At six in the morning on May 15 this year, the self-proclaimed sovereign Republic of Somaliland banned all United Nations flights from landing at this dusty airport overlooking the Gulf of Aden, sparking a little-reported international incident that was defused two months later on Monday.

On Tuesday, Reuters revealed excerpts of a confidential United Nations report warning that western oil companies prospecting along the disputed Somalia-Somaliland border could trigger further conflict in this fraught region. In one instance, Somaliland and the adjacent Puntland autonomous region have awarded overlapping prospective oil blocs to the Norwegian oil company DNO and the Swedish owned Africa Oil Corp – raising prospect of two countries, deeply involved in peace-building in Somalia, competing for resource contracts in one of the most unstable places in the world.

The UN standoff in the breakaway region of Somaliland, and the leaked report, have tempered enthusiasm around Somalia’s purported return to stability, and suggest that donors could be simultaneously creating and resolving conflict in the region.

The history of the Berbera airstrip illustrates the diverse international motives in Somalia. The four km rubber-streaked, asphalt runway was laid by the U.S.S.R in the 1960s, earmarked as a landing strip for American space shuttles in the 1980s as the tide shifted, and looted by raiders in the civil wars of the 1990s, when the military dictatorship of Siad Barre collapsed after 22 years in power.

In 1991, the northern region of Somaliland seceded from the union and declared itself an independent state with its capital at Hargeisa. Since then, as the rest of Somalia imploded, Somaliland gradually acquired stability and security, civic infrastructure, regular elections and even a rudimentary tax system but no international recognition.

“It is unfortunate that Somaliland’s achievements have become a victim of the Somalia problem,” said Dr. Mohamed Omar, Somaliland’s Foreign Minister, “Every five years there is a renewed interest in Somalia from the international community and … a new administration getting all the international support.” Each time there is relative stability in Somalia, Dr. Omar said, Somaliland’s chances of international recognition recede.

The Government of Somalia did not respond to interview requests.

“At the moment we recognize Somalia as one country. There has been no discussion about Somaliland being independent within the AU,” said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, last month, “What is important for all of us is that we should get Somalia back to a point where it is stable.” The AU has discouraged secessionist movements, calling on states to respect boundaries drawn at the end of colonialism. The Somaliland government points out that the former British protectorate gained its independence four days before the Italian colony of Somalia.

“After becoming independent we decided on a voluntary basis to join [Somalia],” said Dr. Omar, “In 1991 we come off from that. So there is no secession, but there is dissolution of a voluntary union.”

“Somaliland has done extraordinarily well over the past 22 years, and its skepticism of a reunion with an often chaotic south-central is understandable,” said Abdi Aynte, Director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu, “However, Somaliland's quest for independence is increasingly becoming untenable and that's largely due to geopolitics. The AU sees secession as a dynamite issue, and has consistently backed "territorial integrity", much like the UN and the rest of the world.”

The standoff over UN flights suggests donors have struggled to walk Hargeisa-Mogadishu tightrope. When Siad Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991, UNDP took control of Somali airspace and ran an aviation service out of Nairobi that was funded from Somali over-flight fees. In April this year, the organisation handed full control of airspace and over-flight revenues to Mogadishu as an acknowledgment of the improving security situation in the south. Somaliland accused UNDP of colluding with Mogadishu and banned all flights.

The ban was lifted only after Somalia and Somaliland agreed to set up a board to jointly control airspace from Hargeisa at the talks held in Ankara last week. The Somaliland press reported that Hargeisa is pushing for Somalia to honor Somaliland commercial contracts, such as those with oil companies mentioned in the Reuters report, but no such clause was mentioned in the final agreement. Talks will resume in October.

>> The report, “In Somalia, 'foreign hands' are the sickness and the cure” (July 18, 2013, International), described Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the Chairperson of the African Union. Actually, she is the Chairperson of the African Union Commission .

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