31.01.2024 Author: Ivan Kopytsev

“Words or Deeds?”: the Somali Government’s Reaction to the Ethiopia-Somaliland Agreement


Despite the fact that even large-scale political events in the global South, which do not directly affect the interests of the leading players, traditionally remain somewhere on the periphery of the attention of the media and the general public of the Western-centric world, the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland has nevertheless become one of the significant information events in January 2024. This agreement predictably caused outrage in the Somali federal government, which immediately launched an ample campaign aimed at discrediting the memorandum in the eyes of the international community and putting pressure on its signatories. Leaving aside the already hackneyed topic of the legitimacy and legality of such claims, it is worth taking a closer look at the tools used by Mogadishu, including the feasibility and possible consequences of their use. In other words: what has the government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud done, and what are the objectives of these measures?

Memorandum of Understanding: Brief Overview

The agreement, better known as the Memorandum of Understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, was signed on January 1, 2024 by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the President of the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland Muse Bihi Abdi. According to the terms of the deal, Addis Ababa received a 50-year lease on a 20-kilometre stretch of the Gulf of Aden coast, thereby securing access to the sea, in exchange for recognition of the independence of its northeastern neighbor and the transfer of an undisclosed stake in Ethiopian Airlines to Hargeisa. Apparently, this deal came as an unexpected blow to the Mogadishu government, which only a few days earlier had participated in negotiations aimed at normalizing relations with Somaliland, which were also attended by representatives of the Ethiopian side. Thus, in addition to the logical rejection by the Somali authorities of any official agreements concluded by third parties in relation to the territory considered part of Somalia, the sharply negative reaction from Mogadishu may be partly due to the element of surprise, a kind of “stab in the back”.

Somalia Strikes Back

From the very first day after the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, the government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud began to implement a number of measures, both aimed at creating a negative information agenda around the agreement and exerting indirect information pressure on the political leadership of Ethiopia and Somaliland, and designed to influence each of the parties separately.

The most obvious and simple tool in the hands of Mogadishu is the creation of a negative information background, including obtaining public support from various states and international organizations, as well as constant pronouncements by Somali leaders in the world media and social networks harshly criticizing the actions of the Ethiopian government. It should be noted that the main information attack is directed against Addis Ababa as the supposed initiator of the agreement, which cannot simply ignore the public outcry due to its international status. To date, the government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has managed to enlist the support of the League of Arab States (LAS) and, directly, Egypt; Eritrea, Djibouti, the USA, the EU, Turkey and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) made statements more or less calling for respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia. Although the overwhelming majority of the listed players limited themselves to compromise rhetoric, none of the parties supported the actions of Addis Ababa, which can already be interpreted as a diplomatic success for Mogadishu.

The second pressure tool in the hands of the Somali government is the formation of an anti-Ethiopian coalition, that is, the search for allies who have tense relations with Ethiopia and are capable of acting as a force that would restrain the geopolitical appetites of the government of Abiy Ahmed. The implementation of such a plan is facilitated mainly due to the presence of at least two influential players in the Red Sea region, whose interests are at odds with the goals and policies of the Ethiopian government. We are talking about Egypt and Eritrea, where the President of Somalia went at the beginning of January and where he was assured of friendship and strong support. In particular, Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi not only called the Somalis a brotherly nation, but also promised that Egypt would not stand aside in the event of attacks on Somali territory. In turn, the long-serving political leader and one of the most prudent national leaders on the continent, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, hosted two days of talks with his Somali colleague in Asmara on January 8-9. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said that special attention was paid to issues of military cooperation: a clear message for the Ethiopian leadership. However, it should be borne in mind that in addition to the historical aspects of Ethiopia’s rivalry with Eritrea and Egypt, the willingness of Cairo and Asmara with impressive military capabilities to support the Somali federal government is to some extent explained by the existence of outstanding contradictions with Addis Ababa. While in the case of Ethiopian-Egyptian relations the main problem lies in the disputes over the Renaissance Dam, the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea are more complex and stem from the consequences of the conflict in Tigray, as well as deep-rooted mutual mistrust. Finally, the visit of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry to Asmara on January 11, 2024 and the subsequent message about an imminent meeting between the leaders of the two countries in Cairo testifies in favor of the creation of a triple anti-Ethiopian alliance consisting of Somalia, Egypt and Eritrea. As a result, even though the alliance is informal and its creation can hardly be considered complete, such a threat, even hypothetical, significantly limits the flexibility of Ethiopia, which is thus forced to reckon with a potential military threat.

The third and perhaps least obvious tool used by the Somali government is to create internal political tension in Somaliland and recruit opposition forces to shake Hargeisa’s resolve. The lack of unity within the political elites of the self-proclaimed state is evidenced by the decision of Defense Minister Abdiqani Mohamoud Ateye to resign in protest against the memorandum. In addition, the clan contradictions characteristic of Somali society persist in the north of Somaliland, where the prospect of such close cooperation with Ethiopia has already caused militant statements by clan militias from the western regions (where the construction of an Ethiopian military base is planned). It is not surprising that the Somali government is pinning high hopes on the leaders of small clans in Somaliland as a factor in internal pressure on Hargeisa. In addition, neighboring Djibouti, which will lose its status as an exclusive transit route for Ethiopian foreign trade, may also support the opposition forces.

So, as we can see, despite its apparent weakness in front of such a formidable opponent as Ethiopia, the Somali government, faced with an unexpected challenge, was able to adopt a whole range of tactics aimed at exerting direct and indirect pressure on the political leadership of both Ethiopia and Somaliland. On the one hand, the government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is so far limiting itself to statements and calls, avoiding drastic steps; on the other hand, this approach can be considered rational in conditions where Ethiopia has not announced official recognition of the independence of Somaliland, nor has it introduced its troops to the territory of the latter. However, any changes could entail further increased tension and escalation, a scenario certainly being considered in both Addis Ababa and Mogadishu.


Ivan Kopytsev, political scientist, research assistant at the Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Institute of International Studies at MGIMO University of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, exclusively for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook

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