The Ethiopia-Somaliland Port Deal: A Geopolitical Gamble Amidst Regional Tensions and Security Threats

By Paulo Santos, Horn of Africa Analyst

As someone deeply invested in the developments of the Horn of Africa, particularly the evolving dynamics between Ethiopia and Somaliland, I find myself compelled to revisit a topic I addressed just weeks ago. In my previous article, I advocated for the Zeila option, weighing its potential benefits and risks. However, the recent unfolding events have steered us towards a different path, one centering around Berbera.

This development is of immense significance, especially for the people of Somaliland. The choice of Berbera, a well-established city with an existing port infrastructure, over Zeila, is seen as a safer and more pragmatic decision. Many in Somaliland view this as a lesser risk, primarily because Berbera’s established status reduces the likelihood of Ethiopia permanently appropriating the territory, a concern that loomed larger with the prospect of leasing Zeila.

This shift towards Berbera is not merely a matter of logistics or economics; it’s deeply intertwined with the political and territorial integrity of Somaliland. In this context, the Berbera port deal is viewed as a safeguard against the potential loss of crucial territory, balancing the need for economic development with national security concerns.

As I delve deeper into this intricate and nuanced topic, my aim is to shed light on the various facets of this agreement and its broader implications for the region. This article seeks to explore the rationale behind choosing Berbera, its impact on Somaliland’s aspirations, and the potential geopolitical consequences in this delicate balance of regional power.

The recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Ethiopia and Somaliland has sent ripples across the Horn of Africa region. The deal provides Ethiopia much-needed access to Somaliland’s ports, including the establishment of a naval base, in exchange for formal recognition of Somaliland’s contested independence. While the agreement carries potential economic benefits and supports Somaliland’s aspirations for sovereignty, it also poses risks by antagonizing Somalia and regional powers.

Ethiopia’s pursuit of the deal underscores its strategic aim to secure maritime access and ease its landlocked geographic constraints. With its rapidly growing population and increasing economic challenges, Ethiopia views the development of trade corridors as crucial for its future prosperity. Regional tensions and competition over port access have long fueled Ethiopia’s desire for greater maritime autonomy. This deal with Somaliland finally provides it with a foothold, granting preferential access and governance rights over the port of Berbera. For Somaliland, the agreement represents a major step towards international recognition after decades of isolation. The expected economic benefits, including a potential stake in profitable Ethiopian Airlines, provide further incentives.

However, Somaliland’s unilateral decision to enter this deal underscores the absence of democratic processes within its governance. President Muse Bihi made the contentious move without substantive consultation or engagement with key stakeholders. The top-down nature of this decision risks aggravating divisions within Somaliland’s polity. Opposition groups have already voiced displeasure over the lack of transparency, further fragmenting Somaliland’s political landscape. Moreover, bypassing democratic channels and excluding dissident voices undermines Somaliland’s long-standing quest to be seen as a beacon of stability in the volatile Horn region.

As expected, Somalia vehemently opposes the deal, viewing it as an infringement of its sovereignty over Somaliland. Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre asserted that the agreement violates principles of territorial integrity, escalating tensions between the two sides. Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has threatened retaliatory measures, determined to defend Somalia’s official position rejecting Somaliland’s independence. This backlash fans the flames of antagonism rooted in a violent history between Somalia and Somaliland since the latter’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1991. The deal could further destabilize their fragile relations.

Regional dynamics are also impacted, with the agreement drawing criticism from Somalia’s allies. Kenya and Djibouti both expressed reservations over the deal’s legality, concerned about undermining Somalia’s sovereignty. This external pressure compounds the domestic challenges facing recently elected President Mohamud as he tries to consolidate power amid ongoing violence by Al-Shabaab militants. The Al-Qaeda-linked group blasted Somali and Djiboutian leaders over the deal, accusing them of complicity with Ethiopia and the West.

Al-Shabaab’s opposition underscores security risks associated with the agreement. The group could potentially exploit the ensuing tensions to strengthen its position in Somalia. Some experts warn Al-Shabaab may even extend its influence into Somaliland, arguing that Ethiopia’s naval presence could fuel rather than prevent the group’s radicalization agenda. With Al-Shabaab still carrying out frequent attacks in Somalia and retaining control over some rural areas, its stance on the port deal further complicates regional stability.

As it stands, the agreement presents a major diplomatic challenge as regional powers seek to safeguard their interests. Historical rivalries between Ethiopia and Egypt and the Gulf states’ involvement across the Horn of Africa add layers of complexity. Emerging powers like Turkey and China also hold significant sway as key investors in ports and infrastructure. Against this backdrop, the deal’s timely and effective implementation will hinge on careful negotiation of Somaliland’s status with respect to these competing international stakeholders.

Ultimately, for all its potential benefits, the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal represents a risky gambit. While the economic incentives and access to ports address urgent needs for both countries, the attendant tensions with Somalia and instability posed by Al-Shabaab reaction could negate these gains. Much depends on how skillfully Ethiopia and Somaliland navigate regional dynamics as they pursue this controversial alignment. In the end, enhancing long-term prosperity in the Horn of Africa will require not just economic integration but also political reconciliation and strengthened regional security. The complexities around this deal demand patience and diplomacy if greater harmony is to prevail.

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