The Growing Geopolitical Importance of Somaliland and the Zero Sum Game Players’ Dilemma

for Somaliland citizens Reunion with Somalia shall never be

THT: In the mid-2020, Somaliland, a democratic de facto state in the Horn of Africa hosted influx of diplomats from Africa and beyond with a long standing territorial integrity claims, resource based conflicts and other strategic interests to one another. Among were representatives from Taiwan, China, Kenya, Egypt and Ethiopia. Each of these state actors tried to convince Somaliland leadership to back its agenda and drop the other rival’s agenda.

Due to its geostrategic location, thirsty for diplomatic relationship with sovereign states, attracting foreign direct investments (FDI) and further pushing its quest for de jure recognition, Somaliland is committed to welcome any entity or government seeking in cooperation with Somaliland in the areas of development, politics and security grounded on mutual beneficial. On July 21, 2020, Somaliland president Muse Bihi Abdi said in a televised speech that “as Somaliland, we are working our interest with anyone and everyone who is going to cooperate with us; we are ready to, as being to entities”

Recently the most circulated news in both local and foreign news outlets including the most prestigious in the world about Somaliland was that on July 1, 2020, Somaliland and Taiwan officially announced a bilateral relationship based on their shared belief of freedom and democracy minded, which paves the way exchanging of representative offices in each other’s capital, Hargeisa and Taipei. This agreement was signed on Feb 26, 2020 but the announcement was made public on July 1, 2020.

   “The Government of Somaliland identified issues of mutual concern, including building-      bridges of diplomacy; opening missions to boost political and socioeconomic links between the Republic of Somaliland and the Republic of China (Taiwan).” Somaliland Foreign Minister Yasin Hagi Mohamoud tweeted.

Likewise, Minster of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan Joseph Wu held a press conference and officially revealed his country’s engagement with the Republic of Somaliland.

     “Our two governments have agreed to swap official representative offices under the titles of Taiwan representative office and Somaliland representative office based on our friendship and shared belief.”

     “in the spirit of mutual assistance for mutual benefit, Taiwan and Somaliland will engage in areas such as fisheries, agriculture, energy, mining, public health, education and technology”, Wu added

Photo: Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (right) and his Somaliland counterpart Yasin Hagi Mohamoud (left) shake hands after signing an agreement on setting up representative offices in their respective country on Feb 26, 2020 in Taipei City. (Source: Somaliland MFA)

Immediately, after the Hargeisa and Taipei engagement, China, which see Taiwan a territory of its own, vehemently criticized this move and stated that it will not allow any entity, organization or government to intervene the territorial integrity of People’s Republic of China and the principle of ‘One China’. On July 6, 2020, Chines Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said “China firmly opposes the establishment of official institutions or any form of official exchange between the Taiwan authorities and Somaliland”

In addition, in late July, Chinese Ambassador to Somalia Qin Jian paid a visit to the capital of Somaliland Hargeisa but he failed to arrange a meeting with Somaliland president. As unfolded by some local media Qin Jian was informed that Somaliland president will only meet officials from Beijing but not him, a measure highly welcomed by the public, since Jian an Ambassador to Somalia from which Somaliland regained its independence in 1991 and in the same manner a clear message to Beijing that Somaliland will not easily return back its ties with Taiwan as Beijing expected.

On Aug 7, 2020, a high profile delegation led by the Ambassador of Forum for China- Africa Cooperation, FOCAC arrived in Hargeisa and met Somaliland president Muse Bihi and some of his ministers in the presidential palace. As reported by some of the Somaliland media, the meeting took several days and the proposal of the Chinese delegation was a conditional offer; drop Taiwan in return Somaliland will get a Chinese Liaison Office and most importantly infrastructural investment such as roads and airports, but Somaliland rebuffed this offer. Finally a press release from Somaliland presidency stated that China and Somaliland agreed upon ‘respecting each other’, interestingly not mentioned Taiwan.

Image: Somaliland president Muse Bihi (righ) received in his office Chinese Ambassador (left) for FOCAC, Zhou Yuxiao on Aug 7, 2020, Hargeisa (Source: Somaliland MFA)

Sustaining ties with Taiwan, avoiding the Chinese retaliation 

 Somaliland has taken a courageous and adventurous decision when it snubbed the conditional offer from Beijing. Let alone Somaliland which is unrecognized state, recognized African countries hesitated to do so while avoiding the adverse effects from the great superpower. China is great superpower, second most advanced economy, 3rd most powerful militarily, has the largest leverage in Africa in terms of foreign direct investment (FDI) and bilateral and multilateral trade partnership. China has won in isolating Taiwan with respect to African relations. There was a time Taiwan had official diplomatic relations with no less than 30 countries in Africa but over the years it has been losing to China. Over the past 15 years several African countries such as Senegal, Chad, Malawi and the Gambia cut diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (ROC) and switched their recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), due to pressure from Beijing. Now the ROC has formal diplomatic relationship with Swaziland only in Africa and also 14 small countries in the Pacific and Latin America which are far away from the strategic maritime and trade routes in the world.

Therefore, Somaliland’s relations with Taiwan has both pros and cons; Somaliland has been waiting international recognition in the last three decades but did not succeed to gain any country to support its case, furthermore, it has remained desperate for foreign direct investment to boost its economy. So the competition and scramble between China and Taiwan for Somaliland could at least attract the world attention to Somaliland, particularly, the Western countries such the US which has a bitter competition with China and at the same time, Taiwan could lobby for Somaliland engagement with the western countries specially the US.

Moreover, on March26, 2020, the US president signed into law the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act (TAIPEI Act), which is meant strengthening the US –Taiwan scope of cooperation and also Washington DC to support countries that open official and unofficial relations with the Island country in areas of security and development. Hence, this is good news and shield from Chinese potential revenge for Somaliland as well. In the same token, Somaliland will gain the US support in investment and security areas.

In addition to this, since Taiwan is an advanced country economically; 7th largest economy in Asia and 22nd in the world in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP),  it can help Somaliland in infrastructural investment, scholarships, technology transfer and capacitating Somaliland Coast Guards. Earlier of this month (Aug, 2020), as reported by Taiwan Club, while inaugurating the first mine lay ship, Taiwanese Defense Minister reiterated that his country will help Somaliland in coast guard patrols.

On the other hand, Somaliland’s engagement with Taiwan will pay a price, defying a superpower while being unrecognized is an issue of a great concern. After the Somaliland- Taiwan agreement came out, China made a navy exercise in a place very near to the Gulf of Aden, in which Somaliland lies, which implies a warning message to Somaliland. Likewise, China and Somalia agreed to make a joint coast patrol, a move detrimental to the Peaceful Self-proclaimed independence state in a volatile region. However, Somaliland should welcome China and show him some promise and to lesser compromise when it comes to Taiwan relationship in order divert Beijing’s harsh potential adverse retaliations.

Egypt and Ethiopia Scramble for Somaliland

Somaliland has enjoyed warm relations with Ethiopia for the last 30 years. Ethiopia has been the gateway for Somaliland to the outside world, the only country that has treated Hargeisa as an independent state and having a trade flow worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But everything changed and the ties between the two sides reached the lowest point for the first time in decades when the reformist Prime Minister Abiye Ahmed came to power, the longstanding links Addis Ababa with Hargeisa was in question; rather, Abiye made the relationship with Somalia the biggest priority that paved the way constant visits, bilateral pacts and regional summits between Abiye Ahmed and president of Somalia Mohamed Abdilah Mohamed aka ‘Farmajo’.

As a result, Somaliland was seeking a diplomatic card against Ethiopia to derail the growing Abiye- Farmajo friendship and to return Ethiopia back to its status quo with Somaliland. Fortunately, Somalia aligned with Ethiopia against Egypt which angered Cairo and forced pay its attention to Somaliland. On July 20, 2020, a high level Egyptian delegation came to Hargeisa and met with Somaliland president Muse Bihi, with a proposal of establishing a military base in Somaliland. Reportedly, the two sides agreed upon swapping high level diplomatic offices in Hargeisa and Cairo, enhancing the trade and economic cooperation and Cairo to set up a military facility in Somaliland in the future.

This move by Egypt towards Somaliland engagement was the game changer which forced Ethiopia which has a bitter row with Ethiopia over the filling of the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD), to immediately send a high profile delegation led by the Finance Minister Ahmed Shide to Hargeisa and followed by the nomination of a full ambassador to Hargeisa. Although what Ethiopian delegation met in Hargeisa is not known but a series of concerns by key Ethiopian officials over the reportedly military base in Somaliland by Cairo followed. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, Spokesperson for the Ministry and the Deputy Commander of Military expressed their concern over Egypt’s intent to have military foothold in the East Africa.

While speaking to the press of his country, the Spokesperson of Ethiopian Foreign Ministry Dina Mufti, reiterated his country’s unwavering concern over the Cairo’s proposal in Somaliland.

      “As a sovereign country, Egypt has the right to create relationships with any country in the region but this should not come at the expense of Ethiopia. If so, it will be unlawful and against humanity and international peace and security”, Mufti said

Last but not least, Somaliland has an explicit geopolitical importance to the region and beyond and it is the time to leverage in its position in attracting foreign direct investments and pushing its quest for international recognition. It should not hostile to any entity or nation and at same time it should not be hesitant to use its bargaining cards due to its geostrategic location.

However, at this moment, the de facto East African Nation is in the middle of a scramble between superpowers and regional powers. For example, China and Taiwan are in direct zero sum game interests, in the same manner, Ethiopia and Egypt are in direct conflicting interests. So it needs a resourceful and strategic thinking mind in order to accommodate Somaliland’s to the conflicting interests of these players.

Hargeisa should sustain its newly established ties with Republic of China (ROC) because Taiwan could contribute much with respect to the economic development and also lobbying for Somaliland’s engagement with the US. On the other side, Hargeisa should court China to some extent in order to defuse its tension.

In the same token, Somaliland’s engagement with Egypt will increase its leverage in the region, particularly its bargaining power with Ethiopia in terms of further strengthening the longing standing ties and balancing the trade flow (increase Ethiopia’s Berbera Port usage), but Somaliland should wink at Egypt when it comes to accepting Egypt’s proposal of military facility in Somaliland.

Therefore, it is a critical exam for Somaliland leaders how to settle these competing zero sum game players while not compromising the short and long term interests of the country and its people.

Abdifatah Ahmed Hurre

The author Abdifatah Ahmed Hurre is a political and economic analyst mostly in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, social activist and civil servant, currently residing in Burao, Somaliland

He is a double master candidate, MSc in Financial Economics at Mekelle University, Ethiopia and Master in Project Management (MPM) at Admas University, Ethiopia.

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