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  • Emma Cowen

Somaliland deal: Paving the path for conflict or independence?

By Emma Cowen

The self-proclaimed republic of Somaliland started the year with a bang as it struck a deal with Ethiopia on New Year’s Day, agreeing to lose parts of its coastline. Despite having declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, and from being a British protectorate, no country plans on recognising it … until now.

A memorandum of understanding effectively authorised Ethiopia to lease one of Somaliland’s naval bases, giving access to part of Somaliland’s strategic Berbera port in the Red Sea for the span of fifty years. Having lost its ports due to Eritrea’s secession in the early 1990s, landlocked Ethiopia can thus satisfy its expansionist appetite by exploiting Somaliland’s own port for commercial and military purposes. In return, Somaliland will be the first foreign government to benefit from a share in the immensely lucrative Ethiopia Airlines, and most importantly will benefit from Ethiopia’s “assessment” towards the recognition of Somaliland as a state: the first time a country has ever done so.

Claiming sovereignty over the breakaway state of Somaliland that joined Somalia from 1960 until 1991, the latter expressed anger at this deal made without its approval, describing it as an act of aggression, regardless of whether Ethiopia expressed no intent to wage a war. Days following the announcement, the African Union commission, the Oromo Liberation Front and the European Union advocated for the pacification of relations between Somalia and Ethiopia, whilst the US state department expressed concerns around the repercussions of such a deal. Protests against the deal flooded the streets of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu as its president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, rejected the deal, signing a law nullifying it on 6 January, possibly precipitating political turmoil in the Horn of Africa.

Rivalry between Ethiopia and Somalia has not stemmed from this recent deal, but is part of a deeper historical context, as the 1977-78 conflict over the region of Ogaden or the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia illustrates. With the outcome of this deal, tensions have re-escalated. One of the ministers of Somaliland, Abdiqani Mohamud Aateye, resigned after consulting with President Musa Bihi Abdi, reaffirming that “Ethiopia remains our number one enemy,” as Aateeye said. Condemning the deal as illegal, Somali locals chanted “Our sea is not for sale” and youths armed themselves as their president called for the “defence of our homeland”, despite Somaliland’s Minister for Commerce insisting that Ethiopia is interested in its land, not its sea. Ateye visited Eritrea on 9 January to secure its support alongside Turkey and Egypt, the latter’s relations with Ethiopia being tense since the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Dam. Nevertheless, these efforts have proven unsuccessful, as the meeting between the military leaders of Ethiopia and Somaliland on 8 January in Addis Ababa confirmed the launch of the operation. Alan Boswell, Horn of Africa Director at the International Crisis Group, deems Somalia waging war against Ethiopia as unlikely. However, the implications of the deal and its immediate consequences beg to differ. Boswell nevertheless adds that this agreement will fuel Ethiopia’s desire to acquire another country’s port, shaping “regional dynamics for years to come”.

Will this deal pave the way for the international recognition of Somaliland’s independence? The de facto state’s foreign minister seems to think so, believing that the deal will trigger a “domino effect” of countries recognising it. Yet the confusion between the two signatories over each other’s intentions could lead to a “memorandum of misunderstanding”, which could have devastating consequences if in a few years’ time if Ethiopia insists that it never agreed to recognise Somaliland’s sovereignty. Moreover, the deal comes at an inopportune time, just days following talks hosted by Djibouti between Somalia and Somaliland as they renewed dialogue after years of stalemate, a dialogue which now is tragically rendered insignificant. In this sense, this deal seems it will breed more conflict than peace over the Horn of Africa, potentially provoking instability across the continent.

IMAGE: Flickr / CharlesFred; Berbera, main port of Somaliland



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