24.01.2024 Author: Ivan Kopytsev

Ethiopia and Somaliland: Towards a promising partnership or a new point of tension? Part 2. Memorandum of Understanding: potential impact on the balance of power in the region


In summary, the previous article examined the factors behind the very possibility of the signing of the Ethiopia-Somaliland Memorandum of Understanding on 1 January 2024, under which Addis Ababa, at least on paper, gained long-awaited access to the Red Sea in exchange for recognition of its northeastern neighbour’s independence and, according to some reports, the transfer of control of part of Ethiopian Airlines shares to Hargeisa. However, understanding the motivations of the parties, including the underlying interests and variables influencing the evolution of negotiating positions, is only a preparatory step towards analysing the likely consequences of the agreement for the regional security complex in general and the bilateral relations of the actors in particular.

First of all, when talking about the possible reactions of states and other players in the Horn of Africa to the signing of the Memorandum, one should take into account the real prospects for the implementation of the agreement. The fact is that despite the Somaliland government’s public announcement of the deal and the announcement of its terms, the text of the agreement itself is not disclosed – which is largely typical of diplomatic practices used by both Ethiopia and its neighbours (for example, the agreement between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia in 2018). For its part, the Ethiopian side does not deny the Somaliland leadership’s articulated interpretation of the deal, but neither has it so far officially announced recognition of the self-proclaimed republic’s independence. However, the absence of any denial and the noticeable intensification of contacts between Addis Ababa and Hargeisa, in particular, the talks between the Ethiopian Chief of General Staff, Field Marshal General Birhanu Jula and his Somaliland counterpart, Major General Ismail Thani, allow us to consider the signing of the Memorandum as an accomplished fact, forming a new political reality for the entire Horn of Africa. Thus, when considering the most likely scenario that the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement will not be cancelled in the short term and the parties will honour their commitments, there are at least three implications of this event that are significant in terms of the balance of power in the region.

First, the decision of the Abiy Ahmed Government to recognise the independence of Somaliland, which was proclaimed in 1991 and has not been supported by any State in the world for more than 30 years, is in essence a dramatic violation of the status quo: in other words, it sets a precedent for playing “outside the box” with regard to the “Somali question”. Thus, despite the obvious inability of the government in Mogadishu to ensure control over the north-western regions of the country, and the fact that the territory of Somaliland over the years of its autonomous existence has become perhaps the safest region of Somalia, the Horn of Africa states and external actors have not questioned the territorial integrity of the most “fragile” state in the world. As a result, Ethiopia, which violated the unspoken rule, inevitably incurred significant reputational costs, creating an extremely unfavourable information background around itself.

Secondly, Ethiopia’s gaining direct access to the Red Sea – already the most powerful player in the region – is not unreasonably resented by three neighbouring states: 1) Djibouti, which is losing its monopoly control over the transit route for Ethiopian foreign trade and thus both economic rents and political leverage; 2) Somalia, whose government perceived Addis Ababa’s action as a direct attack on its sovereignty; and 3) Eritrea, which does not want the emergence of a regional hegemon and seeks to contain the rise of its southern neighbour.

Thirdly, the emerging conflict between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu led to the final collapse of the alliance that had effectively existed since 2018 between Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea. Moreover, it was the latter’s support that the Somali government resorted to: just a few days after the signing of the Memorandum, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud arrived in Asmara, where he was warmly received by his Eritrean counterpart Isaias Afwerki. It should be borne in mind that the matrix of important foreign policy decisions and the set of instruments used on the eastern tip of the African continent is strikingly different from the orderly and status quo-oriented system familiar to Europeans. In particular, we are talking about the willingness of regional actors to use military force both for objective reasons (e.g., the absence of the threat of a high-tech retaliatory strike) and because of the cognitive peculiarities inherent in local elites: armed conflict is not perceived as something that poses an existential threat and contradicts common sense.  This observation means that the prospect of a military confrontation cannot be discounted: the Somaliland crisis has led to a very natural convergence between Mogadishu and the Somali Government’s arch-enemy, the terrorist group Al-Shabab, which does not miss an opportunity to stir up anti-Ethiopian sentiment among Somali Muslims. Thus, by indirectly supporting the extremists in attacks on Ethiopia’s border areas, and by counting on Eritrea’s support in the event of an escalation of the conflict with the latter, the Somali Government will have the opportunity to embarrass its potential adversary.

In general, when considering the potential consequences of the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, it is necessary to pay close attention not only to analysing the medium- and long-term prospects, such as possible political and military confrontations and a sharp shift in the balance of power in favour of Ethiopia (long-term perspective), but also to taking into account the difficulties that may arise in the implementation of the deal. The issue at stake here is both the willingness of the parties to stick to their commitments and intra-elite consensus: after the terms of the agreement were announced, Somaliland’s military minister resigned, claiming that the decision had been taken without his knowledge, which to some extent casts doubt on Hargeisa’s ability to fulfil his promises. In addition, in the case of Ethiopia, one should not forget the many internal challenges, including the ongoing confrontation with Fano and the Oromo Liberation Army: under these circumstances, any new conflict could finally exhaust the “margin of safety” of Abiy Ahmed’s government.


Ivan KOPYTZEV – political scientist, research intern at the Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Institute for International Studies, MGIMO, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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