By: Guleid Ahmed Jama


On 1st January 2024, the president of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, and the prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, signed in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) which granted Ethiopia access to sea and recognition to Somaliland. Although Ethiopian and Somaliland officials made different statements concerning the matter of recognition, Somalia’s government vehemently opposed the deal, particularly the recognition of Somaliland.

This article is not about whether the MoU between Somaliland and Ethiopia is beneficial or detrimental to Somaliland. Rather, I delve into the intricate complexity of the MoU and the subsequent tripartite dispute, a deeper issue that has been overshadowed by the pro and anti-MoU factions.

Colonial borders: the deeply rooted problem 

The Westphalian state system, a relatively new imposition on Africa, came with the colonial rule of the 19th and 20th centuries. The question of territorial borders, a product of colonial powers made without the participation of the Africans, became an existential threat to the newly independent African states. The Europeans divided the continent among themselves in an arbitrary and impractical way. These borders not only broke communities apart but also imposed artificial boundaries, a grave injustice that continues to haunt the continent.

In the 1960s, the post-colonial leaders of the continent made a significant decision. They chose to leave the colonial borders intact, adopting the Uti possidetis principle. This decision, however, has had lasting consequences. Border disputes and intrastate conflicts, inherent to the very foundation of African states, continue to trouble the continent. These issues are among the chief causes of civil wars and interstate conflicts, underscoring the ongoing impact of colonialism on African states.

The Somali people, like many others, were negatively affected by colonial rule. However, the Somalis were arguably the only group that outrightly rejected the colonial borders. In the 1960s, the Somali Republic refused to accept the principle of Uti possidetis. Instead, it enshrined the restoration of unity for all Somalis in its constitution. The Europeans had divided the Somalis in the Horn of Africa into five areas. The French controlled Djibouti. Italy colonised Somalia, and the British controlled the Somaliland British Protectorate, Northern Frontier District, and Hawd and Reserved Area. The latter two became part of Kenya and Ethiopia, respectively, after the British handed them over without the acceptance of the Somalis. The Europeans’ division of the Somali people had a profound and lasting impact on the region. The Somaliland British Protectorate joined a union with Somalia in 1960, after both gained independence from the British and the Italians, creating the irredentist and unionist Somali Republic.

The Somali Republic and Ethiopia engaged in several conflicts, including the all-out war of 1977/78. These wars were rooted in the Somali’s rejection of the colonial borders and their bold attempt to redraw them, bringing all Somalis under the umbrella of the Somali Republic. These conflicts are a stark reminder of the ongoing impact of the colonial borders, which continue to fuel tensions and disputes in the region.

Shattered hope: the Greater Somali Dream  

The dream of Greater Somali (Soomaali Wayn), as it was known, was shattered after the military regime of Siad Barre (1969-1991) waged a brutal war against its own people, resulting in mayhem and the collapse of the central government in 1991. Somaliland declared the restoration of independence in that same year, arguing the rescission of the Union of 1960. The military regime committed serious human rights violations in Somaliland in the 1980s, killing tens of thousands of civilians.

The declaration of independence by Somaliland was the very opposite of what the Somalis have been fighting for many decades. Somaliland accepted the colonial borders and almost killed the Greater Somali Dream. Ethiopia, which was the prime target of the Greater Somali onslaught, adopted a policy of divide and rule. Instead of welcoming Somaliland’s decision, it refused to recognise it, but it gave elevated diplomatic engagement that is almost recognition. In Somalia, Ethiopia interfered and supported warlords and corrupt politicians to keep the status quo.

In 2018, Ethiopia changed with the arrival of a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who applied a policy different from that of his predecessors. At the time, Somaliland saw the change as a disadvantage because of Ethiopia’s close relations with then-President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo of Somalia, whom Somaliland saw as a staunch opponent and a danger to its dream of recognition.

The bombshell: the signature of the MoU

Everything changed when, on 1st January 2024, President Muse Bihi Abdi signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed. The unexpected move sent shock waves in the region and stirred up a heated dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia. Somalia sees Ethiopia’s move as a threat to its statehood. The reason is that the Somaliland leader said Ethiopia would recognise Somaliland in return for a naval base to be established on Somaliland’s coast by the landlocked Ethiopia. However, Ethiopia repeatedly said it would get access to the sea to build a port and a naval base in exchange for granting airline shares to Somaliland. The MoU is not a public document.

Irrespective of the content of the MoU, it poses serious questions and challenges the status quo. Somaliland has been seeking recognition for three decades. It has not achieved it, which has caused desperation. The international community is supporting Somalia, arming its forces, and working to secure its reemergence. Somaliland sees this as an upcoming threat to its existence. The situation of Nagorno-Karabakh is an example of how fragile the situation could be if Somalia becomes powerful enough to wage war on Somaliland.

Isolation is not the right answer

The African Union and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have repeatedly stressed the familiar lines of respect for Somalia’s territorial integrity. Respect for the territorial integrity of the UN Member States is enshrined in the UN Charter. However, these institutions seem to understate the situation of the Horn of Africa and that of Somalia in particular. Somalia is not a state with a monopoly of power in Somalia. The Somali state collapsed in 1991. It is a fictitious state with little real meaning on the ground. Since 1991, Somaliland has established an effective state with the attributes of statehood. It has a permanent population, a defined territory and a government. It provides some services to its citizens and carries functions of governance. It issues its citizens national identity cards and passports, and it has its own currency. It is a reality that cannot be ignored. Ignoring Somaliland or downgrading as a Somali problem exacerbates the situation and creates uncertainties. The majority of the people in Somaliland support its independence. It is an idea that has popular support. Therefore, instead of trying to isolate Somaliland, it is better to engage with Somaliland and invite it to forums to express its arguments peacefully. Somaliland is discussed on international platforms without its presence, and this causes anger.

Internal factors

Of course, not everything concerning the MoU is an external factor. There are also internal dynamics. President Muse Bihi Abdi is facing a re-election contest. His record does not look good. The unsuccessful operation in Las Anod and the poor shape of the economy are stressful for him. The opposition is exploiting them and waging an early election campaign. He needs something to tell the voters, and securing recognition from Ethiopia seems to him a good shot. He wants recognition from Ethiopia now. Ethiopia’s economic and political dynamics also play a role in the timing of the deal.

The MoU is not public. This lack of transparency, which is not expected in a democracy, raises questions internally in Somaliland. The main opposition party demanded that the government share the document with the public and the parliament, which has not yet been fully informed.

The MoU cannot be isolated from the broader Somaliland issue

Every state has the right to conclude an agreement with another state. The MoU between Somaliland and Ethiopia generated tension because the former is not recognised internationally as a state but has all the attributes of statehood. Somaliland has effective control over the territory Ethiopia wants to access. Instead of dealing with the issue of the MoU in isolation, the right course of action for the international community is addressing Somaliland’s limbo situation. The MoU dynamics cannot be divorced from the elephant in the room, Somaliland’s contested status.

African problem that needs African solution

The African states and the African Union failed to solve the lingering case of Somaliland. Somaliland cannot be held hanging because it is growing, ambitious, and strategically situated in an important location. Its issue is not a Somali problem but an African problem that deserves African attention. Its status quo is a result of colonial legacy and needs to be seen for what it is.

About the Author

Guleid Ahmed Jama

A lawyer/analyst based in Hargeisa, Somaliland.