Ethiopia's Red Sea port deal: A brewing conflict in the Horn of Africa?
In a huge surprise, Addis Ababa and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland celebrated the beginning of the new year by signing a memorandum of understanding that both parties described as “historic.”
The agreement will give landlocked Ethiopia access to the Red Sea, sparking a wave of speculation about the geopolitical implications of such a move on relations between countries in the turbulent Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia and the Red Sea: An undying ambition
Access to the Red Sea has long been an ambition for Ethiopia. These aspirations have only grown since Eritrea's independence in 1993, which left Ethiopia as one of the largest landlocked countries in Africa.
In a speech delivered before his country’s parliament on 14 October, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reiterated this desire, hinting at the use of force to achieve his country’s “right” to obtain a sovereign outlet on the Red Sea.
"The agreement will give landlocked Ethiopia access to the Red Sea, sparking a wave of speculation about the geopolitical implications of such a move on relations between countries in the turbulent Horn of Africa"
The Ethiopian leader presented several justifications related to history, economics, geopolitics, and demography, stressing that his citizens, whose number will reach 150 million by the beginning of the next decade, “cannot live in a geographic prison,” and that “the Nile and the Red Sea are the foundation of Ethiopia's development or its annihilation”.
Although he later retracted his suggestion of using force, his speech received a serious response from his coastal neighbours, with Djibouti, Somalia, and Eritrea issuing statements reasserting their rejection of Ethiopian claims.
In an indication of the dangers surrounding this issue, reports had circulated about military movements along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border, raising fears of the possibility of an armed conflict breaking out between the two sides.
Within this tense context, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the President of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, Musa Bihi Abdou, signed the deal last week, representing a critical new juncture in the current crisis.
A statement issued by the Ethiopian prime minister affirmed that this memorandum “paves the way for achieving Ethiopia’s aspirations in securing access to the sea and diversifying its means of access to sea ports.”
For its part, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Somaliland announced that the agreement “secures the Ethiopian naval forces’ access to the sea, with official recognition of the Republic of Somaliland,” with Hargeisa leasing a 20-kilometre coastal strip to Addis Ababa for fifty years.
Noureddine Abda, editor-in-chief of the Ethiopian Nilotek website, told The New Arab that the port deal was agreed amid extremely complex regional and international dynamics, “in which everyone is seeking to reposition itself in a turbulent international context”.
Both Ethiopia and Somaliland have their own unique motivations for the agreement. For Ethiopia, “free access to the sea is linked to securing its international trade and achieving its national security,” Abda said, especially in light of the “great security threats facing the Red Sea”.
For Somaliland, the government’s agreement was based on its desire to obtain international recognition, with the deal itself being considered “implicit Ethiopian recognition,” Shafa Omar, a political analyst specialising in African affairs, told TNA.
As part of the memorandum Somaliland will obtain “a share in Ethiopian Airlines, which is the largest airline in Africa, and this constitutes an important economic opportunity for Somaliland,” Omar added.
"For Somaliland, the government's agreement was based on its desire to obtain international recognition"
Following the collapse of the state in Somalia in 1991, the Somaliland region declared itself an independent country under the name ‘Republic of Somaliland’. It is not recognised by the central authority in Mogadishu, or internationally, but has its own government and security institutions.
For three decades, Somaliland has worked to gain international recognition of its independence, without success, and observers believe that Ethiopian recognition could be the starting point for similar steps from other African countries.
In his speech last October, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed presented his coastal neighbours with an option that included obtaining a stake of up to 30% in vital Ethiopian institutions, such as the Renaissance Dam, Ethiopian Airlines, or the Ethiopian Telecommunications Company, in exchange for securing sovereign access to the sea, a proposal that was not accepted by anyone at the time.
Tensions in the Horn of Africa
The Ethiopian port deal with Somaliland has sparked a crisis between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa, with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud announcing the cancellation of the memorandum, which he described as “illegal”.
The Somali government considers it a “blatant violation of Somalia’s sovereignty,” stressing that it would take all legal measures that would enable it to “defend the sovereignty of its people and land”.
The Somali reaction was to be expected, Omar Ahmed, a political analyst specialising in the affairs of the Horn of Africa, told TNA, and many other countries in the region share Mogadishu’s fears.
Djibouti is one such country with reservations about the agreement, as it was leading mediation talks between Somalia and Somaliland that resulted in the two parties signing an agreement on 31 December which laid out a road map for the resumption of negotiations between them. The MoU with Ethiopia was signed a day later, undermining these efforts.
Addis Ababa's use of the port of Berbera in Somaliland will also deprive Djibouti of the advantage of being the main crossing point for Ethiopia's imports and exports, Ahmed says, which threatens it with the loss of a significant amount of its income from fees and taxes.
In the same context, Asmara is also wary of Addis Ababa obtaining any naval bases, as “the Eritrean regime has always sought to keep Ethiopia trapped,” Ahmed added.
"Many other countries in the region share Mogadishu's fears"
The Red Sea port deal will exacerbate pre-existing regional tensions and there is now a need for “understanding and negotiation to contain the repercussions,” analyst Shafa Omar explains.
But such risks have likely already been calculated by Ethiopia and Somaliland. For Ethiopia, bearing the risk of tensions, whether internally or regionally, is seen as better than “waiting and watching without taking measures to preserve its national security," journalist Noureddine Abda said.
For Somaliland, meanwhile, there is already an ongoing crisis with Mogadishu, therefore "it can risk escalation in exchange for gaining recognition and revitalising the economy and trade".
Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in the African Affairs
Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli