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Ethiopia’s maritime ambitions stir new tensions in the Horn of Africa

The complex geopolitical situation in the Horn of Africa reflects a delicate balance of power, with each country's actions potentially affecting the stability and security of the entire region

Since October 2023, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts to secure Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea have increased regional tensions in the Horn of Africa. The situation has now escalated with the announcement of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Ethiopia and Somaliland, which is not officially recognized as an independent state. The move, which grants Ethiopia access to the Gulf of Aden in exchange for its recognition of Somaliland as an independent state, raises the possibility of new conflicts in the region.

The content of the MoU and its political repercussions in Ethiopia and Somaliland

At the time of the signing, the details of the agreement were not fully clear. This underlined the need for further explanations, particularly in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s Federal government communications office issued a statement which indicates that the MoU grants Ethiopia a chance to establish a naval base and commercial maritime services in the Gulf of Aden. This arrangement, described as permanent by Ethiopia on the one hand and as a 50-year lease according to Somaliland on the other hand, is based on a lease agreement that grants Somaliland a corresponding share of revenue from Ethiopian Airlines.

Additionally, the statement highlights a commitment from the Ethiopian government to thoroughly assess its stance on Somaliland’s ongoing efforts for international recognition.

President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland indicated that Somaliland would lease a 20 km stretch of its coastline to Ethiopia for 50 years and grant Ethiopia commercial access to Berbera Port. He further stated that the recognition of Somaliland by Ethiopia and the signing of the lease agreement would occur concurrently. In essence, without recognition from Ethiopia, the lease agreement would not proceed. This stance underscores the conditional nature of the agreement from Somaliland’s perspective, tying its territorial recognition to granting maritime access to Ethiopia.

It is worth noting that while the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s Office underscored the strategic importance of the MoU in enabling Ethiopia to achieve its long-standing goal of accessing the sea and broadening its seaport options, it did not explicitly address the issue of recognizing Somaliland. This indicates that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed might be testing international reactions before taking a definitive stance on this controversial issue. In contrast, during the signing ceremony, Somaliland’s President was adamant that Ethiopia is on the path to being the first African country to formally recognize the Republic of Somaliland.

Nevertheless, despite these differences in communication between Ethiopia’s and Somaliland’s leaders, the agreement has boosted the shrinking popularity of both Abiy and Bihi. Domestically, Abiy confronts significant challenges, including conflict with Fano militias in the Amhara state, which has weakened a key support base for his coalition, and the ongoing unrest in Oromia. Bihi faces similar challenges. Somaliland, long regarded as a stable region, is now dealing with conflict in Las Anood and a secessionist movement in Awdal, the speculated location of Ethiopia’s naval base. Both leaders urgently needed to deliver positive news to their supporters. Bihi was welcomed as a hero upon return to Somaliland and jubilation was palpable among Abiy’s supporters. But the euphoria was short lived in Somaliland. Soon enough,  more details emerged from the Ethiopian side, indicating that, upon receiving the land, the Ethiopian government would make an in-depth assessment towards taking a position regarding the efforts of Somaliland to gain recognition.  Spontaneous demonstrations rejecting the deal broke out in the towns of Awadal state (where Ethiopia’s base is to be established) in Somaliland and the country’s Defence Minister resigned in protest.

Somalia’s strong reaction

While Ethiopia’s statement reassured neighbouring countries that they will not be adversely affected by this agreement, reactions in Somalia indicate otherwise.

Following an emergency meeting, Somalia’s cabinet rejected the MoU, describing it as illegal and as a violation of Somalia’s territorial integrity. It also decided to recall Somalia’s Ambassador to Ethiopia. Prime Minister Barre emphasized that no one can encroach on Somalia’s land and sea, and the government was fully committed to defending its sovereignty. Before a joint session of parliament, Barre stated that “Today, we are better than yesterday in every aspect and I want to tell Ethiopia that their aspirations are impossible”. Somalia’s president Hassan Sheikh signed a law nullifying the MoU.

Unsurprisingly, the MoU has ignited a wave of nationalism among many Somalis. Widespread protests have occurred, with some individuals advocating for a boycott of Ethiopian Airlines, a popular choice among Somali travellers. This sentiment is so strong that even the militant group Al-Shabab has publicly denounced the MoU. Analysts in Somalia have raised concerns that Al-Shabab might capitalize on this surge of nationalist fervour to recruit more young people, as it did in 2006 when Ethiopia invaded Somalia to dislodge the Union of Islamic Courts. It is like scratching old wounds, some argue. Overall, the situation in Somalia points to the potential for increased instability in the region.

The MoU might also jeopardise the recent agreement between Somalia and Somaliland to resume dialogue, which was mediated by Djibouti’s President. Sources close to the Djibouti meeting suggest President Bihi had assured Somalia that Somaliland wouldn’t go as far as signing an agreement of that nature with Ethiopia. If that is indeed the case, Bihi’s alleged deceit captures the intricate and delicate nature of regional diplomacy in the Horn of Africa.

The regional dimension

The FDRE Communication Office’s statement to the Ethiopian public indirectly references Eritrea and the TPLF-led EPRDF government, noting that Ethiopia’s historic access to the sea was lost due to a combination of internal and external challenges, including civil war and foreign conspiracies. From the perspective of Ethiopia’s current leaders, the MoU reflects the ongoing efforts over the past five years to rectify this historical mistake that had frustrated Ethiopians. This reference to the independence of Eritrea as a historical mistake that has to be corrected may mean that Ethiopia’s quest for Red Sea access through Eritrea is still alive. At any rate, there are plausible claims that, since Ethiopia’s declared intention to gain access to the Red Sea, Eritrea has deployed additional military contingents to defend the port of Assab. This indicates that tensions between the two countries are yet to subside.

If tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia were to dramatically escalate, a conflict between the two would potentially involve Somalia. Somalia’s relationship with Eritrea is currently strong as the Eritrean-trained troops have performed well in battles with Al-Shabab and are regarded highly, by Somali officials. Also indicative is that Somalia’s president headed to Eritrea one week after the signing of the MoU. To be sure, engaging in military confrontation with Ethiopia presents significant challenges for Somalia. Ethiopian troops form a substantial part of the forces fighting Al-Shabab in Somalia, and thus directly contribute to the stability of Somalia. However, should relations between the two countries deteriorate further, Somalia might consider proxy warfare against Ethiopia, potentially with Eritrea’s assistance, by supporting opposition groups like the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), known for its friendly relations with both Ethiopia and Somaliland, might have played a role in facilitating the agreement between the two. The UAE’s strategic interest in expanding its influence in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean region is evident, as demonstrated by its presence on Yemen’s Socotra Island. This pursuit aligns with its broader geopolitical ambitions in the region.

Moreover, the UAE’s support for the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan suggests a concerted effort to strengthen its foothold in the area. This development is likely welcomed by Israel, which maintains positive relations with the UAE, particularly following recent normalization agreements. The strengthening of ties and cooperation between these nations could be part of a larger strategy to enhance their presence and influence in strategically significant maritime locations at a time when the Houthis in Yemen have disrupted maritime trade in that area in response to Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia, in competition with the UAE, and Eritrea is closely monitoring the situation. Djibouti, which stands to lose economically if Ethiopia shifts its focus to Berbera Port, may also be affected. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, which already views Ethiopia as a threat due to the construction of the Millennium Dam and has previously threatened military action to defend its interests, has voiced strong opposition to any actions that undermine Somali sovereignty, asserting the exclusive rights of Somalia and its people to their resources.

In brief, the complex geopolitical situation in the Horn of Africa reflects a delicate balance of power, with each country’s actions potentially affecting the stability and security of the entire region.

The lease agreement has underscored the importance of regional and international intervention to defuse escalating tensions in the Horn of Africa, a region where the prospect of conflict is a serious concern. The MoU has brought the long-standing issue of Somaliland’s recognition to the forefront. Somaliland’s quest for recognition, which has been ongoing for over three decades, even during periods when Somalia was considered a failed state, is now a central topic of discussion.

For Somalia, however, the recognition of Somaliland, potentially unpopular among its population, poses a significant political challenge. This situation calls for a careful diplomatic approach from all parties involved, including regional and international actors, to foster stability and peace in the region. The emphasis should be on finding a solution that acknowledges the complexities of the situation, respects the aspirations of all parties involved, and contributes to the overall stability of the Horn of Africa.


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