Smart steps

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

In a move that took the Horn of Africa and the rest of the world by surprise, Ethiopia signed a memorandum of understanding with Somaliland, reports Haitham Nouri

Smart steps
Outrage in Somalia over the agreement


A new memorandum of understanding Ethiopia signed with Somaliland enables it to lease 20 km of land near the port city of Berbera in exchange for shares in Ethiopian Airlines. Until recently, observers had been expecting Ethiopia to move in other directions to secure access to the sea, and not necessarily peaceful ones. Not long ago, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had declared that the Red Sea was Ethiopia’s natural boundary and that access to the sea was of existential importance to his country. When he made those remarks in a televised address on 13 October, it was thought that he was referring to neighbouring Eritrea whose ports, Assab and Massawa, had handled 75 per cent of Ethiopian foreign trade before Eritrea gained independence in 1993. But Addis Ababa turned to Somaliland instead, which the Ethiopian press lauded as a “smart step” that gives the country a commercial and military maritime outlet while averting the risk of war with Eritrea.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi signed the MoU in Addis Ababa on 1 January. It is a non-binding agreement that gives Ethiopia access to 20 km of the Somaliland coastline near Berbera on the Gulf of Aden, near the economically and militarily strategic Strait of Bab Al-Mandab.

The Republic of Somaliland proclaimed independence in 1991 but remains unrecognised internationally and is still officially regarded as part of Somalia. At the signing ceremony in Addis Ababa, the Somaliland President Bihi Abdi said that his country would receive recognition by Ethiopia at a later date. In addition, it would be awarded a share in Ethiopian Airlines, which in 2022 reported revenues of around $6.9 billion. Bihi Abdi did not specify the amount, but some international news outlets indicated that it was 19 per cent.

Ethiopian officials have not commented on this.

Meles Zenawi, who had served as Ethiopian prime minister from 1995 until his death in 2012, had felt that Ethiopia would need a Western green light in order to recognise Somaliland. He understood at the time that, as much as Addis Ababa wanted a divided Somalia, it could not recognise the self-declared Republic of Somaliland unless Western capitals did so first. Recognition of Somaliland would mark the beginning of the end of the dream of Greater Somalia and put paid to Mogadishu’s historical claims to the Ethiopian Somali region over which the two countries fought a war in 1978.

After the fall of the regime of the Somali president Siad Barre in 1990, Somalia was beset by intense political fragmentation that led to the collapse of the state. As chaos and violence spread, the northern parts of the country seceded and declared the Republic of Somaliland with Hargeisa as its capital. What then became the largest unrecognised country in the world in terms both of population and surface area, Somaliland was previously known as Italian Somaliland in the colonial era. Its independence in 1960 coincided with the independence of the southern part known as British Somalia, with its capital in Mogadishu. In a meeting in that city in 1960, the two countries agreed to form what was known for three decades as the Republic of Somalia.

The most important issue in Somali politics since independence was the aspiration to unify all areas in the region that were inhabited by ethnic Somalis into a Greater Somalia. It set its sights on neighbouring Djibouti,known as the French Somalia, as well as the Somali region in Ethiopia and the northeastern part of Kenya that is known as Kenyan Somalia. Under president Siad Barre, Mogadishu clashed with these neighbours over territorial claims. Barre also sought to prevent the north’s bid to secede in the ten-year long Somaliland war of independence which lasted from 1991 until Barre’s overthrow in 1991.

 Not surprisingly, the Ethiopian-Somaliland MoU infuriated Somalia which still considers Somaliland an integral part of its territory. On 6 January, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud signed a law that he said would nullify the “illegal” pact. Although he did not disclose details about the text of the law, he said it was consistent with Mogadishu’s obligations to preserve the unity and sovereignty of Somalia in keeping with international law.

The African Union, the Arab League, the EU, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the US, Egypt, and Turkey backed Mogadishu and condemned the MoU. The Arab League issued a statement describing the agreement as a “violation of Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It denounced attempts to take advantage of Somalia’s fragile internal situation or disrupt intra-Somali negotiations aimed at reaching unity and stability. The EU followed suit with a statement that stressed the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia. The OIC and Turkey released similarly worded statements.

The African Union underscored the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all AU member states, including Somalia and Ethiopia, and it called for “calm and mutual respect to de-escalate the simmering tension.” In a similar spirit, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry urged “full respect for the unity and sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Somalia over the entirety of its national territory” and “condemnation of any encroachment on this sovereignty.”

In Washington, the State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller called on all concerned parties to engage in diplomatic dialogue. Expressing his government’s concerns over rising tensions in the Horn of Africa, he stressed that the US continues to recognise the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Somalia “within its 1960 borders”.

Faced with the outpouring of regional and international anger at the MoU, Ethiopia and Somaliland may now find it difficult to move forward to the formal agreement, which is expected to be concluded next month.  

“Ethiopia’s position has become more complicated. First, it was because of the fears it aroused among its neighbours, Eritrea above all. Now, it is because of the serious concerns it has sparked in Somalia,” said Fateh Abdel-Qader, a political geography professor in Khartoum.

Abiy took the occasion of the 116th anniversary of the establishment of the Ethiopian army to allay concerns, saying that the Ethiopian army has never been and will never be an aggressor.

“I think the Ethiopian prime minister insisted that conflict would result from a rejection of the Ethiopia’s request for access to the sea,” Abdel-Qader told Al-Ahram Weekly. Indeed, Abiy had said that the refusal of Ethiopia’s neighbours to cooperate could generate a volatile climate.

Abdel-Qader explained, “Sudan has had several armed clashes with Ethiopia. South Sudan has been on edge for some time because of the unrest in the Gambela Region in western Ethiopia, which is home to the Anuak people,” a Nilotic ethnic group that lives primarily in western Ethiopia and South Sudan. “The Somalis have historic claims in Ethiopia and the Eritreans fear an Ethiopian attack to gain access to their ports.”

Many in East Africa, as well as in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, are alarmed at any signs of conflict in the Horn of Africa. They fear that hostilities between two countries could suck in the neighbours in that turbulent region that has experienced decades of famine, coups, civil warfare, and national disintegration.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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