Agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland… a recipe for tensions in the Horn of Africa

Ethiopian Prime Minister's speech detonates Abiy Ahmed On October 14 he expressed great surprise when he confirmed that the acquisition of a seaport was a matter of life and death for his landlocked country, and intimated that it would obtain this right by force or other means.

Although he later confirmed the following Ethiopia Solve this problem peacefully. The demands have heightened tensions with the country's coastal neighbors in the Horn of Africa.

New surprise, she received everyone Addis Ababa (capital of Ethiopia) and territory Somaliland New separatist generals have signed a memorandum of understanding both sides say is historic that will allow Ethiopia access to the sea, sparking a wave of questions about the geopolitical implications of the step and its impact on relations between the volatile Horn of Africa countries. guess. African.

Ethiopia and the sea…a dream that will never die

The sea has always been central to Ethiopia's conscience, especially after Eritrea's independence in 1993, which turned the former colonizer into one of Africa's largest landlocked countries.

Ethiopia's new ambitions were the latest manifestation of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's October 14 speech in the country's parliament.

In justifying his country's right to a seaport, Ahmed made a number of historical, economic, demographic and geopolitical reasons.

He emphasized that in less than ten years, his compatriots will reach 150 million and “cannot live in a geographical prison” and “the Nile River and the Red Sea are the basis for Ethiopia's development or destruction.”

Ethiopia's dependence on neighboring Djibouti's ports for imports and exports via the Red Sea has been an ongoing concern for Addis Ababa, prompting it to develop a port diversification strategy with Somalia, Kenya, and others, but the latest development is hoping to gain own sovereign seaport.

The announcements were followed by responses from Ethiopia's coastal neighbors Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea, with reports of a military buildup on the Eritrean-Ethiopian border escalating fears of an armed conflict between the two countries. On the side, “sea” is the fuse that detonates it.

Shipping containers are loaded and unloaded on board the Okee August at the Port of Berbera on August 31, 2021. Dubai-based port operator DP World and the Somaliland government opened a container terminal at the Port of Berbera in June 2021.  (Photo by Ed Memory/AFP)
Port of Berbera, Somaliland, administered by the United Arab Emirates (French)

an important turning point

Given the volatile political climate in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia's Prime Minister and the president of the separatist Somaliland region Moussa Bihi Abdo signed a memorandum of understanding, marking a new turning point in the ongoing crisis.

A statement issued by the Ethiopian Prime Minister confirmed that the memorandum “will pave the way to realize Ethiopia's desire to ensure diversified access to the sea and seaports”.

Meanwhile, Somaliland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in a statement that the agreement “guarantees access to the Ethiopian navy to the sea in exchange for official recognition of the Republic of Somaliland” as the Somaliland region will lease a 20-kilometer coastal strip to Ethiopia zone for a period of 50 years.

motivation and gain

Nourdin Abda, editor-in-chief of Ethiopia's Nilotik website, believes that the memorandum of understanding between the two parties was reached under an extremely complex regional and international situation. “In the face of the current fluctuations, everyone is seeking to reposition themselves.” . The end of international relations. “

Abda added to Al Jazeera Network that both Ethiopia and Somaliland had their own motives for reaching this agreement.

Explaining Addis Ababa's motivations, Abda said Ethiopia had a “strong desire to have free access to the sea to ensure its international trade and achieve national security” and that Ethiopia could not “face the huge security threats it has witnessed” right next to the Red Sea. . “

Shafa Omar, a political analyst specializing in the Horn of Africa, agreed, explaining that the nature of Ethiopia's motivations goes beyond economic reasons and also involves geopolitics, as the Ethiopian Prime Minister made clear in his speech at this conference. and security level. treat.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Omar linked the Somaliland government's decision to sign the agreement to its desire for international recognition, suggesting that in this way “tacit recognition was obtained from Ethiopia.”

But this is not the only gain for the separatist region, Omar believes there are also economic motives that cannot be ignored, which, he explains, include “the acquisition of a stake in Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest airline, which constitutes a significant economic opportunity for Somaliland. “

Somaliland President Moose Bihi Abdi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attend the signing of a memorandum of understanding agreement that allows Ethiopia to use Somalia in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 1, 2024 Lan port.  REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
Abiy Ahmed (left) pledges to recognize the independence of the separatist region of Somaliland (Reuters)

Pathways to international recognition

Since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, the Somaliland region has declared itself an independent state under the name “Republic of Somaliland”, but this independence has not been recognized by central authorities in Mogadishu, which considers the region a vassal country.

The separatist region has struggled for three decades to win international recognition of its independence, but observers believe Ethiopia's recognition could be a precursor to similar steps by other African countries.

In a speech last October, Ethiopia's prime minister offered surrounding coastal states the option of acquiring up to 30% of shares in key Ethiopian institutions such as the Renaissance Dam, Ethiopian Airlines or Ethiopian Telecom in exchange for gaining sovereign access for him The country went to sea, but he did not gain her acceptance.

UAE presence

Somaliland's strategic location on the Gulf of Aden, near Mandeb Gate, has been coveted by many countries amid a decade of competition for the Horn of Africa and its ports.

In this context, the name of the United Arab Emirates stands out, which, through its giant DP World, signed a $442 million agreement with Somaliland in 2016 to operate a regional commercial and logistics center at the port of the commercial city of Berbera.

Two years later, the two parties also signed an agreement to integrate the free economic zone project with the Berbera Port Development Project. Dubai Ports retains a 51% stake in the project. The first phase of the project will be completed in 2021, giving the port an annual operating capacity of up to 500. 1000 containers.

This is why some observers have linked the MoU between Somaliland and Ethiopia to the UAE’s ratification, given the close ties between the three. Furthermore, if the Port of Berbera becomes a major corridor for trade with Ethiopia, profits for Dubai World, the largest economy in the Horn of Africa, will increase significantly.

Notably, a 2018 agreement between Dubai Ports, Somaliland and Ethiopia, which ensured the latter received a 19% share of the Port of Berbera, was not completed as Addis Ababa failed to meet the conditions required to be completed. can be done. 2022.

The picture shows the container and the panoramic view of Djibouti Port on March 27, 2016. The Port of Djibouti is located at the southern entrance of the Red Sea and is at the intersection of major international routes connecting Asia, Africa and Europe.  (Photo by Simon Maina/AFP)
Port of Djibouti at the southern entrance to the Red Sea (French)

external influence

Omar Ahmed, a political analyst who specializes in Horn of Africa affairs, believes that there is an international dimension behind the memorandum of understanding that cannot be ignored.

He added that the plan had the approval of the United States, which, as Ahmed said, “represents the most important player in the region and has the largest military base in Djibouti, and Ethiopia will not do so without U.S. approval.” Establish a naval base in neighboring Somaliland.”

Ahmed told Al Jazeera that the memorandum was “inseparable from developments in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the reorganization of the Horn of Africa region, which is in line with the future interests of the United States and limits any Russian actions.” China’s influence in the region. “

Djibouti hosts Camp Lemonnier, the United States' only permanent base in the Horn of Africa, and plays a sensitive security and military role related to combating “terrorism” in East Africa and Yemen.

Radwan Hussein, security adviser to Ethiopia's prime minister, tweeted on the X website that the current understanding would pave the way for Ethiopia to acquire a Red Sea military base.

new crisis

Ethiopia-Somaliland understanding threatens to spark… mogadishu In Addis Ababa, the Somali Parliament, People's Assembly and Senate voted unanimously to cancel the memorandum, arguing that it violated international conventions and norms.

The Somali government also considered this a “blatant violation of Somalia's sovereignty” and stressed that it would take all measures to defend its sovereignty, people and land.

Yesterday Tuesday, the day after the agreement was announced, Mogadishu also quickly summoned its ambassador to Addis Ababa for consultations.

Omar Ahmed believed Somalia's reaction was expected, adding that there were others in the region who shared Mogadishu's fears.

The State of Djibouti may be one of the countries that has reservations about the agreement, as it is leading the mediation between Somalia and Somaliland, which resulted in the parties signing an agreement on December 31 last year setting out a roadmap for its restoration . Negotiations between them and a memorandum of understanding agreed a day later undermined all those efforts.

Omar added that Addis Ababa's use of the Berbera port would deprive Djibouti of its advantage as a major transit point for imports and exports from Ethiopia, which could result in Djibouti losing significant toll and tax revenue.

On May 17, 2015, a ship docked at the port of Berbera, Somalia.  REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Port of Berbera, Somaliland, 2015 (Reuters – File)

Eritrea's worries

In the same context, Eritrea also appears to be wary of Addis Ababa acquiring any naval base as “the Eritrean regime has been trying to keep Ethiopia in trouble”.

Shafa Omar believes that the agreement will exacerbate already existing tensions in the region, explaining that it highlights the need for “continuous understanding and negotiations to contain the impact.”

For Noureddine Abda, the steps taken by Ethiopia and Somaliland “are calculated in terms of consequences for both sides,” explaining that Ethiopia's best option is to “take the risk of tensions, whether in Africa between Horn countries or between Horn of Africa countries.” regions rather than wait and see without taking steps to ensure their national security. “

On the other hand, Abda continued, Somaliland's crisis with Mogadishu is already ongoing, so it could risk escalation in exchange for recognition and a revitalized economy and trade.

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