without U.S. leadership on the issue? Is there something more or different that Somaliland could do on its own to persuade us to move toward recognition in coming years?

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