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MJPS.SSMU.ca: The Ethiopia-Somaliland Agreement: Reshaping the Political Order in the Horn of Africa

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Monday, 19 February 2024

 

To ring in the New Year, Ethiopia and the internationally unrecognized Republic of Somaliland recently struck a major bilateral agreement. In exchange for recognition of the breakaway Republic, Ethiopia will be granted direct access to the Red Sea through the port of Berbera, fulfilling a long-term geopolitical aspiration of Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed, and his predecessors. The historic memorandum of understanding, in addition to its inevitable implications for geopolitics in the Horn of Africa, appears to be a ‘win-win’ for both parties. 

The angle from Addis Ababa: a thrust towards great power status

Following the conclusion of the Tigray War in November of 2022, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shifted gears, seeking to consolidate the power of his administration after two years of conflict in Ethiopia’s northeast. In the midst of ethnic tensions and instability in a nation of over 80 ethnicities, Ahmed reignited a 30-year foreign policy objective: ending its status as a landlocked nation. 

The second-most populous country on the continent, Ethiopia has lacked direct sea access since the conclusion of the Ethiopian Civil War (1974-91), wherein neighboring Eritrea broke away, taking with it Ethiopia’s sole coastline. Since then, Ethiopia has relied on Djibouti, paying over one billion dollars annually for the privilege of port access. Throughout 2023, Ahmed has repeatedly agitated for a permanent port on the Red Sea, claiming that the situation is “an existential matter,” with the Ethiopian people subjected to a “geographic prison.” Ethiopian posturing has inflamed relations with Eritrea, an apparent reversal of Ahmed’s attempts at rapprochement, which earned him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, and Eritrean assistance in ending the Tigray War. The Somaliland agreement has seemingly averted the need for direct conflict. Through a 50-year lease, Ethiopia has gained direct and near-permanent Red Sea access, allowing substantial expansion of Ethiopian military and economic power throughout the Horn of Africa. Ahmed’s dreams of Ethiopia’s great power appear very much alive, at least for the moment. 

For Somaliland: the crawl towards true independence 

Like Ethiopia, the agreement leaves Somaliland with something its leadership has long starved for: international recognition. Having broken away from Somalia in 1991 with its declaration of independence, Somaliland, claiming the north-western quarter of Somalia’s territory, has functioned not only as a de facto state but also as a wildly successful one, especially compared to its failed parent state. Yet Somalia, rife with instability and an ineffective government unable to enforce its own authority, appears unable to do more than loudly object. 

Still, Somaliland is by no means invincible: the state has found itself ensnared in conflict with Puntland, a semi-autonomous Somali province, over two disputed provinces in Somalia’s northeast. This conflict, alongside regional instability stemming from the ongoing Somali Civil War, has made Somaliland’s priorities clear—to create as much distance between itself and the chaos as possible. 

Somaliland has cultivated informal relationships with other nations, namely the similarly positioned Taiwan, but has long sought formal recognition from established states. The need for allies and thirst for international recognition has brought Somaliland to the bargaining table with Ethiopia. For its part, Somaliland has secured the recognition it has coveted for decades, along with a stake in the profitable Ethiopian airlines. Although a ‘domino effect’ of international recognition following Ethiopia’s declaration is unlikely, backing from a major regional player will doubtlessly bolster Somaliland’s legitimacy abroad. 

The memorandum of understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, so far, appears to be a natural agreement, mutually beneficial for both parties. In Ethiopia, a nation where domestic wheat production has consistently fallen below the demands of its exploding population, securing a cheap, low-cost trade artery is vital to feeding Ethiopia’s population, expected to reach over 150 million by 2030. 

Implications for the Horn of Africa’s future

Beyond securing unencumbered access to the international market for its gold and coffee exports, this move will greatly expand Ethiopia’s ability to project military power into the strategically vital Red Sea. For dreams of Ethiopia as Africa’s first 21st-century great power to come to fruition, Ethiopia’s military capabilities will need to be revitalized, to properly capitalize on their newfound strategic position. In the face of continued diplomatic clashes with Egypt over Ahmed’s pet project, the “Grand Renaissance Dam”, and the potential for a flare-up with Eritrea, ensuring the Ethiopian military is capable beyond numbers on a page is crucial. 

For Somaliland, this agreement is monumental and goes beyond mere international recognition. The development of an Ethiopian military base in Somaliland inextricably ties both nations together Indeed, with a significant regional actor gaining a stake in Somaliland’s continued sovereignty, the aspiring state doesn’t appear to need further international recognition to secure its continued existence. Instead, Somaliland can pursue a more ambitious foreign policy, vying for allies and taking advantage of its vital position relative to global trade, perhaps in the model of neighboring Djibouti. 

In the event that  Somaliland cannot capitalize on its potential, its partnership with Ethiopia will nonetheless insulate the “oasis of stability” from its otherwise tumultuous neighborhood. No matter the outcome of this partnership, one thing is clear: it will likely define politics in the Horn of Africa for the foreseeable future. Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia will doubtlessly see a decline in their influence over Ethiopia, unable to tangle port access over the nation in exchange for concessions. Although the long-term implications are uncertain, the move will doubtlessly upset the delicate balance of a region already rife with instability. 

Edited by Tatum Hiller


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