02.03.2024 Author: Viktor Goncharov

The Horn of Africa in the quagmire of geopolitical rivalry Part One: The Ethiopia-Somalia Conflict

The Ethiopia-Somalia Conflict

The already tense situation in the Horn of Africa has escalated sharply since the beginning of the year. On 1 January, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a memorandum of understanding with the president of the self-proclaimed republic of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, under which Ethiopia will receive a 50-year lease on a 20-kilometre stretch of the Red Sea coast near the port of Berbera for the establishment of a commercial hub and, in the future, a military base.

In return, Ethiopia will give Somaliland a stake in state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest carrier, and, most importantly, Addis Ababa’s promise of diplomatic recognition for Somaliland, a former British protectorate which, as The Economist recounts, merged with Italian Somaliland to form a single Somalia after gaining independence from Britain five days later on 1 July 1960. However, five months after the overthrow of Siad Barre’s regime on 18 May 1991, the former British protectorate declared independence and seceded from Somalia, which was embroiled in a civil war of “all against all”.

Since Eritrea’s independence in 1993 and the loss of access to the sea by Ethiopia, a country of 120 million people, its leaders have long regarded access to the Red Sea as a strategic imperative of an “existential nature”. They have negotiated with the authorities in Sudan, Kenya and, most recently in 2018, Somaliland, among others, but to no avail. Since then, around 90 per cent of its import-export trade has taken place along the Addis Ababa-Djibouti corridor, which, according to the World Bank, costs it $1.5 billion a year and hampers its economic development.

As for Somaliland, its leaders are interested in a deal with Ethiopia because it could be the beginning of its gradual international recognition. Although it has functioned as a de facto state since 1991, with its own constitution, flag, passport system, currency and armed forces, Somaliland has so far been recognised only by Taiwan.

It is noteworthy that the EU, while not recognising its independence, is helping it to build capable state institutions. Representatives from Brussels who observed the recent 2021 elections congratulated the people, government, electoral commission and political parties of Somaliland for their successful organisation and conduct.

Countries that now have consular relations with the unrecognised state include Kenya, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the US, the UK, Germany and France.

Although the Memorandum of Understanding is not legally binding and is merely a statement of intent, it has provoked a wave of controversial opinions in the foreign media, ranging from strong condemnation to support, subject to a number of conditions.

Ethiopia’s possible recognition of Somaliland’s sovereignty has provoked strong reactions, especially from Somalia, which saw the intention as a “blatant violation of its sovereignty and unity” and recalled its ambassador from Addis Ababa. “We see this as an act of aggression against Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and a direct threat to our maritime resources, which we will defend… whatever the cost,” said Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre.

Having secured parliamentary support, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared on 3 January that “Somalia will not cede an inch of its land to anyone” and called on the UN Security Council and the African Union (AU) to “convene urgent meetings to address Ethiopia’s violations”.

The response of the African Union’s governing bodies to the deterioration in Ethiopian-Somali relations has been largely muted. The AU Peace and Security Council refrained from directly condemning Ethiopia’s actions, but noted the need to ‘respect the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of all AU Member States’.

It also asked the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to “urgently” call on the AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria, to facilitate dialogue between the two countries and report back to the Peace and Security Council on developments.

Similarly, at a summit in the Ugandan capital Kampala on 18 January this year, participants in the Intergovernmental Organisation for Development (IGAD) of North East Africa, which includes Ethiopia and Somalia, limited themselves to “expressing deep concern at the strained relations between the two countries” and calling on them to “reduce tensions and engage in constructive dialogue”.

The adopted summit statement stressed that ‘Addis Ababa does not claim to recognise this self-proclaimed republic, but will conduct a thorough assessment of the issue to determine its position on its international recognition’.

However, Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit told an emergency meeting of LAS heads on 18 January that the “deal” between Ethiopia and Somaliland was “a blatant attack on Arab, African and international principles”. According to the Ethiopian representative, Cairo’s interests were behind the LAS chief’s statement.

Failing to obtain a strong condemnation of Ethiopia at the level of African regional organisations, on 23 January this year, Somalia made an official statement to the UN Security Council that the memorandum signed by Ethiopia and Somaliland “constitutes an illegal violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity” and requires condemnation by the UN. At the same time, the Ethiopian government presented its position on the matter to the Council.

After considering the parties’ statements, on 29 January this year, the UN Security Council, chaired by France, recommended that Somalia and Ethiopia resolve their differences within the framework of the African Union and the Intergovernmental Organisation for Development (IGAD), which includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda and Eritrea.

But this UN recommendation has not been heeded by the leadership of the African Union. According to the Kenyan newspaper The East African, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, Catriona Laing, told a UN Security Council meeting on 20 February this year that she was disappointed that the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, which met in Addis Ababa on 17-19 February, had “skirted the issue”. Instead, the meeting focused on discussions on education, science and innovative technologies, with peace and security issues being “an afterthought”.

The mediation efforts of all these organisations have thus far failed. Moreover, they have stalled after Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared that he would not negotiate until Ethiopia and Somaliland reneged on the ‘deal’.

As for Washington’s reaction, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby expressed concern that further escalation of tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia could undermine efforts to combat the Islamist group al-Shabaab (outlawed in Russia) operating in Somalia. The EU, for its part, criticised the signing of the memorandum and demanded that Ethiopia “respect the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia”. But at the same time, as analysts point out, these statements leave Mogadishu no choice but to use diplomatic methods to resolve the conflict.

Its resolution is complicated by the fact that, in addition to the three direct actors – Ethiopia, Somaliland and Somalia – there are at least a dozen external players, both regional and global, all of whom are pursuing their own narrow geostrategic interests, antagonising the states of the region and hindering the development of interregional cooperation.

As a result, neighbouring countries often find themselves on different sides of the barricades. For example, in the protracted civil war in Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan support the head of the current Sudanese military administration, General Al Burhan, while Ethiopia and the UAE support his rival, the separatist General Hemedti, which could lead to the collapse of the Sudanese state.

In order to understand the complexity of the conflict, at the epicentre of which is Somaliland by virtue of its strategic location in the Gulf of Aden, it would be useful to outline at least the broad dynamics of the geopolitical rivalry between the main external players involved.


Viktor GONCHAROV, african expert, candidate of sciences in economics, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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