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The Somalia-Somaliland Airspace Dispute: A Historical Overview and the Path Forward

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Introduction

The longstanding and complex airspace dispute between Somalia and Somaliland has been marked by a series of broken agreements, escalating tensions, and growing concerns over regional security and aviation safety. This article explores the historical background of the United Nations-mediated agreements, examines Somalia’s subsequent deviation from these agreements, analyzes recent incidents that have further intensified the dispute, and discusses the implications for the safety and management of the airspace in the region.

Historical Background

The origins of the airspace dispute date back to the early 1990s, when Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia following the collapse of the Somali government in 1991. The resulting state of lawlessness, with various factions vying for control, raised concerns over the safety and security of the airspace. In response, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, assumed responsibility for managing the airspace. Due to the security concerns within Somalia, the ICAO initially based its operations in Nairobi, Kenya.

Since 1993, the UN program tasked with these duties has been the Civil Aviation Caretaker Authority for Somalia (CACAS), which operates out of Nairobi. For over 27 years, the ICAO has had overall responsibility for the skies over the country, processing civilian aircraft movements and overflights in the Horn of Africa without any dispute. This period of stability stands in stark contrast to the recent developments since Mogadishu took control a few years ago. In this short span, Somalia has already violated agreements, casting doubt on its ability to manage this vital aspect of regional security responsibly.

Somalia’s Departure from Agreements

In an effort to establish a cooperative framework for airspace management, the ICAO facilitated negotiations between Somalia and Somaliland. Since 2012, there have been several meetings and talks between the two parties, including the Istanbul II Communiqué in June 2013, where they concurred on establishing the Air Traffic Control Board (headquartered in Hargeisa, Somaliland) and a four-member technical committee (two from Somaliland and two from Somalia). The pact received support from the United Nations envoy in Somalia/Somaliland and the head of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia at the time, Nicholas Kay, who described it as a model for other areas of mutually beneficial cooperation.

The accord was hailed as a significant step towards collaborative management and was expected to pave the way for a sustainable resolution to the dispute. However, it began to unravel as Somalia reneged on its commitments, opting for unilateral control of the airspace. Somalia’s move was perceived by Somaliland as a breach of the Istanbul II Communiqué and a violation of all the agreed-upon terms, further infringing on its autonomy.

The situation was further complicated by Somalia’s unilateral actions, such as the revocation of previously issued flight permissions and the imposition of new regulations without consultation with Somaliland. This has led to increased tensions between the two entities and has raised concerns about the safety and security of the airspace in the region.

Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi has publicly criticized Somalia’s failure to uphold its commitments under the accord, particularly regarding the distribution of international aid and educational grants. The Somaliland Civil Aviation and Airports Authority (SL-CAAA) has accused successive Mogadishu governments of failing to honor agreements on air traffic management, leading to Somalia’s unilateral control over the Air Traffic Management Authority since 2018.

Latest Dispute and Recent Incidents

The recent incidents in the airspace dispute between Somalia and Somaliland have exacerbated tensions and raised concerns about the politicization of airspace management, often referred to as “air piracy.” This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘air piracy,’ involves the use of airspace control for political leverage or as a means of exerting pressure, akin to how piracy at sea is used to control maritime routes.

Increased Tensions

The dispute has seen a series of incidents that have further strained relations between the two entities. A notable event occurred on January 17, 2024, when an unscheduled Ethiopian Airlines flight carrying senior Ethiopian officials to Somaliland was denied entry into Somali airspace and forced to return to Addis Ababa. This incident underscored the operational rifts and the politicization of the airspace.

Further tensions arose with allegations of the Somali Civil Aviation Authority (SCAA) obstructing an air ambulance from entering Somali airspace en route to Hargeisa. Although the SCAA refuted these claims, stating that the aircraft lacked the necessary permits, the incident highlighted the human cost of the ongoing dispute.

Moreover, a recent incident involving Qatar Airways highlighted the complexities of airspace management in the region. The airline received contradictory instructions from air traffic controllers in Mogadishu and Hargeisa, leading to formal safety complaints. This incident underscores the challenges of securing the airspace amidst the ongoing dispute between Somalia and Somaliland and raises serious doubts about Somalia’s ability to manage air traffic safety and navigation effectively.

Politicization of Airspace

Somalia’s actions are perceived as using airspace management as a political tool. By denying flights and imposing unilateral regulations, Somalia is seen as leveraging its control over the airspace to assert its authority over Somaliland and to influence regional dynamics. This approach is akin to “air piracy,” where airspace control is weaponized for political ends, undermining the principles of international cooperation and aviation safety.

The use of airspace as a political tool not only exacerbates tensions between Somalia and Somaliland but also poses a threat to regional stability and aviation safety. It underscores the need for a resolution that respects the sovereignty of both entities and ensures the safe and efficient management of the airspace.

Implications of Weaponizing Air Traffic Control

If airspace management continues to be used as a political weapon, it could lead to the shutdown of air traffic in the region. This would have serious implications for civil aviation, including disruptions to commercial flights, humanitarian aid, and medical evacuations. It would also have economic repercussions, as the loss of overflight fees and the rerouting of flights would impact both Somalia and Somaliland. Failure to address this issue could have dire consequences for aviation security, regional stability, and economic well-being in the Horn of Africa.

Moreover, this threat could indicate that Somalia’s airspace is an unsafe conflict zone, and thousands of commercial flights that currently use the airspace could be rerouted. This rerouting would result in the loss of overfly revenues and may give reason for ICAO and FISS to step in and manage Somali airspace for as long as possible. The political exploitation of airspace control by Mogadishu has led to a situation where there is no win-win outcome. If the dispute continues, the airspace may be shut down, which would have dire consequences for civilian airlines and humanitarian operations.

The Threat of Airspace Control by Al-Shabab

The recent deadly attack by the al-Qaida-linked militant group Al-Shabab, resulting in the deaths of four Emirati troops and a Bahraini military officer, underscores the ongoing instability and unpredictability in Somalia. The assault, carried out by a Somali federal soldier recruited by Al-Shabab, breached the highly secure General Gordon Military Base, leading to the loss of nine military personnel. This incident effectively highlights Al-Shabab’s ability to infiltrate security systems.

Moreover, the airspace dispute between Somalia and Somaliland has far-reaching implications for regional security. The potential for Al-Shabab to exploit this dispute and gain control over the airspace is alarming, considering the group’s history of exploiting governmental vulnerabilities and ambitions to expand its influence.

The recent attack emphasizes Somalia’s ongoing instability. Al-Shabab’s capacity to infiltrate secure areas raises concerns about regional security, particularly in light of the ongoing airspace dispute between Somalia and Somaliland. This dispute could provide Al-Shabab with opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities and expand its influence. Urgent attention from national and international actors is essential to address this risk and ensure the safety and security of the region’s airspace through a unified management system.

The Way Forward: ICAO Intervention and International Mediation

Given the escalating tensions and potential risks to civil aviation safety, there is a pressing need for the re-engagement of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in managing the airspace. The ICAO’s expertise and neutrality could provide a framework for resolving the dispute, ensuring compliance with international aviation standards, and restoring confidence in the safety and security of the airspace over Somaliland and Somalia. The involvement of ICAO is not only crucial for technical reasons but also for its potential to act as an impartial mediator in a politically charged conflict.

Conclusion

The ongoing airspace dispute between Somalia and Somaliland is a multifaceted issue that involves historical agreements, sovereignty claims, and regional geopolitics. It transcends mere technicalities of air traffic control to touch upon deeper issues of national identity, territorial integrity, and regional power dynamics. As such, it demands the immediate attention of the international community, particularly the United Nations.

The potential for the airspace to fall into the hands of extremist groups like Al-Shabab is a grave concern that underscores the urgency of the situation. The security implications of such a scenario would be far-reaching, not only for Somalia and Somaliland but for the entire Horn of Africa region.

Therefore, a resolution that respects the interests and sovereignty of all parties involved is crucial for the stability and security of the Horn of Africa. This requires careful negotiation and dialogue, underpinned by a genuine commitment to regional cooperation and peace. By reaffirming and implementing historical agreements, engaging in constructive dialogue, and building the necessary legal and institutional frameworks, Somaliland and Somalia can overcome current challenges. This approach not only ensures the safe and efficient management of the airspace but also contributes to broader regional stability and economic development, benefiting all Somali citizens.

About the Author:

Khalif Nur is a writer and analyst with a keen interest in East African politics, particularly the dynamics between Somalia and Somaliland. With a background in banking and social science.

Noor’s work focuses on regional stability, governance, and conflict resolution. Noor’s insights have been featured in various publications, shedding light on the complexities of statehood and sovereignty in the Horn of Africa.


Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints of Somaliland Chronicle, and its staff. 

Creative Commons License

Notice: This is an article by Somaliland Chronicle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Under this license, all reprints and non-commercial distribution of this work is permitted.

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