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Intel Brief: New port agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland triggers tensions in the Horn of Africa

 
Ethiopia-Somalia-Somaliland map

Date: 12/01/2024


Where:  Ethiopia - Somaliland - Somalia 


Who’s involved:  Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Somaliland leader Muse Bihi Abdi, Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud 






What happened?

  • On 01/01/2024, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland leader Muse Bihi Abdi signed an agreement granting Ethiopia access to 20 kilometers of Somaliland coast for naval and commercial operations and a 50-year lease for the Ethiopian navy to access the port of Berbera, in Somaliland. No information is publicly available on the start date of the lease, nor are there more in-depth details on the terms. 

  • Ethiopia committed to providing an “in-depth assessment” of the petition for official recognition of the self-governing territory of Somaliland as an independent nation. Should this occur, Ethiopia would be the first state to recognize Somaliland. Somaliland will also receive a stake in the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines as part of the agreement. 

  • The Somali government called the agreement an “act of aggression,” as it considers Somaliland part of its territory. Somaliland has considered itself autonomous since the end of the 1991 civil war. On 02/01/2024, following an emergency cabinet meeting, Somalia rejected a signed agreement between its “separatist” region of Somaliland and Ethiopia. Mogadishu also recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia and reportedly initiated consultations with Qatar and Egypt, historically unsympathetic to Ethiopia. 

  • Later, on 06/01/2024, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud signed a law nullifying the agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland. Somali authorities claimed that the port deal is outrageous as the recognition of Somaliland constitutes a direct attack on Somalia’s ”sovereignty and territorial independence.

  • The deal received wide international condemnation. Regional actors, such as the African Union, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as well as the governments of Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey, expressed support for Somalia's claim to sovereignty. Moreover, the EU and the U.S. also condemned the deal


Analysis:

  • With a population of 120 million, Ethiopia is one of the most populous countries in Africa. However, the country argues that its economy is severely affected by its lack of access to the sea. Since the 1991 Eritrean War of Independence, which left Ethiopia landlocked, Addis Ababa has relied on the Djibouti port despite seeking alternatives through failed negotiations with Kenya, Sudan, and Somaliland. Already in October 2023, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed indicated his intention to secure a new Red Sea port and access to international trade. Access to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea through the Port of Berbera could be considered a milestone for Ethiopia. 

  • As for Somaliland, the agreement with Ethiopia could mean achieving the long-awaited recognition of its statehood. Nevertheless, Ethiopia has clarified that the deal signed on 01/01/2024 does not automatically recognize Somaliland but rather represents “the starting point for negotiations.” The recognition process will need in-depth assessment and parliamentary deliberations. 

  • Relations between Ethiopia and Somalia have long been strained. The two nations have a longstanding history of territorial disputes, accompanied by a pattern of supporting opposing rebel groups through proxies. Each government has provided backing to rebel factions opposed to the other, further intensifying the conflict. Therefore, the Ethiopian-Somaliland agreement will likely spark widespread turmoil and increase the risk of conflict in the Horn of Africa. However, despite growing diplomatic friction, neither side has talked about armed conflict, nor does Somalia possess the capabilities to launch an attack against Ethiopia and Somaliland, partly because of the domestic conflict against the al-Shabab armed group. 

  • If Ethiopia should recognize Somaliland as a state, it would set a precedent for the recognition of separatist territories and could incentivize other regions to follow. Some believe that the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has long supported Ethiopia’s plan to negotiate access to Somaliland's ports, may be next in line to recognize the disputed self-governing territory of Somaliland. In recent years, the UAE has increasingly expanded its influence in the Horn of Africa.


Conclusion:

With the ongoing Houthi threat in the Red Sea, the Berbera port and military agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland will likely create more instability. While the agreement reached by the Ethiopian PM is economically motivated to advance the country's development and gain much-needed maritime access, negotiations with Somaliland could create an unintended ripple effect. First, the talks between Ethiopia and the autonomous self-proclaimed Somaliland region challenge the Somali state's sovereignty and set a precedent legitimizing non-state actors in the region. Secondly, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea area have critical relevance in international maritime trade. Rising tensions and the risk of further conflict in the region could affect global trade routes, prompting rising prices and disruptions in trade chains. Finally, the situation remains volatile, and while it does not seem likely at the moment, an escalation of violence between the parties cannot be ruled out. An outbreak of conflict could further deteriorate the already precarious humanitarian condition of the region, requiring the intervention and mediation of the international community, which is already engaged in the conflicts between Israel and Hamas and Russia and Ukraine. 


 

20240112 Somaliland-Ethiopia Port Agreement
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