Somalia-Ethiopia tensions only serve to embolden Al Shabaab

Saturday February 03 2024

Security forces patrolling the northern region of Kenya near the border with Somalia. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

By Adam Aw Hirsi

The breakdown of diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Somalia has far-reaching consequences, extending beyond political instability and strained economic ties.

Among deadliest of these consequences is how Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab terrorist group in the Horn of Africa is on the cusp to leverage the current tiff between Somalia and Ethiopia and make a renewed ethnic and religious divisions and discord to advance their goals of wreaking perpetual havoc in East Africa and beyond.

Until January 1, 2024, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Muse Bihi, the leader of Somaliland region, granting Ethiopia 20 square kilometres of land well inside Somalia, Mogadishu and Addis Ababa cooperated in the security sector like no other neighbouring countries in the region.

Read: OBBO: With love from Hobyo, through Ethiopia, to DRC

Ethiopian troops, operating outside of the African Union mandate, operated in Somalia, working hand-in-hand with the Somali National Security Forces and with minimal opposition from the communities in which they served.

The co-operation spirit between the two countries was at its all-time high when, on December 6, 2023, the ministers of defence from both countries signed the renewal of a multidimensional MoU (security, policing, intel sharing, etc) that the two countries have had for the past ten years.


Then, on January 1, everything changed. The deteriorated diplomatic cordiality and amity between Somalia and Ethiopia has created a vacuum for exploitation by Al Shabaab. The absence of effective communication and collaboration between the two countries has the potential to undermine collective security efforts, leading to weakened intelligence-sharing coordination and a reduced ability to respond swiftly to terrorist threats and attacks.

Al Shabaab might also exploit these vulnerabilities to facilitate movement, evade capture, and carry out cross-border attacks not only between Somalia and Ethiopia but also between the two and Kenya, thereby worsening the already precarious stability of the region.

Al Shabaab, like all other criminal outfits roaming the world, thrives in environments of social division and political polarisation. The breakdown of diplomatic relations between Somalia and Ethiopia has already created an atmosphere of mistrust and animosity, social and ethnic grievances, and perceptions of historical injustices that were dormant in the quintessential Somali since Siad Barre administration collapsed.

Read: OBBO: Border reopening Somalia-EAC dreams, fulfils Shabaab wish

Exploiting those sentiments and grievances, al-Shabaab has already started to manipulate the situation and is primed to recruit youth in the name of religion and pan-Somalism. In other words, Al Shabaab will fully exploit all the existing or professed fault lines to fuel violence and promote their deadly extremist ideologies.

The absence of an optimum relationship between Somalia and Ethiopia, two countries joined at the hip in many ways, undermines the overall international counter-terrorism efforts in the East Africa region. It will waste the blood and treasure that many countries, Ethiopia being among the foremost, have sacrificed to make Somalia and the wider region a safer place to live and do business.

Co-operative intelligence sharing, joint military operations, and coordinated military engagement against Al Shabaab will likely become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to execute.

In a region where soldiers from five countries, including Ethiopia, have been fighting a common enemy in Somalia, the breakdown of diplomacy between Somalia and Ethiopia will undoubtedly have severe negative repercussions on the overall security prospects of not only both Somalia and Ethiopia, but also Kenya and Djibouti.

Read: OBBO: ‘Fortress East Africa,’ a fluke that has taken some 16 years

This will give Al Shabaab a badly needed new breathing and operating space in the region. Buoyed by the two countries losing sight of them, the Al Shabaab terrorists will be able to expand their operations, presence, and relevance, posing a greater threat to both regional and global security.

To effectively respond to this situation and prevent any further escalation that will only benefit the terrorist organisation, realistic calculations are paramount.

As Somalia does not have a square metre to manoeuvre, Ethiopia must skilfully walk back, disown the MoU it inked with Hargeisa and, when the time is right, start engaging for commercial maritime access with the Mogadishu-based national government, where Somaliland region is duly, if not overly, represented.

Between now and then, every acrimonious day between Somalia and Ethiopia will only serve as an undeserved boon for Al Shabaab.

Dr Adam Aw Hirsi (PhD) is Somalia Cabinet minister. X: @JustAwHirsi