HORN OF AFRICA: ‘De-escalation must be the primary objective’

Mengistu AssefaCIVICUS speaks with Mengistu Assefa, Program Manager at the Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD), about a port deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland and the possibility of it escalating into an armed conflict with Somalia.

CARD is an Ethiopian civil society organisation that advocates for democracy and human rights through citizen empowerment.

What’s the relevance of the recent port deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland?

Following Eritrea’s independence in 1993, Ethiopia became a landlocked nation, placed in a challenging position for international trade. Since then, Djibouti has emerged as its primary access point to the sea, handling over 95 per cent of its trade volume. This dependence comes at a cost, with Ethiopia paying more than US$1 billion annually in fees to Djibouti’s ports and infrastructure. With its estimated population of 126 million, the second largest in Africa, Ethiopia views sea access as critical for its economic, political and demographic future.

To achieve this, on 1 January 2024 the Ethiopian federal government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on commercial port access with Somaliland, a self-proclaimed autonomous territory that is internationally recognised as part of Somalia.

While this MoU is not a legally binding agreement, it carries significant implications for the region because it walks a tightrope between cooperation and recognition. For Somaliland, the MoU represents a potential step towards international recognition of its de facto autonomy. Although the agreement’s full details remain undisclosed, it also reportedly grants Ethiopia access to Somaliland’s Red Sea coast, potentially including a military base. Ethiopian authorities have not been explicit about Somaliland’s recognition, saying the MoU allows for an ‘in-depth assessment’ of Somaliland’s quest for recognition.

Somalia vehemently rejects the MoU, viewing it as a violation of its territorial integrity and political sovereignty. It is actively mobilising diplomatic pressure against the deal. Somali president Hassan Sheik Mohamed has visited Egypt and Eritrea, Ethiopia’s long-standing competitors, seeking support. Additionally, the Arab League, of which Somalia is a member, has denounced the MoU. Egypt’s leader, already locked in negotiations with Ethiopia over a Nile dam project, has assured Somalia of potential support if requested, further escalating regional tensions.

What’s the political status of Somaliland?

Somaliland, with an estimated population of five million, broke away from Somalia and declared its independence in 1991 after 30 years of civil war. It fought for its independence based on the argument that it had a distinct historical heritage. Somaliland was a UK protectorate, while Somalia was under Italian control. For Somalilanders, this is enough argument to prove they are different territories. Moreover, in June 1960 Somaliland was briefly recognised as an independent state by around 35 nations for a span of five days, before it relinquished its sovereignty to reunite with the Somali Republic.

Somaliland declared its independence more than three decades ago but Somalia has never recognised it. Neither has any international organisation. Even so, Somaliland has managed to become a stable, functional state. It established its own army and democratic institutions and has held six elections with peaceful transitions of power.

In late 2022 and early 2023, a local armed movement, the Dhulbahante militias, rose against Somaliland’s government, declaring its intention to rejoin Somalia. This uprising posed significant political and security challenges to the Somaliland government, partly contributing to the postponement of 2023 elections. It cast a shadow of instability over Somaliland’s bid for international recognition, which hinges on its ability to demonstrate long-term stability and democratic institutions.

Could the port deal lead to international recognition of Somaliland’s independence?

Somaliland has made clear that a binding legal agreement could only be signed once it is officially recognised as an independent nation state. But the Ethiopian side of the story is quite different. Ethiopia hasn’t ruled out the possibility of that happening but hasn’t explicitly said it would take a stance on the recognition of Somaliland. The signing of a binding legal international agreement with Somaliland would however result in Ethiopia’s de facto recognition of its independence.

Looking at the bigger picture, this deal could affect the regional security architecture, particularly when it comes to fighting Al-Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist group based in Somalia and allied with Al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab is perceived as a global security threat and has explicitly targeted Ethiopia. Consequently, Ethiopia is engaged in fighting Al-Shabaab in Somalia alongside the Somali army. If Ethiopia recognises Somaliland, Somalia will likely force Ethiopia to pull out its troops. However, as Somalia cannot take charge of its security on its own, Ethiopia could use it as leverage to force Somalia to back down from a strong reaction.

Ethiopia’s potential recognition of Somaliland carries significant implications. Located in a strategically crucial area along the Gulf of Eden, where Houthis and pirates constantly attack international ships, Somaliland’s 850-kilometre coastline attracts interest from various countries seeking a potential military base. Ethiopia’s explicit recognition of Somaliland could trigger a domino effect, with other countries following suit, although recognition would likely face significant hurdles at the African Union (AU).

The AU adheres to the principle of respecting colonial borders and has expressed concerns about setting a precedent for secessionist movements in other African states, including Morocco and Nigeria. Ethiopia will likely weigh this carefully before explicitly recognising Somaliland’s independence. However, the rapidly shifting landscape of international interests suggests that it’s not an impossibility. This possibility is further amplified by the growing involvement of great and emerging powers in the Red Sea region, driven by economic and security interests.

Could tensions escalate into a conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia?

Ethiopia and Somalia have had difficult relations in the past. In 1964, they clashed in a three-month border conflict. This initial skirmish foreshadowed a larger and bloodier conflict that erupted between 1977 and 1978. During this period, Somalia invaded Ethiopia with the intent of annexing the Ogaden region, inhabited by ethnic Somalis. The conflict quickly became a proxy war for the contenders of the Cold War, with the western bloc supporting Somalia and the Soviet Union backing Ethiopia. Ultimately, Ethiopia repelled the Somali army.

In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group aiming to unite all Somalis across Ethiopia, Somalia and Somaliland under Islamic rule, gained control of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. This development raised concerns in Ethiopia, which perceived it as a threat to its national security and regional stability. Supported by the USA in the context of the ‘war on terror’, Ethiopia militarily intervened in Somalia and removed the ICU from power.

Several years later, Ethiopia and Somalia signed a bilateral agreement aimed at stabilising the region. This agreement facilitated the deployment of Ethiopian security forces to assist the Somali National Army in its fight against Al-Shabaab and support the ongoing Somali transition process. It’s important to note that these Ethiopian troops are currently integrated into the AU Transition Mission in Somalia, a peacekeeping mission.

Since October 2023, Ethiopia has declared its intention to gain access to the sea by peaceful means. In exchange for access Ethiopia has offered Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia land-swaps and stakes in a successful state-owned business such as Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s biggest and most successful airline, and even in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. But none of these countries accepted Ethiopia’s offer, leaving Somaliland as a seemingly more amenable option.

Somalia viewed Ethiopia’s signing of the port deal with Somaliland as betrayal. It reacted strongly and aggressively because it considers it an encroachment on its territory and an act against its sovereignty.

Ethiopia’s recognition of Somaliland’s independence could open a Pandora’s box. In fear that it could lead to regional and global recognition, Somalia said that if Ethiopia moved forward in implementing the agreement, consequences would follow.

This all brings us to the final and crucial point: where will this take the region? While the possibility of conflict cannot be entirely dismissed, it’s important to consider various factors and perspectives to assess its likelihood.

First, military capabilities and intentions play a role. While Somalia’s military power is not comparable to Ethiopia’s, the potential for escalation and regional instability cannot be ignored. Additionally, Ethiopia’s stated commitment to peaceful resolutions needs to be weighed against its historical engagements and potential strategic calculations.

Second, the international community’s role matters. The Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region are already grappling with complex conflicts and any further instability would have significant repercussions. International pressure and diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions and promote dialogue will be crucial in preventing conflict.

Further, Somalia’s response to the MoU adds another layer of complexity. Its seeking of support from Ethiopia’s historical competitors, such as Egypt and Eritrea, as well as regional entities such as the Arab League, could potentially lead to increased diplomatic pressure against Ethiopia. This, in turn, could further strain relations between the two countries for the foreseeable future.

Finally, the MoU is likely to ignite discussions about the status of Somaliland, both within the AU and at the United Nations Security Council.

What should the international community do to address this potential crisis?

The international community plays a crucial role in navigating the complex situation surrounding Ethiopia’s pursuit of sea access and its MoU with Somaliland. It is essential to engage with all stakeholders, particularly the Somali government and Somaliland’s authorities. It should be a top priority to facilitate negotiations to find a lasting solution that ensures both peaceful coexistence and normalised relations, as people in the Horn of Africa are ultimately bearing the brunt of this disagreement.

Regardless of the outcome, be it Somaliland’s reunification with Somalia or its international recognition as a separate state, the two countries must establish a mutually agreeable arrangement for peaceful coexistence. The international community can play the role of facilitating a genuine conversation between the two. This is of course easier said than done, given the historical complexities of their relationship and the vested interests of various states and organisations, including western nations and other international players, who prioritise their security and economic interests in the region.

International involvement should also aim to support Ethiopia and Somalia in reaching a mutually agreeable solution. This requires careful diplomacy to avoid exacerbating existing tensions or creating new problems. It’s also essential to urge those with vested interests in the region to avoid exploiting this situation for their agendas. De-escalation must be the primary objective.

Civic space in both Ethiopia and Somalia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with CARD through its website or its Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow @CARDEthiopia and @mengistu_dadi on Twitter.



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