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Empty small boats floating in a large pool of water - larger boats can be seen towards the horizon
Local fishermen’s boats moor at Somaliland’s Berbera port. Mustafa Saeed/AFP via Getty Images

Somaliland-Ethiopia port deal: international opposition flags complex Red Sea politics

The memorandum of understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland announced on 1 January 2024 set off diplomatic rows in the Horn of Africa – and beyond.

Details of the agreement are not publicly known, but both state leaders have touched on its content. Among the main elements:

  • Ethiopia gets a 50-year lease on a strip of land on Somaliland’s Red Sea coast for naval and commercial maritime use and access to the Berbera port.

  • Somaliland gets a share of Ethiopian Airlines. It also gets an undertaking that Ethiopia will investigate recognising Somaliland as a sovereign state. If it decides to do so, Ethiopia will be the first country to recognise Somaliland. The breakaway state has operated autonomously since it declared its independence from Somalia in May 1991, but lacks international recognition.

The list of countries opposed to the memorandum of understanding includes those in the region, such as Egypt, and western powers such as the US and the EU. China and Turkey add to the powerful mix.

Reasons for their objections vary. Some attest to the geopolitical significance of ports and other infrastructure like roads, dams or railways. These projects are often contested, a subject I have studied at close quarters.

Infrastructure is deeply intertwined in political identities. Ethiopia’s political leadership, for example, has declared maritime access as a “matter of survival”. It argues that the country’s historical status and its rapid economic growth entitle it to sovereign access to the sea.

Infrastructures aren’t the only drivers of dissent over the deal. But they emphasise geopolitical struggles and point to political and economic competitions that are raising worries of increasing instability in the region.

The diplomatic squabbles show re-configurations of political alliances in the Red Sea region and beyond. The memorandum of understanding has placed the question of Somaliland’s recognition into the centre of these political dynamics.

Opposition

Somalia is the biggest opponent of the port deal. The president of the federal government of Somalia, Sheikh Hassan Mohamud, declared the memorandum a violation of Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He announced Somalia would defend its territory against Ethiopian “aggression”.

However, the federal government in Mogadishu has no actual authority in Somaliland. It does not even exert full territorial control across Somalia – Al-Shabaab controls territory in south and central Somalia. The militant Islamist group also declared the agreement a violation of Somalia’s sovereignty.

So far the United Arab Emirates, a close partner of Somaliland and Ethiopia, has been silent. The UAE is increasing its influence in the Red Sea region and Africa more generally. It has containerised and manages Somaliland’s Berbera port. UAE companies are building port infrastructures across Africa. The UAE is among the largest foreign investors on the continent, following China, the US and the EU.

The lineup of globally and regionally powerful countries opposed to the deal suggests that the deck is stacked against the agreement.

The US, the EU and Turkey have invested heavily in attempts to rebuild Somalia’s state and security apparatus and to counter Islamist terrorism.

For example, Turkey took over the management of the airport and seaport in Mogadishu. It has built social and physical infrastructure in the capital, and opened its first external military base in the country.

The US and Turkey have each trained special forces in Somalia, and both countries have military on the ground. A confrontation between Somalia and Ethiopia would put their investments at risk, provide further challenges for the stability of the region and, likely, play into the hands of Al-Shabaab.

The role of the EU and of European countries is more ambiguous. The EU is a crucial financial backer of the Somalia federal government, which is part of its Horn of Africa Global Gateway Initiative.

The initiative promises to connect regional infrastructure to foster economic integration. That’s something Ethiopia also promises with the memorandum of understanding. The EU doesn’t recognise Somaliland, but provided support to build its state institutions.

The UK is even funding the Hargeisa bypass road, part of the Berbera corridor that links Somaliland’s port to the Ethiopian border.

Not surprising is the opposition of Djibouti and China. Djibouti’s seaport processes over 80% of Ethiopia’s overseas trade. Ethiopia’s use of Berbera port is likely to reduce the trade volume handled in Djibouti.

Djibouti is also a crucial location in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China supports Djibouti’s port development, operates an international free trade zone, and funds the renovation of the railway to Ethiopia.

Eritrea and Egypt also support Somalia. This is mainly because their relations with Ethiopia have been marred with conflicts. Eritrea and Ethiopia fell out again after Ethiopia struck peace with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in November 2022.

Egypt is opposed to the building of Ethiopia’s hydroelectric Grand Renaissance Dam, which increases Ethiopia’s control of the Nile waters on which both countries depend. Egypt and Eritrea are also not eager to see Ethiopia having a naval presence, and Egypt works against the UAE’s expansion of power in the Red Sea region.

The way forward

The regional Intergovernmental Authority for Development, chaired by Djibouti, recently convened an extraordinary meeting to discuss tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia. It affirmed the territorial integrity of Somalia, but also called for de-escalation and dialogue.

Ethiopia did not attend the meeting. But Ethiopia’s president, who uses access to the sea to mobilise public support, has a lot to lose by offending these states. The country’s international reputation has already suffered from allegations of war crimes and mass atrocities in Tigray. The government’s militarised response to opposition in several regions has had a negative impact on Ethiopia’s economy and contributed to food insecurity.

The good news is that a violent confrontation between Ethiopia and Somalia seems unlikely. Ethiopia would risk political isolation, as major world powers and regional organisations, such as the African Union and Arab League, have confirmed Somalia’s territorial integrity.

The winner of rising political tensions in the region would be al-Shabaab, which is already calling Somalis to defend their land from foreign interference.

The most likely loser of the diplomatic row is Somaliland, which now seems even more unlikely to receive the international recognition it so craves.

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