Somaliland signals expansionist military resolve amid dwindling tax revenues

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The dispute started in 1998, when Puntland was formed as an autonomous state of Somalia and declared the region as part of its territory based on tribal affiliation of the locals.

As tension rises in the region even with mysteries surrounding what the recent crisis has been about from the very beginning,  security experts argue that there’s a high possibility that there could be international players involved in financing it that could lead to a potential conflict.

By Judy Maina, judy.maina@alleastafrica.com

NAIROBI – On Monday, military forces from the breakaway northern Somalia republic of Somaliland have seized a border town from its neighboring semiautonomous state of Puntland in a surprise attack which has raised fears of return of bloody conflict between the two sides that have engaged in a long-running territorial dispute.

The dawn raid which saw troops captured Tuka-raq, a sparsely populated border town comes as Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed is visiting the region in a week-long trip to the north and central Somalia regions, in his first trip to the country’s regions since he was elected as president early last year.

The region has been on the boil since the attack, with two sides started massing troops across the virtually deserted border areas, signaling concern about further escalations.

In response to the unfolding military situetion, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, Puntland’s president said that the attack had aimed to disrupt the visit by Somali president who has arrived in the region to assess the economic and security situations of the regions hard hit by droughts last year, amid security threats from Alshabab and ISIS, thus vowing that his region will take a decisive action against Somaliland.

Somalia president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has received a massive reception in Puntland

Somaliland officials haven’t commented on the attack. However, experts say that Somaliland’s assault is an attempt to sway the limelight from the massive public support and the overwhelming reception accorded to Somali president in Puntland.

” At this point, Somaliland is trying to manipulate current events to sway public perception in their favour.” said Ahmed Samatar, a Somali political analyst, based in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

According to experts, staging something so risky – or reacting so forcibly to whatever happened by Somaliland- seems extreme in pursuit of a territorial expansion objective.

However, analysts suggest that Somaliland does not have a military contingency plan in place to deal with a new war with Puntland which would perhaps get a military support from Somalia’s central government given the warming relations between the two sides.

“It will at least be a bad option which would carry huge risks for Somaliland.” Samatar says.

Samatar also seriously doubts that Somaliland does not have a military contingency plan to deal with a multi-layered war with Puntland given its dwindling tax revenues and fractured economy that could challenge its intention to engage a sustained war.

“The economy of the breakaway region at this moment is so weak that it’s not practically possible for it to finance a war on its own.” he noted.

Droughts in Somaliland has killed hundreds of people with thousands of animals perished last year.

Recent draughts, shaky economy, the worst inflation in recent years and a costly biometric election had depleted Somaliland’s coffers in recent months.

“It’s why many questions arise on who could be financing Somaliland’s recent aggression.” said Abdillahi Muse, a retired Somali military expert, based in Nairobi.

Meanwhile, regional analysts remain convinced that Somaliland is using its recent military maneuvers to provide cover for its expansionist intentions to extend tax system’s coverage area, not to provoke a conflict with Puntland.

For years, Somaliland had not been too willing to attack Puntland. In recent years, there were a couple of instances when Puntland had been rather too aggressive on the borders, and Somaliland remained calm.

SMOKING GUN SCENARIO

Many argue that revenues from the Port of Berbera rakes in enough income to keep Somaliland afloat and even finance its ‘aggression’ with Puntland. However, this argument appears to have melted away sooner than as indicated in recent assessments, revenues from the port of Berbera has failed to meet Somaliland’s recurrent expenditure in salaries, wages, bills, maintenance and social amenities well enough.

A cargo ship being loaded in the port of Berbera in Somaliland. PHOTO: ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Another argument suggested that Somaliland is a stable administration with structures in place for formidable taxation and customs schemes. But Somaliland’s struggling economy has shown no visible signs to prove the existence of sound economic infrastructure that can generate enough income in recent years.

“Expanding the coverage areas of its taxation system could be of help for Somaliland, but miscalculations resulting in a slide into strategic conflict will be counterproductive.” Muse warns.

BEHIND CURTAIN GAME

As tension rises in the region even with mysteries surrounding what the recent crisis has been about from the very beginning,  security experts argue that there’s a high possibility that there could be international players involved in financing it that could lead to a potential conflict.

“This appears to be a carefully orchestrated action to make it look like an attempt to deflect the headlines from president Farmajo’s tour of the neighboring provinces, but in another around, this escalation has all the indicators of foreign support and cash.” said a senior Somali official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Many have been quick to point out that Somaliland had been cozying up to the UAE for years, having offered the gulf state a huge deal (30 years) to manage the port of Berbera.

The UAE had also signed a long-term deal for a military base in the port town of Berbera.

But Somaliland’s new president Musa Bihi who is not a big fan for the deals with the UAE had temporary halted the base deal to re-negotiate for a bigger deal, according to sources.

Somaliland president Muse Bhi (right) shakes hand with Djibouti president Ismail Guelleh at the state house in Djibouti.

Last week, Mr. Bihi has travelled to Djibouti on a fact finding mission, having realized that military bases are way more lucrative than the paltry fifty million dollars deal signed by his predecessor Silaanyo with the UAE.

This is why analysts now link the recent crisis at the Puntland border- while Somali president is visiting the region, to an attempt to offer incentives and begin renegotiating the military base deal in Berbera.

Puntland on its side, despite threatening to respond with ‘brute force’ already faces two wars, Al-shabab and ISIS on the one hand, and Somaliland’s re-energized ‘aggression’ on the other side.

“This has swayed the attention and could give a lifeline for Alshabab and ISIS who are now on the run, and make use of the chance to destabilize Puntland.” said Abdourahim Burkad, a Djiboutian military anaylst, based in Nairobi.

“Ultimately this can only be good for Somaliland and their supposed financiers, in the form of agreed upon the military base deal.” he said.

(Additional reporting and editing by Timothy Njoroge in Nairobi, Kenya) 

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