Op/EdPolitics

Op-ed: The memorandum of [misunderstanding] stirring political turbulence, and sharpening the ‘Horn’

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President of Somaliland Muse Bihe Abdi signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Addis Abeba on January 1, 2024 (Photo: Ethiopia PM Office/Facebook)

By Moges Zewdu Teshome @MogesTeshome10

Addis Abeba – The Horn is sharpened again. The entire village might be ablaze soon. The people living in the village are worried, for justified reasons. The neighbors, close and afar, are bewildered. The Horse of Nationalism is neighing for attention. And much more is happening. In the midst of all this, the international community appears to be busy somewhere else. This short plot describes the current situation in the Horn of Africa.

The politics of the Horn of Africa has always been unique in many ways and has its own unique logic of practice, resulting from its state formation and transformation processes, state-society relationship, transnational patronage, the primacy of regime security, the culture of destabilization of the neighbors and war by proxies, the quasi-open system and unceasing humanitarian crises, among others. The “Horn” should be taken literally when discussing the Horn affairs. This time, the Horn is very sharp and ready to spill blood.

On top of the devastating civil war which came to an end a year ago, and internal conflicts that continue to ravage Ethiopia, the Horn is home to an ongoing civil war in Sudan with an unimaginable humanitarian crisis and with no end in sight, dysfunctional South Sudan and a fallout between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Gulf rivalry. As if these are not bad enough, following a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Ethiopia and the break-away Somaliland, the tumultuous Horn of Africa is on the edge. On January 1, 2024, the two “parties” signed a historic deal whereby Ethiopia is set to gain naval and commercial access to Somaliland´s coast, based on a lease arrangement for 50 years, in exchange for recognition and a stake in Ethiopian Airlines. Over the last two weeks, the deal has received mixed reactions in Ethiopia and Somaliland and the diplomatic relationship between Ethiopia and Somalia has hit rock bottom.

For any keen observer, the gravity of the crisis could be gleaned from the pace with which Somalia reacted to the deal and the responses of the international community at large. For instance, it took less than 24 hours for the government of Somalia to show its outrage and lash out against Ethiopia. It rejected the deal with strong words possible, dubbed the move as an act of aggression, warned Ethiopia that it would fight if the MoU materializes, and vowed to defend its sovereignty at any cost.

Crucially, Somalia is ruthlessly escalating the matter. It has engaged in revamping bilateral diplomatic support and appealing to all Somali nationals to defend their land, and is beating the drums of war on a daily basis. There is a growing securitization of the issue from both sides.  As it stands, alliances and re-alliances are unfolding in the region. Thus, the stakes are very high, with ramifications for regional peace and security.

In the following, I will attempt to unpack the issues surrounding why the tension is so high in the Horn at this particular moment, the rationale for Somalia´s aggressive approach, why the MoU is tabled now and possible ways out of the quagmire.

A Memorandum of Misunderstanding: What it is (is not)

The MoU, under international law and practice, is a quasi-legal document which, stricto sensu, is not legally binding. One of the parties may not acquire legal rights emanating from the MoU. Nor are third parties required to honor its terms and conditions. It has a quasi-legal status because its binding or otherwise nature is conditional. Pursuant to Art. 2(1)(a) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, “It is not the title or other appellation given to a diplomatic document that determines whether it is of a legally binding nature. Rather, it is the intent of the drafters to agree in written form governed by international law, irrespective of its designation, that determines the binding nature of the document.” Thus, the MoU is binding as long as both parties intend to create legal rights and subsequently, thereby pledge to uphold it in good faith. Besides, it may also help understand state practices in international law.

Beyond its legal relevance, however, the MoU carries a political commitment of a significant nature. It clearly shows that the parties are committed to collaborating on a specific set of issues, and there exists clear convergence of interests and propensity for further partnership. The MoU, therefore, symbolizes a preliminary agreement to undertake a legally binding treaty and hence, its significance goes beyond the technical considerations.

As to the content of the deal, apart from divergent interpretations and at times, conflicting press releases, we know little about the terms and conditions of the MoU for it has not been publicized. At the signing ceremony, PM Abiy declared that Ethiopia gained a port and access to the Red Sea, and on Twitter(now X) he called God as his witness. But on the same podium and at the same time, the President of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, unequivocally stated that Ethiopia agreed to be the first country to recognize Somaliland in exchange for a leased plot of land. Shortly after, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Somaliland issued a press release confirming the same fact. Alas, after two days, the Ethiopian government modified its previous statement awkwardly, in which it stated that the MoU enshrines that “ the Ethiopian government to make an in-depth assessment towards taking a position regarding the efforts of Somaliland to gain recognition and in any case, recognition will be extended  only upon receiving the land designated for the port and naval base…” While Ethiopia emphasized access to the sea, Somaliland capitalized on recognition.

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For professor Ezekiel Gebissa, creating ambiguity by deliberately and repetitively telling big lies is the modus operandi of Abiy Ahmed and his Prosperity Party. Be that as it may, big lies strategy is of little help in the digital age and when the government suffers from chronic trust deficit. Perhaps, the activities of the Ethiopian government since the signing of the deal epitomized how not to do strategic communications in the modern era. This would have been one of those moments when less is more.

The MoU and the flurry of press releases and clarifications created more confusion and raised more questions than it answered. Whatever the case, thus far, there is more misunderstanding than there is understanding!

When realpolitik enters the house through the door, international law jumps out of the window

If much is yet to be seen, then what explains Somalia´s aggressive diplomacy, to the extent of  preparing for an ensuing war, and Ethiopia´s securitization of access to the sea?

After all, Somaliland has been and still remains to be a de facto state–having a relatively stable and functioning democracy– in one of the most turbulent regions of the world. Villa Somalia has lost effective control over Somaliland for more than three decades now. It has not, for all practical purposes, been able to effectively govern its sphere, which is a tall order by itself, much less administering Somaliland. Somalia is a fragile state, grappling with state reconstruction and nation-building projects. Leaving aside other matters, in its endeavor to fight terrorism the help of neighbors, particularly Ethiopia, is still much needed.

Seen from its surface, then, it is not worth preparing for a war. The issue is much deeper than it appears. I argue that the controversies surrounding the MoU are more political than legal. That is, it is neither the content nor the very fact of signing the MoU that sparked tensions as such. Because it is customary to engage in commercial activities with a de facto state such as Somaliland. Rather, the rationales for the outrage largely lie in Ethiopia´s attempt to recognize Somaliland by breaking the norm of “state sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the underlying geopolitical configurations in the region, and the politics of memory and nationalism.

To begin with, virtually all the letters of condemnation from the international community revolve around and directed at the issue of state recognition. To mention but a few, the African Union, Intergovernmental Authority on Development(IGAD), the European Union, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the United States, the Republic of Turkey, and the People’s Republic of China have reiterated the need to respect the international norm. So far, there is not a single country that expressly supported Ethiopia´s move to recognize Somaliland. In the words of Secretary-General, António Guterres, “Territorial integrity and sovereignty are sacrosanct, for small States just as for large(…)We cannot allow these norms to be undermined.” Through its act of explicit recognition of Somaliland, which Somalia considers as an integral part of its territory, Ethiopia would be trampling on the well-established norm of international law.

All the same, Ethiopia could also invoke, as it did, the unilateral and discretionary nature of state recognition under international law. Insofar as an entity fulfills objective criteria for statehood, i.e., defined territory, permanent population, government and capacity to enter into relations with other states, it is up to each sovereign state to recognize(not to recognize) such an entity as a state. Since there is no diplomatic practice of collective recognition, one of the states has to make a first move. That is how many members of the United Nations came into existence, during the good(bad) old days.

But there is a notable roadblock on the way, that is, the condition is not favorable for the birth of new states. In recent years, especially following the consensual dissolution of the USSR and former Yugoslavia, it has become ubiquitous that no new state may be born without the explicit consent of the parent state. Even after protracted and brutal civil wars, a candidate state has to secure a greenlight from its parent state, as was with Eritrea and South Sudan. And parent states, more often than not, oppose any practices that compromises its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is primarily due to the precedent setting effect of official recognition. 

Henceforth, for this and related reasons, it is pretty much expected that the government of Somalia would oppose Ethiopia´s gesture with the utmost sense of urgency. 

Yet again, is there any relationship between recognition and aggression?

Contrary to Somalia´s framing of the case, state recognition does not, ipso facto, constitute an act of aggression under international law. For one, an act of aggression commonly presupposes an illegal use of force by one state against another, aimed at territorial expansion. Second, it is the United Nations Security Council that has the ultimate authority to determine whether certain acts tantamount to aggression or not. In the presence case, however, both elements are absent or at least, it is premature to draw any conclusion.

Secondly and more importantly, Somalia (over)reacted the way it did cognizant of the political dynamics of the region. Recall that regime survival primarily depends on the practice of destabilization of (unfriendly) neighbors and profusely relying on proxy wars. The Horn is a quasi-open system–characterized by a lack of a regional hegemon and home to multiple players(including armed non-state actors)–war by proxies have become a common pattern, if not a default standard. Among others, three recent developments are particularly important. First, the tripartite friendship among Abiy Ahmed (of Ethiopia), Isaias Afwerki (of Eritrea) and Mohamed Formajo (of Somalia) has gone; following the signing of the Pretoria Agreement between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF and the election of a new President in Somalia, respectively. This, in turn, has led to the reconfiguration of existing alliances and formation of new ones. Eritrea and Somalia had to forge a better relationship whilst Ethiopia is searching for a new ally in the region. Second, Egypt’s long feud with Ethiopia over the uses of the Blue Nile water resources and its official withdrawal from the tripartite negotiation on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam(GERD), on top of a pro-Egypt President of Somalia, opened a new door for proxy warfare. Indeed, Al Sisi, the President of Egypt, explicitly threatened Ethiopia saying “Egypt will not allow anyone to threaten Somalia or affect its security”, during a meeting in Cairo with Somalia’s President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

Third, zooming a little bit out, one will find the intra-Gulf states rivalry to exert ideological, political and economic influences in the Red Sea corridor and its environs. The scramble for the Horn of Africa is back, with different players and in a different form. This comes against the backdrop of a manifestly asymmetrical relationship between the Gulf and the Horn, the former mostly setting the terms and conditions of the engagement. While the intense rivalry could serve the immediate interests of the Gulf powers, it may hamper the stability of a fragile region. Indeed, it is apparent that Somalia is moving closer to Saudi Arabia whilst Ethiopia maintains a strong partnership with the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Third, the power of nationalism and memory politics should not be underestimated. Above all, in the Horn, ethnic solidarity remained organic whereas citizenship largely remained fictitious, partly as a result of constant interactions between colonial borders vis-à-vis a quasi-imperial Ethiopian state, a dismissal integration of various communities and a deeply entrenched culture of tribal or clan affiliations. These organic affiliations are transnational to their core, transgressing the state boundaries and feeding into ethnonationalism. Moreover, memories, ancient and recent, serve as a fuel of mobilization in the face of perceived external threats. The selective instrumentalization of politics of memory does not necessarily call for a collective glorious past as collective suffering also serves the same purpose. That is to say,  under favorable conditions, the politics of memory can combine aspects of both historical glory and humiliation, provided that they are amenable for a heroic interpretation and presentation. This is precisely what the President of Somalia was referring to when he  claimed “Ethiopia is trying to open the closed chapter.” Lurking  beneath the surface are the Ogaden territorial controversy, the war of irredentism of 1977-78 and Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia in 2006. This may give rise to galvanization of war rhetoric, a rebirth of Somali irredentism and a spread of anti-Ethiopian sentiment across the board.

Taken together, the aforementioned provides the background against which we could understand Somalia´s fury, and regional ramifications  should a war break out between Ethiopia and Somalia.

Why the port fiasco now?

In all fairness, Ethiopia´s quest to direct access to the sea and diversification of ports has been long overdue. Ethiopia became a landlocked country, not because of the unfairness of geography, as some argue, but mainly due to a strategic blunder our leaders made in the past. Whether one likes it or not, a historical injustice has befallen Ethiopia. It is one thing to wilfully dismiss Ethiopia´s legitimate concerns, but it is totally another to downplay the role of history. For me and many others, there was not a single rational justification (historical, economic, demographic, geostrategic, etc) to deliberately make Ethiopia a landlocked country and give away two ports to a tiny break-away Eritrea. That is why the pursuit for access to the sea has always been there and is still a national agenda. In the Horn as elsewhere, “The past is never dead. It is not even past”, to quote William Faulkner. The historical mistakes we made some decades ago are haunting us today. Consequently, rather than vilifying Ethiopia´s real and justified concerns, we need to focus on the questions of  how and when  to rectify such injustice in a modern era. Several reasons could be proffered to make a case for Ethiopia´s quest for access to the Sea. To avoid excessive charges it pays(1.5 billion per annum) to Djibouti, to pull its people out of abject poverty, to break “manmade geographic prison”, and to ensure national security in and around the Red Sea area. In short, “Ethiopia’s persistent quest for direct access to the sea, driven by economic and security considerations, is a widely shared aspiration among its citizens.”

For sure, history cannot be remade and the status quo upended willy-nilly. Nor can Ethiopia pursue its national interests by intimidating neighbors and breaking rules. We live under a rule-based system, with all its follies. The path to make amends is constructive and inclusive diplomacy based on trust and partnership, by safeguarding international norms and values.

That said, why the MoU fiasco now? In addition to the political reconfiguration and the Gulf scramble for the Red Sea, domestic politics explains much of the drama.

Speaking of contemporary Ethiopian politics, commonsense is not so common and rationality is in short supply. Ethiopia is in a deep internal crisis and it is at war with itself, thanks to our leaders. The nation has not recovered from the war in Tigray and the flames of wars are raging like wildfire in Oromia and Amhara regions. The Ethiopian social fabric has been torn apart over the recent years. The national economy is in tatters. Every day, We wake up to the news of doom and gloom and the people are facing a collective depression. Political polarization, social fragmentation and economic stagflation. Welcome to a perfect storm!

To this, add the unusually risk-taking behavior of PM Abiy Ahmed, the man known for his “adventures into the unknown” and whose main business is to stay in power. The regime security at any cost syndrome of the Horn comes in here as well. Above and beyond anything else, PM Abiy is in desperate search of a lasting legacy in his name. So, securing direct access to the sea and a sovereign port, “to heal the brokenness of Ethiopia,” to use his own words, would be unequaled for him.

As for Somalilanders, official recognition is what they have been desperately yearning for and if the MoU goes into effect, it will be a game-changer forever. There is one more thing. The signing of the MoU came into fruition just days after Somalia and Somaliland resumed a political dialogue under the rubric of Djibouti. It is possible that Ethiopia is exploiting the situation to enhance its leverage such that Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia would offer a better deal and the international community might heed Ethiopia´s call. Similarly, Somaliland might have considered playing multiple cards to bolster its position vis-à-vis Somalia and regional players.

Thus, for Abiy the MoU serves the primary purpose of diversionary tactics, to ease mounting domestic tensions and rally the public around the flag and in the process of doing so, leave his footprint behind. If commonsense is of any help, Ethiopia shall not be engaging in wars on multiple fronts. As far as Somaliland is concerned, realizing the dream of statehood trumps everything else and the time is now, simply for they may not find a leader like Abiy who will be willing to take unreasonable risks.

What to(not to) do in order to avoid a looming disaster?

The tension is so high in the Horn so much so that actors in the region as well as the international community could only ignore at their own peril. The region has more than enough multifaceted crises to deal with. Particularly, the last thing Ethiopia needs at this moment is another war, if war is ever justified. As a matter of necessity, keeping the house in order must be the priority for Ethiopia as well as for Somalia. If war has never been fought solely over the use of water in recent history, Afortiori, it is senseless to conceive of an inter-state war to secure access to the sea.

First and foremost, Ethiopia and Somalia shall refrain from inflammatory actions. Restraint is extremely important than ever. The brotherly peoples of the region can and should resolve their disagreements, including the controversies caused by the Memorandum of Misunderstanding. War is never inevitable, but it usually arises from irresponsible securitization of political differences and strategic miscalculations. Unfortunately, it appears that, instead of adopting a sensible approach and de-escalating tensions, both sides are locked in their extreme positions. The only way out is a principled dialogue and political commitment, by keeping spoilers and sponsors of proxy war at bay.

Further, regional organizations and the international community shall diplomatically intervene with a sense of urgency with a view to thwart further escalations. Diplomacy works, but only if we know how and when to utilize it! AS

Editor’s Note: Moges Zewdu Teshome is a doctoral candidate in Interdisciplinary International Studies at Vienna School of International Studies/ University of Vienna. Moreover, he is the host of a podcast known as የሀሳብ ገበታ-a Buffet of Ideas. Previously, he served as a Lecturer in Law at Haramaya University. He holds LLM in International Criminal Justice and Human Rights from University of Dundee, and Master of Advanced International Studies from Vienna School of International Studies.

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