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Exchanging the Sea for Statehood: Ethiopia and Somaliland’s Memorandum of Understanding and its Implications for the Horn of Africa

Quinn Phillips


Last year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed raised concerns when he indicated Ethiopia’s intent to secure a Red Sea port, implying the country’s willingness to go to war in pursuit of the cause. However, a recent deal arranged with Somaliland – an unrecognized breakaway region of Somalia – appears to have peacefully addressed Ethiopia’s sea access qualms, but not without ruffling feathers in Mogadishu and evoking the historical tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia.

The Deal

On January 1, 2023, Ethiopia’s Office of the Prime Minister announced that a memorandum of understanding had been signed by both Prime Minister Ahmed and Somaliland’s President, Muse Bhie Abdi. While the specific details of the agreement have remained undisclosed, various Ethiopian and Somalilander officials have shed light on what was agreed upon. Of prime importance to Ethiopia: they were able to secure the leasing of over 12 miles of crucial sea access for a duration of 50 years. In exchange, Somaliland expects to receive formal recognition from Ethiopia of Somaliland’s independence and statehood, as well as a stake in Ethiopia’s national airline, Ethiopian Airlines. It’s important to note, however, that the MOU only establishes the intent of pursuing the goals laid out in the agreement, and is not a legally binding document. Furthermore, the statement made by President Abdi regarding Ethiopia’s formal recognition of Somaliland has not been confirmed by Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The government in Somalia has declared the agreement illegal and an infringement on Somali sovereignty. For these reasons, the implications of the memorandum are still unknown, but observers are keeping a close eye on the Horn of Africa.

In Pursuit of the Sea

In 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front successfully won its independence from Ethiopia after a 30-year-long civil war. They took with them Ethiopia’s only access to coastal waters, rendering Ethiopia the most populated landlocked country. The recent memorandum of understanding is not the first time Ethiopia has attempted to regain sea access. In 2018, Ethiopia arranged to obtain a 19% stake in Somaliland’s Berbera port, but the deal ultimately fell through. In mid-2023, Prime Minister Ahmed began mobilizing troops along Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea. He highlighted the importance of Ethiopian access to a port to Ethiopia’s national security, framing it as an existential question. His rhetoric and troop movements sparked fears of armed conflict with Eritrea. This has added to simmering tensions alongside the signing of the memorandum with Somaliland.

De facto independence, de jure incorporation

Somaliland comprises the portion of present-day Somalia that was administered by Britain (British Somaliland), whereas the rest of Somalia was administered by Italy. Upon their independence in 1960, the separate territories of Somalia and Somaliland agreed to unify in the pursuit of a Great Somali State which would encompass all the territory inhabited by the Somali people. However, as the Somali civil war unfolded, leading to the overthrow of the Somali government in 1991, Somaliland unilaterally declared independence from Somalia. Since then, Somaliland has emerged as a beacon of stability in contrast to the war-ridden landscape of Somalia. Somalia has been labeled a failed state for decades, lacking a functioning central government since the ousting of President and military dictator, Siad Barre, in 1991. In contrast, Somaliland has been a consistently democratic country for the past two decades, notably witnessing a transition of power to the opposition in 2010.

Further, the country maintains its own security forces and currency, achieving higher scores on the Human Development Index than Somalia as a whole. Despite successes in some areas, Somaliland continues to face challenges, including border disputes with the neighboring region of Puntland as well as economic woes. Although Somaliland has pushed for international recognition since its declaration of independence, it is not currently recognized by any states. Some countries, however, have engaged with the breakaway region independently of Somalia, including through election observations and negotiating deals regarding naval military bases. Somaliland has employed numerous arguments to defend its case for independent statehood, citing the definition of statehood outlined in the Montevideo Convention and the African Union's commitment to retaining colonial-era borders. A moral appeal has also been employed, emphasizing the deleterious socio-economic effects that stem from being left out of global financial systems only accessible to recognized states; the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in particular.

Somalia’s Response

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud reacted quickly to the memorandum of understanding, convening with his cabinet and signing a law declaring the memorandum unlawful. In parallel, the Somali ambassador to Ethiopia was recalled, underscoring the gravity with which Somalia viewed the agreement. A Somali politician characterized the deal as the “most egregious violation” of Somali sovereignty since Ethiopia’s intervention into Somalia in 2006.

Somalia-Ethiopia Relations

Somalia and Ethiopia have long had an uneasy relationship, originating under the rule of Somali dictator Siad Barre. Barre’s ambition to unite “Greater Somalia” (all territories inhabited by ethnic Somalis) led to a war with Ethiopia in the 1970s over Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. The successful resistance by Ethiopia, under the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam, against Barre’s irredentist goals, led to continued support of rebel groups in each other’s countries. This resulted in the overthrow of both leaders’ regimes. In 2006, Ethiopian armed forces entered Somali territory with the support of the United States, aiming to crush an Islamist militant group, the Islamic Courts Union. Distrust of Ethiopia fueled discontent amongst the Somali people towards the occupation, lasting until 2009. The issues surrounding the Somali population living in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region and the history of direct and indirect violent conflicts between the two nations have made relations fragile and tense.

Going Forward

Two large questions have been raised in light of the possible implications of the memorandum between Ethiopia and Somaliland: what does this deal mean for Somaliland’s international recognition, and what does this deal mean for the prospect of conflict in the region? While Ethiopia does seem prepared to formally recognize Somaliland, powerful actors such as the United States have recently reaffirmed their commitment to a unified Somalia, expressing concern over the implications of the deal. This indicates that even if Ethiopia does go through with recognizing Somaliland, it is unlikely to garner widespread support from other international states. Fortunately, experts predict that the chance of armed conflict erupting as a result of the deal is low as Somalia has been unable to prevent Somaliland from operating as an autonomous territory for the past 30 years. Additionally, the current instability and in-fighting with the al-Shabab militant group have preoccupied the government in Mogadishu. Further, Ethiopia also has its hands tied in domestic issues, as forces continue fighting a rebellion in the Amhara region. While this deal may not directly spark significant events in the Horn of Africa, it is yet another development that keeps international focus on the region which has been fraught with armed conflict and instability since the start of the decade.



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