The Horn of Africa in harm’s way

Mostafa Ahmady
Saturday 13 Jul 2024

Ethiopia’s determination to have its own port facilities on the Red Sea is leading to growing tensions in the strategic Horn of Africa region.


It has been six months since Ethiopia locked horns with Somalia over a controversial deal that Addis Ababa signed at the start of this year with Somaliland, a breakaway region of Federal Somalia.

Somalia, currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, is reeling from a devastating war with terrorist groups, the likes of Al-Shabab, that has cost the once-powerful nation almost everything its people have dreamt of, leaving millions scattered, including in neighbouring Ethiopia.

Though Ethiopia, a landlocked Horn of Africa nation, enjoys access to the Port of Djibouti, a lifeline for more than 90 per cent of its foreign trade, Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, wants his country to have a port of its own on the strategic Red Sea. He argues that it is not acceptable for his country, the second-most populous in Africa with a larger economic output than all of its neighbours, to be so heavily dependent on others for its economic survival.

Under former prime minister Meles Zenwai Ethiopia forfeited its claim on the Red Sea ports of Massawa and Assab, now controlled by archrival Eritrea, but now it wants to find a way out of this decision. Ethiopian commentators have dubbed Zenawi’s decision a fatal error that needs to change, passing the baton to Abiy Ahmed to do the job.

However, Ahmed’s endeavours have set him on a collision course with his neighbours, particularly Somalia, and Djibouti. The latter tiny Horn of Africa nation, home to several foreign military bases, is feeling the heat and fears that were Ethiopia to obtain its own port on the Red Sea this would mean a major loss of revenue for Djibouti, along with the loss of much of the leverage that it has exercised for decades over its larger neighbour in terms of securing supplies of water and electricity.

In a show of dismay at the proposed deal, Djibouti is hosting a movement opposed to the secession of Somaliland from Federal Somalia. During an event designed to celebrate its independence day, Djibouti warmly welcomed the leaders of the Awdal State Movement, which announced its differences with Somaliland’s self-proclaimed government last September and reasserted that it would work for the “unity” of the breakaway region in the federal country.

Somaliland condemned Djibouti for what it said was the “sabotage” of the deal it signed with Addis Ababa, intensifying an already escalating situation in the Horn of Africa.

The unusual congestion of Ethiopian goods at the Port of Djibouti, including vital oil and gas shipments and fertilisers, may be sending the message that Djibouti holds no brief for the deal. The Ethiopian leader is aware of the complications that disrupted supply chains would lead to, particularly for the livelihoods of many Ethiopians, especially since Ethiopia is already suffering from soaring inflation and a severe debt crisis.

Ahmed has reminded his neighbours that Ethiopia “is a big nation with a big army,” as he put it when speaking to the country’s parliament last Thursday. He advised Somalis “not to waste their money going around other countries” when it would take them “an hour’s flight” to Addis Ababa to hold discussions with Ethiopian officials. He said that his country’s quest for access to the Red Sea was “legitimate,” arguing that “it is difficult to be landlocked with an economy of our country’s size.”

Historically speaking, there has been much bad blood between Somalia and Ethiopia. Mogadishu is worried that it would suffer from a breach to its national security should Addis Ababa establish a military base in the Port of Berbera, as the pact with Somaliland stipulates. The deal practically kills Somalia’s pursuit of unity and undermines the country’s sovereignty.

Somalia has signed a 10-year defence and economic pact with Turkey as a result of such concerns, which would allow Turkey to defend Somalia’s coastline and help the country to rebuild its battered naval forces. However, Turkey is trying to cut this Gordian knot because it has a wider stake in the region. Turkey is one of the top five investors in Ethiopia to the tune of some $2.5 billion, and it is also a key arms provider to the landlocked nation. In January this year, the Ethiopian Air Force acquired Akinci drones from Ankara. Earlier, Turkish drones were a vital factor in saving the Ahmed-led regime during the two-year Civil War in the Ethiopian region of Tigray.

Turkey is also a major actor in Somalia, with $1 billion spent there since 2011 in technical and humanitarian assistance. Turkish companies operate both the air and the seaports in Mogadishu. It is one of the top foreign traders with Somalia, thanks to some $400 million in exports to the Horn of Africa nation on an annual basis.

Turkey has wanted to act as a mediator between the two countries as a result but talks between Somali and Ethiopian officials have not born fruit even with such mediation. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has said that he is “disappointed to see no progress in Ankara.”

Another round of Ankara-hosted talks is scheduled for September, but they will probably not lead to a breakthrough between the two countries. Ethiopia is not willing to change its position on a deal it sees as essential for its future. In a perfect world, Addis Ababa would have had its own port on the Red Sea. But in a region where all the bets are off, this peaceful quest remains up in the air.


The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.

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

Short link: