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Foe Rather than a Friend: Unpacking Djibouti’s Hostility towards Somaliland

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The relationship between Djibouti and Somaliland has long been contentious, with Djibouti displaying consistent hostility towards its neighbor. This hostility stems from two primary factories: fear of economic competition and Djibouti’s regional defense strategies.

The World Bank’s “Transport Global Practice the Container Port Performance Index 2022” report ranks Berbera port second in Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of performance, based on vessel time in ports. This development has heightened Djibouti’s fears, as it sees Berbera port as a strong competitor. Another World Bank report, “Djibouti Country Economic Memorandum” (January 2024), warns that Djibouti’s current economic model, reliant on a single sector(ports) and client, (Ethiopia), is unsustainable. The report explicitly states that the port of Berbera in Somaliland, along with the Berbera Corridor connecting to Ethiopia’s hinterland, has emerged as a strong potential competitor to Djibouti. Djibouti’s economic concerns are compounded by its reliance on port revenues. In a democratic setup, competition is viewed as a healthy phenomenon, but in a dictatorship like Djibouti, it is seen as an existential threat. This explains the hostile behavior displayed by Djibouti towards Somaliland in the last six months, which Somaliland must address.

On the security front, Djibouti seeks to use the Somali Federal Government and Somaliland as tools against Eritrea, with which it has an ongoing border dispute. Additionally, it aims to use both Somaliland and Somalia to suppress in the event of potential uprisings by the marginalized Afars in Djibouti. Furthermore, Djibouti sees beneficial continued hostility between Somalis and Ethiopians, believing this will force Ethiopia to always rely solely on Djibouti’s ports, consolidating its economic and security interests. However, this strategy is based on a flawed assumption, as Ethiopia has already been diversifying its port options and developing new relationships with Kenya and Sudan.

To safeguard its flawed interests, Djibouti has invested significant political capital and financial resources in reinstating a government in Mogadishu that it can control and use against Somaliland. Djibouti’s strategy has achieved partial success. In March 2018, the Somalia parliament, under Djibouti’s instruction, voted to nullify the agreement between DP World and Somaliland to modernize the Berbera port and revitalize the Berbera corridor. Although the parliament’s vote cannot halt the agreement since the Somali Federal Government has no jurisdiction over Somaliland, it highlights Djibouti’s malicious intentions towards Somaliland. Furthermore, since Somaliland signed the MOU with Ethiopia, Djibouti has committed itself to destabilizing Somaliland by mobilizing Somaliland clans against the deal and collaborating with Villa Somalia to oppose the MOU. Ironically, both Djibouti and Villa Somalia seek to offer ports to Ethiopia and trade with them, revealing that their opposition to the MOU is economically motivated. This contradicts their public claims of protecting “Somali territory,” which is a mere pretext. In reality, Djibouti’s hostility towards Somaliland is driven by its desire to maintain economic dominance in the region.

Despite these hostile stances, Somaliland’s administration lacks a strategy to counter Djibouti’s hostile policies. Since the Kulmiye party came to power, Somaliland has become closer to Djibouti, with politicians prioritizing personal relationships over strategic interests. However, this personal relationship has not yielded tangible benefits for Somaliland nor changed Djibouti’s aim to force Somaliland into a union with Somali Federal Government which Djibouti itself refused to join when it became independent in 1977.

To address the Djibouti challenge, Somaliland must adopt a new strategy that prioritizes strategic interests over personal relationships. Somaliland’s leadership must recognize that Djibouti is more foe than friend and take the following steps to curtail its aggression:

1.    Acknowledge that Djibouti and Somaliland interests in the region are fundamentally different.

2.    Develop alternative alliances with democratic forces in Djibouti.

3.    Take strong public stands against Djibouti’s policies hostile to Somaliland.

4.    Focus on strategic interests in foreign policy.

By adopting these recommendations, Somaliland can counter Djibouti’s undermining tactics and secure its rightful place in the region. This requires a shift in Somaliland’s foreign policy, from a focus on personal relationships to a focus on strategic interests. Only then can Somaliland ensure its economic and security interests are protected, and its sovereignty is respected.

About the Author

Badri Jimale is Horn of Africa follower and Pragmatic solutions advocate.

Creative Commons License

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

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