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Why Ethiopia’s Red Sea Port Deal With Somaliland Has Somalia On Edge

By Fasika Tadesse and Mohamed Omar Ahmed

Ethiopia has been landlocked since 1993, when Eritrea gained independence after a three-decade war, leaving it reliant on its neighbors’ ports. In 2023, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed identified regaining ocean access as a strategic objective and warned that failure to secure it could lead to conflict. Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti were incensed and said they would oppose any attempt to infringe on their territories, prompting Abiy to walk back his comments.

Then on Jan. 1, Ethiopia struck a deal to secure direct passage to the Red Sea via Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, which will get a stake in Ethiopia’s national airline in return. The alliance has stoked tensions across one of the world’s most volatile regions.

1. What does the deal entail?

memorandum of understanding envisions Ethiopia gaining access to the Bab El-Mandeb strait in the Gulf of Aden via a corridor that it would lease from Somaliland for 50 years. Ethiopia could establish a military base and commercial facilities there. In exchange, Somaliland would get an unspecified share of Ethiopian Airlines, the continent’s largest carrier. While President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland said Ethiopia will officially recognize Somaliland as a sovereign state, Addis Ababa said that issue is still being assessed.

2. Is Somaliland a country? Can it sign such an agreement?

That’s debatable. A former British protectorate, Somaliland united with Italian Somalia in 1960 following independence but then broke away in 1991 after a civil war erupted. It holds elections, issues its own passports, prints its own currency and has signed international investment deals, including with Dubai’s DP World Ltd. to expand its main port, and with London-based Genel Energy Plc for oil exploration. But it has failed to gain international recognition that would allow it to receive funding and aid from institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, with only Taiwan having recognized its independence.

Several rounds of negotiations between Somalia and Somaliland aimed at resolving their differences have deadlocked, and an announcement that talks would resume was made days before the deal with Ethiopia was announced. Edna Adan, Somaliland’s special envoy, has said the territory has the authority to sign any agreements it wants to and it doesn’t need to give notice to — or seek approval from — anyone else.

3. What does Somalia say?

Somalia regards Somaliland, which has about 5.7 million people and is bigger than the US state of Florida, as a part of its territory and says it can’t independently negotiate international accords. Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre described the deal with Ethiopia as “an act of aggression against Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and a direct threat to its maritime resources, and warned that his government would defend its rights. The nation’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, urged the international community to support Somalia’s position and condemn Ethiopia’s actions.

Somalia has limited scope to enforce its rights in Somaliland: Its military capabilities have been sapped by a 17-year fight against the Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabaab, and Ethiopia has a much more powerful army.

4. Who else is unhappy?

Ali Mohamud Rage, spokesman for al-Shabaab, which controls parts of Somalia and has been fighting to overthrow the government,told Radio Andalus that “there should be no room for the Ethiopians to acquire even an inch of land or ocean” in Somaliland and that it would suffer “bitter consequences” should it attempt to do so.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an eight-country regional group, expressed deep concern about the potential implications the deal would have on regional stability, and called for any differences to be resolved amicably.  Egypt and Eritrea are also expected to be concerned about the prospect of Ethiopia securing a naval base. And Djibouti, which Ethiopia currently traverses via road and rail to reach the ocean, could lose out economically.

5. Why is this conflict important?

The Bab El-Mandeb strait is a global shipping choke-point that leads to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and several countries have deployed naval forces there to safeguard their commercial interests.

Almost 12% of global economic trade passes though the strait, and the existing power balance could be disturbed should Ethiopia gain access, according to Rashid Abdi, chief Horn of Africa & Middle East analyst at Sahan Research.

Source: Bloomberg

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