While governments do not recognise Somaliland’s independence from Somalia, the region’s investment in airport improvements could have far-reaching effects.
The tale of two goats and their untimely deaths at Somaliland’s Hargeisa Egal Airport is part of aviation lore in the Horn of Africa.
In the early 2000s, a Beechcraft King Air turboprop ran over the luckless goats, and – as the oft-told story goes – their owner was handsomely compensated for his loss.
Without its modernisation the international airlines would never have operated out of Egal airport
As news of the compensation spread, more herders headed towards the airport in the hope that their flocks might succumb on the runway and bring them untold riches.
If the airport seemed better at attracting goat herders than passengers not too long ago, all that is set to change.
Egal reopened in 2013 after a major renovation which, along with the new terminal at Berbera airport, could help to establish Somaliland as a regional aviation hub and assist the breakaway state in building its case for independence from Somalia.
Today, Egal is powered by renewable energy and the United Arab Emirates-based carrier flydubai is set to launch a service to the airport this year.
A consultant based in Hargeisa said the news could be transformational: “The interest shown by flydubai in expanding routes could indicate that Hargeisa is now well placed to take advantage of its geographical position as a strategic link between growing East African economies and the commercial and financial clout of the Gulf States.”
While flydubai is set to join Ethiopian Airlines as an international carrier flying to Egal, Djibouti’s Warsan Airlines is also discussing the idea of providing a service to the capital.
Under President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud, who was elected in 2010, Somaliland has taken strides in improving its aviation infrastructure and, the government hopes, in gaining greater international acceptance. He attended the inauguration of the upgraded Berbera Airport in March.
The international community does not recognise Somaliland as an independent state; it is recognised as an autonomous region in Somalia’s federal system.
This lack of recognition precludes Somaliland from signing bilateral trade deals and also hinders its ability to attract aid and investment.
“[Airports] are very important. They are the main hubs that link us with the rest of the world,” says Saad Shire, Somaliland’s minister of national planning and development.
“Land, air and maritime transport infrastructure are some of the key parameters every investor weighs [up] in their investment considerations.”
However, the source of the fund- ing for the airport refurbishments underscores the challenges Somaliland faces.
The cash-strapped government received $6.7m, predominately from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development and the US Agency for International Development, to expand the terminal, extend the runway and install wind-powered turbines at Egal.
The Kuwait fund also paid for the construction of the new passenger terminal and perimeter fence at Berbera, on Somaliland’s north-west coast on the Gulf of Aden.
Friends in need
Without international recognition, Somaliland depends heavily on external assistance from friendly governments, such as those of the UK, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands, which contribute to the Somaliland Development Fund.
The $64.3m in the fund covers a small percentage of the $1.2bn required to finance Somaliland’s 2012-2016 National Development Plan.
Margaret Viola, a former consultant for the Somali-owned Daallo Airlines, highlights another challenge for Somaliland: “The government sees aviation as very important, but has little power to really influence it without control of their own airspace.”
The International Civil Aviation Organisation transferred control of the airspace to Somalia in December 2014, by-passing Somaliland.
On the political front, Turkey-brokered talks on relations between Somalia and Somaliland broke down in March because of disagreements about Somalia’s representatives in the discussions.
Somaliland faces stiff headwinds. While the secessionist region struggles to draw international support, donors pledged $2.3bn in aid to Somalia in 2013.
Unlike the country from which it seeks independence, Somaliland has many of the institutions of state, has held five elections judged free and fair since 2000 and has established itself as a relatively stable and peaceful territory.
“Egal airport is considered the safest airport in Somalia,” says Cabdilaahi Abokor, Somaliland’s former deputy security minister.
“Without its modernisation the international airlines would never have operated out of Egal airport – and that includes Ethiopian Airlines, which sees security as the number one issue.”
A number of Somali commercial airlines operate out of Egal, including Jubba, Daallo and African Express. Hargeisa, in north-western Somaliland, is home to 750,000 people and is the de facto capital.
Aviation ministry records show that traffic through Egal was up even before the refurbishment. Passenger numbers increased by 18% and air cargo by almost 29% between between 2010 and 2012, according to the ministry.
A total of 83,000 passengers passed through Egal and Berbera in 2013, according to planning minister Shire.
With traffic at that level, Somaliland’s airports do not make it into Africa’s top 100 busiest airports.
Before the Egal renovation, the airport served about 48,000 passengers per year.
Although the government has not released newer figures, local media claim that record numbers of passengers passed through Egal in 2014 and its new connection to the Gulf is expected to increase traffic further.
Civil aviation minister Mohamoud Hashi Abdi is hopeful that Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest aviation company, will start flights to Berbera.
Africa Express is currently the only airline to use the airport.
The government wants to promote Berbera as a tourist destination. “[Ethiopian Airlines’] Berbera flight is also expected to serve our eastern Somaliland passengers well, on top of potential tourists from Ethiopia,” Abdi told local media.
Moreover, Berbera port could be of strategic value to Somaliland’s landlocked neighbour Ethiopia, which could use Berbera as an alternative to Djibouti, its current outlet to the Gulf of Aden.
In a bid to attract investment, Somaliland passed a law in 2008 to protect foreign investors.
Coca Cola and Western Union are already operating in the autonomous region, while several international companies – Genel Energy, DNO International, and RAK Gas – are exploring for oil and gas.
Somaliland’s budget for 2014 was $220m, the largest in its history.
The government relies heavily on the livestock sector, which accounts for 60% of gross domestic product, and international donors. But Somaliland’s geography – at the nexus of the lucrative East African and Middle East markets – offers reasons for the Somaliland government to be optimistic, especially in light of the modernisation of the country’s infrastructure.