Op-ed: The Ethiopia-Somaliland Berbera Port deal: A new Horn of Africa hotspot

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi during the signing of the MOU. Photo: PMO

By the Horn of Africa Research Unit of the Emirates Policy Center (EPC)

Key Takeaways

  • The recent MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland is part of Addis Abeba’s constant ambition to expand in the Red Sea area to control the geopolitical balances in the Horn of Africa region.
  • This preliminary deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland is likely to increase risks of tension in the Horn of Africa, which already suffers from several intense crises, such as the civil war in Sudan, the fragile Somali entity, and the Egypt-Ethiopia conflict over the Renaissance Dam.
  • Most regional parties have rejected the initial maritime agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland. However, this agreement will likely create a new reality directly implicating sensitive geopolitical stakes in the Horn of Africa.
  • Given these dynamics, it can be inferred that the initial agreement between Ethiopia and the Republic of Somaliland heightens the risk of increased tension in the Horn of Africa region.

On January 1, 2024, Ethiopia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Somaliland, giving Addis Ababa access to the Berbera Port on the Red Sea. In exchange, Addis Abeba was to recognize the state, which has self-proclaimed its independence officially. Somaliland was part of Somalia from 1960 to 1991. This paper deals with the background, stakes, and implications of this initial maritime agreement on the regional situation in the Horn of Africa.

Background of the agreement

Since Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the latter lost its access to the Red Sea and became landlocked. Addis Abeba tried to compensate for this situation through initiatives and measures, notably building several roads and railways with neighboring countries such as Kenya, Djibouti, and Eritrea. Ethiopia has depended on Djibouti’s port for its exports (95 percent) and imports (85 percent) in exchange for US$ 1.5-2 billion annually. Moreover, Djibouti gained some stakes in large Ethiopian companies such as Ethiopian Airlines and Ethio Telecom.

This development is expected to have significant qualitative effects on the configuration of regional balances. Although most regional and international actors have rejected this preliminary agreement, it is poised to establish a new reality

However, Addis Abeba believes its vital interests in the Red Sea require diversifying its maritime access. To this end, Ethiopia took a 19 percent share in the Berbera Port in Somaliland. However, in June 2022, the Hargeisa government announced that Ethiopia had lost its stake in the port because it had failed to “fulfill the required conditions to complete the ownership deal.” The issue concerns Ethiopia’s pledge to build a 260-kilometer road connecting the Berbera Port to Ethiopian territories.

In a lengthy speech in November 2023, Ethiopian Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed said that access to the Red Sea is an existential concern for Ethiopia. Ahmed underscored that “a population of 150 million cannot live in a geographic prison.” The Ethiopian prime minister pledged not to use military power against his neighbors to have access to the sea. However, his speech has raised controversy and fears in the region.

Therefore, the recent MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland is part of Addis Abeba’s constant ambition to expand in the Red Sea region to control the geopolitical balances in the Horn of Africa region. This expansion – along with the Renaissance Dam – will form the axis of Ethiopia’s power in the future.

The MoU Content

The precise details of the MoU between the Ethiopian and Somaliland governments are still unknown. However, leaks have revealed the following essential elements:   

  • Ethiopia proposes the utilization of a 20-kilometer stretch of the Red Sea shoreline in the waters of Somaliland near the Berbera Port on the Gulf of Aden for 50 years.
  • There is consideration for establishing an Ethiopian naval military base in the Berbera Port area.
  • Additionally, there is consideration for establishing an Ethiopian trade zone in the Berbera Port area.

In exchange, the Ethiopian government has committed to reassessing its diplomatic relations with the Republic of Somaliland. In diplomatic terms, this commitment implies a willingness to recognize Somaliland’s independence and sovereignty, a state that lacks international recognition despite seceding from the Republic of Somalia. Alongside this diplomatic shift, Ethiopia has also pledged once again to allocate shares in Ethiopian Airlines to the Government of Somaliland.

While the Ethiopian government has moderated its diplomatic commitment to recognizing the Republic of Somaliland, the prevailing sentiment in Somaliland suggests this move is perceived as a tangible achievement for the ruling authority. For years, they have sought external recognition. President Musa Bihi Abdi of the Republic of Somaliland has confirmed the details of the agreement with Ethiopia, highlighting the acknowledgment of his country’s independence as a significant aspect of the deal. The agreement is set to be finalized in February 2024.

Regional and international reactions

As anticipated, the Somali Republic vehemently rejected the initial agreement between Ethiopia and the Republic of Somaliland, viewing it as a violation of its sovereignty and a threat to its vital security. On January 6, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia signed a law declaring the MoU “illegitimate.” In protest, he summoned the Somali ambassador in Addis Abeba. Shortly after the MoU announcement, President Mohamud contacted his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who expressed full solidarity with Somalia’s stance against what he perceived as Ethiopian encroachment in the Red Sea region. 

Meanwhile, Cairo has invited the Somali president to visit Egypt. Turkey has openly supported Somalia’s position, aligning with the stances of the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the European Union, and the United States. These entities have all supported Somalia, echoing concerns about the Ethiopian presence in the Red Sea region.

The Horn of Africa nations have generally adopted a more moderate stance on the current crisis. Djibouti, the current chair of the IGAD group, has proposed mediating the Ethiopian-Somali conflict. The goal is to prevent the situation from escalating into a full-blown war, drawing parallels with the Ogaden conflict of 1963-1964 and 1977-1978. With its close ties to Somaliland, Kenya appears to be leaning toward supporting Ethiopia’s actions, even though it has not explicitly stated its position. Eritrea seems to align more closely with Mogadishu’s standpoint. This alignment may be influenced by Eritrea’s intricate historical ties with Ethiopia, which governed the country until 1993.

Given these dynamics, it can be inferred that the initial agreement between Ethiopia and the Republic of Somaliland heightens the risk of increased tension in the Horn of Africa. This region is already plagued by multiple crises, including the civil war in Sudan, the fragility of the Somali entity, and the ongoing dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Conclusions

While the deal between Somaliland and Ethiopia, wherein the latter secured access to the Berbera Port in exchange for recognizing the sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Somaliland, is still in its preparatory stage and faces several obstacles, it signifies Ethiopia’s new strategic initiative in the Red Sea. This development is expected to have significant qualitative effects on the configuration of regional balances. Although most regional and international actors have rejected this preliminary agreement, it is poised to establish a new reality with direct repercussions on the delicate geopolitical dynamics across the Horn of Africa.

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Editor’s Note: This op-ed was first published by the Horn of Africa Research Unit of the Emirates Policy Center (EPC), an independent think tank based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It is republished on Addis Standard website under the auspices of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed been JAKENN Publishing PLC, the Publisher of Addis Standard tri-lingual publications, and EPC providing shared principles for content sharing.

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