Here’s the full interview that I gave to The Epoch Times’ Nalova Akua about the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, excerpts of which were included in his article titled “Ethiopia’s Contentious Port Deal Throws Volatile Horn of Africa Into Uncertainty”.

1. Can you give us a very brief account of the events leading to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Ethiopia and Somaliland granting Ethiopia access to the sea in return for international recognition of Somaliland? Did this really happen by chance, and did it come as a surprise to you?

Reform-driven Ethiopian Prime Minister (PM) Dr. Abiy Ahmed recently revived his country’s peaceful quest for reliable access to the sea, including a naval base, during the second half of last year. As a former member of his country’s intelligence community, he’s professionally trained to view national affairs in a far-reaching and comprehensive way. Accordingly, he wanted to preemptively avert the impending consequences of his country’s landlocked status on domestic and regional stability.

In brief, the combination of his country’s debt problems – which are attributable to the pandemic, its two-year-long Northern War from 2020-2022, and a severe drought – and its demographic explosion could lead to a political crisis with time that would have very serious security implications for the Horn. Anticipating this, he wanted to reach a deal for reliable and low-cost access to the sea on better terms than Ethiopia’s presently onerous one with Djibouti and then reconstruct the Ethiopian Navy.

That second goal is highly important in order to defend the maritime logistics (particularly fertilizer and fuel) upon which his country’s economic stability and therefore its political stability and security depend. PM Abiy proposed a deal last fall whereby Ethiopia would swap stakes in its national companies in exchange for commercial-military port rights. Regrettably, none of the universally recognized coastal states was interested due to the regional security dilemma influencing them to consider this a threat.

Somaliland was therefore the only viable partner for achieving this goal, the attainment of which would preemptively avert the impending consequences of Ethiopia’s landlocked status on domestic and regional stability, ergo why negotiations over this issue with them were initiated. It requested formal recognition of its independence as an additional term for providing Ethiopia with the access that it sought, thus leading to the MoU. In hindsight, this sequence of events was predictable and logical.

2. How much of a diplomatic victory/loss is this MoU for: Ethiopia; Somaliland; and Somalia?

Ethiopia obtains reliable access to the sea and will also be able to reconstruct its navy, thus preemptively averting the impending consequences of its landlocked status on domestic and regional stability, albeit at the expense of worsening ties with Somalia with all that could possibly entail in the worst-case scenario.

For its part, Somaliland obtains its first-ever official recognition from a UN member state that also importantly hosts the African Union headquarters, alongside profitable stakes in at least one Ethiopian national company together with potential security guarantees vis-a-vis Somalia.

As for Somalia, it’s finally forced to face the on-the-ground diplomatic-military reality of the past 33 years that it had hitherto been reluctant to acknowledge, but the silver lining as Mogadishu sees it is that this presents an opportunity to organize a coalition of countries for containing Ethiopia.

On balance, this development is obviously much better for Ethiopia and Somaliland, though the risk that both would have presumably foreseen prior to clinching their MoU is that a regional containment coalition might assemble on this pretext and could most likely be informally led by Egypt and Eritrea.

3. Does this MoU violate any laws or international norms?

Somalia claims that this MoU is a gross violation of its sovereignty, Somaliland says that it has the UN-enshrined right to independence as a sovereign state, and Ethiopia says that this agreement isn’t at the expense of any third parties’ objective interests since it fully complies with international norms.

Opinions among others differ, but the prevailing response among members of the international community has been to reaffirm commitment to international law and respect for UN member states’ sovereignty, though without commenting on the legitimacy of Somaliland’s independence aspirations.

About that, its officials compellingly argue that since they were the first Somali polity to obtain internationally recognized independence in summer 1960 prior to merging with the former UN trust territory of Somalia in a failed unity experiment, they have the right to restore their independence.

Furthermore, they’ve proven themselves to have all the functional characteristics of an independent state in the one-third of a century since reasserting their independence in 1991, which Somalia has been unable to reverse.

To the contrary, the socio-economic development gap between them continues to widen as Somaliland remains a beacon of stability in the Horn while Somalia continues struggling to defeat Al Shabaab, impose the federal government’s writ over several very autonomous regions, and resolve clan disputes.

With these observations in mind, it can be said that Somaliland does indeed operate as an independent state, but each UN member state’s respective foreign policy calculations towards the region in particular and the world in general account for why no one other than Ethiopia has yet to formally recognize this.

4. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has previously described sea access as an existential issue for his country. Why is Ethiopia this obsessed with acquiring access to the (Red) sea and why has this quest intensified now?

The first part of the question was explained in the first answer to this interview, while the second one regarding the timing of this quest’s intensification has to do with the resolution of the Northern Conflict from 2020-2022 that ended in November of that year. In summer 2018, PM Abiy signed a partnership agreement with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (PIA) that included a port component, though nothing ultimately came out of it due to the subsequent conflict and speculative disputes over military access.

Eritrea separated from Ethiopia in 1993 following a three-decade-long conflict and was therefore naturally reluctant to host the Ethiopian Navy in any of its ports for reasons of self-evident national sensitivity. A compromise could perhaps have been struck but the outbreak of the Northern Conflict with the TPLF, which turned into Eritrea’s hated enemy shortly after independence despite their alliance during the civil war, put any such talks on the backburner.

The end of hostilities in November 2022 led to PM Abiy resuming his country’s port plans, but the agreement that stopped the fighting between the federal government and the TPLF was regarded by PIA as a betrayal of their shared interests against Ethiopia’s former leaders. Bilateral relations accordingly chilled, which ultimately made the port dimension of their previously signed partnership agreement and later the overall terms of that document null and void for all practical intents and purposes.

This explains why PM Abiy raised greater awareness among the public about the reasons behind his country’s port plans, namely to preemptively avert the impending consequences of Ethiopia’s landlocked status on domestic and regional stability, thus culminating in the swap deal that he proposed last fall. Between the end of the Northern Conflict and now, Eritrean intelligence has been working hard to manipulate regional perceptions about Ethiopia as revenge for PM Abiy’s truce with their TPLF foes.

The preexisting regional security dilemma between the coastal (Eritrea/Djibouti/Somalia) and hinterland (Ethiopia) states drastically worsened as popular and policymaking perceptions shifted in the direction of regarding Ethiopia’s peaceful port plans as a cover for annexing its neighbors’ territory. That outcome in turn led to those countries rejecting PM Abiy’s proposed swap and thus forcing him to negotiate with Somaliland out of an absence of choice in order to responsibly resolve his country’s landlocked dilemma.

5. Is it a mere coincidence that the MoU comes days after the UN’s lifting of its three-decade-long arms embargo on Somalia in early December that could enhance the FGS’ anti-terrorist capabilities; and also days after Somalia and Somaliland agreed to resume dialogue over their many differences? How will this MoU affect these recent developments?

The UN’s lifting of its arms embargo on Somalia was a process that occurred independently of Ethiopia’s peaceful port plans that were comprehensively explained in the preceding answers to this interview, while the recent talks in Djibouti might have been agreed to by Somaliland in order to gauge its options. From Hargeisa’s perspective, it made sense to see whether Somalia would negotiate a “dignified divorce”, which also gave Mogadishu the chance to offer it terms for reunification if it so wanted.

Only after obtaining Somalia’s most up-to-date position towards the issue of Somaliland’s independence aspirations did President Muse Bihi Abdi travel to Addis to clinch the MoU with Ethiopia, which was sensible because he had then concluded that his state’s interests are best served through these means. Nevertheless, those two developments last month that preceded this one’s MoU will understandably give rise to speculation about their deal, though that’s to be taken for granted given regional intrigue.

As it stands, the Djibouti talks are probably too toxified by what came to pass immediately afterwards for them to be resumed, though another format might be possible in time such as if the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union (AU), or BRICS mediates instead. Regarding the lifting of the UN arms embargo, while this was meant to enhance Somalia’s anti-terrorist capabilities, the armed forces might redirect any such arms to enhancing conventional capabilities vis-à-vis its neighbors.

The likely impossibility of any diplomatic resolution anytime soon coupled with the lifting of the UN arms embargo suggests that military tensions will intensify, especially since Egypt and Eritrea have interests in containing Ethiopia via Somalia by having the latter function as their proxy against it. That’s not to say that a conflict war is inevitable, but a hybrid one waged by Somalia and its allies against Ethiopia via informational (separatist propaganda) and non-state (rebel and terrorist) means can’t be ruled out.

6. To what extent can this MoU fuel support for al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group which controls much of Somalia and first emerged partly in response to Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006?

Ethiopia commenced an anti-terrorist intervention in Somalia at the time to dismantle the Al Qaeda-aligned Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that was rapidly taking control of the country, and it was this conflict that led to the inception of Al-Shabaab, which fused ultra-nationalist and radical religious movements. Since then, Al-Shabaab has slaughtered thousands of its co-ethnic Somalis and carried out terrorist attacks in Ethiopia and Kenya, thus making it a catalyst of regional instability.

Considering the ultra-nationalist element of their platform, it wasn’t surprising that Al-Shabaab condemned the MoU, which was one of the reasons why Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamed (HSM) warned that it might exploit that deal to revive its movement. That can only happen though if the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) ignores the same supposedly growing threat that their head of state just explicitly identified, which is possible due to their converging interests vis-à-vis Ethiopia.

HSM told the Royal United Services Institute in November that his “preferred option” is to hold talks with the group instead of militarily defeating it, and if they wage a formidable hybrid war against Ethiopia that the FGS uses to present them as ‘national heroes’, then popular support for this scenario might grow. Al-Shabaab would of course have to express the political will for such talks, which they haven’t yet done according to HSM, but if they do, then Somalia might follow Afghanistan’s path with all that entails.

The prior talks that the US and its Kabul allies held with the similarly ultra-nationalist and religiously radical Taliban legitimized the latter as a domestic political actor, bought time for it to strengthen, and ultimately led to that group violently seizing control over the entire country. If the FGS agrees to hold its own talks with Al-Shabaab, then it’s possible that they could end in the same way, which could pose another ICU-like regional terrorist threat that prompts a second Ethiopian anti-terrorist intervention.

To be clear, what was described in the preceding paragraphs is a scenario forecast, but it’s based on the fact that both the FGS and Al-Shabaab are on the same side against Ethiopia’s Somaliland port deal and informed by HSM’s “preferred option” of holding talks with the group instead of destroying it. From his personal perspective and the way in which the FGS perceives its national interests to be vis-à-vis Ethiopia regardless of whether one agrees or not, it’s possible that the FGS could fuel Al-Shabaab’s resurgence.

In order to dispel any such suspicions about their intentions, HSM should publicly declare that the FGS will employ military means (bolstered by the newly lifted UN arms embargo) for coercing Al-Shabaab into agreeing to peace talks aimed at a series of mutual political compromises for ending the conflict. He should also assure the international community that these arms will only be used for enhancing anti-terrorist capabilities, not conventional ones vis-à-vis Ethiopia and Somaliland.

For instance, the US legally prohibits Pakistan from using its F-16s against India, so the precedent exists for similar such terms to be written into whatever arms deals that Somalia might soon agree to with members of the international community. Verification mechanisms can also be implemented on a case-by-case basis depending on the country and the wares that they’re providing. The failure to do so will worsen the regional security dilemma, could create space for Al-Shabaab to rise, and discredit the FGS.

Excerpts from this interview were included in Nalova Akua’s article for The Epoch Times titled “Ethiopia’s Contentious Port Deal Throws Volatile Horn of Africa Into Uncertainty”.