Is a port deal causing instability in the Horn of Africa?

Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attend the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding agreement, that allows Ethiopia to use a Somaliland port, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 1, 2024. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

The landlocked nation of Ethiopia has entered into a preliminary agreement with Somaliland, a self-proclaimed breakaway republic in northwestern Somalia. This agreement grants Ethiopia both commercial and military access to Somaliland’s gateway to the Red Sea, through a port deal that has the potential to escalate tensions in the volatile Horn of Africa region.

The arguments

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Somaliland’s leader, Muse Bihi Abdi, signed a memorandum of understanding on the first day of 2024. In this agreement, Abdi stated that he would lease over 12 miles of sea access to the Ethiopian Navy for a period of 50 years. In return, Ethiopia would officially acknowledge Somaliland as an independent nation, a significant move that Abdi described as establishing “a precedent as the first nation to extend international recognition to our country.”

As part of the deal, Somaliland would also gain a stake in the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines. However, specific details regarding this aspect of the agreement were not disclosed during the announcement.

The agreement for access to the Somaliland port of Berbera is currently not legally binding, but further negotiations in the coming months may lead to the development of an enforceable treaty between the two parties.

Ethiopia, the second-most-populous nation in Africa, lost its sea access in 1993 when Eritrea seceded and declared independence. Subsequently, Ethiopia has heavily relied on Djibouti for international trade, with over 95% of its imports and exports passing through the Addis Ababa-Djibouti corridor. The annual expenditure of $1.5 billion by Ethiopia to utilize Djibouti’s ports poses a significant financial burden for a nation grappling with challenges in servicing its substantial debts.

The facts

The significance of this agreement lies in its impact on the already complex situation in the Horn of Africa. The region is grappling with civil war, political disputes, and widespread humanitarian crises. The pact could exacerbate tensions in the Red Sea, a crucial global shipping route that has become increasingly precarious, particularly amid the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The primary opposition to the agreement comes from Somalia, where Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre’s cabinet held an emergency meeting to discuss the deal. Somalia’s government declared the agreement “null and void” and called upon the African Union and the United Nations Security Council to convene meetings on the issue. Somalia also recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia for urgent consultations.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud emphasized the sovereignty of Somalia, stating in a parliamentary address that they would defend every inch of their sacred land and not tolerate attempts to relinquish any part of it. Talks between President Mohamud and Somaliland’s leader, Muse Bihi Abdi, held in Djibouti just days earlier, are now likely to be in disarray.

Eritrea and Egypt are concerned about Ethiopia having a major naval presence in the strategic Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. In Djibouti, where Ethiopia pays approximately $1.5 billion annually to use its ports, the potential loss of this income could lead to instability for President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has benefited from the cash inflow during his more than two decades in office.

Over the years, the Ethiopian government has actively sought to diversify its seaport access, exploring options in countries such as Sudan and Kenya. In 2018, Ethiopia signed a deal to acquire a 19% stake in the port at Berbera, but this agreement ultimately fell through.

In recent months, Prime Minister Abiy has adopted a more assertive stance regarding Ethiopia’s aspirations to secure a port along East Africa’s seaboard. In October, during remarks broadcasted on state television, he emphasized the need to liberate Ethiopia’s 126 million people from their “geographic prison.” He also invoked a 19th-century Ethiopian warrior who declared the Red Sea as Ethiopia’s “natural boundary.”

These statements have created concern and tension in the region, with observers and officials fearing that Prime Minister Abiy might initiate another conflict, especially given internal divisions and just a year after the brutal conflict in the northern Tigray region came to an end.

Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991, establishing its own currency and flag. Over the years, it has conducted numerous parliamentary and presidential elections, solidifying its status as a distinct entity. Despite being a stable region hosting events like a major literary festival with renowned authors and an international marathon in its capital, Hargeisa, Somaliland has yet to gain international recognition.

President Abdi, who assumed office in late 2017, has faced challenges, including overstaying his term and operating under an extension structure not acknowledged by the country’s political opposition.

In light of these challenges, the recent agreement with Ethiopia is seen as a crucial lifeline for President Abdi. According to Ms. Gaid, this deal provides him with added leverage, tipping the balance in his favour and strengthening his bargaining position amidst the complex political landscape and internal conflicts.

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