The Uneasy road to statehood
Yasin Haji Mohamud (Prof) is Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Somaliland. The Minister assumed the post replacing Saad Shire (PhD), who has served two presidents and currently heading the Ministry of Finance. With election season looming in Somaliland, the foreign affairs minister is equally busy to tell the world how democratic his country is holding it electoral process as fair and as free as possible. With its strategic significance in the Horn of Africa, Somaliland is considered a de facto state since 1991, following its breakaway from the union of Somalia. Despite its repeated call for recognition, the sovereignty of Somaliland is still limbo. Though Ethiopia allies with Somaliland and sympathizes for its cause, preferred to adopt a second country policy to legitimize the recognition of Somaliland as a state. Added to that, the new administration in Ethiopia is being perceived as dragging its feet to withstand the favorable relations Ethiopia has established over the years. This popular opinion found its way in the news only to be downplayed by the Foreign Minister. According to Mahmoud, Somaliland and Ethiopia still have maintained close diplomatic and political relations. The initiative of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) for regional integration is welcomed by Somaliland as long as it is also considered as an integral part of the process, Mahmoud said. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter sat down with the Minister Mahmoud at his office in Hargeisa to learn about Somaliland’s cause and its current affairs: Excerpt.
The Reporter: The Horn of Africa is seen as a hot political market place for Middle East and Western countries, these days. Experts and the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi shared the concern that foreign countries will influence and dominate the region. Do you subscribe to these theories?
Yasin Haji Mahmoud (Prof): Well, because of the current international situation, I would say it is partly true. The Horn of Africa has become an area of special importance for many countries for their own security concerns. For its strategic location, counties both from the West and the East are focusing on the region. Many countries would want to have relations and would like to have influence in their area of interest. I don’t know how much the area is at risk of being unstable or its interest being undermined by these international forces. But, it has been widely said that the Horn area is becoming a contested area by the international community. I would share that assessment.
Within this delicate geopolitical region, Somaliland and Ethiopia maintained political and diplomatic relations for a long time. And currently, there is new administration in Addis Ababa. Would you say6 this relationship is still solid and intact?
As far as I am concerned, the Ethio-Somaliland political and diplomatic relations remains to be as strong as ever. I don’t maintain a view that things have been changed since the coming to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD). We have quite clearly stated to the Prime Minister when we met that we do support his efforts to promote regional integration in the Horn of Africa. We believe Somaliland is part of that process. We are both in agreement that any effort and initiative that tries to exclude Somaliland would fail and is not going to be the right policy. Somaliland is crucial to the success of any effort to promote mutual interest and integration in the region as it lies in the very strategic part of the Horn of Africa. We are very much delighted to work and cooperate with countries of the region. That is our position.
Last week, a news report published by this Newspaper reflected a concern over Ethiopia’s regional policy and specifically towards Somaliland. Experts and officials within Somaliland have expressed concerns that Ethiopia might be overlooking their country. On top of that, the ongoing local politics in Ethiopia and it spillover effect might have been a concern for some. What is your view on that?
I don’t have an in-depth knowledge of what is going on in the Ethiopian local politics. That is something which should be left entirely to the Ethiopians. Our only concern is about our relations with Ethiopia. We don’t see the local politics in Ethiopia affecting our relations. Any country might have its ups and downs. We share a common border but still we don’t see any significant effect on our longstanding relation. Somaliland doesn’t feel sidelined by Ethiopia. We don’t have an issue with the tripartite agreement Ethiopia has signed with Somalia and Eretria. We don’t dictate whether Ethiopia must have a good working relation with Somalia or not. We maintain excellent relations in every aspect with Ethiopia; and we don’t complain about the tripartite agreement. The news report indicated Ethiopia’s vacant post for the consulate general in Somaliland as a factor. I want to make it clear that our diplomatic relations remain intact and we have been told that the diplomat is soon to be appointed. We have been communicating through diplomatic and other channels regarding the case. We have mutual interest. Ethiopia wants to maintain our mutual relations, too. It was also reported that border security as well is an issue. But, that is not much of a concern for us either [it was a personal opinion which was expressed in the news article]. We have people to people relations and many Ethiopians are passing through Somaliland to other countries. Some Ethiopians come to stay and work in Somaliland. We don’t see that as a concern. In fact, both countries are working on to resolve illegal movements. But, that is not a diplomatic concern. Ethiopia has its active security forces at our common border. Migration and movement of people shouldn’t be a security concern. But, it is clear that human trafficking is a fertile ground for terrorist recruitment and accidents are making it a humanitarian concern. We are seeking to be recognized by the international community; and Ethiopia values our relations on the basis of mutual interests. We want to make it official and our governmental position that we don’t have any concern with regards to our relations with Ethiopia. But, people are entitled to have their opinions and what your newspaper reported is not our official position.
Let’s move on to the Berbera Port project. There is an expansion project in the making. But, what are the challenges both countries are facing now? We recall that the moment the port development tripartite agreement, Somaliland, Ethiopia and DP World was signed Mogadishu was against it and requested the agreement to be nullified?
Berbera Port is a reality. It is there in a strategic location within the Horn of Africa. It will not only be to the benefit of Ethiopia and Somaliland but other countries in the region and beyond can make good use of the port. We don’t know why Mogadishu is concerned about the port agreement. Ethiopia observes its best interests and Somaliland also does. We don’t think Somalia’s quest for unitary state will have that much effect on the importance of Berbera Port. The port will remain strategically import.
It is expected that some 30 percent of Ethiopia’s shipments will be directed to Berbera Port once the expansion project is finalized. How will that be handled?
Yes, that is what we are expecting. You might have seen the roads that connect to Ethiopia from Berbera are rehabilitated and they are under expansion as the port. Reasonable amount of imports and exports of Ethiopia are expected to pass through Berbera Port. It is quite strategic port to Ethiopia as it stands to be one of the vital corridors that Ethiopia could use to have an ease of access to the sea, with its landlocked geography and growing demography. No matter what Somalia says, it is Ethiopia who knows its best interests.
What would have been the case if DP World was not expelled from Djibouti? Do you think they would have been interested to come and invest in Berbera Port?
Berbera is a very strategic port on which many countries and companies have interest and presence. We had been in discussions with other countries before even DP World came around. Because of its decisive strategic location, international players were looking at Berbera for long.
The UAE is set to have a military base in Berbera. Earlier, the speculation was that Somaliland was interested in hosting the USA. What is going on there?
There has been an initial discussion and perhaps regional understanding that the UAE will have military facilities, or some sort of a military base in Berbera. But, over the course of time, that idea has now changed and currently they have invested to rebuild the existing airport. It has been agreed that the airport should serve as a commercial service provider which also serve as a cargo facility to supply the regional countries. So now, it is going to be more of a commercial base.
What is behind this shift, is it because of the public pressure and push from the political actors of Somaliland or is it on the sole interests of the?
The idea has been changed and it was on the best interests of both countries. The airport now is mostly going to serve as a commercial hub for cargo. It will serve cargo shipments to be supplied from the Middle East and other parts of the world to the region. The cargo service will be delivered as quickly as possible and Ethiopia, South Sudan, and perhaps Somalia and wherever the demand is, the service will be delivered.
Are there any talks with the Ethiopian Airlines to launch its direct flights to Berbera in addition to the existing flights to Hargeisa?
There are informal talks and the Airline has expressed its interest in our casual conversations. But, we didn’t have a substantive discussion on the matter yet. We know that they have an interest. We are also interested to have them flying to Berbera. Ethiopian Airlines is the major operator in Somaliland. It can fly directly to Berbera as it is flying to Hargeisa and I don’t see why that will not be happening.
We happen to understand that new laws in areas of trade, investment and finance are about to be ratified to allow foreign investors into Somaliland to invest and do business. To what extent will that contribute to attracting foreign direct investment?
Somaliland already has liberal commercial laws and regulations. It is just a matter of ratifying new components that are based on free enterprise, cooperation with neighboring and international communities. We want to promote trade and commercial interconnectivity to attract foreign investment. The international community wants the existing trade laws and others to be more legalized.
Even before Somaliland is recognized as a sovereign state, foreign investors are interested to come and do business?
Yes, there is strong interest and what foreign investors are looking at whether there is conducive environment to do business; and the law is one competent. Yes, had we had our sovereignty, it will have much encouraged many to come.
The statehood of Somaliland has taken too long and it is still dangling. Meanwhile, Eretria and South Sudan, each of whom declared statehood after Somaliland, used to make their case to be equally heard by the international community.
That is for the international community to answer. We don’t really know why the international community refrains to give us our recognition. Somaliland has all the legal and fulfilled all the conditions for a statehood including having a referendum by our people which clearly stated the position of the people of Somaliland. We strongly believe in one thing. Somaliland will eventually regain its sovereignty. It was a voluntary union once we had with Somalia. But, when the people of Somaliland deemed to regain their independence they had clearly stated and rightfully departed dissolving its union with Somalia.
But Somalia remains unconvinced about recognizing Somaliland and the sovereignty of the state.
I think it is gradually learning that is a reality. The international community is dealing with us with respect to our sovereignty. We are signing bilateral agreements and international accords. We have no problem. We had our de facto recognition and eventually that will be evolved to a de jure status.
What are the costs inflicted on Somaliland for not having the recognition?
The costs are quite immense. We have problems in accessing international financial instructions for credit services. We have problems in having bilateral agreements to secure loans. That is the major issue we are facing. The recognition has affected our diplomatic out reaches. But, otherwise, we are surviving.
Do you have a campaigning plan in the UN or in the AU system to force for your recognition?
We are trying the best we can. In our position we are focusing on to bring our case to the international community and trying our best to let the international community know what we want. We are trying to pursue our case through the AU and within the regional diplomatic contacts we have.
Assuming we meet next year, what would be a new achievement you might share with us and what breakthroughs we might expect to happen?
I can’t really say by next year we might achieve our recognition. Anything could happen and we are not going to be disappointed. We will stay as strong as we have been.