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Ethiopia-Somaliland deal: Can the Horn of Africa rift be healed?


By Kalkidan Yibeltal in Addis Ababa & Damian Zane in London,
Thursday July 4, 2024

Tempers remain high in the Horn of Africa seven months after a New Year's Day deal saw the self-declared republic of Somaliland agree to lease part of its coastline to its landlocked neighbour Ethiopia.

Somalia is not happy about the maritime agreement, details of which remain murky.

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Firstly, it believes the deal is unlawful and an "act of aggression" as it considers Somaliland, which broke away from Somalia in 1991 at the start of a protracted civil war, to be part of its territory.

It is also infuriated by reports that in return for use of a port, Ethiopia would become the first country to recognise Somaliland as a sovereign nation.

Both the African Union (AU) and the US have backed the territorial integrity of Somalia and urged all parties to cool tensions.

Turkey has now intervened diplomatically - bringing Ethiopian and Somali delegates together for talks in its capital, Ankara.

Were the negotiations successful?

Partially.

Ethiopia and Somalia's foreign ministers did turn up in the Turkish capital on 1 July - but they refused to sit down for one-to-one discussions.

Turkey's foreign ministry described the talks as "candid, cordial and forward-looking".

The two sides have agreed to reconvene in September - and sources told the BBC if progress was made then, the two countries' leaders might meet up. So there is hope.

Why is Turkey involved?

Ankara has close relations with Mogadishu - the two governments have signed a 10-year defence pact in which Turkey would help guard Somalia's coastline and rebuild the Horn of African nation's naval force.

According to Somalia's President Hassan Sheik Mohamud, it was Ethiopia which requested that Turkey facilitate the talks.

It is suggested that Addis Ababa is keen to ease tensions as Somalia has been on an extensive diplomatic campaign to enlist support from countries in the West as well as Gulf states.

Nonetheless, there were "no indications" yet that Ethiopia was willing to walk away from the deal, President Mohamud said afterwards.

What did Ethiopia and Somaliland agree?

The exact wording of the deal signed by the leaders of Ethiopia and Somaliland has not been made public, which is a problem as there are differing versions of what the two sides agreed in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

An MoU is a statement of intent rather than a legally binding agreement but what seems clear is that Somaliland is ready to grant Ethiopia access to the sea for commercial traffic through a port, although it is not clear which port that would be.

There is also a military aspect. Somaliland has said it could lease a section of the coast to Ethiopia's navy, a detail which has been confirmed by Addis Ababa.

In return, Somaliland would get a share in Ethiopia Airlines, the country's successful national carrier.

But where things get sticky is whether Ethiopia said it would recognise Somaliland as an independent state - something which no other country has done in the 30 years since the former British protectorate said it was leaving Somalia.

On the day of the signing, Somaliland's President Muse Bihi Abdi said the agreement included a section stating that Ethiopia would recognise Somaliland as an independent country at some point in the future.

Ethiopia has not confirmed this. Instead, in its attempt to clarify what was in the MoU, the government on 3 January said the deal included "provisions… to make an in-depth assessment towards taking a position regarding the efforts of Somaliland to gain recognition".

Why is this so controversial?

For Somalia, Somaliland is an integral part of its territory. Any suggestion that it could make a deal with another country or that bits of it could be leased without the approval of Mogadishu is highly problematic.

The day after the MoU was signed, Somalia described the deal as an act of "aggression" that was an "impediment to… peace and stability". It also recalled its ambassador from Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia's ambassador to Somalia subsequently left Mogadishu.

In the immediate aftermath of the deal, Somalia's president also stepped up the rhetoric saying: "We will defend our country, we will defend it by all means necessary and seek the support of any ally willing to help us."

He also called on youths "to prepare for the defence of our country" and described Ethiopia as his country's "enemy".

Ethiopia and Somalia have a long history of rivalry.

In 1977 and 1978, Ethiopia and Somalia fought a devastating war for control of what is now called the Somali region of Ethiopia.

There have also been protests in Mogadishu against the deal, with tens of thousands turning up to express their opposition.

What is the status of Somaliland?

Somaliland, a former British protectorate, declared itself independent from Somalia in 1991 and has all the trappings of a country, including a working political system, regular elections, a police force and its own currency.

Over the decades it has also escaped much of the chaos and violence that have hit Somalia.
But its independence has not been recognised by any country.

If, as Somaliland said, Ethiopia has agreed to recognise it at some point, it would have a profound impact on the Horn of Africa region.

Why does Ethiopia want the deal?

Last year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described access to the sea as an existential issue.
Ethiopia lost its ports when Eritrea seceded in the early 1990s. With more than 100 million people, it is the most populous landlocked country in the world.

Mr Abiy's statement raised fears that Ethiopia could try to achieve its goal by force.

It has described the deal with Somaliland as historic, and emphasised that its intentions are peaceful.
"The position announced by the government is strongly rooted in a desire to not engage in war with anyone," Ethiopia's communications office said in January.

But in an oblique reference to the controversy, Mr Abiy posted on X on 6 January that "if we expect things to happen in ways that we are used to or know or can predict, [opportunities] may pass us".

He added that some sometimes thinking "out of the box" was needed to achieve goals.

What have others said?

The AU commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat was one of the first to call for calm and mutual respect "to de-escalate the simmering tension".

His sentiment was shared by the US government, the Arab League and the European Union.
In late June during a UN security council meeting, senior US diplomat Robert A Wood said his country remained "concerned about tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia, and the negative impact it is having on shared security interest".

Egypt, which is at loggerheads with Ethiopia over a giant dam that has been built on the River Nile in the northern Ethiopian highlands, has also pledged support for Somalia.

Earlier this year, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi reassured his Somali counterpart that Egypt stood by Somalia and supported "its security and stability".

Somalia's President Mohamud flew to Eritrea in January and in March as part of his efforts to galvanise regional support. Eritrea's leader Isaias Afeworki was a close ally of his Ethiopian counterpart during a brutal civil war in northern Ethiopia between 2020 and 2022, but relations between the two countries have deteriorated since.

Eritrea is also reportedly concerned by Ethiopia's ambitions to gain access to the coast.
Another neighbour, Kenya, which enjoys close relations with both Ethiopia and Somalia, has kept a low profile and has not yet formally commented, while Uganda has also not taken a clear position.

Saudi Arabia and China, two countries with important roles in the region, said they would support Somalia's territorial integrity - something lauded as a diplomatic victory in Mogadishu.



 





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