Excerpt : This deal signed Jan 1st 2024 is an aggression on Somalia & undermines its territorial integrity

Tuesday, January 16, 2024


 Ethiopia signed a naval military base deal with the separatist Somaliland region on 1st January this year, leasing 20 kilometres (12 miles) of coastline in Zeila area for 50 years. The deal also reportedly links the sea access with Ethiopia’s formal recognition of Somaliland. The specific details of the memorandum of understanding have not been published, but this is an unprecedented move by Ethiopia as it violates the UN and AU Charters. The AU Chairperson refrained from condemning Ethiopia’s action but urged that it is imperative to respect unity, territorial integrity and full sovereignty of all African Union member states.  Somalia accused Ethiopia of aggression, and of undermining its territorial integrity. Somalia’s Parliament immediately passed a law, already signed by the President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, that nullified the agreement. Ethiopia appears undeterred and followed a week later by a military cooperation discussion with Somaliland region which has sparked fears of a military confrontation with Somalia.

In October last year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed warned that his country’s existence was tied to its access to the Red Sea, and that it was determined to get its wish. This alarmed the region, with Eritrea responding that it would defend its territory at all times. Ethiopia had access to the seaports of Massawa and Assab until 1991 when Eritrea region which, until then was part of Ethiopia, gained its independence. It has since used Djibouti for 90% of its commercial maritime activities. It has also signed an agreement with Kenya for the use of Lamu port once the LAPSET project to link its border with road and rail is completed. It also uses Berbera Port in Somaliland, where it bought a 19 percent stake in the with Somaliland retaining 30 percent and Dubai’s DP World holding 51 percent in a deal where it will manage the port for 30 years.

The deal between Somaliland and Ethiopia came a few days after President Hassan and Somaliland region’s leader, Musa Biihi, met in  Djibouti to resolve their differences. Somaliland has long sought to breakaway from Somalia after the region was attacked in 1988, and atrocities committed, by Somalia’s military under former President Mohamed Siyad Barre. The region’s leaders find it difficult to forget that dark past and reconcile with the south. Siyad Barre was shortly forced out of power and died in exile. Mogadishu itself descended into a civil war in 1990 that killed hundreds of thousands.

Ethiopia’s assertion that it cannot survive without the sea isn’t new. In particular, its desire to access the sea via Somalia has been a mission for a long time. During a conversation with British officials in 1927 in Addis Ababa, it enquired as to the possibility of some arrangement being made for cession or lease of Zeila port to Abyssinia. Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway was built in the beginning of the 20th century in part to address this issue. If indeed, commercial maritime services is the concern, it already has access to both Berbera and Djibouti. It has also reportedly held several discussions with Somalia on the use of its ports.. If it improves its relations with Eritrea, it also has access to Asmara and Assab.  

It is instructive to note that the statement on the deal emphasized establishment of a naval military base. The US and UK, with the help of other players in the region, are thought to be behind the deal in a plan to control the important Red Sea shipping route, both commercially and militarily. Observers believe this deal has a wider geopolitical significance, with the rising tension in the Red Sea between Yemen and the Western nations supporting Israel. In recent years, both Sudan and Yemen which share the Red Sea have been engulfed in wars believed to have been instigated at the behest of these Western powers. Only last week, it was reported in the media that Djibouti declined US request to use its military base there to attack Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US has currently around twelve military bases in the Middle East countries.

In a November 2023 report titled “The Kosovo Conditions and the Case for American Unilateral Recognition of Somaliland”, Oliver McPherson-Smith and Jendayi E. Frazer, the former US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs urge that “the self-declared Republic of Somaliland on the Horn of Africa meets the four “Kosovo conditions.” Recognizing Somaliland would advance the United States’ interests by supporting a fellow democratic regime, promoting stability near the Bab al-Mandab trade choke point, and facilitating economic growth—particularly as Somaliland deepens its relations with Taiwan”. Taiwan, itself a breakaway republic from China has a representative office in Somaliland. It avers that “these four Kosovo conditions—the US national interest, de facto territorial control, little chance of peaceful reintegration, and the demonstrated feasibility of a local democratic regime—provide a guiding framework for US unilateral diplomatic recognition”.   

After Abiy came to power, he immediately made peace with Eritrea, patched up differences with Somalia and built a cordial relationship with Kenya and Djibouti. Internally, he freed all political prisoners and widened the political freedoms. In 2019, the Horn of Africa Initiative bringing together the five countries was launched. Then, Tigray conflict started and many, particularly Somalis who saw a future in the region through Abiy, threw their weight behind him. He is still stuck with internal conflicts in several regions. His bromance with Eritrea, Somalia and even Kenya seems to have evaporated. Abiy is now flexing his muscles across the regions. His apparent backdoor deal with a breakaway republic is alarming, with concerns that its long-term aim could be annexation of Somaliland region. It is also ironic that Abiy who recently crushed the separatist aims of Tigray region, and is fighting a similar breakaway plan by the Amhara region can endorse a deal that sets a dangerous precedent for the region.  

As Somalia seeks international support over the controversial agreement, with muted responses from IGAD and other Arab states which are allies of the US, Ethiopia seems determined to go ahead. It has a political leverage over the political leaders in Somalia. Many owe their leadership to its military involvement in the country. Most of the so-called regional presidents are allies of Ethiopia, and have Ethiopian military stationed in their regional capitals. The country has been under UN arms embargo for decades, lacks military capability and has a fractious political environment. Ethiopia hopes it will capitalise on all this to crystalize its deal which has a wider potential for conflict in the region.

Many countries, particularly Western powers, have military bases in African countries. France, US and China have military bases in Djibouti, as they do in several other countries. The problem with this deal is the dubious arrangement to undermine the integrity of Somalia. Somaliland is obsessed with recognition. Many separatist regions that declared their own independence are struggling to survive both economically and politically, many ending up in fiefdoms for the political elites. It is in the longer-term interest of Somaliland to remain part of Somalia. This deal is a tragic miscalculation for both Ethiopia and Somaliland and should be abandoned.

Billow A Kerrow. Nairobi. 16th Jan 2024

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