Somalis march against the Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal at Yarisow stadium in Mogadishu on January 3, 2024 [Feisal Omar/Reuters]

By Abdifatah Ismael Tahir

On January 1, 2024, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and Somaliland’s President, Muse Bihi, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) granting Ethiopia naval and commercial access to coastal areas along the Gulf of Aden. In exchange, Ethiopia will formally recognize Somaliland, which previously declared an unrecognized secession from Somalia. While the MoU is not legally binding, it sets the stage for a potential formal treaty, with further details expected in a follow-up meeting.

Reacting to the MoU, the Somali government, led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, convened an emergency cabinet meeting and a joint parliamentary session to strongly oppose the agreement. This stance is echoed by prominent Somali politicians and analysts, who express concerns about the agreement’s implications for Somalia’s sovereignty and regional stability.

Ethiopia’s history in Somalia, especially post-state collapse, suggests a strategic use of Somalia’s instability and challenges, like those posed by Al-Shabaab, to advance its own interests. This perspective also seems to inform Ethiopia’s current contemplation of annexing Somali territory.

However, Ethiopia’s 2006 military intervention in Somalia under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, which resulted in a challenging and complex conflict leading to their withdrawal, serves as a reminder that military strength alone does not ensure success or influence, particularly in regions with deep political and social complexities.

In response to the present aggression, Somalia has several options, including bolstering national unity, strengthening internal governance, and enhancing diplomatic relations with regional and international allies. Somalia can more effectively counter external misjudgements or aggressions by forming a united front and leveraging diplomatic channels.
Internal Governance and Security

Somalia can prioritize strengthening its military capabilities, central to developing a cohesive governance model incorporating clan militias like SSC and Macawisley into the official government security forces. This strategy involves professionalizing these militias, fostering a sense of national duty, and ensuring their adherence to laws. Such a transformation is critical for a stronger defence against external threats like annexation.

Despite its risks, negotiating with Al-Shabaab is another crucial step against foreign threats. It entails engaging with the group as a political entity to mitigate internal conflict and violence. This could solidify the country’s defence against external threats, although it requires careful navigation due to Al-Shabaab’s designation as a terrorist organization by various countries and international organisations.

Another tactic in Somalia’s strategic response to potential annexation is to support or establish resistance movements in Somaliland. This involves providing these groups with logistical, military, and political assistance. By backing these movements, Somalia can create a more formidable front against annexation efforts, leveraging local and potentially international support to bolster its position and safeguard its sovereignty.

Lastly, Somalia could expel the Ethiopian contingent from the African Union Mission in Somalia (ATMIS). This would signify a profound shift in regional military relationships and operations. It would also indicate a possible reassessment of Somalia’s approach to external military involvement, reflecting a desire to redefine its defence strategies and control.
Regional Diplomacy and Coalitions

On the diplomatic front, Somalia’s strategy could involve building and strengthening alliances with other countries in the region and international players equally threatened by the reckless actions of the Ethiopian government. Eritrea’s historical relationship with Ethiopia positions it as a crucial ally in the region. Eritrea’s strategic importance and contentious past with Ethiopia could make it a key player in counterbalancing Ethiopian influence in the Horn of Africa.

Restoring diplomatic relations with Iran could significantly alter the geopolitical, presenting Somalia with a powerful ally. Iran’s involvement in regional affairs has the potential to shift the balance of power, potentially offering Somalia a strategic partnership to counter Ethiopian influence. This diplomatic move could enhance Somalia’s position in regional politics, countering Ethiopia’s actions and alliances in the Horn of Africa.

A key aspect of Somalia’s diplomatic strategy should be revaluating relationships with countries whose interests may align with Ethiopia’s, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Considering its close economic cooperation with Ethiopia, adjusting ties with the UAE is crucial. This recalibration aims to mitigate any negative impacts and potential threats that might arise from this relationship, ensuring Somalia’s interests are protected, and its diplomatic position is strengthened in the face of Ethiopian influence in the region.

A more controversial yet potentially impactful strategy would be a retaliatory recognition and encouragement of secessionist movements within Ethiopia, such as those in the Tigray or Oromia. This approach could internally destabilize Ethiopia, diverting its focus and resources from external annexation efforts. While this could weaken Ethiopia’s ability to meddle in our affairs, it also carries significant risks, including escalating regional conflicts and attracting international criticism.

Finally, aligning with Ethiopia’s regional rivals, particularly Egypt, could provide strategic leverage. Egypt’s historical disputes with Ethiopia, especially over the Nile River, could align with the interests of resisting Ethiopian expansion. Collaboration with Egypt might extend to various domains, including diplomatic support, intelligence sharing, or even the provision of military bases.
Legal Actions and International Alliances

Somalia could leverage international legal frameworks to contest any annexation efforts. This might involve bringing the issue to international bodies like the United Nations or the African Union to seek a peaceful and lawful resolution. Engaging in dialogue and negotiations to find a mutually beneficial solution while maintaining sovereignty could be another diplomatic approach.

Seeking a powerful international ally, “godfather,” is also a significant strategic move. This approach involves forging an alliance with a globally influential country that can provide both diplomatic backing and military support. The ideal ally would be a state with considerable clout on the international stage, capable of effectively deterring Ethiopian annexation efforts. The ally should receive significantly advantageous access to Somalia’s vast natural resources in return for this support.

Another critical response is implementing legal measures against renegade factions like the secessionists within the country. This strategy would involve prosecuting individuals or groups that support the annexation or otherwise undermine the government’s position. Actions could include filing treason charges and issuing international arrest warrants. Such measures would demonstrate a strong commitment to national sovereignty and might deter similar actions by other groups.

Each strategy entails a complex interplay of diplomatic, economic, and military considerations. They necessitate careful evaluation of long-term regional implications, potential international responses, and the overarching objective of maintaining our territorial integrity.

The author is a researcher with a keen interest in urban politics, governance, and geopolitical issues in the Horn of Africa region. He holds a PhD in geography, specializing in urban governance, from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.