Ethiopia-Somaliland deal set off tsunami in East Africa

Monday January 08 2024
Berbera port in Somaliland.

Berbera port in Somaliland. PHOTO | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Ethiopia opened 2024 by setting off a political tsunami, signing a memorandum of understanding to secure its access to the Red Sea with Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, which is not internationally recognised.

In Mogadishu, a furious federal government, which considers Somaliland an integral part of its territory, blasted Ethiopia’s "aggression" and "blatant assault" and suspended diplomatic relations with Addis Ababa. The African Union urged calm in the ensuing row, and the European Union urged Ethiopia to respect Somalia’s territorial integrity.

Read: Somalia signs law 'nullifying' Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal

With the MoU signed by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has let a giant political genie out of the bottle. Landlocked countries like Uganda and Rwanda, which have a strong national security mindset, will have been intrigued by some of the reported provisions.

Leased corridor

Under the MoU, Ethiopia would get the right to facilities on the Gulf of Aden that can be used as a military base and for commercial purposes for 50 years. Most intriguing, and radical, is that it would access these via a corridor leased from Somaliland. There was speculation that Ethiopia would soon announce a project: a 90km railway to the Red Sea.


Apart from Ethiopia, the other 15 landlocked African countries don’t have such a short strip through a neighbour to the coast. Addis is spoilt for choice: Either through Eritrea, whose independence in 1993 left it landlocked, or via Djibouti, or Somalia. It is a short high jump through these countries to the sea.  But the idea has been born and that, perhaps more than anything else, is what makes it innovative, powerful and subversive.

In addition, Ethiopia has dangled a precious piece of asset swap – a stake in Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s most vaunted carrier. It is now philosophically possible for Uganda, for example, to offer a similar deal to Kenya or Tanzania; a narrow semi-sovereign strip cutting through to the Indian Ocean, in exchange for more fishing waters in Lake Victoria, or an oil well in the Albertine region.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has reportedly initiated consultations with Qatar and Egypt, two countries that are rivals with Ethiopia over the latter's giant River Nile dam.

Addis, meanwhile, is in cahoots with the United Arab Emirates, which supports Ethiopia and has a civilian and military presence in the port of Berbera in Somaliland and Ethiopia. The UAE opened an air bridge to provide military support to the Ethiopia in its fight war the Tigray, which contributed greatly to a victory for Addis.

It remains to be seen how this will play in the Nile upstream countries of, especially, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Though weakened by the Tigray war, Ethiopia is still a military behemoth relative to Somalia.