In 2024, the Horn of Africa region saw significant political turmoil. In the beginning of the New Year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland, reached a MoU. This agreement will grant Ethiopia, a landlocked country, with instant and unrestricted access to the Red Sea for military objectives.
Upon initial observation, the arrangement seems to be a diplomatic success, fulfilling Ethiopia’s long-standing need for fast access to the sea. Following its independence, Eritrea, a port situated on the Red Sea, has served as Ethiopia’s main trade route. However, Djibouti enforces port tariffs amounting to almost US$1.5 billion annually on Ethiopia, prompting Ethiopia to contemplate alternative choices in nearby Eritrea, Sudan, Somaliland, and Kenya. Ethiopia greeted the 2018 Peace Deal with Eritrea optimistically, perceiving it as a chance to reclaim the advantage of tariff-free entry to Eritrean ports. In addition, there were suggestions for Ethiopia and Somalia’s former President, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, to cooperate on investments in four seaports in Somalia. In August 2023, Alemu Sime, the Ethiopian Minister for Transport and Logistics, visited Kenya’s Lamu port. However, Ethiopia has not yet been able to successfully utilize any of these ports.
In 2023, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia declared that his landlocked nation must emancipate itself from its geographical constraints. This decision had a substantial influence on more than 120 million inhabitants living in Ethiopia. He emphasized the importance of having the ability to reach the Red Sea, as it is intricately tied to the historical associations stretching back to the ancient kingdom of Aksum in the 3rd century. Abiy Ahmed’s address did not explicitly refer to war, but his endorsement of Ethiopia’s territorial demands for Eritrea’s Red Sea ports, driven by irredentism, has sparked apprehension on the potential for additional hostilities. Given Ethiopia’s successful diplomatic achievements, the likelihood of an immediate conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea can be dismissed.
Since 2005, Ethiopia has been carefully evaluating the possibility of acquiring Berbera and Port Sudan. However, Ethiopia had challenges in completing a complete transfer from Djibouti, mostly due to logistical complexities and the possibility of conflict with Somalia. In 2018, Ethiopia acquired a 19% stake in Berbera Port in a collaboration with DP World, a UAE-based logistics enterprise. During that period, Somalia denounced the pact as illegal. However, Ethiopia proved incapable of fulfilling its obligations and ultimately had to surrender its share.
Ethiopia, being the inaugural African nation to do so, has formally recognized Somaliland as a sovereign state. Ethiopia emulates Taiwan, a self-governing area without international recognition, thus becoming the second nation globally to acknowledge the independence of Somaliland. A considerable portion of residents in Somaliland are still confused by this agreement, since there is a continuous spread of false information and dishonest strategies used by individuals who show no desire to make a good contribution to Somaliland. The Somaliland government’s failure to convince its populace of the benefits of this agreement was evident. Another danger facing the population is the fear of Ethiopia’s invasion of their land and sea territories. For many years, Ethiopia has been involved in conflicts with the Somali people, who they have historically been at odds with.
Somalia unequivocally rejects the recognition of Somaliland as an independent state and disavows any agreements it has entered into with international organizations. Meanwhile, Somaliland has accused Mogadishu of complicity in the ongoing conflict in its eastern regions. Occasional discussions regarding their relationship have taken place since 2012, resulting in limited progress.
The responses of authorities from Somaliland and Ethiopia to this latest MoU are still conflicting. The President of Somaliland said that a military facility will be rented from Ethiopia for a duration of 50 years, in return for official recognition of Somaliland. Additionally, Ethiopia will collaborate with the African Union and the United Nations to acknowledge Somaliland as an independent nation. Government officials in Ethiopia have expressed contradictory statements regarding their involvement, indicating both their presence in the sea and their intention to address certain business matters. Several interviews, Ethiopian leaders, have not explicitly stated the recognition of Somaliland.
Somalilanders are still pondering how this deal may truly yield advantages for them. President Muse Bihi has not publicly disclosed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to the general public, nor has he engaged in discussions with politicians, academics, traditional leaders, and other intellectuals. Additionally, the administration has been observed apprehending individuals who have expressed opposition to the MoU.
Recent reports suggest that persons hailing from the Awdal and Selel regions of Somaliland, including the supreme Ugaas and other politicians who are against Somaliland, purportedly convened in Addis Ababa. Allegedly, their objective was to convince Ethiopia to employ the Saylac port for trade, while also asking Ethiopia’s safeguard against Somaliland’s intrusion into their territory. Awdal State Movement and the supreme Ugaas highlighted the profound historical and present importance of the Awdal community in the Horn of Africa. They emphasized the imperative for political, economic, geographic, and historical collaboration among the Cushitic ethnic groups, which encompass Somalis, Afars, and Oromos.
In October 2023, ASM expressed strong support for the proposal to grant the Somalis in Ethiopia access to the historic port of Zeila through a memorandum of understanding. This MoU between ASM, subreme Ugaas and some Oromo officials has already received criticism due to the absence of interaction with the inhabitants of Awdal, the concerned region. There are many who contend that the ASM leader’s readiness to provide Zeila port and maybe assume the role of a governor representing Ethiopia suggests a state of desperation rather than a sincere regard for the well-being of their constituents. Detractors contend that this decision undermines the endeavors to form a governmental body overseeing the region as an integral component of Somalia. Furthermore, there are growing apprehensions regarding the possibility of future subjugation under Ethiopian governance. Critics also emphasize the continuous process of forcibly removing Somalis residing in Ethiopia, namely in the Sitti region adjacent to Djibouti, carried out by the Afar regional state.
Somalia denounced this act as a blatant infringement of its sovereignty and subsequently withdrew its representative from Ethiopia. In addition, Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud supported a law on January 6th that invalidated the deal. The President of Somalia has also urged Ethiopia and Somaliland to retract the agreement. However, it is essential to recognize that this agreement does not serve as a catalyst for peace in the region. Conversely, the accord has exacerbated the level of unpredictability in an already unstable region.
These agreements pertain to the building and management of infrastructure, investments, and the extraction of natural resources. The diplomatic ties between Ethiopia and Somaliland have remained strong for numerous decades. Addis Ababa provided sanctuary to the Somali National Movement in the early 1980s. The objective of this campaign was to topple the tyrannical Siad Barre regime in Somalia. During the 1990s, Ethiopia viewed Somaliland as a viable trade route to the sea, with the aim of diminishing its reliance on Djibouti.
About the Author:
Mr. Mousse Abdi, Economist and commentator. Studied Master’s degree of Developmental Economics.