Opinions

Ethiopia’s dangerous game in East Africa could spark conflict

A recent Ethiopian agreement with breakaway Somaliland is in breach of Somali sovereignty and threatens to destabilise the whole region.

Abdi Aynte

Former minister of planning and international cooperation of Somalia

Published On 30 Jan 202430 Jan 2024Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi (right) and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attend the signing of the memorandum of understanding in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on January 1, 2024 [Reuters/Tiksa Negeri]

On January 1, a controversial memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia.

Purportedly, this agreement grants landlocked Ethiopia a 20km piece of coastal land for establishing a naval base and the right to build a commercial port. In return, Ethiopia said it intends to recognise Somaliland as an independent country, making it the first nation to do so.

Ethiopian leaders have said that this move is aimed at correcting what they frame as a “historical mistake” of not having access to the sea. But Somalia holds no responsibility for this supposed historical injustice; Ethiopia lost its coastline after Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 following a three-decade-long war. Moreover, Ethiopia’s claim that it needs access to the sea to grow its economy conveniently ignores the fact that its economy became the fastest growing in the continent after it became landlocked.

Now Addis Ababa’s actions are threatening to spark yet another war in East Africa. Unless forces of reason prevail among Ethiopian leaders, the whole region could be dragged into conflict.

Two desperate leaders

By all accounts, this provocative move is rooted in the profound domestic crisis confronting the leaders of both Ethiopia and Somaliland. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, governs a fractious Ethiopia, grappling with widespread ethnic conflicts and increasingly intensifying armed rebellions.

Ethiopia’s government, emerging from a devastating civil war in the Tigray region, faces fresh pogroms by rebel forces from the Amhara and Oromo communities – the two largest ethnic groups – challenging the authority in Addis Ababa.

Regionally, Ethiopia is in a precarious position. The détente with Eritrea is crumbling as mutual acrimony between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea intensifies. Tensions with Egypt over the Renaissance Dam are reaching a boiling point, as Cairo recently withdrew its representative from a platform for negotiations on how to share the waters of the Nile River. Relations with neighbouring Sudan are not at their best since December, when PM Abiy extended a red carpet welcome for the leader of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, a staunch foe of the Sovereign Council that rules Sudan.

Economically, Ethiopia is experiencing severe financial strain. Last month, the government failed to pay $33m in interest  on its international government bond and in recent years, it has struggled to maintain sufficient hard currency, restricting the movement of United States dollars out of the country. The official exchange rate is considerably lower than that of the black market, a reliable indicator of deep financial woes.

For Abdi, the leader of the Somalia breakaway region of Somaliland, the situation is equally dire on the domestic front. Last year, he lost approximately a third of the erstwhile “British-Somaliland” territory to SSC-Khaatumo, a regional administration recognised by the Federal Government of Somalia.

Other communities, notably in the Awdal region, are also rising up as a result of the MOU with Ethiopia. Last week, the defence minister of Somaliland, who hails from the same region, resigned in protest of the MOU.

On top of that, President Abdi’s five-year term expired more than a year ago. An unelected senate, known as “Guurti”, extended his term by two years, to the objection of Somaliland’s opposition parties in the elected lower house of the regional parliament.

This MOU, therefore, is widely seen in Ethiopia and Somaliland as a desperate attempt by their leaders to deflect attention away from their deep domestic troubles. However, the global response and domestic reactions have been remarkably swift and consistent.

Diplomatic backlash

The MOU has been met with a swift and unanimous international response, affirming the inviolability of Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Major global and regional powers, including the African Union, the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the European Union, China, the United Kingdom and the US, among others, have stood firm against Ethiopia’s violation of the sovereignty of Somalia.

China’s strong response is particularly significant given Somaliland’s ties with Taiwan and Somalia’s historic support for the “One China” policy. Russia, on the other hand, has remained silent, possibly seeing an opportunity to further its strategic interests in the region.

On the African front, Ethiopia could find itself in isolation if it proceeds to recognise Somaliland and violates a founding principle of the African Union, which is to safeguard the territorial integrity of member states.

Ethiopia’s reckless action could lead to a campaign to move the AU headquarters from Addis Ababa, as it would be deemed inherently unfit to host a union built on respecting the sovereignty of all member states. Moreover, the vast majority of AU member states are principally and politically opposed to recognising secessionist movements as that would open a can of worms across the continent.

Regional stakes

The MOU threatens to reignite historical hostilities between Ethiopia and Somalia. The two nations have a history of conflict, notably the 1977-1978 war, and the 1,600km (994-mile) border between Somalia and Ethiopia remains officially disputed. This latest move by Ethiopia is by far the most significant violation of Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity since its independence in 1960.

Should Ethiopia proceed with establishing a naval base in Somaliland, Somalia’s strategic response would be multifaceted and equally dramatic. Among the proportional countermeasures it may undertake, Somalia would almost immediately sever diplomatic ties, eject all Ethiopian forces from Somalia and suspend virtually all commercial transactions. That might include banning Ethiopian Airlines from using the Somali airspace — a move that would almost certainly cripple Africa’s biggest airline and the largest source of hard currency for Ethiopia.

Additionally, Somalia might seek to sign strategic defence pacts with Egypt, Eritrea and other countries as part of its long-term territorial fortification strategy. Such moves would not sit well with Ethiopia, and the resulting escalation could trigger a regional conflagration in the Horn of Africa, already one of the most volatile regions around the world.

Perhaps more ominously for regional stability, the Ethiopian action could radicalise tens of thousands of young Somalis who are already outraged by what they view as a historic enemy dismembering their country.

Coincidently, it was Ethiopia’s 2006-2008 invasion of Somalia that gave rise to al-Shabab, the most violent militant group in Africa today. This MOU would be the most poignant recruitment tool for violent extremist groups as well as for irredentist movements.

Options for de-escalation

In signing this MOU with Somaliland, Ethiopia gambled on a rules-based international world order, weakened by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. However, the response from Somalia and across the world has been firm and has reflected strong support for its sovereignty.

Rather than pursuing this dangerous path, Ethiopia should engage directly with the Federal Government of Somalia to discuss cooperative arrangements, such as the utilisation of existing Somali ports, following the model between Djibouti and Ethiopia. This approach would be more conducive to regional stability and respect for Somali sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity.

Somalia has repeatedly affirmed its willingness to engage constructively with Ethiopia on mutually beneficial trading arrangements that include the usage of its ports by its larger neighbour to the south. And Ethiopia has many things to offer to Somalia, such as cheap electricity and transportation and logistics hubs.

But the path that Addis Ababa has taken with this MOU assures a mutually destructive outcome for both countries. The only difference is that, more than most countries around the world, Somalia knows how to survive – and even thrive – under a comprehensive state failure. Ethiopia, on the other hand, wouldn’t be able to cope with the resulting conflagration.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.