Strategic Implications of the Ethiopia-Somaliland Agreement

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Analysing the Strategic Implications of the Ethiopia-Somaliland Agreement

Assessing the agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland is important in understanding its implications for regional dynamics and global geopolitics. This agreement holds a number of consequences for all involved, including neighbouring states and international stakeholders. It encompasses the geopolitical environment within the entire Horn of Africa. This assessment seeks to provide insights into the strategic challenges and opportunities the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement presents. The Analysing the Strategic Implications of the Ethiopia-Somaliland Agreement

What is the deal?

The agreement provides landlocked Ethiopia commercial and military passage to the Red Sea. Somaliland will lease a military port in the Gulf of Aden and 20km of coastline to Ethiopia for 50 years. In exchange, Somaliland will be recognised as a sovereign entity. Ethiopia will be the first African nation to acknowledge Somaliland’s independence after Taiwan. However, Ethiopia has not yet officially acknowledged Somaliland’s independence. However, high-ranking Somaliland officials highlight Ethiopia’s implicit promise of recognition in the deal.

Ambiguities and Discrepancies

Analysing the strategic implications of this agreement means the specifics of the accord still need to be clarified. And Ethiopian and Somaliland representatives offer differing explanations. Ethiopian authorities hint at a dual-purpose facility – both military and commercial. However, Somaliland maintains that the project is just a naval base next to the commercial Berbera port. The actual geographical area needs to be clarified. Initial reports stated a 20km coastline lease, but later statements referred to a 20 square km land and sea area. Also, the facility’s proposed location is still being determined. Location suggestions have ranged from Lugaya, near Djibouti, to Berbera. The deal also grants Somaliland shares in Ethiopian state enterprises like Ethiopian Airlines.

Potential Consequences and Regional Impact

The path forward still needs to be clarified. This development has resonated throughout the Horn of Africa. A similar reaction to Ethiopia’s 2011 announcement of its Blue Nile hydropower project. A project has caused tensions with Egypt to this day. It highlights Ethiopia’s determination to appear strong in its strategic initiatives. And they want to show resolve for this coastal development. The Ethiopian base in Somaliland and recognition of independence could escalate regional tensions. As well as the heightened diplomatic activities across the Red Sea. Already strained Ethiopia-Somalia relations could worsen. Revealing deepening regional divides as countries align with either Ethiopia or Somalia.

Ethiopia’s Strategic Objective: Access to the Sea

With a population of 120 million, Ethiopia is the world’s largest landlocked country. So, securing a maritime outlet is a strategic necessity. It lost its coastline following Eritrea’s secession in 1993. This has heightened its dependency on Djibouti’s port for most of its trade. This reliance has been a concern for many Ethiopian administrations. The agreement with Somaliland shows a significant stride towards diversifying Ethiopia’s maritime access and reducing its over-reliance on Djibouti. 

Analysing the strategic implications means looking at the desire for access to the sea. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has revived Ethiopia’s long-standing aspiration for sea access. His government views it as crucial for its growth and ambition to become a naval power. The move also addresses predictable tensions with Djibouti, mainly due to issues surrounding port fees and bureaucratic challenges. In October 2023, Abiy spoke of the critical nature of sea access for Ethiopia’s future, a statement some interpreted as a veiled threat towards Eritrea. But, following diplomatic discussions, Abiy clarified that military action was not under consideration. It underscored the importance of maritime access in its development and security strategy.

Somaliland’s Quest for International Recognition

Somalia wants Somaliland to rejoin its federation. This memorandum of understanding for Somaliland is more than a diplomatic achievement. It’s a strategic move in its ongoing pursuit of international recognition. It declared its independence in 1991. Since then, Somaliland has established functional state-like institutions. It had maintained relations with various countries, including significant powers like the:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • United Arab Emirates

UAE’s investment in Berbera port to transform it into a regional hub shows Somaliland’s strategic value. This agreement with Ethiopia responds to the stalemate in negotiations with Somalia. Somaliland is frustrated with its unresolved status and sees this agreement as leverage.

Politics in Somaliland

President Bihi of Somaliland could make any agreement to strengthen his domestic political standing. This deal is likely to be a strategic manoeuvre to consolidate his leadership. Especially considering:

  • November presidential elections
  • Election format arguments
  • Military setbacks in the Sool region

Somaliland is involved in fighting in the Sool region. Several factions are involved especially the Dhulbahante clan. This underlines the internal complexities within Somaliland. Dhulbahante wants to incorporate into Somalia’s federal structure. They have no allegiance to Somaliland or Puntland. The situation reveals the intricate clan dynamics influencing the region’s politics.

Somalia’s Reaction

The Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement elicited a strong response from Somalia. They immediately recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia. Then, it declared the obstruction of the agreement a top national priority. There are deep-seated tensions between Somalia and Somaliland. Particularly Somaliland’s quest for international recognition and independence. Somalia’s government symbolically signed a parliamentary bill declaring the agreement null and void. There’s widespread public opposition, with government officials joining protest marches in the capital. Somalia even denied air traffic clearance to an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Hargeisa.

Key Concerns of Somalia

When analysing the strategic implications surrounding the deal we need to highlight that Somalia has several objections to the deal. It perceives Ethiopia’s engagement with Somaliland as an intrusion into its internal affairs, particularly as the discussions with Hargeisa were initiated without telling Mogadishu. Somalia seems open to Ethiopia using the Gulf of Aden coast commercially. However, it opposes any Ethiopian military presence in what it considers Somali territory. Historical suspicions of Ethiopian territorial ambitions in Somali-inhabited areas fuel this stance.

Diplomatic Efforts by Somalia

Despite harsh words, Somalia has maintained a measured approach towards Ethiopia. This likely reflects the unequal power dynamics. And, importantly, Ethiopia’s significant military presence in Somalia to combat Al-Shabaab. Somalia has avoided severing political or economic ties or taking military action. Instead, it actively seeks support from international allies and organisations such as the:

  • League of Arab States
  • the African Union
  • the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)
  • United Nations Security Council

Somalia aims to persuade Ethiopia to reconsider the agreement through these diplomatic channels. Highlighting Somalia’s reliance on international diplomacy and multilateral institutions to address this issue, 

International Perspective

The international community tends to share Somalia’s viewpoint. Emphasising the principles of territorial integrity, sovereignty, and non-interference in internal affairs. Reflecting a broader global stance favouring existing national boundaries and states sovereignty. Particularly in regions with complex historical and ethnic divisions. The initiative has caused unease among Ethiopia’s neighbours, Djibouti and Eritrea. Both of whom appear to lean towards Somalia’s position.

Eritrea

The Eritrean government has not publicly commented on the deal. President Afwerki’s invitation to the Somali President for talks suggests they are interested. It’s also possibly an inclination to support Somalia’s stance.

Djibouti 

Publicly, Djibouti has opposed the Ethiopia-Somaliland memorandum. Djibouti has invested significantly in enhancing connectivity with Ethiopia, including taking on Chinese debt to improve infrastructure. Djibouti sees the deal as a potential threat to its economic interests. Recent mediation efforts between Somaliland and Somalia highlight Djibouti’s opposition. These efforts undermine the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement.

Egypt’s Strategic Interests

Egypt has actively engaged in the dispute. They are likely motivated by its historical rivalry with Ethiopia. Especially with existing tensions surrounding the Nile’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Their offer to defend Somalia indicates Egypt’s desire to leverage against Ethiopia.

Then there’s the Egypt factor in Somalia when analysing the strategic implications. It introduces complexity to Ethiopia’s deal with Somaliland. Egypt has a historical rivalry with Ethiopia based on the use of the River Nile, and it extends its influence beyond its immediate borders. Cairo may perceive any Ethiopia and Somaliland agreement as a potential threat to its interests. 

Egypt’s main concern likely stems from the possibility that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project could affect its access to the Nile waters and exacerbate existing tensions surrounding it. This project could potentially export the Nile River conflict into Somali territory. Somalia is caught between the interests of Egypt and Ethiopia, balancing its relations with these powers while safeguarding its sovereignty and national interests. 

Responses from Western and Regional Powers

The EU and the United States strongly support Somalia’s position. This aligns with their broader policy preferences for maintaining national borders and sovereignty. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, and the UAE have publicly backed Mogadishu. But are likely attempting to maintain a balanced relationship with everyone. The UAE’s position is particularly complex due to its:

  • Majority stake in the Berbera port
  • Security partnership with Somalia
  • Friendly ties with Ethiopia

Although unconfirmed, Somali officials have speculated about the UAE’s involvement in the deal. Given its close relationship with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Stalled Diplomatic Efforts

Obstacles have prevented meditation led by the AU’s representative, former Nigerian President Obasanjo. Somalia’s reluctance to enter talks underscores the tensions and mistrust between the two. 

Mogadishu insists Ethiopia withdraw from the memorandum as a negotiation precondition. Other problems have also got in the way. An incident at a recent AU summit in Addis Ababa is one example. President Mohamud claimed Ethiopian authorities hindered his movement. Ethiopia offers counterclaims and highlights the fragile relations between the two. 

Kenya’s Mediation Role

Kenya, through IGAD, is attempting to mediate the situation, but these efforts have yet to yield a significant breakthrough. Meetings between the Ethiopian Prime Minister, the Somali President, and Kenya’s President show regional concern. Still, the need for a substantial resolution reflects the situation’s complexity.

What about Russia and China?

Russia and China’s influence may not be as direct or explicit as that of other regional or Western powers. Yet, both countries have interests in the Horn of Africa region due to its strategic location and economic potential.

China’s Influence

China has increased its African presence with infrastructure projects, trade agreements, and investments. Around the Horn of Africa, China has invested in port infrastructure in Djibouti. This investment is next to Ethiopia and Somaliland. China views Djibouti’s ports as crucial for its Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s direct involvement in the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal needs to be more evident. However, its economic interests in the region could indirectly shape its stance. China will want stability and financial cooperation to safeguard its investments and influence.

Taiwan-China axis

The Taiwan-China axis and the involvement of superpowers in Somaliland underscore the intricate geopolitical interests in the area. Somaliland’s pursuit of international recognition intersects with broader global power dynamics. Particularly the tension between Taiwan and China. As Somaliland seeks recognition as a sovereign entity, it faces pressure from China. China opposes moves towards independence that could set a precedent. It has independence problems with its restive regions, such as Taiwan and Tibet. However, Taiwan itself is seeking international recognition. It may view Somaliland as an opportunity to establish diplomatic ties and challenge China’s influence. Both locally and globally.

Russia’s Influence

Russia has also expanded its engagement in Africa in recent years. Primarily through arms sales, energy deals, and military cooperation agreements. Russia has strengthened ties with countries like Sudan and Ethiopia. Again, like China, Russia’s involvement in the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement is not overt. Its broader geopolitical interests could indirectly influence its stance. Russia is likely to seek to maintain regional stability to prevent the spread of terrorism and extremism. Mainly to safeguard its interests in energy resources and geopolitical influence.

Risks of Escalation

The Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement poses several risks for the Horn of Africa:

Persistent Tensions

Even if the current deal fails, Ethiopia’s quest for sea access remains an issue. It’s likely to resurface and continue affecting regional relations.

Potential for Proxy Conflicts 

The situation could exacerbate regional tensions, potentially leading to proxy confrontations. Alignments are forming: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and their allies on one side and the UAE, Ethiopia, and their allies on the other. This divide mirrors regional disputes, like those in Sudan, and could deepen geopolitical rifts in the Horn of Africa.

Impact on Al-Shabaab and Regional Security 

A deterioration in Ethiopia-Somalia relations could undermine their cooperation against Al-Shabaab. If Ethiopia uses its troops as leverage or Somalia expels them, it could create a security vacuum. Al-Shabaab will exploit this, posing increased risks to Somalia, Ethiopia, and others. Additionally, Al-Shabaab might capitalise on nationalist sentiments against the memorandum, using them to bolster recruitment and anti-Ethiopian narratives.

De-escalation and Resolution in the Ethiopia-Somaliland-Somalia Crisis

The first step should be the commitment of all parties involved to de-escalation. Despite the aggressive rhetoric, none of the parties have taken extreme actions, and this restraint must continue. It’s crucial for Ethiopia, Somaliland, and Somalia to avoid further exacerbating tensions. They must seek diplomatic solutions.

Coordinated Mediation Efforts

Regional bodies like IGAD and the AU must ensure their mediation is coordinated. A unified approach is needed to resolve the crisis and avoid confusion and mistrust.

Initiating Direct Talks through Conciliatory Steps

Ethiopia can de-escalate by affirming its respect for Somalia’s territorial integrity. This could be a significant step in paving the way for direct discussions. Somalia could consider engaging in dialogue at this juncture. The memorandum is still preliminary, and constructive dialogue could influence the final draft.

Utilising Multilateral Platforms for Engagement

Somalia prefers a multilateral engagement. Meetings involving key regional leaders like Kenyan President Ruto could facilitate talks. These platforms can provide a neutral ground for the heads of state to discuss the issues.

Considering the Regional Economic and Political Context

Ethiopia’s economy and deteriorating neighbour relations mean finding a resolution is critical. Or risk real conflict. External actors should encourage dialogue over confrontation, considering the broader regional stability.

Resuming Direct Dialogue between Mogadishu and Hargeisa:

Mogadishu and Hargeisa must talk to address the issues between Somalia and Somaliland. Current tensions may make immediate talks challenging. However, they are essential for a long-term solution to Somaliland’s status and broader regional stability.

Addressing Core Disputes with a Long-term Perspective

Diplomats must focus on resolving the core issues. Ethiopia’s desire for sea access and Somaliland’s quest for recognition. Both sustainably and beneficially. Failure to address these fundamental issues may lead to future tensions and conflicts. Preventing Russia’s increasing tensions will involve diplomatic efforts, economic cooperation, and strategic engagement. Diplomatic channels should also be utilised to engage with Russia and China. Emphasising the importance of regional stability and cooperation in the Horn of Africa. Involve Russia and China in economic initiatives promoting regional integration and development. Such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and connectivity infrastructure projects. Plus, ensuring agreement and investment transparency is essential to prevent suspicions and misunderstandings.

Islamic Republic of Iran

Iran could have implications for the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement and regional stability. It underscores the interconnected nature of conflicts and security challenges in the region. Highlighting the importance of addressing root causes and promoting dialogue and cooperation to achieve stability.

Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen could be—a concern for the area. Yemen has become a proxy battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A major concern should the conflict spill over into neighbouring countries. Iran could see this agreement with Ethiopia and Somaliland as an opportunity.

Then, there are the regional security implications, such as maritime security in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The presence of Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen has raised concerns about the safety of shipping lanes. This could influence Ethiopia’s interest in securing maritime access through Somaliland.

Iran could impact the geopolitical balance in the Horn of Africa. It could shape alliances and partnerships among regional and international actors. It could also complicate efforts to resolve conflicts and promote stability in the region, especially if its interests conflict with Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somalia, etc.

Historical and geopolitical considerations

The agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland unfolds within a complex web of:

  • Geopolitical interests
  • Historical rivalries
  • Economic considerations
  • Regional dynamics
  • Somalian tribes

The tribal nature of Somalia is an important aspect shaping its political landscape. It also poses a persistent vulnerability. Somalia’s society is deeply fragmented along clan lines. Clan identity often supersedes national allegiance. Historically, this has fueled conflict and instability as clans vie for power, resources, and influence. Neighbouring countries and regional powers have exploited these divisions to advance their interests, exacerbating internal tensions and hindering national unity and reconciliation efforts. Tribal divisions will continue to challenge governance, security, and state-building initiatives. 

Ethiopia and Kenya

Rivalry between Ethiopia and Kenya underscores geopolitical interests in the Horn of Africa. With its large population and strategic location, Ethiopia seeks to assert its regional influence. Particularly in light of its maritime access and ambitions for economic expansion. Kenya views Ethiopia’s growing prominence with a mixture of apprehension and competition. The presence of a significant Ethiopian population within Kenya needs to be improved. Many naturalised citizens add a layer of complexity to their relationship. Blurring the lines between national identities and interests.

The rivalry between Ethiopia and Kenya extends beyond economic competition to strategic considerations. Both want security and regional dominance. They aspire to position themselves as regional powerhouses. Leveraging their financial and military capabilities to advance their respective agendas. 

However, this situation can also present opportunities for collaboration and partnership. Particularly in trade, infrastructure development, and regional stability. Effective management of this rivalry requires a delicate balance of cooperation and competition. Both seek to maximise their interests while minimising regional conflict or destabilisation risk.

Ethiopia’s economy

Ethiopia is one of Africa’s largest and fastest-growing economies. But it faces various economic challenges, including: 

  • Foreign debt burdens
  • Infrastructure development needs
  • Poverty reduction efforts

Western powers and financial institutions provide aid, investment, and loans to Ethiopia and exert considerable influence over its economic policies and development trajectory. They leverage financial assistance to advance their interests and agendas in Ethiopia and beyond. This influence is seen in several ways like conditioning aid on: 

  • Governance reforms
  • Human rights improvements
  • Alignment with Western foreign policy objectives

Western countries may use their economic leverage to shape Ethiopia’s approach to regional issues. Including its relations with neighbouring countries like Somalia. And its involvement in regional conflicts or peacekeeping efforts. 

Djibouti

Djibouti is strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea. It serves as a key maritime gateway to East Africa. Occupying a unique position in regional geopolitics. Its significance as a major global trade and military operations hub has not gone unnoticed. It has attracted the presence of great military powers, including: 

  • The United States
  • France 
  • China
  • Japan and others

This concentration of military forces in Djibouti enhances its security and strengthens its geopolitical importance, making it a vital player in regional affairs. However, this may diminish Ethiopia’s perceived value as a strategic partner, particularly in providing sea access, as they don’t have any. Hence, their attempt at this agreement with Somaliland.

Djibouti is deepening its military partnerships with others, including China and the US. It may prioritise its security interests over its economic ties with Ethiopia. Thus impacting the stability and reliability of Ethiopia’s access to Djibouti’s ports. 

United Arab Emirates and the Horn of Africa

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) plays a multifaceted role in the region’s geopolitics. This is mainly driven by its ambitions for economic expansion and regional influence. The UAE has invested in infrastructure and strategic assets, like ports and military bases, and aims to solidify its position as a key player in the region’s development and security architecture. Yes, it has economic prowess. However, the UAE’s global political influence remains limited compared to other major powers, complicating its ability to shape the decision-making processes of regional actors such as Somaliland and others, especially when they enter into agreements with countries like Ethiopia.

In the context of the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement, the UAE’s interests intersect with those of Ethiopia. Both countries seek to expand their economic foothold in the region. However, their approaches and priorities may remain the same. Ethiopia’s historical ties with Somalia and its quest for maritime access are problems for the UAE. They conflict with the UAE’s efforts to achieve closer relations with Somalia, which leverages its regional strategic assets. Cultural and religious affinities, including language and religion, are shared between the UAE and Somalia. This may further complicate Ethiopia’s relations with both countries. 

The African Union (AU) and Arab Unions

The African Union (AU) and Arab Unions are crucial in maintaining regional stability and fostering unity. Particularly in addressing conflicts and disputes within the Horn of Africa. Their effectiveness in ensuring Somalia’s unity faces challenges amid Ethiopia’s efforts to widen the gap between factions. The AU’s mission is to promote peace, security, and stability in Africa. To resolve internal conflicts and uphold member states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. In Somalia, the AU’s mediation and peacekeeping efforts are essential to preventing fragmentation. And for fostering national cohesion.

Piracy and crime

The relevance of the Somali coast as a global trade route is undeniable. Given its strategic location connecting the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, the region’s piracy and criminal activity history challenges maritime security and international trade. Despite concerted efforts by the international community to combat piracy off the Somali coast, the threat persists, undermining economic activities and hindering the region’s development. Additionally, the Somali coast’s position as a strategic military axis further complicates the security dynamics in the Horn of Africa.

The presence of foreign military forces, including those from Western powers and regional actors like the United States, China, and Gulf states, reflects the strategic importance of the Somali coast. These military deployments are aimed at protecting vital shipping lanes, countering piracy and terrorism, and advancing strategic interests in the region. However, the concentration of foreign military assets also raises concerns about sovereignty and potential tensions among competing powers. Militarising the Somali coast could exacerbate existing conflicts and fuel regional rivalries. Underscoring the need for diplomatic engagement and multilateral cooperation.

Strategic implications of the Ethiopia-Somaliland Agreement

In conclusion, the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement represents a significant milestone in regional geopolitics. Strategic implications will influence the balance of power in the Horn of Africa and beyond. It offers Ethiopia strategic maritime access and potential military leverage. It promises Somaliland unprecedented international recognition. But it’s a pact mired in complexities, ambiguities, and possible regional discord. The deal does not alter Ethiopia and Somaliland’s roles in regional politics. It implicates broader international interests, including those locally and globally.

There are varying interpretations of the agreement by Ethiopia and Somaliland. The military and commercial aspects are unclear. Then there are the geopolitical responses from neighbouring countries like Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea. All indicate a tense and uncertain future. Then, global powers such as the US, China, Russia, and the European Union are involved. Each, with their strategic interests, adds layers to this complexity.

The deal has sparked concerns over its impact on regional security. Particularly about the ongoing tensions in Somalia and the activities of Al-Shabaab. The risk of exacerbating proxy conflicts and influencing the dynamics of regional alliances is real. The potential for further destabilisation in the Horn of Africa cannot be underestimated.

Addressing these challenges requires a multi-approach. It will involve diplomatic negotiations, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. All focused on regional stability. The role of the African Union and IGAD in mediating and fostering dialogue will be pivotal. Ultimately, the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement highlights the intricate interplay of domestic politics, regional dynamics, and global strategic interests in the Horn of Africa. Underscoring the need for a nuanced and collaborative approach to ensure long-term regional stability and development.

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