Ethiopia should abandon naval base deal with Somaliland

Ethiopia signed a naval military base deal with the separatist Somaliland region on January 1 this year, leasing 20km (12 miles) of coastline in Zeila area for 50 years. The deal also reportedly links the sea access with Ethiopia’s formal recognition of Somaliland. The specific details of the MoU have not been published, but this is an unprecedented move by Ethiopia as it violates the UN and AU Charters. The AU Chairperson refrained from condemning Ethiopia’s action but said it is imperative to respect unity, territorial integrity and full sovereignty of all AU member states.

Somalia accused Ethiopia of aggression, and of undermining its territorial integrity. Somalia’s Parliament immediately passed a law that nullified the agreement. Ethiopia appears undeterred and followed a week later by a military cooperation discussion with Somaliland region which has sparked fears of a military confrontation with Somalia.

In October last year, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed warned that his country’s existence was tied to its access to the Red Sea, and that it was determined to get its wish. This alarmed the region, with Eritrea responding that it would defend its territory at all times. Ethiopia had access to the seaports of Massawa and Assab until 1991 when Eritrea which, until then was part of Ethiopia, gained its independence. It has since used Djibouti for 90 per cent of its commercial maritime activities. It has also signed an agreement with Kenya for the use of Lamu port once the Lapsset project to link its border with road and rail is completed. In 2019, Ethiopia bought a 19 per cent stake in the Port of Berbera with Somaliland retaining 30 per cent and Dubai’s DP World holding 51 per cent in a deal where it will manage the port for 30 years.

The deal between Somaliland and Ethiopia came a few days after President Hassan and Somaliland region’s leader Musa Biihi met in Djibouti to resolve their differences.

Ethiopia’s assertion that it cannot survive without the sea isn’t new. In particular, its desire to access the sea via Somalia has been a mission for a long time. During a conversation with British officials in 1927 in Addis Ababa, it inquired about the possibility for cession or lease of Zeila port to Abyssinia. Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway was built in the beginning of the 20th century in part to address this issue. If indeed, commercial maritime services are the concern, it already has access to both Berbera and Djibouti. It has also reportedly held several discussions with Somalia on the use of its ports. If it improves its relations with Eritrea, it will have access to Asmara and Assab.

It is instructive to note that the statement on the deal emphasised establishment of a naval military base. The US and UK, with the help of other players in the region, are thought to be behind the deal in a plan to control the important shipping route, both commercially and militarily. Observers believe this deal has a wider geopolitical significance, with the rising tension in the Red Sea between Yemen and the Western nations supporting Israel. In recent years, both Sudan and Yemen which share the Red Sea have been engulfed in wars believed to have been instigated at the behest of these Western powers. Only last week, it was reported that Djibouti declined US request to use its military base there to attack Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In a recent report titled 'The Kosovo conditions and the case for American unilateral recognition of Somaliland', Oliver McPherson-Smith and Jendayi E Frazer, the former US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs urged that “the self-declared Republic of Somaliland on the Horn of Africa meets the four “Kosovo conditions.” Recognising Somaliland would advance the United States’ interests by supporting a fellow democratic regime, promoting stability near the Bab al-Mandab trade choke point, and facilitating economic growth—particularly as Somaliland deepens its relations with Taiwan”. Taiwan, itself a breakaway republic from China has a representative office in Somaliland. It avers that “these four Kosovo conditions—the US national interest, de facto territorial control, little chance of peaceful reintegration, and the demonstrated feasibility of a local democratic regime—provide a guiding framework for US unilateral diplomatic recognition”.

After Abiy came to power, he immediately made peace with Eritrea, patched up differences with Somalia and built a cordial relationship with Kenya and Djibouti. Internally, he freed all political prisoners and widened the political freedoms. In 2019, the Horn of Africa Initiative bringing together the five countries was launched. Then, Tigray conflict started and many, particularly Somalis who saw a future in the region through Abiy, threw their weight behind him. Internally, he is still stuck with internal conflicts in several regions. His bromance with Eritrea, Somalia and even Kenya seems to have evaporated. Abiy is now flexing his muscles across the regions. His apparent backdoor deal with a breakaway republic is alarming, with concerns that its long-term aim could be annexation of Somaliland. It is also ironic that Abiy can endorse a deal that sets a dangerous precedent for the region.  

As Somalia seeks international support over the controversial agreement, with muted responses from IGAD and other Arab states which are allies of the US, Ethiopia seems determined to go ahead. It has a political leverage over the political leaders in Somalia. Many owe their leadership to its military involvement in the country. Most of the so-called regional presidents are allies of Ethiopia, and have Ethiopian military stationed in their regional capitals. The country has been under UN arms embargo for decades, lacks military capability and has a fractious political environment. Ethiopia hopes it will capitalise on all this to crystalise its deal which has a wider potential for conflict in the region.

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