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The Horn of Africa: Somaliland-Ethiopia Deal Raises Tensions

Updated: Jan 23

By Tobias Pardoen

Edited by Melanie Fourtanier

Since November 2023, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have been a hotbed of geopolitical activity. Escalating tensions over the Gaza conflict saw Iran-backed Houthi rebels carrying out numerous attacks on ships from Yemen. Barely twenty-four hours into the new year of 2024, Ethiopia and Somaliland added another layer of complexity by signing a controversial memorandum of understanding. The deal has potentially cracked open Pandora's box of tensions many might want to keep sealed.

© Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

The Unfolding Crisis

The deal grants landlocked Ethiopia a fifty-year coastal lease from Somaliland, with Somaliland obtaining shares in Ethiopian Airlines and potential official recognition by Ethiopia. If implemented, Ethiopia would become the first country to recognise the self-declared breakaway republic in northwestern Somalia.

Grounded in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's recent statement, the agreement signifies Ethiopia's determination to secure direct sea access. Given the security and political crises in the Horn of Africa, some have welcomed the deal as it is said to lower the likelihood of violent conflicts.

The United Arab Emirates' backing of the proposed deal sparked speculation that Abu Dhabi might recognise Somaliland, too. However, the deal faced condemnation from Ethiopia's neighbouring nations — Djibouti, Eritrea, Egypt, and Somalia. Somalia described the agreement as an "act of aggression'' and recalled its ambassador from Addis Ababa.

Somalia's Unstable Outlook 

Somalia is dissatisfied with the situation as any endorsement for Somaliland could erode an already lacking strength of the central government in the region. Since declaring independence in 1991, Somaliland has operated as a de facto state with its own Somaliland Shilling currency, bureaucracy, and well-trained military and police forces.

Yet, Somalia views Somaliland's secession as a provincial matter. Consequently, Somaliland's self-declared independence has led to international isolation and economic hardships, as it lacks official recognition.

Besides Somaliland, Somalia has several other governance and security issues. Conflicts between and within federal member states complicate the efforts of the government in Mogadishu to fight non-state actors such as Al-Shabaab and other Al Qeade-associated Islamist militants. At this moment, it seems these militants are unlikely to be defeated.

Accordingly, the groups continue to have the capability to target civilians and international assistance missions. Observers point out that regional instability likely strengthens the groups, especially Al-Shabaab. As such, the memorandum has the potential to increase vulnerability in an already unstable Somalia.

Encircled By Tension

Perspectives for Ethiopia suggest turbulent times as well. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has dealt with hot tensions inside its borders since 2020. Until November 2022, the Ethiopian government fought the deadliest war of the 21st century in the Tigray region. Despite the existence of a peace agreement, widespread violence has persisted in the Tigray region. Tensions spread to the two influential regions of Oromia and Amhara.

Additionally, al-Shabab terrorists seek to destabilise the border between Ethiopia and Somalia. On top of security concerns, Ethiopia has to deal with problems like food insecurity, a malfunctioning judiciary, ongoing drought, and economic hardship.

© Generated by T. Pardoen

Besides its domestic challenges, Ethiopia had had weak relationships with the region before signing the controversial memorandum. Military tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea heightened towards the end of 2023 with fears of a new war.

More to that, disagreements over the Nile intensified with Egypt and Sudan. For almost a decade, Egypt and Sudan have been dissatisfied with the construction and operation of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam. Coupled with the ongoing Sudan war and volatile shared border, Ethiopia is left encircled by regional challenges.

Horn's Rising Tensions

Amidst their challenges, there seems to be a growing chance of an armed conflict over Somaliland between Somalia and Ethiopia. Despite Ethiopia's attempts to ease tensions by stating that the deal only involves "an in-depth assessment" of a potential recognition of Somaliland, Somalia's government officials informed they are preparing for war.

Meanwhile, security talks between Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Eritrea took place, with an upcoming meeting expected with Egypt. Consequently, the military leaders of Somaliland and Ethiopia discussed enhancing military cooperation.

Apart from the United Arab Emirates and Djibouti, the international community has called for de-escalation to prevent a new dispute. Many foreign players like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, the USA, the EU, and Russia established and operated vital military bases and ports in the Horn of Africa. These high-value assets, predominantly situated around the Red Sea, have become more critical in the wake of recent Houthi rebel attacks on commercial ships. 

Trade volumes in the Red Sea have already plummeted by 40 per cent, impacting a vital waterway that typically facilitates about twelve per cent of global trade by volume and approximately 30 per cent of worldwide container traffic.

A U.S.-led coalition, backed by the UK, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands, currently attacks Houthi rebel targets in Yemen to counter their attacks. Instability on the opposing side of the Red Sea is likely to escalate these issues significantly.

The Clock Ticks 

Despite the potential for significant regional disruption due to an armed conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, there remain hopes for a diplomatic solution. The Arab League  called for an urgent meeting to address the issue, and the African Union urged countries to settle their differences. 

Additionally, given the current domestic instability and its expected escalation, an armed conflict is poised to bring more harm than good to Somalia and Ethiopia. In light of this, analysts believe that armed conflict is not likely in the short term. Instead, the main concern is the potential for extended diplomatic tensions in the region.

Nevertheless, the prospect of an armed escalation in the longer term remains uncertain. For the time being, Pandora's box is sealed, but the looming question is for how much longer.

Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, International Crisis Group, New York Times, The Economist.

Written by Tobias Pardoen

January 2024

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