How Ethiopia’s Best Interest Lies in Retracting the Infamous MoU with Somaliland

Since October 2023, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's efforts to secure access to the Red Sea have increased regional tensions in the Horn of Africa.

Since October 2023, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts to secure access to the Red Sea have increased regional tensions in the Horn of Africa. The situation escalated dramatically on January 1, 2024, with the announcement of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Ethiopia and Somaliland, which is not officially recognized as an independent state. This move, which grants Ethiopia access to the Gulf of Aden in exchange for potential recognition of Somaliland’s independence, raises the possibility of new conflicts in an already volatile region.

At the time of signing, the full details of the agreement were not clear, underscoring the need for further explanations, particularly from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government’s communications office issued a statement indicating that the MoU grants Ethiopia the opportunity to establish a naval base and commercial maritime services in the Gulf of Aden. This arrangement is described as permanent by Ethiopia, while Somaliland refers to it as a 50-year lease. In exchange, Somaliland will receive a stake in Ethiopian Airlines.

Additionally, the Ethiopian government committed to thoroughly assessing its stance on Somaliland’s ongoing efforts for international recognition. This careful wording suggests that Ethiopia is not yet prepared to fully recognize Somaliland’s independence, despite Somaliland’s claims to the contrary.

President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland provided more specific details, stating that Somaliland would lease a 20 km stretch of its coastline to Ethiopia for 50 years and grant Ethiopia commercial access to Berbera Port. He further emphasized that the recognition of Somaliland by Ethiopia and the signing of the lease agreement would occur concurrently. This stance underscores the conditional nature of the agreement from Somaliland’s perspective, tying its territorial recognition directly to granting maritime access to Ethiopia.

It’s worth noting that while the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s Office emphasized the strategic importance of the MoU in enabling Ethiopia to achieve its long-standing goal of accessing the sea and broadening its seaport options, it did not explicitly address the issue of recognizing Somaliland. This indicates that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed might be testing international reactions before taking a definitive stance on this controversial issue. In contrast, during the signing ceremony, Somaliland’s President was adamant that Ethiopia is on the path to being the first African country to formally recognize the Republic of Somaliland.

The MoU has ignited a wave of nationalism and controversy across the region. Somalia, which considers Somaliland part of its sovereign territory, has vehemently opposed the deal. The Somali government called an emergency cabinet meeting and described the agreement as an act of aggression, recalling its ambassador from Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s ambassador to Somalia has also left Mogadishu without explanation, further straining diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Protests erupted in Mogadishu, Borama, Burca and other parts of Somaliland, with demonstrators calling for the defense of Somalia’s territorial integrity. The controversy has raised tensions not only between Somalia and Ethiopia but also within Somalia itself, where the issue of Somaliland’s status remains deeply divisive.

The international community has responded with concern and calls for de-escalation. The African Union, the United States, the Arab League, and the European Union have all expressed worry over the situation and urged calm and mutual respect. Turkey and Egypt have pledged their support for Somalia’s unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has held talks with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, with Eritrea reportedly expressing support for Somalia.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), known for its friendly relations with both Ethiopia and Somaliland, may have played a role in facilitating the agreement. The UAE’s strategic interest in expanding its influence in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean region aligns with its broader geopolitical ambitions. This development is likely welcomed by Israel, which maintains positive relations with the UAE, particularly following recent normalization agreements.

Saudi Arabia, in competition with the UAE, and Eritrea are closely monitoring the situation. Djibouti, which stands to lose economically if Ethiopia shifts its focus to Berbera Port, may also be affected. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, which already views Ethiopia as a threat due to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, has voiced strong opposition to any actions that undermine Somali sovereignty.

Ethiopia’s quest for sea access has deep historical roots. As the most populous landlocked country in the world, with over 100 million inhabitants, Ethiopia has long sought reliable access to maritime trade routes. The country lost its direct sea access when Eritrea gained independence in 1993, forcing Ethiopia to rely heavily on Djibouti for its import and export needs.

The Horn of Africa region, strategically located along key maritime trade routes, has been a focal point of geopolitical competition for centuries. Control over ports and sea lanes in this area has significant economic and military implications, not only for regional powers but also for global actors with interests in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

The MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland has the potential to spark new conflicts or exacerbate existing tensions in the region. If tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia were to dramatically escalate, a conflict between the two could potentially involve Somalia. Somalia’s relationship with Eritrea is currently strong, as Eritrean-trained troops have performed well in battles against Al-Shabaab and are highly regarded by Somali officials.

Engaging in military confrontation with Ethiopia presents significant challenges for Somalia. Ethiopian troops form a substantial part of the forces fighting Al-Shabaab in Somalia, directly contributing to the country’s stability. However, should relations between the two countries deteriorate further, Somalia might consider proxy warfare against Ethiopia, potentially with Eritrea’s assistance, by supporting opposition groups like the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

The situation is further complicated by internal conflicts within Ethiopia. The country is grappling with insurgencies by two ethnic groups – the Amhara paramilitary organization Fano and the Oromo Liberation Army – both of which hold historical grievances against the Ethiopian government and strive for greater political self-determination.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s pursuit of sea access may be partly motivated by domestic political considerations. By promoting a nationalist narrative centered on restoring Ethiopia’s historical access to the sea, Abiy may be seeking to galvanize support and divert attention from internal challenges. This comes in the wake of his unsuccessful “Medemer” campaign, which tried but failed to create a single unifying ideology for Ethiopians to rally behind.

However, this strategy carries significant risks. Given the heightened state of regional alert following Abiy’s comments, his approach could easily lead to escalated tensions or even armed conflict with neighboring countries. There are already reports of Eritrea being on high alert amid Ethiopia’s amassing of troops near its border.

Abiy’s attempt to distract from internal discord may inadvertently generate new crises for Ethiopia’s already stretched military and recovering economy. The country is still grappling with the aftermath of the Tigray conflict, which ended in 2022 but left significant economic and humanitarian challenges in its wake.

Abiy’s assertive stance on maritime access draws parallels with the actions of other ambitious geopolitical powers, particularly China and Russia. Both nations have shown a willingness to use military force to dominate strategic waters, as evidenced by Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and China’s military posturing in the South China Sea.

However, Ethiopia’s attempt to emulate these global powers carries its own risks. Unlike China and Russia, Ethiopia lacks the military and economic might to enforce its geopolitical ambitions unilaterally. It is unlikely that China will extend the same level of support to Ethiopia as it did to Russia during its invasion of Ukraine, as Beijing doesn’t rely on Ethiopia for access to critical raw materials. Similarly, Russia is not expected to supply arms to Ethiopia while it is seeking to replenish its own arsenal to continue its fight in Ukraine.

The MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland represents a significant shift in regional dynamics and has the potential to reshape the geopolitical landscape of the Horn of Africa. While Ethiopia’s desire for sea access is understandable given its landlocked status and economic ambitions, the approach taken by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has raised concerns about regional stability and the potential for conflict.

The international community’s response will be crucial in determining the outcome of this situation. Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions and promote dialogue between all parties involved will be essential to prevent the eruption of new conflicts in an already fragile region. As the situation continues to evolve, careful monitoring and engagement from regional and global actors will be necessary to ensure that Ethiopia’s maritime ambitions do not come at the cost of peace and stability in the 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