The Dangerous Chipping Away of Somalia’s Sovereignty

On New Year’s Day, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the president of Somalia’s breakaway federated state of Somaliland Muse Bihi Abdi signed a Memorandum of Understanding for a 50-year lease deal giving Ethiopia control of some 12 miles (20 kilometers) of shore around the Port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. While the exact terms of the deal were ambiguous as announced in Addis Ababa, Abdi declared that Ethiopia pledged to recognize Somaliland’s independence at some date in the future in exchange for the use of the port. If true, Ethiopia would be in clear violation of international law that codifies the sanctity of a country’s unity, territorial integrity, and independence. It also may be a harbinger of similar actions by other states that would spell the dismemberment of Somalia and the onset of an unpredictable period of strategic competition and chaos in the Horn of Africa.

Somaliland declared self-rule in 1991 and has built the institutions of a state, although it has so far failed to secure recognition from the international community. However, it commands a strategic position on the Gulf of Aden at the entrance to the Red Sea that would endow Ethiopia with a much-desired access to the open sea. Addis Ababa enthusiastically declared that it finally has that unimpeded access and will establish a commercial and naval presence in the area, but demurred on the promise of recognition. In addition to this purported promise, Somaliland President Abdi said that his state will gain shares in Ethiopian Airlines that are equivalent to the value of the lease of Berbera Port.

This move by Ethiopia met with the expected and requisite opposition from the Somali government that, naturally, cannot recognize Somaliland’s secession from the federal state. To that end, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud signed a law that would nullify the agreement. He also stated that “no one has the power [to] give away a piece of Somalia” and that the deal was “an open interference with Somalia’s sovereignty, freedom and unity.” Mohamud also visited Addis Ababa itself on February 16 to participate in African leaders’ meetings, where he undoubtedly would present his country’s case, even to Abiy Ahmed. Other international actors and regional organizations issued their own condemnations of the announcement, citing the obvious violation of international law that emphasizes the independence and territorial integrity of states. Egypt, Turkey, the United States, the Arab League, the African Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the European Union were among those that voiced their opposition, as did the United Kingdom, a former colonial power in East Africa.

Ethiopia’s deal with Somaliland will impact other issues challenging the Somali government, including the ongoing presence and operations of al-Shabab Movement, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. The group operates in rural areas of central Somalia and recently claimed responsibility for an attack at a base in Mogadishu in which five soldiers were killed, four of whom were from the United Arab Emirates which is providing military training to the Somali Army. Incidentally, the UAE also has commercial interests in the Berbera Port and has indeed built a military base there that riled up the central government in Mogadishu, raising concerns about Abu Dhabi’s plans for the future of the area, especially considering its close relations with Addis Ababa. This, in addition to Israeli interests in the Gulf of Aden as a strategic region for its economic security and trade and to its relations with Ethiopia. This Israeli angle has become more acute over the last few months as Yemen’s Houthis challenge maritime trade in the Red Sea, especially that benefiting Israel during its war on the Gaza Strip.

Another challenge facing the Somali federal government is maintaining control over the southern Jubaland region where secessionist forces are working toward their own self-rule. Mogadishu has accused neighboring Kenya of interfering in its affairs, first by influencing what happens in that region and second by appearing interested in a close relationship with none other than Somaliland’s President Abdi. Somali President Mohamud just visited Kismayo on February 14, a major port city in Jubaland, to discuss federal issues but perhaps also to address the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal and warn against a similar one with Kenya. A third region in the country, Puntland, is also threatening to secede because of unresolved issues with the central government in Mogadishu. Both Ethiopia and Kenya contribute troops to the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) that is helping in the fight against al-Shabab Movement, perhaps making both countries’ moves and maneuvers in Somalia and toward closer relations with Somaliland and Jubaland even more worrisome.

These serious concerns and the poor state of Somalia’s national economy raise questions about the Mogadishu government’s ability to preserve the country’s unity and sovereignty. They also call for sustained national, regional, and international efforts to maintain stability in the Horn of Africa just as Yemen continues to lack for a strong unified government and Sudan suffers from a devastating civil war between military elites. Moreover, Ethiopia’s challenge to Somalia’s unity comes as Addis Ababa completes the construction of its Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and diverts the Nile waters to it at the expense of Sudan’s and Egypt’s share of the river, a situation that does not augur well for Ethiopian-Sudanese-Egyptian relations.

Finally, Ethiopia’s deal with Somaliland as well as Somalia’s central-periphery troubles beg the question about the role that could be played by individual Arab countries or by the Arab League as an organization supposedly dedicated for collective Arab defense. In a joint press conference in January with Somali President Mohamud, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared that “Egypt will not allow anyone to threaten Somalia or affect its security.” What he intends to do about this matter remains a mystery. Considering its inability to influence Ethiopia’s actions to finally put the GERD online, it is unlikely that Cairo will use any forceful or effective tools to curb Addis Ababa’s appetite in a deal with Somaliland that assures it of access to the sea.

Indeed, not much in the way of a forceful response is expected from the Arab world, a condition that does not augur well for collective Arab action that, at any rate, has failed to make a big difference in defending besieged Palestinians in Gaza. There, Israel’s war has already killed over 28,000 Palestinians and injured more than 68,000 others, and Tel Aviv seems to be planning to invade Rafah, the last area of Gaza housing some 1.3 million unprotected and destitute Gazans. Individually and collectively, most Arab states seem to have decided that they have no influence over the course of events in Gaza and they better pretend that the continuation of Israel’s genocide will not impact their wellbeing. But just as Gaza will come back to haunt the current Arab political order, neglecting what could quickly become a slippery slope to the dismemberment of Somalia may very well lead to the complete collapse of any semblance of sovereignty in the Arab world.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

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