Ethiopia-Somaliland agrees on access to ports

Ethiopia has entered into what is described as a “historic” agreement, securing naval and commercial access to ports along Somaliland’s coast. In exchange for this access, Ethiopia has agreed to recognize the independence of Somaliland, a breakaway republic. The deal was announced after a meeting between Somaliland’s President, Muse Bihi, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, in the capital, Addis Ababa.

President Muse Bihi expressed gratitude for the agreement, stating that Ethiopia would be granted 20 kilometers of sea access in return for recognizing Somaliland’s independence. Somaliland’s Information Minister, Ali Hassan Mohamed, hailed the deal as a “gamechanger.” However, Ethiopia’s official statement on X (formerly Twitter) did not explicitly mention recognition of Somaliland but emphasized advancing mutual interests through cooperation based on reciprocity.

The Ethiopian government welcomed the memorandum of understanding, focusing on securing sea access and diversifying access to sea ports. The statement highlighted the potential for a “new chapter of cooperation” and “regional integration in the Horn of Africa.”

Redwan Hussein, an adviser to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, considered the deal a positive step, suggesting that details of the memorandum would be formalized in a follow-up meeting in a month. The agreement follows recent talks between Somalia and Somaliland in Djibouti, where both parties committed to further dialogue.

However, the Somali government, which asserts that Somaliland is still a part of the country, responded by convening an emergency meeting of its cabinet. Somalia’s special envoy to Somaliland, Abdikarim Hussein Guled, criticized the deal, labeling it a “blatant disregard for international norms” and an undermining of progress between Hargeisa and Mogadishu.

Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in the early 1990s during Somalia’s civil war. Despite seeking international recognition for over three decades, Somaliland remains isolated. Recognition from Ethiopia, a significant regional player, would be a major step for Somaliland in overcoming its international isolation.

The agreement also has strategic implications for Ethiopia, which lost access to Red Sea ports in the early 1990s. Ethiopia, heavily reliant on Djibouti for international trade, has been actively seeking alternatives to diversify its options. The deal signifies Ethiopia’s assertiveness in securing access to ports along the East African seaboard, a move that has raised concerns among neighboring countries. Prime Minister Abiy highlighted Ethiopia’s desire to have a say in the use of Red Sea ports similar to how downstream countries negotiate the use of the Nile River.

Ethiopia’s interest in securing access to ports along the East African seaboard has roots in historical challenges. In the early 1990s, Ethiopia lost access to its Red Sea ports when Eritrean insurgents gained control of the northern coastal region, formerly an Italian colony, and declared independence. Since then, Ethiopia has heavily relied on the Addis-Djibouti corridor for international trade, with over 95% of its trade passing through Djibouti.

The vulnerability of depending on a single route for international trade has prompted Ethiopia to explore alternative options. As part of this strategy, Ethiopia’s leaders have signaled their interest in acquiring access to ports along the East African coast since October. The recent agreement with Somaliland is a significant step in diversifying Ethiopia’s maritime access.

Somaliland, a self-declared independent state since the 1990s, has actively sought international recognition. Ethiopia’s acknowledgment of Somaliland’s independence represents a diplomatic breakthrough for the breakaway region. The 20 kilometers of sea access granted to Ethiopia in exchange is seen as a crucial element of the deal, providing Ethiopia with strategic maritime access and reducing its dependence on a single corridor.

The response from the Somali government has been strong, with an emergency cabinet meeting convened to address the matter. Somalia continues to assert its claim over Somaliland, viewing the deal as a challenge to its territorial integrity. Former President Mohamed Farmaajo expressed serious concerns, characterizing the agreement as a potential threat not only to Somalia but to the entire African continent.

The geopolitical implications of this agreement extend beyond the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s desire for greater influence over Red Sea ports reflects a broader trend of nations seeking strategic control over key maritime routes. It also raises questions about the evolving dynamics in the region and the potential for shifts in alliances.

As Ethiopia formalizes the details of the memorandum in the coming month, the reactions from neighboring countries and international stakeholders will be closely watched. The agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland underscores the complexities of regional politics and the strategic calculations made by nations to secure their economic and geopolitical interests.

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