World News The Horn Of Africa States: The Somali Seas – OpEd

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Tuesday, 20 February 2024

Among the old Somali tales, there is one that talks about a thief and a foolish man, where upon one day the thief was walking on a road in search of someone to rob. He came across a man attending to some house chores not far from his home and the thief asked him if he could accommodate him for the night as he was far away from home. The man took him in for the night but asked the thief not to steal anything from him during that night. He showed him many of the things that were in the house and said to him. “Should you steal anything from my house, I would be obliged to call you back to ask you the things you have taken and then I will call the people to kill you.” 

The thief did not listen to the foolish man and stole everything from the house and then said, “I wish I always came across such a foolish man to steal from.” The story is generally narrated and is meant to teach that one should not trust anyone and tell them one’s secrets. Some Somalis have just done that and signed away a part of their sea and land to another country which had ambitions on it throughout history,  supposedly through a lease process that lasts for a long time. It is the signing  away of the rights to one’s rights on the land  and sea even if it is only for 20 km that is not acceptable to Somalia and Somalis, except the few that are signing it away. 

Indeed, Somalia had always had the longest coast in Africa. It is some 4,024 km of which 340 km has been given away during the creation of Ex-French Somaliland, presently Republic of Djibouti and another 351km has been clipped away in the nineteenth century and given away to Kenya. Despite the clippings on the wings, it still has the longest coast in Africa with 1,492 stretching along the Gulf of Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea to the very Horn of Africa and 1,841 km along the Indian Ocean.

It owned many islands but lost some to colonial Europe, which passed them onto other countries, just as they did to the parts of the coastal belt,  such as the Socotra Archipelago, which now belongs to Yemen but under the control of the United  Arab Emirates. Nevertheless the remaining coastal belt and its marine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is vast, amounting to nearly a million square kilometres.

Before the collapse of the central government in 1991, Somalia, had a naval power that controlled its seas and ocean, the Somali seas. However, since 1991, its naval power like anything else in the country has collapsed but this is being is slowly recreated like all the other institutions of governance in a federal framework. Somalia always owned a strong navy which protected its waters and there is no doubt such a force will come into being in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately those who want to steal away the waters and the wealth therein are lurking in the vicinity, and this would naturally disturb the region and the world’s trade and transportation of goods and people should Ethiopia not be stopped on its tracks soon. 

Today the Somali waters appears to be like raw meat ready for plucking by any marauding party and such was the recent MoU illegally signed by a regional authority of Somalia to provide a naval base to Ethiopia, with which Somalia had traditionally had  antagonistic and violent relations as a result of Somali territories taken away through the partition of Africa at the end of the nineteenth century and sanctioned by the colonial powers then, namely the United Kingdom and France. Indeed, the Italians never sanctioned the border with Ethiopia, which remains provisional to this date between Somalia and Ethiopia and Somalis own a large swathe of territory in Ethiopia, today called the Somali State of Ethiopia, with its governance infrastructure within the Ethiopian federal government. This was always the source of much of the conflicts of the Horn of Africa from 1960 onwards but calmed down since 1991. The populations, indeed, became exposed to each other and came to know each other better but unfortunately, the current Ethiopian Administration which has a lot of internal opposition including the Tigray , the Amhara, the Benishangul, the Oromo and, indeed, Somalis, must find a way of enticing the country and population against a foreign enemy and what is easier than Somalia to finger. 

This may give rise to conflicts in the region that neither Ethiopia nor Somalia nor the peoples of the region would enjoy and appreciate. The MoU, as has been noticed over the past two months, has already kept the region awake and sleepless, and this represents only the MoU! What happens if and when an actual implementation of the MoU into a formal agreement and a formal handover of lands and seas ever happens? I doubt if the leaders of the region, and especially Prime Minister Abiye Ahmed of Ethiopia, have genuinely thought of the implications or do they, indeed, want to turn the region into a piece of hell for the one hundred sixty million people who live there? They already know that the region is one of the most difficult of environments for human life simply because of the conflicts resulting from the quarrels of its ethnic-based politics.

The conflict in the Red Sea, which currently involves missiles over its main chokepoint of Bab El Mandab, would be much larger and would involve disruption in the exports and imports of the region. It would also adversely affect the passageway of other international commercial ships, if they had not already adjusted their journeys and decided to live with the longer voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.

The Somali seas are crucial for international trade and transportation among the three old continents of Asia, Europe, and of course Africa. Between 15% to 20% of international trade ply through these waters annually, it is generally reported. This could have been reduced over the past several months as some ships currently swerve away to the wider Indian Ocean and round the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa for safety despite the additional cost and additional travel time. Any disruption of this waterway not only affects the region but also, therefore, the wider world and hence requires that the region and the world address together the discontinuation of such disruption. 

A war initiated from the region and involving not only protagonists in the region such as possibly would happen between Somalia and Ethiopia but also those they would involve, would be a disaster for world trade. Somalia is not  and has never given away an inch of its waters by force. The Portuguese tried in the Middle Ages and failed. The latter Europeans (UK, France and Italy) who came to the region were accepted through agreements and not through force. Abyssinians tried and failed miserably many times before. It is what current Ethiopia is missing, perhaps, starting with the wrong footing – the MoU.

Recognizing the importance of the littoral countries of the region is of paramount importance. They, indeed, have the primary responsibility for protecting the long coastal belt of the region and more specifically Somalia which has some 3,3333 km of coastline. It is, indeed, a maritime nation as it always was for millennia, despite the fact that its navy was destroyed like everything else after the collapse of the state. But it can recover and soon and particularly with respect to the eyes of the world, which is on the region at present, including the illegal MoU Ethiopia signed with one of the regions of the country.

Note the region is of interest to major powers as well as regional powers, all pursuing their interests in the region and its waters and protecting their maritime vessels. Some even come to illegally fish in the region. This necessitates that the countries with interest in the region and waterway cooperate with the countries bordering the waterway, and specifically Somalia as the country with the longest coast. The United States of America recently signed an arrangement where they would build five bases in Somalia not only for itself but also for Somalia, and this is a step in the right direction. This will contribute to the rebuilding of the Somali navy and its maritime prowess in the not-too-distant future.

The Somali seas were always important strategic waters for major powers. The waters of Somalia contained major strategic points all along the Somali coasts and this even became more important since the opening of the Suez Canal which was opened by the French Diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1869. In the last wars, both hot and cold, these waters, in general, played crucial roles. They still do in current turmoil across the globe. No wonder many countries have set shop in Djibouti, next to Somalia, as Somalia is currently not in good shape. The planned five bases to be opened soon by the United States is to give impetus to the significance of Somalia in this matter.

Historically, there were a number of alliances and groupings with respect to maintaining maritime security in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden waterway. The latest such alliance was the Council of Arab and African Border States of the two bodies of waters that was established in  Riyadh in 2020 but which remains ineffective. Earlier than that, there were alliances between the Ottomans and the Adal and Ajuran Sultanates which defended the waterways from the Portuguese during the Middle Ages and there was once the Jeddah Pact which involved the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Moutawakel Kingdom of Yemen in 1956.

The Somali seas are enormously important for major powers of the world for it overlooks a major commercial waterway and it would be foolhardy when one party not involved in these waters tries to get involved illegally, trying to take a piece of it, such as Ethiopia is trying to do today. It would have been much easier if it worked with the littoral nations of the waterway, instead of attempting to entry in the fray through an illegal process. A hiding thief whose back can be seen can never hide, so says a Somali proverb. Ethiopia should present itself in the main gateway instead of the backdoor.


Dr. Suleiman Walhad

   *Dr. Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at

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