A senior adviser to the president of Somalia has stated that Somalia is willing to engage in military conflict in order to prevent Ethiopia from acknowledging the independent region of Somaliland and constructing a port there.
On January 1, a written agreement was made that gives Ethiopia, which does not have access to the sea, permission to create a naval base on the coast of Somaliland. This has caused concern in the Horn of Africa, which is known as one of the most unpredictable regions in the world.
Somalia claims Somaliland as part of its territory and has declared the deal void. Last Sunday its president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, called on Somalis to “prepare for the defence of our homeland”, while rallies have been held in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, against the agreement.
The adviser stated that they are exploring all diplomatic avenues and believes that Ethiopia will make a rational decision. However, they are also prepared for a war if the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, chooses to engage in one.
In 1977-78, there was a dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia which resulted in a conflict. Even now, the tensions between the two countries remain strong. In 2006, Ethiopia took military action against Somalia in order to remove Islamists from Mogadishu. This action ultimately led to the Al-Shabaab insurgency. Currently, Ethiopia is one of the main providers of troops for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
The advisor stated that the port agreement was unexpected for Somalia. He alleged that Abiy had denied any plans to obtain access to the sea through Somaliland when questioned by Mohamud during a summit in Saudi Arabia in November.
In 1960, Somaliland was a colony of Britain until it gained independence for five days. It then joined with Somalia, a former colony of Italy, but this union was unstable and eventually ended in 1991 when Somaliland separated after a ten-year fight against a Soviet-supported military government. Presently, Somaliland exists as a de facto independent nation with its own currency, parliament, and international diplomatic missions.
For the past 20 years, Somalia has been plagued by Al-Shabaab, a strong branch of the terrorist group Al-Qaida, making it one of the most perilous nations globally. In comparison, Somaliland is generally calm, although recent conflicts on its eastern border with Somalia have weakened its reputation for stability.
Nevertheless, it remains unacknowledged by any nation. Western governments refuse to acknowledge it unless African countries do so, but the leaders of the continent have refrained from doing so, adhering to the long-standing policy of the African Union against altering national borders inherited from colonizers.
Somaliland faces difficulties in attracting investments and lacks access to global financial resources, as most of it is directed through Mogadishu. In a conversation with the Observer, Essa Kayd, Somaliland’s foreign minister, stated that the agreement with Ethiopia for the port will validate their self-governance and potentially lead to other nations recognizing the territory.
Kayd stated that recognition is the ultimate goal of the fight and is the most valuable thing that can be provided to the people of Somaliland.
There is uncertainty surrounding the specifics of the agreement between Somaliland and Ethiopia. Both parties have not released the complete document to the public.
After the event, the president of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, stated that Ethiopia had promised to recognize them in exchange for a 50-year lease of a section of their coastline. This area will be utilized for naval and commercial purposes. However, Ethiopia clarified that they have only committed to evaluating the situation before deciding on their stance towards Somaliland’s recognition efforts.
According to a diplomat from the western region, the agreement can be best described as a “memorandum of misunderstanding”. The diplomat stated that Ethiopia maintains they have not consented to acknowledging Somaliland.
Kayd stated that the agreement is contingent upon Ethiopia acknowledging Somaliland’s sovereignty. He emphasized that without this recognition, no progress can be made. Kayd also noted that negotiations have been ongoing for several years. He explained that Ethiopia requires access to the sea while Somaliland requires recognition, demonstrating how these needs can potentially be addressed.
In 1993, when Eritrea gained independence and took control of its Red Sea coastline, Ethiopia became the largest landlocked country in the world. Recently, Abiy expressed concern that this event was a significant error that puts Ethiopia at risk and could potentially lead to a war with Eritrea. He stated that with a projected population of 150 million by 2030, it is not feasible for Ethiopia to be confined within its borders without access to the sea.
On Thursday, Abiy’s advisor made comparisons between Ethiopia’s desire for access to the sea and their development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This dam, which has the potential to greatly impact the hydroelectric industry, was constructed despite opposition and military intimidation from Egypt.
According to Alan Boswell, the Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group, it is improbable that Somalia will launch an assault on Ethiopia as it deals with Al-Shabaab. However, this agreement could potentially create new divisions in an already unstable area.
Last week, Mohamud traveled to Eritrea and is now getting ready for a trip to Egypt. These two countries are considered major competitors in the region by Ethiopia and have both shown their support for Somalia after the port agreement. According to Boswell, Abiy views this as an important matter that will have long-term effects on the region. If the deal with Somaliland falls through, Ethiopia will likely seek another port, which will greatly impact regional relationships for years to come.