Sunday, April 21, 2024
CommentaryEthiopia’s Red Sea gambit raises tensions in Horn of Africa

Ethiopia’s Red Sea gambit raises tensions in Horn of Africa

Ethiopia, a landlocked country of over 120 million people, is facing increased geopolitical tensions due to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recent “Red Sea Gambit”. Abiy’s strategic move aims to secure direct access to the sea, freeing Ethiopia from its landlocked fate through engagement with Somaliland.

This geopolitical development is rooted in Ethiopia’s historical problems stemming from Eritrea’s independence in 1993, which left Ethiopia landlocked and dependent on the port of Djibouti for exports and imports. Abiy’s emphasis on access to the Red Sea as an “existential issue” has intensified since the Pretoria Agreement with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) last year, which ended two years of conflict between the TPLF and the government. However, neighboring countries including Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti have expressed concern, suspicious of Prime Minister Abiy’s rhetoric regarding gaining access to the Red Sea, through military means if necessary.

Having initially explored cooperation with Eritrea, strained relations with President Issayas Afewerki following the Pretoria Agreement shifted the focus towards Somaliland. This strategic shift has the potential to reshape the geopolitical landscape of the Horn of Africa, presenting both opportunities and challenges that require thoughtful consideration, international vigilance, and diplomacy to maintain stability.

MOU between Ethiopia and Somaliland

On 1 January 2024, Ethiopia and Somaliland signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in Addis Ababa. The agreement, which has yet to be ratified as a treaty by both countries’ Houses of Representatives, involves Ethiopia leasing a military base near Berbera, a port city on the Somaliland coast in the Gulf of Aden to use for navel and commercial purposes.

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Driven by economic motives, Ethiopia is seeking relief through a strategic agreement with Somaliland to establish a direct sea route to reduce dependence on other regional ports and address high port fees in Djibouti. This strategic move is expected to result in cost savings, increased trade efficiency and improved global economic competitiveness for Ethiopia at a time when the country is having problems servicing its debt.

The deal allows Ethiopia to establish a naval base and restore its historical role as custodian of the Red Sea. It has the potential to reshape the geopolitics of the Red Sea, influencing maritime security and regional stability in the Horn of Africa. Given the geostrategic importance of the entire coastline from Suez to Somalia, this strategic move is of paramount importance, attracting the attention of global and regional players with military bases in the region.

In return, Somaliland gets formal recognition of Somaliland’s independence from Somalia and a stake in Ethiopia’s national airline. Somaliland’s history includes the transition from various sultanates to bring British protectorate, gaining independence in 1960, briefly uniting with Italian Somalia, and asserting independence in 1991. Despite the lack of international recognition, Somaliland operates as a de facto state with its own constitution and capital (Hargeisa), currency (Somaliland shilling) and military. Strategically located on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, Somaliland is a critical waterway for regional economic integration.

Competing ideas of sovereignty

The MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland has triggered a debate over sovereignty, sparking a diplomatic storm that is causing tension from Eritrea to Somalia. Somaliland challenges traditional norms of statehood by striving for functional sovereignty, emphasising a successful social contract and operating independently with democratic governance, but faces challenges due to a lack of international recognition. Although an African Union fact-finding mission in 2005 recommended recognition, the lack of a unanimous African consensus has left Somaliland in a state of uncertainty.
The adoption of the Somaliland passport and the establishment of de facto consular relations (embassies) with Kenya, the US, Germany, Turkey, the UK, France, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are interesting developments that challenge traditional norms of sovereignty.
Somalia adheres to the classic Westphalian model, which emphasizes juridical sovereignty within defined territorial boundaries. Opposition to January’s MoU led Mogadishu to recall its ambassador from Ethiopia and prevent Ethiopian and UAE aeroplanes from entering its airspace. The move is seen as an assertion that Somalia regards Somaliland as part of its territory.

The history of Somaliland contradicts Somalia’s claim to territorial integrity. Despite initially uniting with Italian Somalia through the formation of the Somali Republic, the Somaliland alliance fell apart when military leader Mohamed Siad Barre came to power in 1969. Barre’s overthrow in 1991 left a power vacuum, with Somaliland declaring its independence while Somalia became embroiled in protracted conflict. Internal conflicts and external interference have hampered centralised governance in Somalia, contributing to the current regional crisis.

Ethiopia’s post-Westphalian approach, marked by negotiated agreements and cooperation, is evident in its engagement with Somaliland. Offering stakes in national entities such as the national airline reflects a pragmatic strategy of cooperation aimed at strengthening ties and promoting regional stability. However, this cooperative approach has heightened tensions with Somalia, which has accused Ethiopia of violating its sovereignty. Somalia swiftly denounced the deal as an act of ‘aggression,’ prompting a diplomatic response involving rallying international support against Ethiopia, while reactions to the deal varied, with some condemning it and others urging de-escalation. The contrasting ideas of sovereignty create a delicate geopolitical situation as Somaliland’s democratic experience, relative peace, security, and political system stand in stark contrast to the rest of Somalia, which is considered a failed state.

A potential breakdown in Somali-Ethiopian relations poses a threat to regional efforts to combat terrorism. Tensions could impact the legitimate presence of Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia, complicating the ongoing drawdown of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia forces. This poses a threat to regional counterterrorism efforts, given the important role Ethiopia plays in fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia and supporting Somalia’s progress in nation-building. Al-Shabaab, leveraging anti-Ethiopian sentiment from the port deal, is likely to increase attacks to bolster funding and recruitment.

The geopolitical ripple effects extend beyond Somalia, with Red Sea neighbors Djibouti, Egypt and Eritrea seeing Ethiopia’s strategic moves as a threat. Djibouti, which relies heavily on shipping fees from Ethiopia, fears the economic impact of changes in cargo volumes. Egypt’s opposition to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project in Ethiopia and its withdrawal from negotiations adds further complexity to the geopolitical landscape. Eritrea, which was previously an ally of Ethiopia in the recent Tigray war, now views the memorandum of understanding as a potential security threat. In addition, the deal has implications for the ongoing competition among Gulf states, especially between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for dominance in the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopia’s desire to gain maritime access to the Red Sea amid tense diplomatic relations with neighboring countries has created a delicate geopolitical scenario. Internal conflicts within Ethiopia, coupled with tensions over maritime ambitions, require the global community to stand sentinel and advocate for diplomatic solutions to avert conflict escalation. Diplomatic resolutions are necessary to address Ethiopia’s legitimate aspirations while maintaining regional stability and respecting the sovereignty of neighboring countries.
Mebratu Kelecha is a Research Fellow at the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa (FLIA), London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He received his PhD from the University of Westminster, an MSc from Durham University and a BA from Addis Ababa University. His research interests include development politics, public policy, transition and contentious politics, conflict and peace studies, democratic theory, and innovation.

By Mebratu Kelecha

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