The self-declared republic of Somaliland is the latest diplomatic and economic battleground in the Horn of Africa.
It pits interests from the Gulf, the West, the Mediterranean and Africa, from Kenya and Ethiopia to Guinea.
What started as a tweet by Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau on May 27 has brought to the surface a covert competition for political and economic influence in the Horn.
Mr Kamau’s tweet that he had met Somaliland Foreign Minister Yasin Hagi Mohamed and discussed issues of mutual interest and ways of strengthening co-operation between the two countries infuriated Mogadishu, which has refused to recognise Somaliland’s secession since 1991.
Mogadishu responded by issuing a protest letter to Nairobi for hosting officials of the breakaway Somaliland, and summoned Kenya’s ambassador to Somalia Lucas Tumbo.
“We consider this tweet an affront to Somali sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, as well as harmful to the relationship between Somalia and Kenya,” said the protest letter, which was based on the “One-Somalia” policy.
A week later, Somalia broke diplomatic ties with Guinea for affording the protocol of a head of state to Somaliland president Musa Bihi during his one week visit to Conakry.
After Somalia severed diplomatic relations with Guinea, President Bihi accused Mogadishu of working with Western countries, especially Italy.
“We are now seeing Somalia working with some countries in the West to frustrate our quest for recognition and at the same time bully our international friends who are sympathetic to our cause,” said President Bihi.
Somaliland declared its separation from Somalia in 1991, but it is yet to be recognised by the international community despite maintaining trade relations and political contacts with a number of countries including Kenya, UK, Belgium, Turkey, Djibouti, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates.
Rashid Abdi, an analyst on the Horn and the Gulf, believes Somalia and Somaliland should break the three decades of stalemate to enhance their international standing.
“Somaliland cannot win recognition without Somalia’s consent and Somalia cannot impose a solution on Somaliland,” Mr Abdi said in a tweet on the dispute.
There are concerns in Mogadishu that Kenya is trying to forge closer ties with Somaliland as a leverage over the maritime dispute with Nairobi that comes up for hearing at the International Court of Justice on September 9.
The Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute has brought in external players from the West with interests in oil, gas, fishing, regional security and internal Somali politics, and is now sucking in Somaliland.
Yusuf Gabobe, a veteran Somaliland journalist, told The EastAfrican that the Farmaajo administration has been particularly sensitive to any country maintaining relations with Somaliland.
“Previous governments in Mogadishu and the majority of Somali people have no issues with Somaliland being recognised, but some elements in the current government have been keen to block any outside dealings with Somaliland because of some historical grudges,” said Mr Gabobe.
Now, the United Arab Emirates — an ally of Saudi Arabia in their competition with the Qatar/Turkey axis for political and economic influence in the Horn — is emerging as a critical player.
The UAE has been a major player behind the scenes in the newly found Cushitic Alliance between Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
In the past year, the UAE has been on the wrong side of Mogadishu by maintaining bilateral relations with Puntland state, where it is training and funding security forces.
In October 2018, Somalia also protested a deal between Somaliland and UAE company DP World for the $442 million expansion of the Berbera port without consulting Mogadishu.
Somaliland hopes the port’s expansion will boost its economy by attracting other international investors, reduce unemployment and set it on the road to independence from Somalia. Ethiopia has also bought shares in the port.
Somaliland head of liaison office in Kenya Bashe Omar told The EastAfrican that Somaliland is strategically located for trade with the international community.
“We have a long and safe coastline and we are developing the port and fishing infrastructure to attract investors. Most investors are looking at security along our coastline and even when piracy was at its peak, our coastline was quiet,” said Mr Omar.
The UAE has in recent years sought closer ties with countries in the Horn of Africa. The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, helped mediate the peace accord between former enemies Ethiopia and Eritrea last year.
It is part of a larger plan to broker peace in the region as the alliance battles Houthi rebels in Yemen. Sudan, which is now in transition after the ouster of former leader Omar al-Bashir in April, is a key contributor of troops to the Alliance in Yemen.
In return UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with tacit approval of the United States, have committed $3 billion to cushion Khartoum from any difficulties during the upheavals.
To deepen its influence in the Horn, the UAE last week struck a deal with the Ethiopian government to take in 50,000 workers in the 2019/2020 financial year, who will receive training in various sectors.
The number could rise to 200,000 people in 2022 as Ethiopia pursues similar deals with Japan and some European countries.
According to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, these are short-term measures to reduce unemployment by sending skilled labour to foreign countries. Last year, the UAE pledged to invest $3 billion in aid and investment in Ethiopia.
In the proxy war, the United States and China are not far behind. Both have naval bases in Djibouti, but the US presence appears to be waning as China’s is rising. Through China Merchant Port Holdings, the country controls the Doraleh container terminal whose expansion into a free trade zone will rival Dubai.
Djibouti’s location along sea lanes between Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa is critical to the sustainability of the China Road and Bridge (Silk Road) projects that envisages control of logistics infrastructure across the world.
Djibouti, Somaliland and Eritrea are important to global superpowers for acting as a sieve for migrants heading to Europe through the Mediterranean, and curbing the spread of extremism that has entrenched itself in Somalia.