Dehai News The Port as an Ongoing Agenda and Political Tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Saturday, 04 May 2024

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated on October 13, 2023, that his landlocked country has the right to demand maritime access to a Red Sea port from its neighbors through diplomatic efforts or in force.


After the 2018 internal political reform, Ethiopia has been facing political disorder. From 2020 to 2022, the federal government of Ethiopia was at war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after announcing the TPLF’s militant attack on the federal military base in the north. In the National Regional State of Oromia, the Federal Government of Ethiopia has been also at war with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). 

Since 2018, members of the OLF and Oromo irredentists have been committing ethnic cleansing and genocide on the Amhara ethnic group and fellow Orthodox Christians who have been considered settlers and members of the colonial ruling elites. Since August 2023, the Federal Government of Ethiopia has been at war with an unorganized but paramilitary group, Fano, in Amhara National Regional State. In this condition, the country has been in economic complication. There has been corruption, overgrowing poverty, unemployment, and a high inflation rate.

However, without prioritizing solving the country’s complex problem as part of his main political agenda, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated on October 13, 2023, that his landlocked country has the right to demand maritime access to a Red Sea port from its neighbors through diplomatic efforts or in force.

In fact, this essay argues that Abiy brought up the port issue owing to the following cases:

  1. Abiy dealt with port politics as a result of agenda-setting to deflect attention from domestic political squabbling. He was interested in regaining public support, which he has been missing since his failed future promise of creating a safe political landscape in the country. In addition, Abiy saw the port politics as sabotage for rebel groups  since the port politics were seen as a means to mobilize people on the side of Abiy’s administration against the rebel groups. 
  2. The UAE has been ambitious to establish a foothold in ports along the Red Sea and push Abiy to make a deal with Somaliland.
  3. Once Abiy’s administration acknowledges that the government cannot manage Eurobond issues, it could bring up the port’s agenda topic. Hence, obtaining a port can help Abiy Ahmed’s administration support its financial position and reduce the currency cost of importing products.

Accordingly, to forth the port agenda, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attempted to use a carrot strategy to persuade President Isayas Afeworki to put forward an interest in port, which boosted Eritrea’s level of anxiety and spurred Isayas to escalate his campaign against Ethiopia by coordinating other Horn countries, which eventually prompted Abiy to look for alternative routes to reach port.

As the best alternative, Abiy focused on Somaliland. Abiy’s ambition has been given precedence over the de facto state of Somaliland, although Somalia views Somaliland as a part of its territory. During a civil conflict in the south of the country in 1991, Somaliland declared its autonomy from Somalia and has governed autonomously ever since. However, neither the AU nor the UN recognizes Somaliland as a separate political entity.

Knowing this, Abiy made a landmark pact with Muse Bihi Abdi, president of Somaliland, on January 1, 2024, to lease 20 km around the port of Berbera, with access to the Red Sea, for 50 years for its navy after recognizing Somaliland as an independent nation-state. After this, backers of Abiy Ahmed hailed it as a significant diplomatic achievement; Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed even posted on X that “all that can be said is thank God” without realizing the agreement’s diplomatic shortcomings. 

Thereby, this agreement has drawn strong criticism  from around the world and enraged Somalia, which has referred to the action as an act of hostility. Several countries, notably the United States of America, have denounced Ethiopia’s action by citing the African Charter and the 1960 territories of the sovereign state of the Republic of Somalia. 

Somaliland is a vital element of Somalia’s territory. Any action that could lead to an agreement with any country without Mogadishu’s consent is an infringement on sovereignty and might hamper peace and stability. Subsequently, Somalia—which considers Somaliland to be a part of its territory—called in its envoy to Ethiopia to discuss the deal.  

Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, signed a bill on January 7, 2024, nullifying a preliminary agreement for Somaliland that would have allowed landlocked Ethiopia port access to Somaliland’s coast, considering the agreement a serious threat to the sovereignty of Somalia. In addition, on April 4, 2024, Somalia was expelling Ethiopia’s ambassador, closing two Ethiopian consulates, and recalling its own ambassador to Addis Ababa. On March 5, 2024, Somalia’s government rejected an offer by Kenya’s President William Ruto to mediate with Ethiopia over a sea access deal. 

Hence, regarding the portal agreement with Somaliland, the Ethiopian government has not issued any official statements of regret after Somalia shows its complaints in various ways. Following this, the elites in Somalia have begun to take this kind of action seriously. Elites in Somalia have been pressuring the Ethiopian government to issue a formal declaration, arguing that the agreement on the port was unlawful and that it threatened Somalia’s sovereignty.

Nevertheless, the Ethiopian government has been preferring silence and has been inviting the de facto states of Somaliland and Somalia Puntland to visit Ethiopia. It has also been engaging in hidden diplomatic negotiations with Somaliland and Somalia Puntland leaders.

Political tension arises between Ethiopia and Somalia as a result. Somalia, the OLF, and the Fano Force will have the chance to set up a military network throughout the Horn of Africa if the matter cannot be closed here. Other Horn of Africa countries, which are irritated by Abiy Ahmed’s obstinate diplomatic maneuvers, will favor Somalia and supply military supplies to OLF and Fano. Conflicts in the Horn of Africa will then intensify as a result.

Elites in Somalia intend to promote the ethnic conflict between Ethiopian Somalis and Oromo. Given that a significant portion of Ethiopia’s population speaks Somali, Somalia’s elites will spread the notion that all Somali speakers should unite in solidarity with the establishment of a great Somalia by merging Ethiopian-Somali with great Somalia and expanding the country’s borders all the way to Oromia, Ethiopia. This will spark a protracted clash between the Oromo and Somali ethnic groups.

In conclusion, Ethiopia’s landlocked agreement with Somaliland could negatively impact regional security dynamics and cannot pave the way for sea access. Ethiopia’s relations with other countries in the Horn of Africa, particularly with Somalia, will be affected by the port deal with Somaliland.  

Ways out

Ethiopia and Somalia are two weak states that have been struggling with their home politics and economic crises. Ethiopia has been facing fragility. Somalia remains on the list of states that have failed. In this situation, the conflict—or proxy conflict—that they will experience will be detrimental to them both.

Therefore, Ethiopia should first issue an official repentance to open the political tensions for discussion. After then, there must be talks, negotiations, and dialogue between the two countries. As usual, agreements on joint security, commercial ties, and Ethiopia’s right to utilize ports in accordance with international law must be reached between Somalia and Ethiopia.

Agenagn Kebede
   *Agenagn Kebede has worked at Injibara University in Injibara, Ethiopia, as an assistant professor of political science. His areas of interest in research are international relations, security, violence, gender, philosophy, the military, politics, Ethiopian politics, politics of the Horn of Africa, and political issues of marginalized groups. Reach Agenagn Kebede via Agenagn.Kebede[at] or agenagnkebede[at]

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