Somalia regions maintain UAE as ally amid diplomatic row over port deals

Saturday May 12 2018

Somalia and the United Arab Emirates are still squabbling over the emirates’ engagements with the regional states of Jubbaland and Puntland, with Mogadishu saying it will oppose any lease deals on the ports of Bossasso and Kismayu.

The dust has not even settled on the Mogadishu administration’s dispute with the semi-autonomous state of Somaliland over the lease of the port of Berbera to the UAE at $440 million.

Somalia has objected to a UAE company taking over the Berbera port in the region of Somaliland in partnership with the Ethiopian government, which Mogadishu says is an invasion of its territory.

And now, Puntland president Abdiweli Mohamed Ali “Gaas” and his Jubbaland counterpart Sheikh Ahmed “Madobe” are on the spot for visiting Dubai last month, further rocking the relations between the two countries.

Somalia’s charge d’affaires in Nairobi Ali Mohamed Sheikh told The EastAfrican that UAE was out to drive a wedge between the federal government and regional states, with the objective of weakening the administration of President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo.”

“The leaders of Puntland and Jubbaland are free to make private visits to any country in the world, but the mandate of foreign and bilateral relations remains the obligation of the federal government of Somalia,” he said.


He argued that just like in Kenya, where the governors have been barred from entering into agreements on funding and joint projects with foreign countries without the permission and guarantee of the national government, Somalia’s regional states are bound by the same principle.

Amassing power?

While Sheikh Madobe has said that his Dubai visit was to see his doctor, Jubbaland remains closely linked to the UAE, which still supports his troops.

Mogadishu has also accused him of allowing exportation of charcoal to UAE, which is the biggest market for the Somalia charcoal.

But Mr Gass, who has been Somalia prime minister twice, is unapologetic for hobnobbing with the UAE. In his address to journalists in a townhall in Dubai last month, he said that the UAE is central to the survival of Puntland, citing provision of security and investment.

He said that Puntland supports a federal system that ensures that the central government does not have dictatorial powers over the federal states and which will ensure co-operation in the fight against the militant group Al Shabaab.

“Under federalism, all government powers are either inclusive, concurrent or residual, where residual means that powers that are not explicitly declared by the Constitution belong to the regional states,” said Mr Gass in a video released by his office.

Somalia has so far created five regional states — Puntland, Galmudug, Jubbaland, Southwest State, and Hirshabelle. There is still debate on whether Mogadishu — under the Benadiir region — should become the sixth state or remain the country’s capital.

Puntland was established in 1998, while Jubbaland came into being in 2012.

The UAE has been providing financial and military assistance to state security forces in Jubbaland and Puntland, which has helped bolster their ability to combat Al-Shabaab and other armed groups.

Somalia experts say that unless and until the federal government is prepared to provide such support, the states will continue to seek assistance wherever they can find it.

Matt Bryden, director of Sahan Africa, a think-tank that focuses on the Horn of Africa and Middle East relations, told The EastAfrican that the government in Mogadishu is still a provisional authority and that the Constitution, the architecture of the federal system and the distribution of power and responsibilities between Mogadishu and the federal states all remain undefined.

State governments wary

“State governments like Jubbaland and Puntland are therefore wary of the federal government trying to pre-empt negotiations by concentrating power and resources in the capital, and they maintain strong relations with the UAE in an attempt to counterbalance what they perceive to be disproportionate external investment in the federal government,” said Mr Bryden.

Some opposition leaders have accused President Farmajo of seeking to amass power at the centre, contrary to the 2012 Constitution, which provides for a federal system of government.

Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, a former planning minister, who was a presidential candidate in the February 2017 election, said that President Farmajo believes in a strong, centralised government, where the executive overshadows parliament and the judiciary.

“Any rational Somali will agree that bad relations with Abu Dhabi is not good, because there are many Somali businesses in the country and Somalia exports $500,000 worth of livestock to UAE annually,” he said.

Mr Warsame is one of the politicians who the government has identified as working with the UAE to “destabilise” Somalia, but he denies the accusations, saying that he is being targeted for criticising the government on certain issues.



Somalia Charge d’Affaires in Nairobi


Somalia’s charge d’affaires in Nairobi, Kenya, Ali Mohamed Sheikh. PHOTO | NMG

What is the view of the Somalia government on the recent visits to the UAE by the leaders of Puntland and Jubbaland? 

The leaders of Puntland and Jubbaland are free to make private visits to any country in the world, but the mandate of foreign and bilateral relations remains the obligation of the federal government of Somalia.

There are concerns that the visits could worsen relations between the federal government and the regional states...

Relations between the federal government and the regional states remain cordial. In fact, the president and prime minister speak to regional leaders daily. The centre is collaborating with the regions in the fight against Al-Shabaab, and soon we are going to convene a security council to implement the National Security Architecture, and discuss constitutional reforms and how to conduct the 2020 elections. We will discuss whether the elections will be by direct voting or by proportional representation.

Is the Somalia government planning to cut links with UAE over the Berbera Port deal with Somaliland?

No. Our concern is that the UAE signed an agreement with Somaliland without the authority of the federal government, which is an infringement on our sovereignty. We are not against foreign investment in the main ports of Somalia, but we have to make sure that the system of governance and sovereignty are respected. 

Some opposition politicians are accusing President Farmajo of trying to concentrate power at the centre, yet the Constitution provides for a federal system…

That is not correct, because the president recognises that Somalia is a federal state. He is working hard to ensure that the roles of the federal government and the states are clearly demarcated. We currently have two tiers of government, and the people of Somalia are still discussing whether to have another tier based on districts. But, in principle, we have all agreed that Somalia is a federal state.

Puntland president


Puntland president Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Why is Puntland relating with UAE at a time when the relations with Mogadishu are at the lowest?

We cannot afford to cut links with the UAE, because it is the biggest trading partner of Somalia, and thousands of Somalis sought refuge in the country after the collapse of the government in 1991 and are engaged in gainful employment and business. There are hitches in any diplomatic relations and the current one will not last long, because the historical relations between the UAE and Somalia are too deep to be severed by a single incident.

Why is the UAE so important to Puntland that you risk antagonising Mogadishu?

One must understand the strategic location of Puntland to appreciate why we insist on relating with traditional partners like the UAE. Puntland is the only Somalia state that borders both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is also the gateway to the Gulf of Eden. That means we are the first line of defence against ISIS and Al-Shabaab from Yemen, and against illegal fishing, piracy and human trafficking.

The UAE trains, equips and pays the salaries of 2,000 Puntland soldiers who are fighting terrorists. It has also invested $336 million in the port of Bossasso, and that is just the beginning. We are working on more investments in health, infrastructure and industrialisation. There is nothing wrong with co-operation on projects that provides employment for thousands of youth.

What are the consequences if Somalia stops military co-operation with the UAE?

That will not happen because a good portion of the world commerce depends on the safe passage through the territorial waters of Puntland.

The issue is that you are entering into agreements with the UAE without the approval of Mogadishu…

Article 54 of the Puntland Constitution says that the state can enter into agreements with foreign countries. Article 142 of the federal constitution says that until the regional states are formed and agree on a national Constitution, a regional state prior to the promulgation of that constitution shall operate on the powers of their own constitution.