Dr. Abdurahman Abdullahi Baadiyow
The crisis resulting from the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on January 1, 2024, between Dr. Abiy Ahmed, the PM of Ethiopia, and Muse Bihi, the President of the separatist Somaliland, has sent shockwaves across the Horn of Africa. This MoU grants Ethiopia a strategic corridor of 20 kilometers inside Somali territory at the Gulf of Aden to construct a commercial port and a naval base. In return, Ethiopia commits to recognizing Somaliland as an independent state from the Federal Republic of Somalia and offers a share of Ethiopian Airlines.
The objective of signing the MoU is anchored on PM Abiy’s populist approach to domestic and foreign policy in response to Ethiopia’s internal challenges. Similarly, Muse Bihi is navigating through complex political circumstances, seeking to prolong his stay in power amidst growing opposition and his failure in the war with the SSC-Khatumo region in the eastern part of historical Somaliland.
The deep political, economic, and social crises affecting the people of Ethiopia and Somaliland have driven the two leaders to seek non-traditional solutions to their compound internal crises. For Ethiopia, the pursuit of creating a corridor in the Gulf of Aden represents a strategic move to secure maritime access, reducing its reliance on Djibouti and Eritrea, a dream Ethiopia has harbored for centuries. He ponders this strategic move will gain him the support of the Ethiopian people and realize his dreams. On the other hand, Muse Bihi aspires to realize international recognition for Somaliland. Thus, President Bihi sees this MoU as an opportunity for Somaliland to achieve independent statehood through Ethiopian support. Moreover, Muse Bihi’s willingness to engage in such an agreement reflects the severity of the internal challenges facing Somaliland and the precarious situation of continuing his leadership role.
Undoubtedly, Ethiopia has deliberately violated Somalia’s territorial unity and sovereignty by signing this MoU with Somaliland, which is de jure part of the Federal Republic of Somalia (FRS). The disastrous effects of this MoU require highlighting four points that the Ethiopian regime needs to account for its implications on the people of the Horn of Africa and beyond. Additionally, the clique of the Abiy regime should be aware that in any conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia, the Somali narrative and articulation is better conditioned globally than the Ethiopian.
1. Pitting Oromo Nationalism against Somali Nationalism
Somalis have shifted their perception of Greater Somalia, which initially meant the unification of the five regions inhabited by the Somali people—regions divided by colonial powers (Britain, France, Italy, and Ethiopia) during the scramble for Africa in the 19th century. Instead of continually striving to unify all Somali-inhabited regions in the Horn of Africa, Somalis adopted a new perspective on regional integration. This paradigm shift allowed Somalis in Ethiopia, Kenya, and the wider diaspora to integrate actively into the states they found themselves in. However, redefining Somali nationalism does not mean disregarding the unity of the mother state, Somalia, especially in the face of external threats. In times of such risks, Somalis unite and take collective action to protect Somalia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty regardless of their geographic location. Therefore, it is essential to note that while the new approach emphasizes regional integration and interconnectedness, the sense of Somali identity and solidarity during crises strengthens.
On the other hand, Oromo nationalism relies on the prevalent discourse among Oromo elites and nationalists who characterize the Oromo people as systematically oppressed under Ethiopian rule. Expressing Oromo nationalism, these elites and nationalists assert that the Oromo people have long suffered repression and marginalization within the context of Ethiopian governance. Their perspective is rooted in the belief that the relationship between Oromia and Ethiopia is irreconcilable, leading them to advocate for radical solutions such as establishing an independent Oromia state. As Oromo nationalism continues to evolve and influence political dynamics within Ethiopia, the complex interplay between self-determination, regional stability, and the broader issue of national identity remains at the heart of their directed political discourse.
Both Oromos and Somalis belong to the Cushitic cultural group, and the Somali state has historically supported the Oromo liberation movements in its struggle against the oppression of the highland inhabitants of Ethiopia, the Amhara and Tegre. However, instead of propping up this deep-rooted historical relationship, Dr. Abiy Ahmed has started to pit Oromo nationalism against Somali nationalism, which is a sympathetic and supportive historical cause of the Oromo. Pitting Oromo nationalism against Somalia nationalism is a disastrous policy led by Dr. Abiy. However, the elites of the Oromo opposition do not support Dr. Abiy’s policy. For instance, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) issued a communique supporting the territorial unity of Somalia. A welcoming transformation in Ethiopian politics is that even Amhara and Tigray oppositions have condemned Abiy Ahmed’s signing of the MoU, and many Ethiopian elites publicly expressed their support for the territorial unity of Somalia and good neighborly relations.
2. Inciting Religious War in the Horn of Africa
The Somali people in the Horn of Africa are predominantly Muslim, and the rise of Islamic values and principles in Somalia has gained momentum since the 1960s. This has expanded their influence among Muslims in Ethiopia, including the Muslim Oromo, who constitute a majority in Ethiopia. The common bonds among Muslims in the region are strong, and many Islamist movements have chosen peaceful methods to bring about change within their societies. A notable example is the integration of the Islamist movement in the Somali region and others, becoming an integral part of Ethiopian society. Similarly, the impact of Islamist ideology within the Somali Republic is evident in social, economic, and political realms.
Interestingly, despite their significant influence, many of these Islamist groups have opted for democratic means to bring about societal changes and have distanced themselves from resorting to violence. However, it is necessary to acknowledge that exceptions to this trend are the Al-Shabaab and ISIS movements that deviated from the broader non-violent path. These extremist groups were stirred by the Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia in 2006 during the uprising of the Union of the Islamic Courts against the warlords and nascent Somali government under President Abdullahi Yusuf. Since then, these groups have actively engaged in war against the Somali state and the greater Horn of Africa region.
Dr. Abiy Ahmed, rooted in Islamic culture, was born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother. He belongs to a Christian Pentecostal sect, and his inner circle mainly belongs to the Oromo’s Christian elite. The Somali expectation was that he would be more friendly towards Somalis due to their shared ethnic background and his hybrid religious culture. The ruling elite in modern Ethiopia has always been Christian, and Somalis perceived any war with Ethiopia as a conflict between Muslims and Christians. This concept is rooted in the historical conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the medieval ages in the Horn of Africa, where the Somalis fought side by side with other Muslim ethnic communities.
Al-Shabaab has seen signing this MoU as a new opportunity for recruitment and has declared its preparedness to extend its operations to Somaliland and Ethiopia. Therefore, Dr. Abiy must avoid stirring up religious wars that activate extremist groups like Al-Shabaab and ISIS, providing them with new mobilization opportunities and creating new justifications to stay in the region, especially as they are on the verge of defeat by the Somali government forces with support from friendly nations.
3. Provoking Clan Conflict in Somaliland
Historical Somaliland was immersed in a deep crisis since the war in its eastern part revolving around the distinct entity known as the SSC-Khatumo Administration, the home of the Dhulbahante clan belonging to the Darood clan family. This entity rejects being part of the Somaliland separatist region and demands to join the Federal Somali government. In contrast, a similar sentiment is simmering in the Awdal region, located northwest of the country, home to the Gudabursi and Issa clans. This region seeks to establish an independent state called the Awdal State, aiming and aspiring to join the Federal State of Somalia. Adding complexity to the situation is the internal divisions within the Isaq clan, to which President Musa Bihi belongs. This division within the clan is particularly evident in differing views on the issue of ceding land to Ethiopia in exchange for recognition of Somaliland. Moreover, internal disagreement between the Mise Bihi regime and the opposition parties on the election process exacerbates the internal division within the Isaq clan family. Thus, if President Bihi fails to yield to the parliamentary decision and the popular demand for conducting a fair election in Somaliland within the assigned time of 2024, the possibility of civil war is high.
Therefore, the MoU may destabilize Somaliland and create a volatile conflict environment among various clans and sub-clans. Thus, Dr. Abiy must realize that signing this MoU and attempting to implement it will likely ignite clan conflict in Somaliland, and his dream project will inevitably fail.
4. Provoking External Interventions in the Horn of Africa
During the Cold War, the Horn of Africa emerged as a pivotal point of global strategic importance, becoming a magnet for the competition of major powers and their dominance. This region remains a hot and crucial geopolitical point, with various countries establishing military bases in Djibouti, including China, the United States, and France. Additionally, rising regional powers such as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Egypt have asserted their military and economic influence in the area. Turkey, for instance, established an army training base in Mogadishu, and Turkish companies manage the airport and port in Mogadishu. The United States had a base in Somalia and assisted the Somali army in combating the insurgency of Al-Shabaab, safeguarding against Chinese and Russian influence on the Somali coast. Furthermore, the UAE, which manages the ports of Berbera and Bossaso, established a military base there. The UAE is keen on controlling Somali maritime ports and influencing Somali politics through various means. Moreover, Egypt, upset about its disagreement with Ethiopia in the Renaissance Dam negotiation, will consider the Ethiopian outlet to the Red Sea as their national security threat. Furthermore, Eritrea and Djibouti felt threatened for economic and security reasons.
This intricate network of geopolitical relationships raises concerns about the potential for proxy wars in the region. Such a conflict could jeopardize the long-term aspirations of the people in the Horn of Africa for peace and development. Considering these challenges, Dr. Abiy must refrain from provoking foreign intervention in the Horn of Africa strategic region. Foreign intervention has the potential to escalate tensions and cause significant harm to the people of the Horn of Africa. It is crucial to support the collective vision of the people and work towards creating a favorable environment for peace, development, and prosperity for the region’s diverse populations.
On the other hand, Dr. Abiy should understand the role of international support of the sanctity of the territorial unity of states and how it played a role in the Somali-Ethiopian war in 1977-78 and the potential role of mobilizing masses during wars to defend the mother country.
The Role of International Support in Territorial Unity
Studying contemporary historical conflicts between Somalia and Ethiopia reveals a consistent pattern where Ethiopia emerged victorious on both diplomatic and military fronts, despite the initial victory by Somalis on the battlegrounds, benefiting from the support of external nations aligned with them. This success can be attributed to portraying Somalis as violators of established international norms and laws, especially in pursuing the Greater Somalia project. As a result, the aspiration for all-Somali unity did not gain global traction, with the international community viewing Somalia as going against accepted international norms and practices. An influential example of this dynamic was the 1977-1978 war between Somalia and Ethiopia when Somalis initially secured control over a significant portion of the disputed territory. However, Ethiopia ultimately triumphed through significant and direct military intervention, supported by the Soviet Union, East Germany, Cuba, South Yemen, and other socialist regimes. Other countries considered Somalis to be violators of Ethiopian sovereign territories and the charter of the African Union.
However, in the current context, the image is reversed, with Ethiopia now being viewed as the aggressor and violator of well-established international standards regarding the sanctity of territorial unity for sovereign states. This perspective has gained widespread support for Somalia in various regional, sub-regional, and international forums, all united against what is perceived as Abiy Ahmed’s annexation, cleverly disguised as leasing land and a seaport within Somali territory in 50 years. The global consensus reflects a shared commitment to supporting regional peace principles, significantly departing from narratives that favored Ethiopia. This shift highlights the evolving dynamics of international relations and nuanced perspectives shaping geopolitical positions. Therefore, Abiy Ahmed must reconsider his endorsement of the destabilizing MoU and abandon his ambitions toward Somalia.
Potential Role of Mobilizing Masses During Wars
It is essential to remember the strength of Somalis, and their resilience depends on their strong society. The Somali people have endured for over three decades to rebuild their institutions amidst the longest civil war. Despite these challenges, Somalis demonstrate remarkable economic and political strength and potential military capability. The solid societal bonds among Somalis reinforce a sense of unity and collective strength that surpasses external perceptions. Economically, politically, and militarily, Somalis are more potent than others may imagine and underestimate. This power is vested in the Somali clans, who are well-equipped and well-trained, capable of forming a massive force of clan militias when necessary. This lesson could be learned by reflecting on the Somali-Ethiopian War of 1977-1978, when the Somali military regime made a similar miscalculation, assuming Ethiopia was militarily weak and internally divided. However, this proved to be a gross miscalculation. Contrary to Somali expectations, the war unified Ethiopians, receiving support from socialist countries and mobilizing a massive militia to confront Somali forces.
Naturally, the consequences of this underestimation led to Somalia’s defeat in the end, significantly impacting the cohesion of the Somali people and ultimately leading to the civil war and the collapse of the in 1991. This history emphasizes the importance of accurate assessments and the potential repercussions of underestimating nations’ strength in quickly overcoming their internal division when sensing a collective threat. Therefore, Dr. Abiy and his Prosperity Party should learn lessons from the contemporary Somali-Ethiopian wars and their lasting impact.
In summary, the MoU signed between Dr. Abiy Ahmed and Musa Bihi carries disastrous implications for the stability and well-being of the region’s populations. The potential adverse outcomes extend beyond the highlighted four points and additional comprehension of various miscalculations, emphasizing the need for immediate attention to prevent escalating problems that may have long-term consequences. The fires of conflict must be extinguished before they engulf the people and the Horn of Africa, with potential ramifications reaching the security of vital trade routes.
In the face of these multifaceted challenges, urgent measures are required to address underlying issues and promote an environment conducive to conflict resolution. Proactive efforts are needed to quell the flames of discord, emphasizing the importance of cooperation and collective commitment to regional stability. The well-being of the people in the Horn of Africa, the security of vital trade routes, and the broader geopolitical landscape depend on responsible and wise management of the current situation by stopping the mad and disastrous decisions of the signed MoU by Dr. Abiy Ahmed and Muse Bihi.
Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow
Email: [email protected]
Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow is a Professor of Modern Islamic History and a Senior Adviser for the Somali President on Peace and Reconciliation.
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