Zeila (Saylac) holds a significant place in Somalia’s history as a port town located in the western Awdal region. During medieval times, it served as the capital of Adal and the Sultanate of Ifat, making it a frequent target of Abyssinian attacks. Emperors Amda Seyon I and Yeshaq I of Abyssinia both made attempts to conquer Zeila, resulting in continuous warfare between the Ethiopian Empire and the Muslim Adal Sultanate.
The strategic importance of Zeila as a port town was recognized by Ethiopian Emperors, including the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I. After Eritrea’s federation with Ethiopia in 1950, Ethiopia gained access to a coastline and ports on the Red Sea. Subsequently, in 1955, the Ethiopian Navy was established, and the Haile Selassie Naval Base was constructed in Massawa, Eritrea, in 1956.
However, Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991, leaving Ethiopia landlocked once again.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), upon assuming office, expressed Ethiopia’s aspirations for naval capabilities. In 2018, during the Gondor Summit in Bahir Dar, Northern Ethiopia, Abiy discussed the idea of establishing an Ethiopian Naval Base in Zeila with the President of Somalia, Mohamed Adullahi Farmajo.
Ethiopia’s desire to build military bases along the Red Sea has been a recurring topic in negotiations with various leaders in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia. However, due to the absence of a clear central authority in Somalia, no concrete progress has been made.
To comprehend the complexity of the issue, it is essential to examine Somalia’s history of clan politics.
Following the collapse of the Somalia government, the country plunged into a civil war characterized by conflicts between different clans. Consequently, Somalia fragmented into regional governments controlled by various clans, resembling the pre-colonial landscape of the country. Prior to the arrival of European colonizers, Somali clans coexisted harmoniously across a vast territory stretching from Djibouti to northern Kenya and from the Indian Ocean to the eastern plateau of Ethiopia.
Throughout history, various empires such as Ifat, Adal, and the Ottoman Empire ruled Somali territories. However, the internal clan governance remained intact until the colonization of Somalia. European powers established their own forms of government upon arrival, but not all Somali territories fell under colonial rule; some were annexed by the Ethiopian Empire and the Kenyan government.
When the Europeans eventually departed, Somali clans, who had not formed a centralized government for centuries, were compelled to establish one. After prolonged power struggles and infighting, the Somali Republic finally gained a seat in the United Nations.
The newly formed government faced numerous challenges from the outset, including ongoing clan conflicts, nepotism, and rampant corruption. On October 21, 1969, the military seized control of the country and declared the establishment of the Somali Democratic Republic, with Mohamed Siad Barre (Gen.) assuming the presidency.
Meanwhile, Djibouti (formerly known as French Somaliland) remained under French colonial rule, while Hawd/ Reserve Areas and Ogaden remained under Ethiopian control. Somali clans in the North Eastern Province (Kenya) stayed and integrated with the local Kenyan population. In 1977, the French government granted independence to the people of Djibouti.
Djibouti, primarily a city-state with most of its population concentrated in the city of Djibouti, became a melting pot where people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities resided. Presently, Djibouti is predominantly governed and controlled by the Issa clan of Somalia.
In the same year, 1977, the military government of the Democratic Republic of Somalia launched an attack on Ethiopia in what was known as the Ogaden War, with the campaign named “The Liberation of Western Somalia.” However, the military campaign failed for two main reasons. Firstly, the Derg government, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam (Col.), executed a shrewd diplomatic maneuver by establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, which had previously been a military sponsor of Somalia.
The second reason for the failure of the military campaign was an unforeseen economic collapse within the Somalia.
Following their defeat and expulsion from Ethiopia, a Somali rebellion started to emerge within the country. Disenchanted clans that had been marginalized and excluded from power took up arms against the government. The regime led by Siad Barre eventually collapsed, forcing him to flee from power.
Somalia descended into a state of chaos, as each clan refused to relinquish control to the others. Many people sought refuge in neighboring countries, and refugee camps were established in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. The United Nations classified Somalia as a failed state and urged donor nations to accept Somali refugees as stateless individuals.
Consequently, Somalia became fragmented, with each clan assuming control over its respective region. Presently, only clan-based governments exist in Somalia. The Federal Government of Somalia, though existing in name, lacks authority over any clan or region. While these clan-based governments lack recognition from the international community and international organizations, each clan has its own system of governance. For instance, the government of Somaliland, operating as an independent country, is not recognized by the international community due to its clan-based nature.
Considering these circumstances, it becomes challenging to negotiate a treaty with the government of Ethiopia regarding a naval base in Zeila. The current situation in Somalia raises questions about who can effectively engage in such negotiations. It is important to note that landlocked Ethiopia does not seek to capture Zeila by force. Instead, it aims to negotiate a treaty, similar to what other countries have done in the past. For instance, Djibouti has engaged in negotiations with multiple countries, including China, for the establishment of naval bases in its territory.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also negotiated treaties with clan-based governments. They secured a treaty with Somaliland for the port of Berbera and another treaty with Puntland for the port of Bosaso.
With the Federal Government of Somalia lacking authority in any region of the country, it is imperative to look at the power structure of clans in the western Awdal region of Somalia, where the port town of Zeila is located, to discern the authority capable of negotiating with Ethiopia.
The Isaaq clan, which dominates the Government of Somaliland, do not reside in the Awdal region of Somalia or the port town of Zeila.
Some sub-clans of the Issa clan reside in the Zeila area and the Awdal region of Somalia. Similarly, some Gadabursi clans live in Djibouti. However, the sub-clans of the Issa in Zeila and the Awdal region represent only a small percentage of the population historically and presently.
The Gadabursi clan of Somalia, on the other hand, constitute the majority of the population in both the port town of Zeila and the Awdal region. They have
inhabited Zeila, the Awdal region of Somalia, parts of the Somali Region in Ethiopia, and Djibouti for centuries and possess one of the oldest and most historic Sultanates (Ugas) in the Horn of Africa.
The Gadabursi clan’s influence dates back to the Adal Empire, where they inhabited significant territories, including the capital city of Zeila. The Gadabursi Ugasdom (Sultanate) was established in 1607 and directly stemmed from the Adal Sultanate. Ahmed Binu Ibrahim Al Ghazi (Ahmed Gurey), a military leader and commander of the conquest of Abyssinia (Futuh Al-habasa), is widely believed to belong to the Gadabursi clan of Somalia.
Thus, the only entity capable of negotiating a treaty with Ethiopia regarding a naval base in Zeila is the Ugas (Sultan) of Gadabursi. The Ugas of Gadabursi has been the sovereign authority and supreme power for the Gadabursi people for the past four centuries.
(Houssein A. Ismael, holds a BA in Political Science from Wayne State University and a Master’s of Public Administration (MPA) from Eastern Michigan University.)
Contributed by Houssein A. Ismael