Somalia and Somaliland: A Complex Relationship in the Horn of Africa

The relationship between Somalia and Somaliland is one of the most intricate and pivotal dynamics in the Horn of Africa.

The relationship between Somalia and Somaliland is one of the most intricate and pivotal dynamics in the Horn of Africa. Rooted in historical, political, and economic contexts, the interactions between these two regions significantly influence the regional stability and development. As Somalia gains a seat on the United Nations Security Council, understanding the nuances of its relationship with Somaliland becomes even more crucial.

Historical Context of Somalia and Somaliland Relations
Colonial Era and Formation of Modern States
The historical roots of the relationship between Somalia and Somaliland extend back to the colonial era. The territory now known as Somaliland was a British protectorate called British Somaliland, while the rest of Somalia was an Italian colony known as Italian Somaliland. These separate colonial administrations fostered distinct political, social, and economic systems within the two regions.

Independence and Unification (1960)

In 1960, both British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland gained independence. British Somaliland declared independence on June 26, 1960, and Italian Somaliland followed on July 1, 1960. Shortly after gaining independence, the two regions merged to form the Somali Republic, driven by the shared desire for a unified Somali nation encompassing all ethnic Somalis, including those in neighboring regions such as Djibouti, Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, and Kenya’s North Eastern Province.

Early Years of the Somali Republic

The early years of the unified Somali Republic were marked by efforts to integrate the different administrative systems and cultures of the two former colonies. However, the merger was fraught with challenges, as the northern region (former British Somaliland) often felt marginalized by the southern-dominated government based in Mogadishu.

Military Rule and Centralization (1969-1991)

The situation deteriorated further after a military coup in 1969 brought Siad Barre to power. Barre’s regime pursued a policy of centralization and authoritarianism, exacerbating regional disparities and alienating many northern Somalis. The government’s harsh policies and human rights abuses, particularly against the Isaaq clan in the north, led to growing dissent.

The Somali Civil War and Somaliland’s Declaration of Independence (1991)

The discontent in the north culminated in the formation of the Somali National Movement (SNM) in the 1980s, which led a successful armed resistance against Barre’s regime. Following the regime’s collapse in 1991, the SNM declared the independence of Somaliland on May 18, 1991. This declaration was based on the perceived failure of the unified state and the desire to establish a government that could ensure peace, stability, and development in the region.

Establishment of Somaliland’s Government and Institutions

Since declaring independence, Somaliland has developed its own political system, distinct from Somalia’s. It has held regular democratic elections, established a constitution, and maintained its own security forces. Despite its self-governance and relative stability, Somaliland’s quest for international recognition has been unsuccessful. No country or international organization officially recognizes Somaliland as a sovereign state, largely due to concerns over setting a precedent for secessionist movements and the preference for maintaining the territorial integrity of African states as endorsed by the African Union.

Somalia’s Position and International Dynamics

On the other hand, the Federal Government of Somalia considers Somaliland an integral part of its territory. Successive Somali governments have sought to reintegrate Somaliland, arguing for the preservation of Somalia’s territorial integrity. Internationally, most countries and organizations, including the United Nations and the African Union, support Somalia’s stance, advocating for dialogue and reconciliation to address the issue.

Continued Tensions and Sporadic Dialogue

The relationship between Somalia and Somaliland remains tense, characterized by sporadic, often inconclusive dialogues. Several attempts at negotiations have taken place over the years. However, these talks have not led to any significant breakthroughs, leaving the status of Somaliland unresolved.

Political Landscape of Somalia and Somaliland

Independent Political Systems

Somaliland: Democracy

Since its self-declared independence in 1991, Somaliland has established a relatively stable and functional political system, distinguishing itself from the turmoil in southern Somalia. Somaliland operates as a de facto state with its own government, institutions, and constitution. It has conducted multiple democratic elections for the presidency, parliament, and local councils, often praised by international observers for their fairness and transparency. This democratic governance, combined with efforts to build a stable, inclusive political environment, has helped maintain peace and stability in the region.

The political structure of Somaliland includes an executive branch headed by the President, a bicameral legislature consisting of the House of Representatives and the House of Elders (Guurti), and an independent judiciary. The House of Elders, composed of traditional leaders, plays a significant role in conflict resolution and maintaining social order, reflecting the integration of modern governance with traditional practices.

Somalia: Struggles with Instability

In contrast, Somalia faces considerable political challenges. Since the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime, Somalia has experienced prolonged periods of instability, characterized by civil war, clan-based conflicts, and the rise of militant groups like Al-Shabaab. The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), established in 2012, operates under a federal system intended to decentralize power and promote local governance. However, its authority is often limited to Mogadishu and a few other regions, with varying degrees of control and influence over the rest of the country.

Political infighting, corruption, and the ongoing insurgency have hindered Somalia’s progress towards stability. Efforts to build a cohesive national government are frequently disrupted by power struggles among political elites and regional leaders, further complicating the situation. International support, including peacekeeping forces from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and subsequently, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS)  has been important in maintaining a semblance of order, but lasting peace and effective governance remain elusive.

Lack of Formal Dialogue and Ongoing Tensions

The political relationship between Somalia and Somaliland is characterized by a lack of formal dialogue and persistent tensions. Despite periodic attempts at negotiations, there has been no sustained or successful dialogue process. Several factors contribute to this impasse:

1. Somalia’s Political Instability:
   The internal conflicts and political instability within Somalia make it difficult for the federal government to engage constructively with Somaliland. The ongoing insurgency and political divisions divert attention and resources away from addressing the Somaliland issue.

2. Somaliland’s Quest for Recognition:
   Somaliland remains steadfast in its pursuit of international recognition as an independent state, a position that Somalia vehemently opposes. Somaliland’s government is wary of engaging in talks that might undermine its claims to sovereignty.

3. Clan Dynamics and Regional Interests:
   Clan affiliations and regional politics play a significant role in the relationship between Somalia and Somaliland. Clan dynamics influence political decisions and negotiations, often complicating efforts to reach a consensus. Additionally, regional actors like Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya have their own strategic interests in the stability and political alignment of Somalia and Somaliland.

4. International Stance:
   The international community, including the United Nations, the African Union, and major powers, generally supports Somalia’s territorial integrity. This stance discourages Somaliland’s push for recognition and complicates international mediation efforts.

Efforts at Mediation and Prospects for the Future

Despite the challenges, there have been intermittent efforts to mediate between Somalia and Somaliland. Various international actors and regional organizations have facilitated dialogues, albeit with limited success. The most notable of these efforts include talks in Djibouti in 2012, facilitated by Turkey,

The prospects for a resolution remain uncertain. Achieving a lasting agreement requires addressing the core issues of sovereignty, resource sharing, and political representation. Confidence-building measures, such as fostering economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, might help create a conducive environment for dialogue. Additionally, a more stable and unified Somali government could potentially engage more effectively with Somaliland.

Challenges and Obstacles

Entrenched Positions

One of the primary obstacles in resolving the diplomatic standoff is the deeply entrenched positions of both Somalia and Somaliland. Somaliland remains unwavering in its quest for recognition, viewing it as essential for its political and economic development. Somalia, on the other hand, perceives any concession towards Somaliland’s independence as a threat to national unity and stability.

Clan and Regional Politics

Clan dynamics and regional politics further complicate the situation. Within both Somalia and Somaliland, different clans and political factions have varying interests and stakes in the outcome of the negotiations. Regional actors, including Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya, have their own strategic interests, influencing their roles in the mediation process.

International Stance

The international community’s general reluctance to recognize Somaliland’s independence is another significant challenge. Most countries and international organizations continue to support Somalia’s territorial integrity, partly due to concerns about setting a precedent that might encourage other secessionist movements globally. This stance limits Somaliland’s ability to gain the recognition it seeks and complicates mediation efforts.

Economic Interdependence and Rivalry Between Somalia and Somaliland

Competing Interests

Strategic Locations and Port Development

Somaliland’s Berbera Port:

Somaliland’s strategic location along the Red Sea coast has endowed it with significant economic potential, particularly through the development of the Berbera port. Historically, Berbera has served as a key port in the region, and its recent upgrades and expansion projects, partly funded by the United Arab Emirates and DP World, aim to transform it into a major hub for trade in the Horn of Africa. The port’s improvements include enhanced infrastructure, increased cargo handling capacity, and plans for a free trade zone, all of which position Berbera as a direct competitor to Somalia’s ports.

Somalia’s Ports:

Somalia, with its extensive coastline along the Indian Ocean, relies heavily on its ports for trade and economic activity. Key ports include Mogadishu, Kismayo, and Bossaso, each serving different regions and purposes. The Mogadishu port, in particular, is crucial for the capital and central regions, while Kismayo and Bossaso serve the southern and northern parts, respectively. Somalia’s ports have faced challenges due to political instability, security issues, and limited infrastructure, but efforts are ongoing to improve their operational capacity.

Complementary Interests and Potential Collaboration

Economic Collaboration Opportunities

Trade Synergies:

Despite the competitive aspects, there are numerous opportunities for economic collaboration between Somalia and Somaliland. Both regions can benefit from increased trade links, leveraging their respective strengths to create a more integrated and efficient regional economy.

Infrastructure Development:

Joint infrastructure projects could further enhance economic ties and mutual benefits. Developing road networks, rail connections, and shared logistics facilities could streamline trade routes and reduce transportation costs. For example, improving the road link between Berbera and Hargeisa, and extending it to connect with major Somali cities, would facilitate smoother and faster movement of goods.

Investment and Employment:

Collaborative economic initiatives can attract foreign investment and create jobs, benefiting both populations. By presenting a united front in attracting investors, Somalia and Somaliland could offer more comprehensive and appealing opportunities for international businesses looking to invest in the Horn of Africa.

Shared Resources and Expertise:

Pooling resources and expertise in sectors such as fisheries, agriculture, and livestock can enhance productivity and economic resilience. Both regions have rich marine resources that, if managed cooperatively, could lead to sustainable and profitable fishing industries. Similarly, collaboration in agricultural practices and livestock management can improve food security and export potential.

Challenges to Economic Integration

Political and Security Concerns:

Political instability and security issues remain significant barriers to economic integration. Ongoing conflicts and lack of trust between the two governments hinder the development of cooperative projects. Ensuring safety and stability along trade routes is essential for fostering economic ties.

Regulatory Differences:

Differences in regulatory frameworks and administrative practices pose challenges to seamless economic integration. Aligning policies and standards in areas such as customs procedures, tariffs, and business regulations is necessary to facilitate smoother trade and investment.

International Relations:

The broader geopolitical landscape also influences economic relations between Somalia and Somaliland. Regional and international actors with vested interests in the Horn of Africa can either support or obstruct efforts towards economic collaboration. Diplomatic efforts to garner support from influential countries and organizations are crucial for overcoming these challenges. 

The economic relationship between Somalia and Somaliland is characterized by both competition and potential collaboration. While the development of ports and strategic locations presents competitive challenges, there are substantial opportunities for mutual economic benefits through trade, infrastructure development, and shared resources. Addressing political, security, and regulatory obstacles, alongside fostering a cooperative economic framework, can pave the way for a more integrated and prosperous future for both regions.

Regional and International Influences

The regional dynamics in the Horn of Africa further complicate the Somalia-Somaliland relationship. Djibouti’s interests, Ethiopia’s strategic maneuvers, and the influence of Gulf countries all play a role in shaping the interactions between Somalia and Somaliland. Internationally, major powers like the United States and China have interests in the region, often influencing diplomatic and economic strategies.

Recent Developments

Recent events have added layers to the existing complexities. Somalia’s election to the U.N. Security Council could shift the diplomatic landscape, potentially affecting the international community’s approach to the Somalia-Somaliland issue. Additionally, the Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal highlights the strategic economic partnerships that could either exacerbate tensions or open avenues for cooperation.

Path Forward

For any lasting resolution, several key factors need to be addressed:

1. Dialogue and Mediation:

 Establishing a sustained and structured dialogue process between Somalia and Somaliland is crucial. International mediators could play a vital role in facilitating these talks.

2. Economic Cooperation: Exploring mutually beneficial economic projects can build trust and interdependence, potentially easing political tensions.

3. International Engagement: The international community’s role is pivotal. Balancing diplomatic engagement with both Somalia and Somaliland while encouraging dialogue and conflict resolution is essential.

4. Regional Stability: Ensuring that regional players, particularly Djibouti and Ethiopia, support a peaceful resolution to the Somalia-Somaliland issue is critical for broader stability in the Horn of Africa.


The relationship between Somalia and Somaliland is a cornerstone issue for the Horn of Africa, influencing regional stability, economic development, and international diplomacy. As Somalia steps onto the global stage with its new role at the U.N. Security Council, there is an opportunity to reassess and potentially recalibrate the dynamics with Somaliland. Understanding and addressing the historical grievances, political aspirations, and economic interests of both entities will be key to fostering a peaceful and prosperous future for the region.

Batseba Seifu
Batseba Seifu
Batseba holds a Masters of Public Administration from New York University and a BA in Law and Justice with short term trainings in International Humanitarian Law; Displacement, Conflict, and Protection; and Operational Research for Humanitarians. She has more than a decade of experience in public service from leading the Black Students Union at North Seattle College to designing and implementing e-learning programs for Peace and Security in Africa to her role as a Country Manager at an Irish social enterprise. Focused on the plight of Tigray, she's dedicated to advocacy, research, and policy influence, bridging the gap between awareness and action.