- This weekend, the President of self-declared Somaliland was received with all honours by the Ethiopian Prime Minister. While the authorities downplayed the importance of the summit as "consultations", regional observers see it as yet another step towards a first-ever recognition of Somaliland's independence.
According to an official communiqué by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Prime Minister Meles Zenawi held talks with Somaliland president Dahir Rayale Kahin on Saturday." The official statement, for the first time, refers to Somaliland and its leader as any other sovereign state and Head of State.
The Addis Ababa Ministry added that the Ethiopian-Somalilander discussions "focused on trade and other issues of interest to the peoples of Ethiopia and Somaliland." After his meeting with Prime Minister Meles, President Kahin told journalists that this latest discussion was only "part of a series of consultations."
Somaliland celebrated its 16th anniversary of independence just a few weeks ago. In May 1991, politicians and elders of the former British protectorate Somaliland revoked the 1960 act of unconditional union with the former Italian Somalia and declared the re-establishment of the sovereign republic of Somaliland. While southern Somalia fell into civil war and anarchy, Somaliland since that has built democratic institutions and a functional and peaceful state.
But until now, no country has recognised Somaliland. Neither Western nor African nations have wanted to make the first step before the African Union (AU) accepts the existence of Somaliland. But as south Somalia again seems to fail achieving peace and stability, several nations are now making significant steps towards recognising Somaliland.
In Africa, Somaliland has already established officially recognised offices in South Africa, Ethiopia and Ghana, functioning as embassies. South Africa and Ghana have been pushing the AU into considering the case of Somaliland's formal recognition and both governments would prefer the establishment of full-fledged diplomatic and trade relations rather sooner than later.
With neighbouring regional power Ethiopia, Somaliland has its closest ties and most of its trade. Somaliland's Berbera is the second-most important harbour, after Djibouti, for imports to and exports from landlocked Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has gone far in recognising Somaliland in practical terms but not formally. According to Somaliland's Foreign Minister Abdillahi Duale, Ethiopian officials recognise Somalilander passports and currency. Somalilander representatives "are received with all the diplomatic niceties that any minister or head of state gets, with the exception of a flying flag," he told South African media.
So far, a formal recognition has been difficult to issue for the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia is also the major ally of the south Somali government, which it assisted in ousting Islamists, and it still has a significant troop contingent in Somalia. Mogadishu strongly opposes Somaliland's independence and claims to represent the entire country.
Prime Minister Meles nevertheless by now seems ready to go further in the Somaliland recognition process, a process he has directed through small steps forwards for several years. If the AU does not move forward with its recognition process, analysts foresee that Ethiopia will make the move unilaterally.
European nations only wait for this step to formalise ties with Somaliland. The Hargeisa government already has officially recognised diplomatic offices in London and Brussels and Sweden recently announced it would regard Somaliland as a self-governing area in terms of development aid. Foreign Minister Duale on his May roundtrip in Europe was received with all diplomatic honours in Belgium, Denmark and Germany.
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