The US and China closely following the Ethiopia-Somaliland sea access deal. The US congress already approved a partnership with Somaliland that will pave the way for military and security cooperation. Ethiopia’s biggest economic partner, China, on the other hand, is opposed to Somaliland’s independence due to its implications on the Taiwan issue. Wazema Radio highlighted some important impacts of the latest deal, read below.
Ethiopia and the breakaway Somaliland signed a milestone Cooperation and Partnership Memorandum of Understanding in Addis Ababa on January 1, allowing the former access to the Red Sea. National security advisor to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Redwan Hussein, said Somaliland will lease to Ethiopia 20km of sea access for 50 years, for establishing commercial maritime and naval military bases. It is to be remembered that France signed an agreement with Ethiopia to build the latter’s naval forces.
A statement by Somaliland’s Foreign Affairs ministry, also indicated that Ethiopia had agreed to recognise Somaliland as a sovereign country in exchange for the sea access. Ethiopia’s affirmation of the recognition came later in a post on X (formerly Twitter) by the State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mesganu Arega, who said his country welcomed the MoU. Despite President Muse Bihi’s hint that Ethiopia had agreed to give Somaliland a stake in the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, Somaliland’s Foreign Affairs ministry did not mention that part of the deal.
Ethiopia said the details of the deal will be worked out in a month. The conclusion of the deal will mean the agreement will be binding. Yet it will take time for the agreement to be approved by the respective parliaments.
The MoU has sparked joy and optimism in Ethiopia and Somaliland, as well as strong condemnation and rejection from Somalia. It is fair to argue that several independent observers have received the news with caution, citing international law, and geopolitical and diplomatic factors.
ETHIOPIA EYEING ON BERBERA PORT
Ethiopia has been eyeing on Somaliland’s Berbera port for years, to reduce its dependence on Djibouti. In 2017, Ethiopia, UAE’s port operator Dubai World and Somaliland, agreed on a deal in which DP World owned 51 percent, Somaliland 30 percent and Ethiopia 19 percent of Berbera port. In June 2022, however, Somaliland authorities revealed that Ethiopia did not fulfil its financial contributions to own a stake. The port is therefore currently owned by only Somaliland and DP World.
The opening of a new terminal at Berbera by DP World and the continued expansion has enhanced the port’s advantage to Ethiopia. The construction of the 234km highway connecting Berbera to Ethiopia’s border by DP World has further boosted the port’s importance. In November 2023, Ethiopia had said negotiations with Somaliland on the use of the port had reached a good stage.
It was against this background that Ethiopia and Somaliland signed the new MoU.
GLOBAL AND REGIONAL RAMIFICATIONS
This agreement comes against a backdrop of many geopolitical and diplomatic developments. No doubt, it will have domestic and regional diplomatic and security ramifications, particularly for Ethiopia, Somaliland and Somalia.
The MoU has drawn immediate condemnation from Somalia with the latter accusing Ethiopia of violating its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Somalia has thus declared the agreement “null and void”, and also immediately recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia.
A few months ago, Abiy openly expressed Ethiopia’s right to access a seaport and having a decision-making role on Red Sea affairs, as an existential matter for his country. He warned that denying Ethiopia access to the sea could be a recipe for a conflict.
Abiy’s rhetoric immediately sparked an open backlash from Somalia and Djibouti, with Eritrea joining the fray in a veiled manner. One possible explanation for Abiy’s sea access agreement with Somaliland therefore might be taken as a calculated push back against the neighbours opposed to his ambition.
The deal with Somaliland comes at a time when the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea has soured, following the November 2022 Pretoria Cessation of Hostilities Agreement between Abiy’s government and the Tigrayan forces. On the other hand, the rapprochement between presidents Hassan Mohammed and Issaias Afeworki has been strengthened by the sidelining of Abiy, despite an earlier tripartite regional alliance. The Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement could further fuel tensions between Addis Ababa and it’s neighbours, while strengthening the Somalia-Eritrea alliances against Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s concrete steps towards recognising Somaliland, or establishing a military or commercial naval base on the Red Sea coast of Somaliland, will also serve as an impetus to re-galvanise an anti-Ethiopian Somali nationalism. Historically, there has been a deep-rooted anti-Ethiopian sentiment among the Somali elites. Therefore, a deal between Ethiopia and Somalia will potentially jeopardise the former’s security cooperation with Somalia, as well as with the frontline federal regions of Southwest and Puntland, with which Ethiopia has had a cosy relationship. This may create a security vacuum that may embolden the al Shabaab terror group.
Djibouti might also see the deal as a threat to its port. However, Djibouti is unlikely to openly express its opposition, given its strong dependence on Ethiopia’s use of its port.
The deal might also draw in other regional and international actors, because of its implications on Berbera. One can safely assume that UAE might have a role in the deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland.
In 2020, eight states bordering the Red Sea established the council of Arab and African coastal states of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, including Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan. The landlocked Ethiopia was not invited to the council, despite its historical ties with the Red Sea. Somaliland is also not a member of the council because it is not a recognised sovereign state.
Apart from Ethiopia’s immediate neighbours, Egypt and Saudi Arabia therefore might also be opposed to Ethiopia’s potential access to the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have strong relations with Mogadishu, while Egypt is still in a diplomatic dispute with Ethiopia over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The US and China will also likely keep an eye on the Ethiopia-Somaliland sea access deal. The US already approved a partnership with Somaliland that will pave the way for military and security cooperation between them, including the establishment of a base in Berbera. Some observers see the pact as a step towards the US recognition of Somaliland. China, on the other hand, is opposed to Somaliland’s independence due to its implications on the Taiwan issue.
In general, the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal could potentially create a shift in a regional and international geopolitical and diplomatic landscape.
Wazema Radio is Ethiopia based independent media organization, editors are available on firstname.lastname@example.org