By: Adal Institute

Introduction and Background: Zeila’s Glorious Past: 

Zeila stands as a testament to the ebbs and flows of history. Located at merely 25 KM from the Djibouti border, this coastal town once pulsed with life, bustling with the comings and goings of traders and explorers. Its strategic position on the ancient maritime trade routes made it a magnet for merchants, scholars, and adventurers from distant lands. Zeila was once the seat of the ancient IFAT civilization and later became a crucial city in its successor, the Adal Empire. Under the reign of Imam Ahmed Gurey, the Adal Empire dominated much of the northern Somali, Djibouti, and Afar regions of Eritrea and extended its influence into the Ethiopian highlands. 

Zeila, in the late 19th Century 

Zeila had been home to one of the earliest mosques from the initial days of Islam when Muslims faced Alaqsa Mosque during prayers instead of Mecca. This mosque was later modified to include a  second Qibla, earning it the name “Qiblateyn.” The remnants of this ancient structure still stand today, serving as a testament to Zeila’s rich Islamic history. 


In its heyday, Zeila welcomed dhows and ships from Arabia, India, and China anchoring in its harbours, signifying that Zeila was one of the region’s leading ports. The people of Zeila traded leather, ghee, gum Arabic, and ivory from the hinterland while importing items like clothes, dates, iron, weapons, chinaware, and pottery. The renowned Zeila-Harar caravan route facilitated trade with Ethiopia; re-establishing and modernizing this ancient trade route will undoubtedly alleviate poverty for millions in the Horn of Africa. 

The celebrated Somali folklore, “Zeili’i,” draws its inspiration and legendary name from the city of Zeila. This ballad vividly depicts Zeila’s illustrious history, recounting tales of ancient sailors, merchants from far-off places, and poets who graced its lively lanes. Through Zeili’s captivating verses, one can imagine a city hub of diverse cultures, where the traditions of Arabic, African, and Asian civilizations intertwined seamlessly. This confluence of cultures transformed Zeila into a centre of commerce, creativity, and knowledge in the region. 

However, as with many ancient cities, Zeila’s prominence waned with the changing tides of history. The rise of other trading ports, political upheavals, and shifts in trade routes meant that Zeila’s significance on the global stage diminished over time. As Zeila’s golden era began to wane, many notable inhabitants moved to Djibouti, Borama, and other cities within the Awdal region and neighbouring cities. 

During the time of the Adal Empire, Islam acted as the glue that held the community together. Their shared faith empowered them to repel various invaders successfully. However, as the Horn of Africa later grappled with colonial encroachments, the region’s inhabitants wisely forged protectorate agreements with the colonial powers, drawing from their extensive history of resisting foreign aggressors. These agreements emphasized their indisputable ownership of their ancestral lands. This commitment is exemplified by the 1884 Anglo-Gadabursi treaty. This pact contains an unambiguous proclamation which states: “The Gadabursi tribe do hereby declare that they never pledged and found never to cede, sell, mortgage or otherwise give for occupation, save to the British government, any portion of the territory presently inhabited by them or being under their control” In addition to Anglo- Gadabursi treaty, on March 25, 1885, the French government signed a similar treaty with the Gadabursi. The treaty was titled in French, Traitè de Protectorat sur les Territoires du pays des Gadabursi. The treaty was signed by both J. Henry, the Consular Agent of France and Dependencies at Harar-Zeila, and Ugas Nur Robleh. This treaty also affirms the sovereignty of the Gadabursi land and that the French will safeguard the interests of the Gadabursi. 

Ugas Nur II , King of the Gadabuursi tribe

The mantle of upholding long-standing noble beliefs now rests with the younger generations of Awdalites, who remain steadfast in their dedication to preserving the community’s foundational principles. However, with Somalia fragmenting into smaller domains, Awdal residents faced unprecedented challenges, including economic stagnation and political uncertainty. In the face of these challenges, the Awdal community has been tirelessly working to restore Zeila’s storied heritage, intending to make the city the primary economic hub for Awdal residents. This endeavour entails setting up a functional seaport in Zeila and developing a modern transportation network to facilitate regional connectivity and beyond.

Ethiopian Prime Minister’s Quest for Ports: 

The historic Red Sea city of Zeila in the Awdal Region has emerged as a focal point in a recent speech by Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia. In this speech, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed articulated Ethiopia’s bold aspiration to obtain access to a seaport, a move with profound economic and strategic consequences for the landlocked nation. In pursuit of this vision, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed outlined a series of measures to enhance the investment appeal for the Red Sea area. These measures include various economic incentives tailored to entice nations along the Red Sea coastline to collaborate. The incentives proposed by Ethiopia included offering shares of the lucrative Ethiopian Airlines or shares of the large customer base of Ethiopian Telecom in exchange for access to a seaport along the Red Sea. However, amidst the prevailing hopeful sentiment, a remark by the Prime Minister rattled diplomatic communities and residents of countries bordering the Red Sea. The suggestion that Ethiopia might resort to force if diplomatic avenues prove unfruitful was received with astonishment and apprehension. Many opined that such a position could yield far-reaching consequences, possibly upsetting an already delicate geopolitical equilibrium. The Ethiopian Prime Minister should have mastered the decorum and art of making policy announcements through diplomatic means and endeavoured to create a friendly environment to advocate a win-win situation for all. It is very unfortunate for the Prime Minister to allude to King Menelik’s expansionist philosophy and ideology, which still reverberates in the Horn of Africa. Be that as it may, there is still time to take positive steps and win the confidence of the Red Sea nations. We have more in common than differences, and the ball is in his court to make amends. 

Simon Mark’s report for Bloomberg News on October 19, 2023, amplified the growing resistance to Ethiopia’s proposal. Key nations along the Red Sea corridor, including Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea, have rebuffed the proposition. Eritrea’s vociferous opposition is particularly noteworthy, given the historically complex relationship between the two countries. During a recent address to the Ethiopian troops commemorating National Army Day, the Prime Minister moderated his stance, retracting his earlier assertion that Ethiopia might resort to force to gain port access. He stated, “I want to assure you that Ethiopia will not pursue its interests through war. We are committed to mutual interest through dialogue and negotiations.” This revised stance was likely influenced by pressures from countries controlling the Red Sea waters and their international allies. 

The Horn of Africa, a region rife with historical complexities and geopolitical dynamics, has always been a focal point of discussions and debates. Within this context, Ethiopian ambitions, given the nation’s size and influence, have consistently drawn attention. Since leaders have articulated their visions and aspirations, there has been a flurry of reactions from across the spectrum. 

A significant portion of these reactions have come from commentators both within the countries of the Horn and from abroad. These individuals, including scholars, political analysts, and public figures, have offered their unique perspectives on the unfolding narrative, drawing from their understanding of the region’s history, politics, and socio-cultural dynamics. 

Amidst the unfolding geopolitical saga involving Ethiopia’s aspirations to access a seaport and the consequent reactions from surrounding nations, the voices of the Awdal community have been overshadowed. Considering these circumstances, the people of Awdal noted the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s potential interest in securing port access at Zeila. Like many Somalis, the Awdal community hereby unequivocally dismisses and strongly rejects the land swap or appropriation for the shares of Ethiopian Airlines, the Ethiopian Telecom, or the Renaissance dam. 

However, as the rhetoric shifted from aggression to cooperation, the residents of Awdal are keen on crafting a seaport investment agreement by using a concession contract such as design, build, operate transfer (DBOT) involving Ethiopians, Somalis, and interested parties, including international port developers. Leasing this currently unproductive asset will bring significant financial resources to the Awdal Region. The development of Zeila port will increase trade between Awdal and Ethiopia, recreating the old trade routes (Caravan Routes between Zeila and Harar), reduce transport costs, and enhance and strengthen the local economy, thus creating employment opportunities for local communities as well as the whole region. 

Map of Trading Route 

In this regard, the broader Somali community, particularly those in the Somali Region of Ethiopia, must rally behind and support the inhabitants of this region in their aspirations to develop the port of Zeila to foster strong trade and port infrastructure connecting the Somali region and other regions of Ethiopia with Awdal. The potential for economic growth and prosperity that will accrue from this mutual collaboration is immense and could lead to transformative development for the people of Awdal and their neighbours. The people of Awdal, cognizant of the strategic geographical location of Zeila, recognize the potential benefits that partnership with countries like Ethiopia can bring, given Ethiopia’s massive population and burgeoning economy. Such alliances can catalyze transformative change, unlocking economic opportunities and fostering sustainable growth for both sides.

The federal government’s response to the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s speech was in line with other neighbouring countries, though somewhat milder in tone. That being said, the Federal Republic of Somalia is the only internationally recognized government for Somalia, and as such, it’s the only entity that can agree with the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia concerning the investment of Zeila port based on a concession contract DBOT (design, build, operate transfer). International agreements are generally complex and demand a structured framework best overseen by a central governing body. Entering contract agreements with foreign nations involves many considerations, from economic terms to security implications, and this is where the Awdal community believes that the Federal Government of Somalia, with its established legal and diplomatic apparatus, can play a critical role by ensuring that any negotiated agreement with Ethiopia provides the most significant social, economic benefits to the community, and in line with international protocols and the nation’s broader strategic interests. 


Given the economic benefits that will stem from the development of Zeila Port, the Awdal community welcomes all potential investors, including Ethiopia, who wish to invest in developing the infrastructure of Zeila Port. The strategic location of Zeila, coupled with the deep-rooted historical trade relations between Zeila and Ethiopia, such as the Zeila- Harar Caravan Route, make it an ideal candidate for port-related investments.  

Such an initiative could breathe life into an area historically sidelined city, harnessing its potential as a trade conduit between the Horn of Africa and the broader global markets and has the potential to drastically elevate the region’s economic status and foster economic ties with Ethiopia, giving access to a market with a population of more than 120 million inhabitants and the second-largest economy in the region Notwithstanding this, the sovereignty and territorial rights of Somalia must remain unassailable. 

Moreover, the recent approval of funds by the African Development Bank for the initial phase of the Loyado-Borama roadway construction further emphasizes the growing interest of the Awdal people in Abiy Ahmed’s proposal. The combined effect of these potential developments could be transformative for Awdal and the neighbouring regions. By incorporating Awdal into East Africa’s broader economic framework, these initiatives might result in a spike in job opportunities, enhanced infrastructure, and elevated trade volumes. Economic momentum can also effectively tackle the pervasive poverty in many border areas. 


By: Adal Institute

This article is a collaborative effort by members of the Adal Institute, a group of dedicated Awdalites including Qamar Xudhoon, Mohamed Dahir Adam, Mohamed Ahmed Barre, Rashed Egeh Gulaid, Sareeye Maal, among others. The Adal Institute is a non-profit organization committed to catalyzing economic development, fostering social cohesion, and enhancing human capital in the Awdal Community through knowledge exchange.