Somaliland: Ethiopian Naval Base Could Help Contain Houthis

The leader of the breakaway region of Somaliland believes that a future Ethiopian naval base—the first since Ethiopia lost access to the sea three decades ago—will enhance maritime security in the Gulf of Aden, a region plagued by Somali piracy and militant attacks from Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

In January, Somaliland, a semiautonomous region, signed a long-anticipated port access deal with Ethiopia, angering the national government of Somalia. This agreement is a pivotal part of Somaliland’s strategy to gain international recognition, trading land for diplomatic acceptance. It grants the Ethiopian government access to a 12-mile strip of coastline to develop a naval base, which the Somaliland government claims will “pave the way to realize Ethiopia’s aspiration to secure access to the sea.” The two parties have differing accounts of the deal’s specifics: Ethiopian officials mention the inclusion of a commercial seaport, while Somaliland asserts it is strictly for a naval base. Foreign Minister Dr. Essa Kayd told the Horn Observer that three potential base locations have been identified along the Somaliland coast.

The Somali national government considers Somaliland a part of Somalia, despite the region’s self-governance since 1991 and its claim of independence. Mogadishu strongly objected to the Ethiopian access deal announced in January and has opposed the idea of a foreign naval base in Somaliland. However, last month, it indicated a willingness to negotiate terms for the construction of an Ethiopian commercial port.

Last month, Kayd highlighted the potential Ethiopian naval base as a positive step for maritime security in a region long troubled by criminal activities at sea. In an interview with the Financial Times, Somaliland leader Muse Bihi Abdi suggested that an Ethiopian presence could help counter Yemen’s Houthi rebels and “support international efforts to secure freedom of navigation.”

Ethiopia lost its navy when Eritrea gained independence in 1993. President Abiy Ahmed’s government has long pledged to reestablish a navy, announcing plans in 2018 and beginning negotiations with Somaliland for port access. To demonstrate the seriousness of this intent, Ethiopia signed an agreement with France for training and support for a future naval force. This force’s primary mission would be to protect Ethiopia’s small merchant fleet and its maritime trade in a region marked by intense geopolitical competition and frequent security incidents.

“Ethiopia’s right to use international waters necessitates having a naval base,” former Ethiopian diplomat Birhanemeskel Abebe told the BBC in 2018.

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