What the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal means for Washington's Red Sea strategy


Tensions from the war between Israel and Hamas have spilled over into the Red Sea. But while world leaders are intensely focused on everything happening in the waters of the Red Sea and north of it, they will also need to monitor geopolitical developments to the south, in the Horn of Africa.

These developments are reflected in two important agreements that Somaliland (an unrecognized republic in northern Somalia that self-declared independence in 1991) signed with countries in the region. The developments could boil over latent conflicts or significantly increase regional instability in the Horn; On the other hand, they could potentially promote peace and prosperity in the region. The uncertainty about what will happen after these agreements, even in the months after they are signed, is reason for world leaders to monitor the situation closely.

A statement with Somalia

The first agreement is a statement, which followed a meeting between Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Djibouti on December 28 last year. In the statement, the countries' officials agreed to resume diplomatic discussions, implement previous agreements, resolve ongoing conflicts and strengthen cooperation on security and organized crime.

Although initially promising, the agreement has increased tensions among civilians throughout the region. Some Somalis I spoke to saw the agreement (which referred to the breakaway territory as "northern regions" rather than the "Republic of Somaliland") as a threat to Somaliland's perceived sovereignty. The fact that the agreement was signed by Somaliland's interior minister, Mohamed Kahin Ahmed, rather than the foreign minister, further indicated that the agreement was being approached as an internal matter of Somalia and not as an agreement between two entities. sovereign. For their part, some Somalis were upset that the statement referred to the Somaliland delegation as the Somaliland Government (rather than the Somaliland administration).

Abdi's tenure as president of Somaliland has also been marred by delayed elections, sparking controversy and leading some to believe he has no mandate to make such decisions. Opposition parties such as the Somaliland National Party (Waddani) and the Justice and Welfare Party (UCID) have taken advantage of this, accusing the president of endangering Somaliland's sovereignty. Both Abdi and Mohamud returned to their cities under scrutiny.

The Somalia-Somaliland communique's call for both sides to resolve ongoing conflicts brings to mind the conflict in the regions of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn, where a violent war over sovereignty has tarnished Abdi's (and Somaliland's) international reputation. ). Some civilians in these regions would prefer not to be governed by Somaliland, but to become their own federal member state of Somalia, a real threat to Somaliland's struggle for independence and a humanitarian burden on both Somalia and Somaliland. Resolving these internal conflicts would benefit both Somaliland and Somalia.

An MOU with Ethiopia

The second agreement is a memorandum of understanding (MOU), signed by Abdi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on January 2, which grants Ethiopian naval forces access to twenty kilometers of the Somaliland coast for fifty years. In exchange, Abiy agreed that the Ethiopian government would undertake an "in-depth evaluation" of Somaliland recognition. Somaliland also received a stake in Ethiopia Airlines.

Ethiopia has been considering sea access since Eritrea's independence in 1993 left Ethiopia landlocked and dependent on Djibouti for port access. Abiy has repeatedly called access to the Red Sea an existential issue for his country, worthy of talks with Eritrea; Eventually, rumors spread that Ethiopia might invade Eritrea to secure access to the port, intensifying regional tensions. Restoring a presence in the Red Sea with the MoU would not only benefit Ethiopian business interests, but would also revive Abiy's political legacy, which has been tarnished by his handling of the conflict in Tigray and the development of new crises in Amhara and Oromia.

Abdi returned from Addis Ababa to see thousands of people in the streets, waving flags and expressing patriotic fervor. If Ethiopia (an influential member of the African Union) were to recognize Somaliland, it could be a game-changer for the breakaway region, helping advance its quest to be recognized internationally, particularly as it faces rejection from Mogadishu. On the social platform On January 7, Abdi called a meeting of Somaliland's political players to discuss the agreement, which a Somaliland official said showed the president's inclusive approach.

Despite these signs of support, things have not gone well for Abdi. Protests broke out in the town of Borama in Somaliland, where hundreds of people chanted "our sea is not for sale" in opposition to Ethiopian troops on their territory. Furthermore, a few days after the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, Somaliland's defense minister resigned in protest. This internal reaction in Somaliland challenges and complicates Abdi's efforts to sell this deal as a complete victory for the Somaliland cause.

Somalia sees this agreement as a violation of its sovereignty and Mohamud has already signed a law nullifying the Memorandum of Understanding. This largely symbolic move is Somalia's way of asserting its jurisdiction over Somaliland; Somalia views Ethiopian efforts to establish a presence in Somaliland as an attempt to illegally infringe on its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Somalia and Ethiopia have fought devastating territorial wars in the past, and this decision also invokes the trauma within this tense relationship. Many in Somalia have boycotted Ethiopian Airlines. Somalia even forced an Ethiop Airlines flight (carrying Ethiopian officials bound for Somaliland) to return to Addis Ababa. If this deal fully materializes, it could undo the progress Mohamud has made to reintegrate Somalia into international institutions, resolve internal tensions, and fight the terrorist group al-Shabaab: Somali officials suggested that al-Shabaab would take up arms afterward. of the MoU, with al-Shabaab -Shabaab leaders quickly call to defend the territory of Somalia.

The global response begins to take shape

In the weeks since the signing of these agreements, Washington has apparently stuck to its "one Somalia" policy, with several statements by senior US diplomats reiterating US support for Somalia's territorial integrity. However, a U.S. State Department official also said the United States supported talks between the people of Somalia and Somaliland about their shared future, leaving the door open to possible future support depending on the results of those talks. This also comes on the heels of an informal softening of long-standing positions, as indicated by diplomatic visits to Somaliland, such as that of General Stephen Townsend, commander of the US Africa Command, in May 2022.

Beyond the Biden administration, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), the first Somali-American in Congress, gave a speech to Somali voters largely in support of Somalia, drawing the ire of both Republicans in Congress and Somalis with ties to the United States.

The United Kingdom, one of Somaliland's closest Western partners, has also expressed deep concern about the MoU, encouraging restraint and acknowledging its support for Somalia's territorial integrity. However, one member of parliament called for the United Kingdom to recognize Somaliland in light of these developments.

The Arab League, led by Egypt (which has a complicated relationship with Ethiopia), has been firm in its support for Somalia. However, DP World, a Dubai-based developer that has already invested heavily in the Berbera port, has continued to express interest in developing the port together with Ethiopia and Somaliland. This could be an indication that the UAE could change its policies towards Somaliland and the Arab League.

The African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have joined the international community's call for restraint and reiterated their support for the territorial integrity of Somalia. However, Somalia rejected African Union mediation, arguing that there was no room for mediation until Ethiopia retracted the MoU and reaffirmed Somalia's sovereignty. Meanwhile, Ethiopia did not attend a recent IGAD meeting that was intended to address the conflict in Sudan and, to a lesser extent, tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia over the MoU. Although the Ethiopian government claimed that his absence was because the meeting clashed with a "previous commitment," Abiy was still present at a nearby Non-Aligned Movement summit the following day, suggesting that he was dismissive of the meeting. of the IGAD.

Despite global reactions, the MoU has persisted and progress towards access to Ethiopian ports continues.

The risk of an escalation of tensions in this region, which includes Sudan, the scene of calamitous security, political and humanitarian crises, is increasing. If these tensions are poorly managed, the conflict could spread throughout the Horn of Africa and potentially even extend to the Red Sea. However, if managed properly, tensions could ease, giving way to prosperity and economic growth.

The security interests of many countries (particularly the United States) are at stake. As tensions rise between the United States and the Yemen-based Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, Washington may be looking for ways to expand its military presence in the region beyond its significant presence based in Djibouti. Over the past two years, the United States has reportedly expressed interest in using the Berbera port and airfield in Somaliland as a base to counter Al Shabaab. Although the US visits to Berbera have been carefully coordinated with the Somali government, this commitment could be interpreted as a major victory for Somaliland in strengthening its sovereignty. With Berbera and an enthusiasm for international engagement, Somaliland could potentially help the United States gain ground to protect vital sea routes and diversify its regional footprint away from the already crowded military hub of Djibouti. However, since Somaliland remains unrecognized, the United States would first need to obtain approval from Somalia, an agreement that could be facilitated with the cooperation described in the initial communique signed in Djibouti, although such relaxation could be jeopardized if tensions around to the Ethiopia-Somaliland alliance The MOU continues to increase.

Furthermore, the armed conflict involving Ethiopia, Somaliland and Somalia could complicate security cooperation agreements between Somalia and the United States in the fight against Al Shabaab. This further emphasizes the importance of US leadership and diplomacy in ensuring that this tension does not escalate further.

The United States should use its financial and diplomatic influence to ensure that the governments of Somaliland, Ethiopia, and Somalia act cautiously in the coming weeks as they seek to preserve US security interests in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, specifically in regarding Berbera and its counterterrorism. efforts.

The agreements appear contradictory: one calls for cooperation between Somalia and Somaliland, which for some undermines Somaliland's sovereignty, while the other outlines political and economic cooperation between Somaliland and Ethiopia, which for Somalia undermines its sovereignty. But each of the agreements is based on the promotion of regional cooperation, negotiation and partnership. When paying attention to this region, international actors must emphasize the strategic benefit that comes with cooperation. This must be the way forward, lest the world see more conflict in 2024.

By: Maxwell Webb
Source: Atlantic Council
Credit: Dr. Félix Daniel Bariios
Maxwell Webb es un analista independiente del Cuerno de África y Oriente Medio que actualmente se desempeña como coordinador de iniciativas de liderazgo en el programa IPF Atid del Foro de Política de Israel.