Editor’s note: this is the latest in an ongoing series on Taiwan’s newest diplomatic ally, Somaliland.
This piece in original form first appeared in the Somaliland Chronicle and is republished here with permission.
On the 14th of June 2020, (representatives from) Somaliland and Somalia met in Djibouti for a four-day summit.
The summit, the first since the two sides started talking in 2012, in London, stirred up so much social media frenzy about its gamut and about whose initiative it was to bring the two sides together.
The Americans, the Ethiopians and the Djiboutis were quickly identified as the midwives. But why this trio?
Somalilanders are forever suspicious of outsider motives – and for good reason.
Not only that foreign intervention seldom brings fortune, but also the fact that states by definition look after their own interests (and that) does not sit well with missionaries repudiating Somalilanders.
Wild speculation had it that each of the trio was chasing their own interest.
For the American Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, the talks offered an opportunity to enhance diplomatic ambitions and for his country to strengthen her foothold in the Horn.
For the ambitious young Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, inspired by his recent bagging of a Nobel Prize, to double his accolades by becoming the one who succeeded in bringing Hargeisa and Mogadishu back together again, and to bolster his country’s economic ambitions.
For the Djiboutian strong man, Ismail O. Guelleh, struggling with a local uprising against his aging regime, the talks offered an opportunity to remain politically relevant; for Somalia’s outgoing Mohamed Abdillahi Mohamed (Farmaajo) a chance to use these talks to extend his tenure and probably win a second term in the next presidential election, and, for Somaliland’s Muse Bihi Abdi (MBA) a chance to flex his muscles.
In short, the summit took place in the midst of these intriguingly competing interests.
Speculations aside, the reality is that since Somalia came under the leadership of Farmaajo, interest (in such) talks has simply dried up.
Farmaajo tried to achieve his country’s mission of bringing Hargeisa back under Mogadishu rule by reversing all earlier agreements, thereby reducing Somaliland to a regional entity and (then) by pursuing a policy of unsettling community relations in Somaliland.
His moves may not be entirely new.
Propped up by international handouts and kept alive by foreign forces, his country has always (hoped) to dictate the terms of the talks, and to subjugate Somaliland into submission.
One may remember Somalia’s Minister of Planning, Investment and Economic Development writing to international donors instructing them to cease special arrangements with Somaliland, and the Somalian parliament trying to block a rare DP World investment opportunity in the Berbera Seaport.
However, pressure from the trio has arguably this time forced Somalia’s Farmaajo to agree to plod to the table, but like his predecessors, (he was not serious, and even worse, not prepared).
He attended with an empty portfolio, pretending to worry about the people of Somaliland and, drawing on the “Somalinimo” narratives, he started in his short stilted talk to preach to MBA of the benefits of reunification, but wasted much of his (allotted) slot thanking “brother Ismail O. Geulleh” for bringing together “Somali brothers to work out their differences”.
Despite the apparent frivolousness of the talks, Somaliland too turned up, but did so with intent.
An incentive for the move was that the international conveners overseeing the loggerhead (would be tamed) if Somalia did not play by the rules.
Critics in Somaliland remained skeptical of the expediency of the rendezvous, but things changed when MBA delivered a stellar speech laying out the incontestable legal, historical and institutional grounds for Somaliland’s sovereignty.
Explaining how the two sides got where they are now, MBA rested on the illegality of the defunct union, leaned on the genocidal acts against the people of Somaliland, (and referred to) the ongoing sabotage of economic recovery, on the politicization of humanitarian assistance (before) listing a catalogue of unfulfilled promises Somalia has made since 2012, in a speech he enjoyed delivering (before leaving) judgment (of his words) to the conveners.
The summit offered Somaliland an opportunity to open up for discussion the dubious 1960, failed union, a subject Somalia has forever been eschewing.
Farmaajo’s team was already on the back foot, but the (noose) tightened further on his lacklustre attitude towards the talks when in an apparent attempt to derail the proceedings, he tabled trivial points undermining Somaliland’s sovereignty, and the summit almost collapsed.
It was a deadlock to be rescued by Djibouti at the eleventh hour to save face for everyone, well, except for Somaliland.
The organisers may have planned to pave the way for an eventual favourable outcome for Somalia, but it was Somaliland, capitalising on the opportunity, that pierced into the psyche of the conveners that history has turned a new page.
The nodding and note-taking American Ambassador, under the tutorship of Dr Edna Adam fed the pedant population of Somaliland with much-needed pride.
The contrasting photos of the Somalian delegate returning home under the cover of darkness and Somaliland’s delegate receiving a heroes welcome in broad daylight spoke volumes.
As former Somaliland Vice President Ahmed Yussuf Yasin has tellingly observed: the welcoming crowd, braving the risks of COVID-19 sent multiple messages to their president, to the leaders of Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, and to the Americas and beyond: to show the world that MBA only represents them in a two-state solution scenario in addition to expressing their unwavering support for anyone championing their aspirations.
President MBA showed in his speech so much charisma that (he) made President Farmaajo look so sloppy, (leaving) Somaliweyn pundits struggling to hide their frustration with the ineptness of “Somalinimo” sentiments.
Some even went so far as to suggest the summit was not meant to bring the two sides closer, but (was) to humiliate the very Somaliweyn ideal.
However, there were blind alleys to the talks.
Suspicion arose, when a few days later, Djibouti unconventionally issued a ghost communique suggesting that Somaliland had, in the end, agreed on two very contentious points, one pertaining to cultural exchanges with Somalia, and the other to co-management of Somaliland airspace.
Suspicion was further inflamed when Somaliland’s Foreign Minister, Yasin Haji Mohamoud, suggested the communique contained a misprint, Edna Adam tried to play it down, and MBA alluded to Somaliland making a concession on the contentious cultural exchange point, but with attached conditions.
The president took the risk of taking the edge off his rising popularity when he tried to explain away the mess as if it was a question of semantics.
Much to the relief of anxious Somalilanders, the confusion was cleared following the announcement of Somaliland exchanging diplomatic missions with the Republic of China (Taiwan).
With the news that Somaliland has indeed turned a page, Farmaajo wasted no time.
He immediately summoned the Chinese ambassador in Mogadishu to his fortified office.
According to his office’s communique the two discussed the territorial integrity of their countries being infringed upon by Taiwan and Somaliland.
To the talk’s critics, Farmaajo’s move was nothing but a knee jerk reaction indicating Somalia was not seeking a dialogue, but (wanted) control over Somaliland and wanted the trio (now including the Chinese) to help her rescue her shipwrecked expansionist agenda.
In any case, the new Taiwan connection has certainly dispelled any pretensions that Somaliland’s resolve may have weakened.
The nodding and note-taking Americans are now suddenly welcoming the new Taipei – Hargeisa connection.
About the Authors:
Mohamed Obsiye, Ph.D. is a freelance researcher with a keen interest in the nexus of ethnicity, nationalism and nation-state building. He can be reached at mobsiye78[at]hotmail.com. Mr. Obsiye’s previous articles include The Carnage of Heritage in Djibouti.
Hussein Abdillahi, Ph.D. is a former senior consultant to the Ministry of Agricultural Development in Somaliland and formerly an exiled dissident. He can be reached at habdillahi[@]gmail.com