Leaders of Somalia, Somaliland meet for first time

Meeting in Addis Ababa brokered by Ethiopia is the first since Abdullahi Mohamed and Somaliland leader Muse Bihi Abdi took office in 2017.

MOGADISHU — The current leaders of Somalia and the breakaway territory of Somaliland have met for the first time in the latest diplomatic effort by Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister.

Somali presidential spokesman Abdinur Mohamed confirmed Tuesday’s meeting to The Associated Press news agency, saying it was brokered by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

“It was behind closed doors and no communique is being released. It was an ice-breaking one,” the spokesman said.

Ethiopia’s government has not commented publicly on the talks, which occurred on the sidelines of an African Union gathering.

Somaliland broke away from Somalia in 1991 as the country collapsed into warlord-led conflict, and it has seen little of the violence and extremist attacks that plague Somalia to the south. Relations between the two frayed in 2018 when troops from Somaliland and Puntland, a semi-autonomous regional state notionally loyal to Mogadishu, clashed over disputed territory.

Despite lacking international recognition, Somaliland has maintained its own independent government, currency and security system. It has also been lauded for its ability to hold democratic elections resulting in orderly transfers of power, which it has done since 2003. It has nevertheless faced accusations of some human rights abuses and crackdowns on political dissent.

Although it yet lacks recognition, the region's relative stability has led to an improvement in its official contacts with nations including with Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates, which has signed a concession agreement to manage the main sea port in the coastal city of Berbera.

The Berbera port became a subject of tension between the UAE and Mogadishu after the Somali federal government nullified the agreement between Dubai-based DP World and Somaliland, claiming it was invalid without the consent of Mogadishu.

Regional states including Turkey, Iran and the UAE have vied for influence in the Red Sea region in recent years due to increasing tension over the security of key waterways.

UAE-Somalia relations fractured greatly after the election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who was seen as siding with Qatar and its regional ally Turkey (Somalia's largest foreign investor) in a regional dispute that saw Gulf states impose a blockade on Doha due to its support for political Islamism and Iran.

Following another dispute with Mogadishu which saw Emirati soldiers assaulted, the UAE also put an end to its training mission in Somalia -  aimed at supporting African Union troops fighting off the al-Shabaab insurgency -and subsequently announced it would be building a military base in Somaliland, signifying a shift in military support.

Somalia still considers Somaliland as part of its territory, although several rounds of past talks over possible unification have failed to reach a breakthrough.

This week’s meeting is the first since Abdullahi Mohamed and Somaliland leader Muse Bihi Abdi took office in 2017. Analysts interpreted the meeting as a political victory for Muse Bihi Abdi, who was received in Ethiopia with the protocol reserved for a head of state.

Somali officials have blamed Somaliland leaders over the failure of past talks, accusing them of failing to show seriousness. Somaliland leaders have dismissed the allegations and insisted that their sovereignty is nonnegotiable.

Since taking office in 2018, Ethiopia's leader has worked to achieve a number of diplomatic breakthroughs in the long-turbulent Horn of Africa region.