NIAS Africa Studies

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NIAS Africa Studies
Ethiopia-Somalia tensions over Somaliland | Explained

  Narmatha S and Anu Maria Jospeh

What is the deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland?
On 1 January, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and the Somaliland President, Muse Bi hi Abdi, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to acquire access to the Red Sea. The MoU would allow Ethiopia to access Somaliland's Red Sea coastline in the port city of Berbera for 50 years in lease. Abdi stated that Ethiopia would in return recognise Somaliland's sovereignty, a statement that Ethiopia did not confirm. However, the Ethiopian government stated that the deal would lead to "provisions… to make an in-depth assessment towards taking a position regarding the efforts of Somaliland to gain recognition."

What have been the national, regional and international responses?
On 2 January, the Somali Federal Government (SFG) rejected the port deal as “null and void” of a legal basis and a violation of Somali sovereignty and international law. 

On 3 January, Somalia condemned the deal and declared it as an act of “aggression.” Many Somalian protestors took to the streets against the agreement that was perceived to endanger Somalia's territory. 

Meanwhile, the Somaliland government remained divided within. Somaliland’s Minister of Defence, Abdiquani Mohamud Ateyi, resigned in protest of the deal and stated: “Ethiopia remain our number one enemy.” 

On 3 January, the African Union Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called for calm and mutual respect "to de-escalate the simmering tension." The same day, the US State Department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, raised concerns regarding the reports on Ethiopia recognising Somaliland’s sovereignty. He stated: “We join other partners in expressing our serious concern as well about the resulting spike in tensions in the Horn of Africa.”

Somalia’s allies, including Egypt, Eritrea and Turkey, expressed their support to the country.

On 3 January, the Arab League expressed its solidarity with Somalia, calling on Ethiopia to “abide by the rules and principles of good neighbourly relations, respect the sovereignty of neighbouring countries and not to interfere with their internal affairs.”

On 11 January, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Mao Ning, stated that China stands for “upholding the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and supports countries in safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

What is Somalia’s Somaliland problem?
Somaliland was ruled by the British as a protectorate until 1960 when it became independent briefly before it merged with Somalia. Since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has operated as a functional de facto state, boasting its territory, population, government and sovereignty. Since then, Somalia and Somaliland have had a bitter relationship, as Mogadishu considers the self-governing Somaliland to be part of Somalia. Besides, this region has not been recognised internationally. 

What is Somaliland’s problem within?
The population within opposes the territorial claims by the Somaliland government. In 2007, Somaliland seized the Las Anod region from Somalia’s semi-autonomous region, Puntland. The Dulbahante clan in the Las Anod region rejects Somaliland’s administration and seeks to be part of Somalia. This political contestation led to continuing violent conflict in the region. In February 2023, at least 23 people were killed during the fighting between the Dulbahante clan militia, SSC-Khatumo, and Somaliland forces. Since then, the Las Anod region has remained a frontline. 

Why is Ethiopia’s deal concerning?
Thousands of Ethiopian troops are stationed in Somalia as part of the AU mission fighting the Al Shabab militancy. An unfriendly act by Ethiopia is likely to lead to the expulsion of Ethiopian forces fighting in Somalia, complemented by increased tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia, which share a long border. Besides Egypt expressing its intolerance to any violation of the territorial integrity of Somalia, Ethiopia and Egypt are embroiled in a conflict over the GERD. Additionally, Eritrea has perceived Ethiopia’s objective to gain access to the Red Sea with contempt. The involvement of Egypt and Eritrea would potentially lead to increasing regional tensions in the Horn of Africa. Any unilateral move by Ethiopia regarding the recognition of Somaliland would likely trigger new fighting along the frontline in Las Anod. The AU and other international actors are concerned that a formal recognition of Somaliland would encourage similar secessionist movements across Africa to seek independence. 

About the authors
Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Associate at NIAS. Narmatha S is a Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Madras.

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