Ethiopia-Somaliland Deal: A Slap in a Face for Somalia

"We will insist on a diplomatic agreement and I think Ethiopia will come back and see where they went wrong, but we are also ready for war if Abiy (Abiy Ahmed) wants war".

“We will insist on a diplomatic agreement and I think Ethiopia will come back and see where they went wrong, but we are also ready for war if Abiy (Abiy Ahmed) wants war”.

That is part of the quote by the Senior Advisor to the President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mahamud when he was giving an interview to the Guardian Newspaper about the ongoing conflict between his country and Ethiopia. The tension rose after the deal made on 01 January 2024 between Ethiopia and the self-proclaimed separatist region of Somaliland, where Somaliland said it would lease part of its coastline of the Berbera port area for commercial and military on Ethiopian naval base while in return Somaliland will be given a share in Ethiopian Airlines. According to the Somalia government; Somaliland’s great drive has come from the country’s need to be recognized as a fully legitimate country, a campaign that Ethiopia had agreed to support and be a spear holder. It should be known that Somaliland separated from the nation of Somalia in 1991 and since then it has successfully managed itself and established its government, police, army, and currency.

The biggest challenge facing the country is not being recognized as an independent and legitimate country “politically” and by international laws, thus leading to international exclusion from decisions, integrations, loans, and international aid. The move to be recognized and supported by a powerful country in Africa like Ethiopia seems to be a great success for that country.

Ethiopia’s desire for ports in the Horn of Africa

 “It is expected that by the year 2030, Ethiopia will have a population of 150 million people, that number cannot live in a geographical prison,…… Allowing Eritrea to secede was a big historical mistake”, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed.

It should be noted that after Eritrea, a country bordering the Red Sea, seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, Ethiopia became the largest landlocked country in the world. This situation has been affecting the country in terms of security, transport, Investment, and economy.

At the moment Ethiopia is being served maritime by Eritrea through the small ports of Asab and Massawa which are located near the Bab al-Mandab canal, although this cooperation has been uncertain mainly due to the endless conflicts between the governments but also due to the presence of internal and external pressure on Eritrea on blocking the passage of weapons to Ethiopia through those ports.

Ethiopia had not experienced freedom in using the ports, so it decided to seek the services through the port of Djibouti, a country located on the edge of the Gulf of Aden.

It should be noted that Ethiopia is one of the countries in Africa with the fastest growing economy, with its reported growth for the last decade growing by 9.9% before its civil war with the Tigray government. A major contribution to the economy came from trade, where 90% of its products pass through the port of Djibouti. The economical position of Djibouti to Ethiopia led in 2011 when these two countries in partnership with the Chinese Government constructed a 752.7 KM long railway which reduced the time of transporting goods from 7 days to 10 hours from the Port of Djibouti to Ethiopia. If that’s not enough, Ethiopia borrowed 730 million dollars from the World Bank for the construction of a 150 km silt road that connected the country with Djibouti to facilitate the transportation of goods in its country.

It should also be noted that in 2012, Ethiopia signed an agreement for the construction of a railway worth USD 22 billion with the country of South Sudan and Kenya on a project called LAPSSET (Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport), this project intended boost and speed up the transportation of goods from the port of Lamu to the south of Ethiopia, although the implementation of the agreement has yet been achieved.

In 2018, Ethiopia entered into an agreement with Sudan to use Sudan’s port with the then President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, but unfortunately before the implementation of the agreement, President Bashir was overthrown and the agreement died a natural death.

Why does Ethiopia want Somaliland’s port?

Somaliland is located on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, an area that has been globally significant since the official opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Somaliland’s Bab-el-Mandeb area connects the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea, making this area the only point with the shortest route connecting Asia and Europe.

Western Asia is the powerhouse of oil production in the world, based on a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration explained that for the first half of 2023, 12% of all oil sold in the world went through that route, but also 8% of natural gas (LNG) sold in that half passed through that route too. From the year 2020-2023, there has been an average increase of 60% in the transportation of oil through the port of Somaliland.

The trade sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the U.S. especially on oil and gas due to his invasion of Ukraine led automatically to the dependence of the Asian region on Oil and Gas thus increasing the importance of that route. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that have continued to trade oil with Russia have been using that route to pass crude oil into their country for electricity production.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI): The Foreign Military Presence in the Horn of Africa reported that the geography of oil and gas producing countries and the challenges of transporting the product through areas of conflict, piracy, and war have led to the Horn of Africa become a “home” for foreign military bases. After Eritrea seceded, Ethiopia never had a naval base until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 when he announced the “revival” of the army with the help of France, and he allocated the base in Djibouti. The main reason for the “re-establishment” of the army was assumed as the preparation against Egypt, a country who have been in an intense relation over the Nile River crisis.

After the outbreak of COVID-19 and its civil war against the government of Tigray, Ethiopia’s economy fell to the point of being unable to pay its foreign debts, a move that led to made a request to the Djibouti government to charge less on customs tax on its goods as Ethiopia pays more than USD 1 billion annually. The Djibouti government denied the request.

What should be expected after the Crisis.

The international community as well as Africa has strongly condemned this agreement/deal, the Somalian government has threatened to wage war on Ethiopia although it is clear that Somalia is not in a good position to even invade Somaliland. The biggest step that can be taken is the imposition of sanctions on the country or even the suspension of membership in the Inter-Government African Development Community (IGAD) or the African Union (AU). Ethiopia is aware of the seriousness of the action they took and the consequences; it is clear that they have been prepared for this.

How long will the AU impose sanctions? We both know it won’t be that long, especially if you consider the weakness of the AU, but also the strategic importance of the Berbera port in global trade and security.

Another anticipation will be the isolation from the neighboring countries like Djibouti which is viewed as Ethiopians’ strategy to reduce its dependence on her. Why? It is estimated that if Ethiopia succeeds in completing the construction of the port in Somaliland, it will reduce 30% of its goods that had to go through the port of Djibouti. Hence the deal will affect Djibouti’s economy which more than 70% of its GDP depends on the tax port revenue.

Countries like Egypt and Eritrea picture it as the Ethiopian government’s military preparation for war as it recalls back when the former President of the United States, Donald J. Trump once quoted advising the President of Egypt Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi to invade Ethiopia.

Following the strategic importance of the port of Barbera and Somaliland in general in the transportation of oil and gas with the consideration of the ongoing conflict in the Gulf of Aden between the United States and the Houthi militia of Yemen, Russia and Ukraine; Ethiopia will be needed at the global decision table to facilitate the transportation of these products. Ethiopia’s presence at the table will also be motivated by its partnership with the UAE Government, which is the owner of the Dubai Port World company that operates in more than 78 ports in the world. UAE was once the arbiter of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a feature that earned Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize.

Soon, Ethiopia might appear at the center role in the Oil and Gas trade. At the moment, his deal with Somaliland will be criticized but there will be no way for Ethiopia to look back. Africa should learn from this that, when there are economic interests of the so-called giant nations, it’s only their interest that matters and not the agreement of the poor Africans.

Ezra Nnko
Ezra Nnko
Ezra Nnko is a Geopolitics and International Policy expert based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He works for Liberty Sparks, an independent think-tank based in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Malawi.