Somalia is prepared for war

Ethiopia's move to build a naval base in Somaliland has escalated tensions in the Horn of Africa, with Somalia rejecting the memorandum of understanding, raising concerns about potential conflict and sparking rallies against the deal in Mogadishu.

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Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses the Parliament regarding the Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal in Mogadishu, Somalia January 2, 2024. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

The signing of a memorandum of understanding on January 1, allowing landlocked Ethiopia to build a naval base in Somaliland, has heightened tensions in the volatile Horn of Africa. Somalia considers Somaliland part of its territory and has invalidated the agreement. The president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has called for the defence of the homeland, and rallies against the deal have taken place in Mogadishu. Diplomatic options are being pursued, but Somalia is prepared for war if Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seeks it.

Historical conflicts between Ethiopia and Somalia and the unexpected nature of the port deal have intensified the situation. The adviser claimed that Abiy had previously denied plans to seek sea access through Somaliland during a summit in Saudi Arabia in November when questioned by Mohamud.

Somaliland was a British colony until 1960, experiencing a brief period of independence before voluntarily joining Somalia. The union faced challenges and eventually led to Somaliland declaring independence in 1991 after a liberation struggle against a Soviet-backed regime. Presently, Somaliland operates as a de facto independent state with its own currency, parliament, and diplomatic missions, despite lacking international recognition. In contrast to Somalia, plagued by Al-Shabaab, Somaliland enjoys relative peace, although recent clashes along its eastern border with Somalia have impacted its stable image. However, it remains unrecognized by any country, with Western governments deferring recognition until African nations do so, adhering to the African Union’s policy against altering colonial-era national boundaries.

Without recognition, Somaliland struggles to attract investment and is cut off from international finance, which is mostly channelled through Mogadishu. Somaliland’s foreign minister, Essa Kayd, said the port deal with Ethiopia will “legitimise our self-determination” and could spark a “domino effect” of other countries recognising the territory.

However, there is confusion over the content of the deal between Somaliland and Ethiopia. Neither side has made the full text public.

When it was struck, Somaliland’s president, Muse Bihi Abdi, said Ethiopia had agreed to grant official recognition in return for a 50-year lease of a stretch of coastline, which it will develop for naval and commercial purposes. However, Ethiopia said it had only agreed to make an in-depth assessment towards taking a position regarding the efforts of Somaliland to gain recognition.

Ethiopia became the world’s largest landlocked country in 1993 when Eritrea seceded along with its Red Sea coastline. In October, Abiy said this was a historic mistake that threatens Ethiopia’s existence, sparking fears of a war with Eritrea. “In 2030 we are projected to have a population of 150 million,” Abiy said. “150 million people can’t live in a geographic prison.”

Somalia is unlikely to attack Ethiopia while it fights with Al-Shabaab. But the deal could open fresh fissures in a turbulent region.

Mohamud visited Eritrea last week and is preparing to travel to Egypt. The countries are Ethiopia’s main regional rivals and have both expressed support for Somalia in the wake of the port deal.

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