The Ethiopia-Somaliland Deal Aggravates Regional Tensions – OpEd


By Talmiz Ahmad

On Jan. 1, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shocked neighboring states by signing a memorandum of understanding with Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi.

The agreement stated that Somaliland would grant Ethiopia use of a port, most probably Berbera, and access to 20 km of its Red Sea coastline, on a 50-year lease, to build a naval base.

In return, it was reported, Ethiopia would recognize Somaliland as an independent nation and the latter would get a stake in the former’s national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines.

Through the agreement, Ethiopia would replace Djibouti as Somaliland’s principal trading outlet, an arrangement that was worth $1.5 billion a year to Djibouti in port fees, and loss of this income will deal a body-blow to the country.

Ethiopia has also announced it is developing a navy that would be based on the Red Sea coast.

Somalia, of which Somaliland is an integral part, responded with sharp protests. Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre declared the agreement “null and void.”

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared that “Somalia belongs to Somalis” and he would “protect every inch of our sacred land.” He then visited neighboring Eritrea and Egypt, where he received strong statements of support.

The Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the EU similarly expressed solidarity with Somalia.

Ethiopia remains undaunted, with Abiy Ahmed asserting that Ethiopia’s “existence is tied to the Red Sea.”

Through the agreement, Ethiopia has stirred the cauldron of simmering old rivalries, unresolved disputes and deep ethnic and tribal divisions that have previously sparked wars across the Horn of Africa. They continually remain on the verge of reignition, as the basic causes of conflicts have generally remained unresolved. The current flare-up is the result of two such issues, which go back decades.

Modern Ethiopia had direct access to the Red Sea from 1952 to 1991, a period marked by sustained conflict with Eritrea, which was seeking independence. This was achieved in 1993, and as a result the nation of Eritrea was established with a 1,155 km coastline on the Red Sea, while Ethiopia became landlocked.

Beginning in 2020, authorities in Ethiopia and Eritrea temporarily worked together to fight rebels in Ethiopia’s Tigray province. This war, in which 600,000 people were killed, ended with the Pretoria Agreement of 2022.

Somaliland was formerly British Somaliland, which in 1960 merged with Italian Somaliland to form Somalia. The former French Somaliland in 1977 became the independent state of Djibouti.

Somalia was under the authoritarian rule of Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre from 1969 to 1991. In 1991, Somaliland began to claim independent status; it had its own elections for the national assembly, president, currency and passport. But this independence has not been formally recognized by any other country, although a few have signed economic-cooperation agreements with Somaliland.

With the end of the Tigray conflict, Somaliland now hopes that Ethiopia will become the first country to recognize its claimed sovereign status, while Ethiopia hopes to regain access to the Red Sea.

But Prime Minister Ahmed faces numerous challenges. He heads a country convulsed by political and economic crises. Ethiopia’s two principal regions, Oromia and Amhara, which historically are rivals, have large populations that feel deeply disgruntled as a result of economic privation and long-standing competition over the sharing of state power. They have taken up arms to press their claims.

In addition, about 40,000 Eritrean soldiers remain in parts of Ethiopia that Eritrea claims as part of its territory, where they are accused of indulging in widespread criminal activities, including murder, rape and pillaging. They also encourage domestic unrest against the central government.

This has led observers to suggest another war between Ethiopia and Eritrea could break out, whether Ethiopia initiates attacks or Eritrea carries out preemptive strikes. Throughout last year, Ahmed indulged in harsh anti-Eritrea rhetoric, including threats to take over all of the country.

It should be noted that a number of these and other disputes and conflicts — including festering rebellions in the Ethiopian regions of Tigray, Oromia and Amhara; the threat of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea; Ethiopia’s deep alienation from Somalia and Djibouti; and disruptions caused by the wars in Yemen and Sudan — are taking place amid a wider regional divide caused by Egypt and Sudan’s dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which the two Arab states fear will reduce their vital supplies of Nile water.

Aside from this serious dispute over the dam, Egypt, which has a 1500 km Red Sea coastline, is hardly likely to welcome a new, hostile presence in these already turbulent waters.

Ten days before Ethiopia announced its deal with Somaliland, a fourth and final round of talks between Egypt and Ethiopia over the dam ended in failure, with the former blaming the latter for rejecting any technical or legal compromises that might address the concerns.

Taking all of this together, therefore, Ethiopia’s agreement with Somaliland threatens to ignite the embers of wider regional conflict.

Given the strong responses to the deal, it seems unlikely that Abiy Ahmed would want to place his country in even greater jeopardy. It is possible that rather than a realistic prospect, he might have come up with the potential agreement simply as a way to help unite his feuding people around him and gain time to address their woes.

But gamesmanship such as this comes with a price, in this case that his neighbors might take his words at face value and initiate preemptive military action against Ethiopia.

Either way, it looks like the Horn of Africa is facing an increasingly bleak future.

• Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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