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On the Edge: the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU

On 1 January 2024, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and Somaliland president Muse Bihi Abdi signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which has generated significant regional and international controversy. According to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s National Security Advisor Redwan Hussien, the agreement not only secures Ethiopia’s commercial access to the sea but also a leased military base. In exchange, along with Addis Ababa’s “in-depth assessment” on the possible official recognition of Somaliland, the self-declared independent region will receive either a stake in the renowned Ethiopia Airlines or in Ethio Telecom, the country’s main telecommunications company. Ethiopia has also committed to develop infrastructure between the base and the port and to hold further discussions on education, health, and military cooperation. 

During the signing ceremony, Bihi announced that Somaliland would lease 20 km of its coastline to Ethiopia, while Addis Ababa would recognize the self-declared independent region, which has been in search of official international recognition for the past two decades.

The lease is intended to last for 50 years with the possibility of an extension, while it is still less clear to what extent Ethiopia is willing to officially recognize Somaliland as a sovereign state.

Although Somaliland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs also released a statement that Ethiopia would be the first country to formally recognize the de facto state, Ethiopian leadership has not yet directly commented on the matter.

However, Addis Ababa has defended its position by releasing a statement claiming that the deal is not illegal and that other parties have concluded similar agreements with Somaliland despite its lack of international recognition.   

The immediate reactions to the MoU ranged between outright condemnation and silent acceptance. Prominent Somali politicians and officials and the violent Islamist group al-Shabaab rejected the deal, as did Somalia’s prime minister Hamza Abdi Barre who termed Ethiopia’s agreement with the self-declared independent breakaway region as “an act of aggression against Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

The day after the announcement of the MoU, the Federal Parliament of Somalia discussed the issue in an extraordinary session and described the deal as a “naked aggression” and legally “null and void”, while Somalia’s envoy to Ethiopia was withdrawn for consultations.
The Somali government also called for assistance from international organizations, and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud held phone discussions with both his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to reaffirm bilateral ties and plea for their support for regional stability. Later, legal measures against the deal were taken when president Mohamud signed a law nullifying the agreement.  

Regionally and internationally the reactions have so far been mixed. While the improvement of the trade link between Ethiopia and Somaliland could be seen as a positive development, the issue of possible Somaliland recognition has generated significant controversy.

When the Intergovernmental Government on Development (IGAD)’s Executive Secretary Workneh Gebeyehu declared in a statement that the IGAD is “diligently monitoring the situation”, the Somali federal government rejected it as falling short of condemning the Ethiopian government for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia.
The Arab League, the European Union (EU), the United States (US), and various countries active in the region, such as Türkiye and Egypt, backed Somalia’s position. Meanwhile, Matthew Miller, the US Department of State Spokesperson urged “all stakeholders to engage in diplomatic dialogue” and the African Union (AU) called for de-escalation, with the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, appealing for calm and mutual respect and pressing for immediate negotiations to prevent the “deterioration of the good relations” between Ethiopia and Somalia.

However, Ethiopia’s major partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has invested heavily in the development of the logistics corridor linking the Dubai Ports World (DP World) managed Somaliland port of Berbera with Addis Ababa, has remained conspicuously silent.  

Alternative Sea Corridor 

Historically, landlocked Ethiopia has sought to secure sea access that would ensure direct trade with foreign partners. After the annexation of Eritrea in 1962, Ethiopia gained such access, but it was of limited benefit during the Eritrean liberation war and after Eritrea’s independence in 1993. The deterioration of bilateral relations in the late 1990s and the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000) deprived Ethiopia of the use of Eritrean ports. 
Several alternative routes to the Red Sea have been proposed in recent decades, but the government of Djibouti has seized the opportunity to emerge as Ethiopia’s lifeline and become the gatekeeper of its main import-export route. However, the Ethiopian government has simultaneously sought alternative options to diminish its dependence on Djibouti.

Following the 2018 Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement, mediated primarily by the UAE, many hoped that Eritrea’s ports would once again – as was briefly the case in the mid-1990s – be made available for Ethiopian trade.  

Yet, at the same time, Ethiopia’s ties with the self-declared independent Somaliland, emerging from its support to rebel groups in Somalia in the late 1980s, have remained strong. In 2018, Ethiopia committed to forming part of the consortium for the development and management of the Berbera port with 19 percent ownership but later failed to redeem its stake. In the previous year, the UAE-owned DP World had become the main foreign stakeholder in Berbera and pledged to develop the surrounding infrastructure while investing heavily in the development of the Ethiopian side of the Berbera Corridor.

Last October, Abiy made public comments insisting on Ethiopia’s historic right to access the Red Sea. His views were interpreted as a sign of pressure towards Eritrea, to the extent that some foreign analysts believed that Ethiopia would be on the brink of war with Eritrea. However, the Ethiopian leadership had first approached Eritrea, its ally in recent years, and inquired about the possibility of opening Eritrean ports to Ethiopian trade.

At the same time, foreseeing Eritrea’s rejection because progress on the issue had stalled for several years, it pursued an alternative target, the Berbera port, where Ethiopia’s close ally, the UAE, had been building a trade corridor. The Somaliland side of the corridor has been under intensive development in recent years and largely completed due to the support of Somaliland’s foreign partners, including the EU and the United Kingdom.

In November, Ethiopia-Somaliland behind-the-scenes discussions were already taking place. Meanwhile, hosted by Djibouti in late December, presidents of Somaliland and federal Somalia agreed to reinvigorate the stalled talks about their future relationship which appeared as a new commitment toward normalizing ties. But a few days later, Somaliland President Bihi traveled to Addis Ababa to sign the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU.

Strategic Considerations and Prospects 

The Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU enables Addis Ababa to secure sea access and have a military presence in Somaliland to protect the Berbera Corridor. This is expected to become an important alternative import-export channel for Ethiopia and a growing competitor to the currently dominant Djibouti route. On the other hand, Ethiopia’s potential recognition of Somaliland would likely lead to other states following suit and result in the increase of much-desired foreign investment and development assistance.

The MoU also gives new impetus to the development of the Berbera Corridor, especially on the neglected Ethiopian side of the border. It turns attention away from Ethiopia’s domestic wows, including the recent Eurobond default, inflation, low foreign exchange reserves, corruption, armed conflict, internal political tensions related to the post-war process, and climate change-induced challenges.

In Somaliland, where the armed conflict of Las Anod with the autonomist SSC Khatumo has recently led to the loss of control of part of the eastern territory, the MoU has been celebrated as an important step toward international recognition. These considerations might explain why the main stakeholders are likely to move forward with finalizing the details of the agreement and its implementation, despite international concerns and federal Somalia’s rejection.

In the long run, the Berbera Corridor is likely to provide a strategic alternative that diminishes Ethiopia’s heavy reliance on Djibouti as its import-export lifeline. This should contribute to the development of the cities and rural areas along its way, as well as the territories commercially connected to it.

The outcome of the scenario of the international recognition of Somaliland continues to be unclear. Although both Ethiopia and Somaliland have close regional and faraway partners, most of these powers have been fairly content with the current state of affairs, in which they have been able to work with the Somaliland administration in the absence of formal international recognition. Relations with Somaliland have particularly benefited regional and small powers, such as the UAE and Taiwan as a meaningful outlet for their foreign policy aspirations. However, possible international recognition of Somaliland would likely result in bigger powers, including the US and the EU, foreign partners. (This article first appeared on ISPI) Aleksi Ylönen, Center for International Studies, ISCTE-Instituto Universitário de Lisboa

By: Aleksi Ylönen

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