Ethiopia’s Domestic Turmoil and the Prospect of Conflict with Somalia

In the complex tapestry of Horn of Africa geopolitics, Ethiopia's recent endeavor to secure sea access has become a focal point of regional, and potentially international, tension.

In the complex tapestry of Horn of Africa geopolitics, Ethiopia’s recent endeavor to secure sea access has become a focal point of regional, and potentially international, tension. Historically landlocked, Ethiopia’s quest is not merely a pursuit for commercial ports but is suspected to be driven by strategic military interests, including the establishment of a naval base. This ambition, particularly considering the country’s tense relationship with Somalia, is stirring the pot of an already volatile region.

Ethiopia’s public demand for sea access and the controversial Memorandum of Understanding with Northern Somalia’s breakaway region have raised alarm. This move is seen not just as a quest for geopolitical advantage but as a potential stepping stone towards annexation ambitions. Such a move is fraught with complexities, given Somalia’s membership in the Arab League, which is likely to protect its territorial integrity. An Ethiopian attempt to annex part of Somalia could spark a conflict that Ethiopia is ill-prepared for, both militarily and politically. Egypt will defend Somalia against Ethiopia due to a violation of Somalia’s territory, several factors need to be considered. The Arab League has mechanisms for collective security and defense, which theoretically obligate member states to come to the defense of another member state if its territorial integrity or independence is threatened by external aggression.

Internally, Ethiopia faces a myriad of challenges that exacerbate its regional aspirations. The country is grappling with ethnic conflicts, political fragmentation, and economic woes. These internal crises raise questions about the timing and rationale behind Ethiopia’s maritime ambitions. Is this an attempt to rally nationalistic sentiments to distract from domestic troubles, or a genuine strategic maneuver? Regardless, these proliferating crises within Ethiopia show signs of escalation, threatening not only the stability of the country but of the entire Horn of Africa.

The presence of Amhara Front fighters in Addis Ababa, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed conducts the nation’s affairs, is a stark reminder of the complexities and the multi-layered nature of Ethiopia’s internal conflicts. These conflicts are not just about territorial control but also about deep-seated ethnic tensions, political grievances, and a struggle for recognition and autonomy within the Ethiopian federation.

The rebellion in the Amhara region, marked by the sounds of gunfire reportedly celebrating the resignation of Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, is indicative of the volatile political landscape in the country. Such events are not merely localized issues; they have the potential to destabilize the broader Horn of Africa region, given Ethiopia’s pivotal role as both a political and economic hub in the area.

The resignation of the Deputy Prime Minister, under such circumstances, raises questions about the internal cohesion of the Ethiopian government and its ability to navigate the country through this tumultuous period. It also signals a possible shift in the balance of power and a reevaluation of alliances within the nation’s political sphere.

Historically, the Horn of Africa has been a playground for external actors, and the current situation is no different. The involvement of Gulf States, primarily driven by their own strategic interests in the Red Sea and the broader region, adds another layer of complexity. These states have historically played roles that range from mediators to active participants in regional conflicts. Their current stance and potential involvement in Ethiopia’s quest for sea access could significantly influence the trajectory of events.

Ethiopia’s pursuit of sea access, particularly through controversial means, is a gambit that risks regional stability. It not only provokes regional tensions but also threatens to engulf the nation in a conflict it is ill-equipped to handle, given its internal challenges. The involvement of external actors remains a critical factor that could either exacerbate or alleviate the situation. The international community must closely monitor these developments, as the consequences of miscalculation could be catastrophic, not just for Ethiopia or Somalia, but for the entire Horn of Africa.

Ismail D. Osman
Ismail D. Osman
Ismail D. Osman: Former Deputy Director of Somalia National Intelligence & Security Agency (NISA) – Writes in Somalia, Horn of Africa Security and Geopolitical focusing on governance and security. You can reach him osmando[at] @osmando