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The Ethiopia-Somaliland Port Deal and its Consequences for the Stability of the Horn of Africa

Michaela Gyasi-Agyei | Africa Fellow

Signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between Ethiopia PM and Somaliland President. Image credit: Office of the President of Somaliland via Wikimedia Commons.

The new year began with Ethiopia controversially signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the unrecognised state of Somaliland, granting Ethiopia access to a port on its coast. Since the announcement occurred, Somalia, Egypt and several other states have condemned the deal, citing its potential to exacerbate regional security concerns in the Horn of Africa region.

Fraught histories

Following a civil war, Somaliland claimed independence from Somalia in 1991, sparking continued tense relations. Despite demonstrating several key attributes of statehood – including possessing its own government, using its own currency and issuing its own passports – Somaliland has been consistently denied recognition as an independent state. This stance has not only been upheld by Somalia, but also by all other officially recognised states, and organisations such as the African Union and the United Nations. The reluctance to acknowledge Somaliland’s sovereignty is largely rooted in fears that doing so could compromise Somalia’s territorial integrity and escalate existing regional security issues.

The relationship between Ethiopia and Somalia has also been strained. Between 1977 and 1978, the states were involved in a conflict concerning a territory located in eastern Ethiopia, now known as the Somali Region. Disputes over their border persist to this day. Furthermore, Ethiopia and Somaliland’s relatively amicable history, marked by trade and security arrangements since the 1980s, has created further friction with Somalia.

Mutual benefits

While the exact terms of the MoU have not been publicly released, it appears to offer valuable benefits from both Ethiopia and Somaliland’s perspectives. The deal is tipped to grant Ethiopia access the Red Sea via a port on Somaliland’s coast for a period of 50 years. Since Eritrea gained independence in 1993, Ethiopia became a land-locked country and has resorted to relying on Djibouti’s coastline for sea access. This new port deal will reduce Ethiopia’s dependence on Djibouti, while also bringing benefits to Somaliland in the form of receiving shares in Ethiopian Airlines. Additionally, Ethiopia has reportedly agreed to consider officially recognising Somaliland as an independent state. Such recognition could advance Somaliland’s long-term goal of achieving statehood but may also complicate its relationship with other states and intergovernmental organisations.

Diplomatic deadlock

Somaliland’s port deal with Ethiopia carries imminent impacts for their respective diplomatic relations, as well as the potential to reopen old wounds. The President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has spoken out against the deal and recalled Somalia’s ambassador to Ethiopia. This has mobilised Somalia’s allies, including Egypt, whose president declared solidarity with Somalia against any perceived threats to its territorial integrity. Somalia has also claimed to have the support of Eritrea, which maintains a contentious relationship with Ethiopia.

Several organisations have called for a de-escalation of the situation, including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development of which Ethiopia and Somalia are both members. The African Union’s Peace and Security Council has also urged the parties to use “restraint”. Other regional blocs and states, including the Arab League, the European Union, and the United States, have asked for Somalia’s sovereignty to be respected. Amidst calls for diplomatic resolution, the Ethiopian government has attempted to engage in mediation with Somalia. However, the Somali government has refused to engage in discussions.

A region on the brink

Following the signing of the MoU, the Somali government threatened conflict if the deal proceeded, raising concerns about escalating tensions between Somalia, Somaliland and Ethiopia. Such tensions could evolve diplomatic disagreements into violent confrontations, adding to the pre-existing internal challenges each country or territory already faces. Somaliland’s current issues include an ongoing conflict in the city of Las Anod between militias of the Dhulbahante clan and the Somaliland National Army. Ethiopia is still reeling from conflict in the Tigray region and dealing with a hunger crisis, while Somalia battles the persistent threats posed by the al-Shabaab terrorist group. This is compounded by the African Union’s recent decision to withdraw its peacekeepers from Somalia, further complicating efforts to ensure citizen safety. Ethiopia has also been a target of attacks from al-Shabaab, and the recent disputes could weaken joint efforts with Somalia to combat the terrorist group.

The port deal could have spillover effects in the Horn of Africa, fanning the flames of current political, economic and security issues. Ethiopia is currently Djibouti’s main trading partner and the deal would likely divert a significant amount of income from the country. This could severely affect Djibouti’s economy, which is already at risk due to the Red Sea crisis. Historical tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia seem to have been reignited and manifested in recent incidents, including Eritrean troops being accused of abducting Ethiopian citizens. With Eritrea reportedly backing Somalia’s position in relation to the port deal, Ethiopia and Eritrea could become further polarised.

Despite fears the deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland could cause a further decline in the state of affairs in the Horn of Africa, the Prime Minster of Ethiopia does not seem to share these concerns. Abiy Ahmed has stated that “the development of Somalia is the development of our country. We believe we are brothers." Some are holding out hope that Ethiopia and Somaliland will be able to reap the potential benefits of the port deal while avoiding negative repercussions. Whether this is possible remains to be seen.

Michaela Gyasi-Agyei is the Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She has a Bachelors of Economics/Laws (Honours) from the University of Queensland.


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