top of page

Ethiopia Looks East For Seapower

Updated: May 23

Somalia has threatened war with Ethiopia, the landlocked former African kingdom and empire to its West, after the signing of a controversial Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). Ethiopia has negotiated a 50-year lease for a 20km strip of land around the Gulf of Aden's Port of Berbera in Somaliland, where it intends to establish a naval base. 

Somalia covers the outer coastal land of the Horn of Africa, a geopolitically critical territory for Freedom of Navigation (FON) in the Gulf of Aden. It stretches between Somalia and Yemen and has received attention recently for allowing passage to the Houthi attacks that have severely disrupted international trade flows in the past weeks. 

The internationally unrecognised Somaliland entity occupies the North Western coastal land. At the same time, the internationally-recognised Mogadishu government of Somalia retains de-facto control over the rest of the country, stretching from the North Eastern edge of the Horn southwards. 

Somaliland is de-jure one of the six constituent states that make up Somalia's federal parliamentary republic. Lacking any official recognition from UN member states, the breakaway entity notably maintains working diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia.

The signing of the MoU in Addis Ababa on January 1 constitutes, in the words of Somaliland's "Ministry of Foreign Affairs", a "historic agreement [that] ensures Ethiopia's access to the sea for their naval forces, reciprocated by formal recognition of the Republic of Somaliland, marking this as a significant diplomatic milestone for our country".

The breakaway entity's leader, Muse Bihi Abdi, similarly hailed the MOU as a "mutually beneficial agreement […] in exchange for 20km of sea access for the Ethiopian Naval forces, leased for a period of 50 years... Ethiopia will formally recognise the Republic of Somaliland, setting a precedent as the first nation to extend international recognition to our country." 

While additional details of the agreement remain, Somaliland is reportedly set to gain stakes in Ethiopia's flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines

It is unclear if Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has indeed agreed to seriously entertain the possibility of officially recognising Somaliland and thus setting a powerful precedent, making Ethiopia the first UN member to do so. Such a development would by no means be unthinkable. Still, Ethiopia surely ought to examine closely the repercussions that the recognition of Somaliland would entail for secession-aspiring minorities within its own borders.

 A South African-brokered peace agreement in November 2022 between the central Ethiopian government and the ethnic Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) under the auspices of the African Union in Pretoria spelt the formal end to the two-year-long war. The war accounted for at least "100,000 battle-related deaths in 2022", up to approximately 600,000, according to former Nigerian president and African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo. 

The conflict ignited shortly after Ahmed rose to power in 2018, becoming the first Prime Minister hailing from Ethiopia's Oromo ethnic group, which makes up 35% of the Ethiopian population. The country's fragile domestic arrangements stem from the state's decentralised governance and political system. Consisting of 12 self-governing states, the central Federal Democratic Republic was established in 1994, marking the transition from the authoritarian rule of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition in which the TPLF held a predominant position. 

The recent 2020-2022 war between the TPLF and the Ethiopian National Defence Forces saw war crimes committed by the central government's forces, which, in coordination with the Eritrean army, effectively "put the [Tigray] region under siege". All the while, a blind eye was turned to the brutal suppression of the Amhara ethnic group by the Oromo Liberation Front, "an extremist organisation with the goal of genocide to create a greater Oromo state within Ethiopia". 

With a precarious state of domestic peace achieved with the Pretoria agreement in 2022, Ahmed's Ethiopia has now turned eastward to secure access to the sea for the landlocked state. The internally fractured and deeply unstable Somalia can do little to resist its more powerful neighbour's newfound friendliness with the Somaliland entity. 

In a realist world where states find themselves pitted against each other due to the omnipresent and prevailing cloud of uncertainty over others' true intentions, power constitutes the only lasting guarantee. This means serving the interests of both status quo and revisionist powers in the international realm and its regional sub-systems. 

The inherent pessimism in this theoretical approach suggests that Somalia's best chances against Ethiopia in defending its already heavily undermined territorial integrity and sovereignty are to invest in diplomacy rather than war.

As Fidel Amakye Owusu suggests, Somalia would be better off initiating a diplomatic offensive before seeking to militarily prevent Ethiopia from acting upon the signed MOU. The state of domestic anarchy in Somalia since the outbreak of the 1988 civil war allowed for Somaliland to declare "independence" in 1991 and for Islamist extremists, the likes of ISIS and Al-Shabaab, to rise and proliferate.

After all, taking dispassionately into consideration the relative balance of power between the two parties, Ethiopia is militarily far more powerful. Hence, as the MOU suggests, it can act with relative impunity and disregard for international law vis-à-vis Somalia.

Indicatively, the government's inability to police its vast 2,000-mile coastline - the largest in the African continent - has created a power vacuum Iranian fishing fleets have sought to fill. These fleets are illegally encroaching into Somali territorial waters and further depleting the poverty-stricken and food-insecure populace from its fisheries. Such practices have arguably been the primary cause of Somali piracy. 

Ethiopia's aspirations and push for access to the Red Sea betray the existential anxieties of landlocked states or those with virtually non-existent seapower capabilities. One needs to look inside Somalia herself to contemplate the squandered potential due to the country's domestic ills and resource extractivism of foreign malign actors. 

Having achieved a degree of domestic pacification on land, Ethiopia now seeks to pursue aspirations for external seaward expansion, which is also driven by more fundamental challenges. Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and the conflict that ensued until 2000 has forced Addis Ababa to turn to Djibouti. Ethiopia "pays some $1.5bn a year in port fees" to facilitate 90-95% of its foreign trade. Additionally, Ethiopian Airlines accounts for about 5.7% of the country's GDP and provides approximately 1.1 million jobs, substituting Ethiopia's lack of access to the high seas for commercial airways. Against this backdrop, Ethiopian access to the Red Sea port of Berbera, as per the MOU, would constitute a critical economic lifeline.  

Nevertheless, the geopolitically volatile Red Sea cannot afford another regional disruptor that invokes irredentist nationalism and proclaims that "war is the way" if Ethiopia's supposed "geographic prison" is not broken. While PM Ahmed's goal makes perfect financial and geopolitical sense, dictated by the national interest and Ethiopia's rapidly growing population and needs, it comes at the expense of regional stability and the status quo. 

Image: Office of the President of Somaliland

249 views0 comments


bottom of page