In-Depth AnalysisPolitics

In-depth: Navigating new waters: How Ethiopia’s recent sea access deal with Somaliland redefines geopolitics in the Horn and beyond

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 01 January, 2024, opening the door for Ethiopia to secure access to the Red Sea (Photo: Screenshot)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa

Addis Abeba – In the shifting geopolitics of the Horn of Africa, tensions have escalated and signs of potential conflict have emerged since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared interests in the Red Sea in October 2023.

Initially, this perceived policy shift by the Ethiopian government sparked widespread anticipation of escalating tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Alarming reports surfaced of intensified troop movements and increased aircraft activity near the border, suggesting potential renewed clashes between the two countries.

Yet, amidst this foreboding atmosphere, a surprising alliance was born at the dawn of 2024. Ethiopia and Somaliland have inked a “historic” Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), sending shockwaves not only through the Horn of Africa but reverberating globally.

After the nonbinding agreement was signed, Ethiopia asserted that the MoU would facilitate “securing access to the sea and broadening its reach to seaports.”

Furthermore, Redwan Hussien, the National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Abiy, revealed that the MoU will also “facilitate the establishment of a leased military base.”

While acknowledging PM Abiy’s “request for seaport access for Ethiopia’s naval forces,” Somaliland President Muse Bihi expressed in an official statement that “Somaliland endured a long quest for official recognition from Ethiopia.”

Federico Donelli, an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Trieste, Italy, and a scholar specializing in the Red Sea region, emphasized that the recent nonbinding agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland, accompanied by strong statements from both nations, has significantly influenced regional politics. He likened its impact to that of a lightning bolt.

The assistant professor explained that such a strategic move by Ethiopia and Somaliland has injected an additional layer of complexity into the already tense regional dynamics by escalating tensions between Somalia and both Ethiopia and Somaliland. 

A day after the MoU announcement, Somalia’s Cabinet under Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre issued a statement condemning Ethiopia’s decision to sign the deal, calling it an infringement on Somalia’s territorial integrity.

After an emergency meeting on 02 January, 2024, Somalia’s federal government officially declared the MoU “null and void” and initiated the recall of its ambassador to Ethiopia for consultations. 

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud also reasserted the country’s position on the inviolability of its territory before the Parliament, emphasizing Somalia’s perception of the deal as an encroachment on its territorial integrity, given its consideration of Somaliland as an integral part of its territory.

In a statement issued on 03 January, Ethiopia provided clarification that the MoU “includes provisions for the Ethiopian government to conduct an in-depth assessment towards taking a position regarding the efforts of Somaliland to gain recognition.” However, this had little effect on easing escalating regional tensions.

To help defuse rising tensions, the US State Department has urged diplomatic dialogue to de-escalate tensions.

If the MoU materializes, it would secure Ethiopia’s strategic position at the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a crucial maritime chokepoint.”

Rashid Abdi (PhD), a political and security analyst

Likewise, African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat has urged Ethiopia and Somalia “to refrain from any action that may unintentionally deteriorate relations.”

The European Union (EU), Arab League, and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have also voiced concerns and advocated calm and restraint among all parties.

From landlocked to open seas

Ethiopia’s pursuit of sea access had not been officially declared a matter of public policy until the recent disclosure, although the question of sea access has been a subject of substantial academic and policy deliberation, particularly after Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia in 1991, resulting in Ethiopia becoming a landlocked country.

The topic gained further momentum after the conclusion of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, spanning from May 1998 to June 2000, leading to the cessation of Ethiopia’s use of Massawa and Assab ports. However, it drew heightened attention following Prime Minister Abiy’s controversial address to the parliament in October 2023, signifying a notable shift in the nation’s narrative regarding this issue.

During the speech, the Prime Minister emphasized to Members of Parliament that a country with a population exceeding 120 million cannot afford to be landlocked. He highlighted the critical importance of sea access for Ethiopia’s economic development and national security.

For these reasons, Andrew Korybko (PhD), an American political analyst based in Moscow with a focus on the Horn of Africa, considers the recent MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland a strategic diplomatic achievement since it addresses Ethiopia’s predicament of being landlocked in a peaceful and pragmatic manner that benefits both parties involved.

Korybko highlights that foreign nations control over the maritime logistics crucial to Ethiopia’s economic and political stability poses a significant security concern for the nation. “Given Somaliland’s strategic location along some of the world’s most vital shipping routes, the MoU provides Ethiopia with strategically advantageous access to maritime avenues,” he stated.

Despite the initial agreement, the deal that Ethiopia made seven years ago to secure a 19% ownership stake in the Berbera Port fell through (Photo: Social Media)

Following the onset of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998, Ethiopia turned to utilizing the ports of Djibouti as a viable alternative. Presently, nearly 95% of Ethiopia’s import-export cargo passes through Djibouti’s ports.

In recent years, Ethiopian officials have stressed the need for an alternative to Djibouti’s main seaport, emphasizing that one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies requires diversified options.

Ethiopia’s annual foreign trade has steadily increased over the past decade, with current estimates indicating around 15 million tons of solid cargo and four billion metric tons of petroleum products. The annual import-export volume is also projected to double in the next decade.

Ethiopia has also advocated for safeguarding itself against the growing threat from Somali pirates along the Red Sea, which endangers its commercial shipping activities and necessitates a permanent naval base along the coastline.

Rashid Abdi (PhD), a political and security analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, emphasizes that if the MoU materializes, it would secure Ethiopia’s strategic position at the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a crucial maritime chokepoint.

The Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a vital maritime passageway for approximately 12% of worldwide commerce, stands as a geopolitical pivot of the highest significance. From a strategic perspective, Abdi argues that its importance surpasses that of Somalia, a consideration of paramount importance to Addis Abeba.

Located at the southern entrance of the Red Sea and proximate to Egypt’s Suez Canal, the Bab al-Mandab Strait is evolving into a vital chokepoint for global maritime trade, serving as a crucial link between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

Against this backdrop, Egypt has actively pursued the preservation of its strategic dominance over the Red Sea by exerting influence over the strait. This strategic objective is driven by the dual imperatives of safeguarding Egypt’s national security and fostering its trade interests.

Experts emphasize that Egypt’s dependence on the Nile and the Suez Canal, acknowledged as two indispensable lifelines for the country, is intricately linked with the Bab al-Mandab strait and the unfolding geopolitical dynamics in the Horn of Africa. They contend that the strategic positioning of Somaliland’s coastline by Ethiopia is thereby underscored, reinforcing its significance for one of the oldest and most populous nations in East Africa.

However, other analysts hold a different view.

Donelli, the assistant Professor at the University of Trieste in Italy, suggests that internal factors within Ethiopia have influenced the recent establishment of the MoU with Somaliland. He points to ongoing conflicts and developments in the country, such as Ethiopia’s default on Eurobond payments and escalating inflation.

“The Prime Minister seeks to divert public attention by focusing on a matter of importance, such as access to the Red Sea,” he asserts.

However, Donelli maintains that “There is a slim chance that the MoU will lead to subsequent agreements or the formal recognition of Somaliland.”

Somaliland’s uphill battle for international recognition

Currently, Somalia is the sole nation acknowledged by the IGAD, the African Union, the Arab League, and the United Nations, whereas Somaliland lacks recognition from the international community, including supranational institutions, international organizations, and sovereign states.

Eyasu Hailemichael, an expert on Horn of Africa affairs contends that for the effective implementation of the MoU, it is imperative for Somaliland to receive recognition from both regional and international actors.

However, Eyasu expounds that the recognition of a de facto state in international law is contentious and hinges on the unique conditions and stances of the international entities concerned. “The standards for statehood, acknowledgment, and the standing of de facto states within the realm of international law constitute a developing and intricate domain.”

Eyasu further notes that the acknowledgment and handling of de facto states are not uniform; they differ from one instance to another. Their status may also evolve over time in response to the changing landscape of political forces and diplomatic endeavors.

“The situation of Somaliland exemplifies this dynamic political characteristic,” he states.

Since 1991, Somaliland has functioned as a fully operational de facto state, with its own territory and government. The region has sought recognition, anchoring its hopes on democratic credentials demonstrated through parliamentary elections held since 2005.

Recent data also indicates that the country has a population of around four million people. However, despite these achievements, Somaliland still lacks the international recognition necessary for full participation in the global community.

Korybko underscores the fact that Somaliland has demonstrated its autonomy in all aspects, as such, rightfully merits formal recognition as a sovereign entity within the global community. “The significance of Ethiopia being the initial nation to recognize Somaliland is considerable, given Ethiopia’s historical position as the center of Pan-African and the site of the African Union,” he argues.

Wali Adem, a researcher and independent legal practitioner, also asserts that Somaliland possesses a democratic constitution that was adopted in 2001 through a national referendum. He explains the nation is characterized by constitutionally separated branches of government, a defined territory, and a permanent population.

“Moreover, Somaliland has the capacity to engage in legal relations with other international entities,” he argues.

According to Adem, the sovereignty of Somaliland and its territorial integrity are vested in the Somaliland parliament, which consists of two houses: the House of Elders (upper house) and the House of Representatives (lower chamber).

He underlines, these houses legally represent the people, and upon their joint ratification of the MoU, the agreement will become enforceable throughout the territory of Somaliland.

To make his point, Adem recalls a similar event that took place seven years ago when Somaliland entered into an agreement with DP World of Dubai for the development of the Berbera port.

In 2016, DP World entered into negotiations with Somaliland to pursue an investment in the port of Berbera, serving as Somaliland’s primary maritime gateway. In the course of these deliberations, Ethiopia became a signatory to the agreement by acquiring a 19% ownership stake in the Berbera Port, while DP World and Somaliland retained ownership percentages of 51% and 30%, respectively.

Hargeisa serves as the capital and largest city of the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland, a de facto sovereign state in the Horn of Africa that is still regarded internationally as part of Somalia (Photo: AP)

“DP World signed the agreement with the Somaliland government after it was ratified by the parliament, while the veto of the Somalia federal government did not have any effect,” Adem indicates.

Nevertheless, in 2022, the Somaliland government officially declared the annulment of the agreement. This decision was prompted by what it asserted as Ethiopia’s failure to adhere to the stipulated conditions within the agreement.

Geopolitical tremors

While the MoU has sparked renewed discussions on Somaliland’s recognition at both regional and international levels, scholars argue that, in contrast to previous developments involving DP World’s engagement with the Port of Berbera, Ethiopia’s recent action is likely to have more significant consequences.

Negera Gudeta, a scholar specializing in peace and conflict studies and a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University, views the MoU as a significant opportunity for Somaliland in its ongoing quest for international recognition.

However, he acknowledges that the initiative has also led to dissatisfaction and apprehension, with Somalia perceiving Ethiopia’s action as a violation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Following the MoU signing, tensions have risen between Somalia and both Ethiopia and Somaliland as President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia issued a stern cautionary statement opposing the letter of intent and expressed the intention to safeguard Somalia through all viable means.

He has additionally been soliciting support from allies.

Recently, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud embarked on a journey to Eritrea for security discussions with the objective of fortifying bilateral relations and addressing regional and international concerns.

Furthermore, he received an invitation from Egypt, ostensibly as a demonstration of support.

Third parties may seek to maneuver Somalia into a conflict with Ethiopia regarding Somaliland.”

Andrew Korybko (PhD), an American political analyst based in Moscow

Experts suggest that the recent letter of intent between Ethiopia and Somaliland represents a setback for the already unstable administration in Somalia.

“The Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, and his cabinet have emerged in a diminished capacity,” Donelli remarked.

Analysts also observe that both the general public and the political leadership in Somalia are deeply troubled, viewing the MoU as an act of treachery.

In his recent address, the President of Somalia urged Somali civilians to stand united against potential incursions and cautioned Ethiopia against escalating the situation into armed conflict.

Some scholars express hope that Somalia will confine its response to diplomatic channels and settle for a “cold peace” instead of initiating a military conflict. However, Korybko warns that third parties may seek to maneuver Somalia into a conflict with Ethiopia regarding Somaliland, aiming to deplete Somali resources in a battle against Ethiopia.

This tactic could be part of a larger strategy of establishing dominance through a divide-and-conquer approach in proxy warfare, according to Korybko. “Somalia must therefore exercise restraint in spite of the high emotions involved right now in order to avoid falling for this trap,” he emphasizes.

On the other hand, Rashid Abdi, the political analyst, emphasizes that the recently signed MoU not only has the capacity to elicit a response from Somalia but may also unsettle the region’s geopolitical balance. He articulates that the potential for Ethiopia to emerge as a naval force in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden will undoubtedly raise concerns among Eritrean and Egyptian officials.

Other experts also note that the MoU is anticipated to exacerbate regional tensions since the deal ostensibly aligns with Ethiopia’s objective to identify an additional passage to the Red Sea, independent of Djibouti.

“Ethiopia’s redirection of its maritime transit is poised to exert a considerable effect on nations such as Djibouti,” argues Donelli.

Concurring with Abdi and Donelli’s viewpoint, Eyasu further explains the looming possibility of a proxy conflict in the region. He notes the potential involvement of Middle Eastern nations, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, and Turkey, which may seek to assert their political influence, vie for ideological supremacy, and strive for a regional balance of power.

Eyasu suggests that Ethiopia should engage in proactive efforts to mitigate diplomatic tensions through various institutions. “Ethiopia should work in shuttle diplomacy to deter the political instability that can bring back the geo-political competition wisely,” he advises.

However, Abdi believes that the reparative actions necessary to repair the ensuing diplomatic rift will require a considerable degree of skilled and strategic diplomacy from Addis Abeba. AS

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