/ 23 January 2024

Abiy’s port in a storm

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Students wave a Somali flag during a demonstration in support of Somalia's government following the port deal signed between Ethiopia and the breakaway region of Somaliland at Eng Yariisow Stadium in Mogadishu on January 3, 2024. (Photo by ABDISHUKRI HAYBE/AFP via Getty Images)

In the last week of 2023, Somaliland’s president Muse Bihi took a short flight to neighbouring Djibouti. After a long and difficult year, he needed a win.

He did not get one there.

Bihi leads one of the most politically unique – and diplomatically sensitive – places in the world.

Somaliland declared its independence in 1991, and has governed itself ever since. It has its own flag, currency, and national anthem. But no one else recognises its sovereignty, and its territory is claimed by the federal government of Somalia.

In Djibouti, Bihi met with that country’s president, Ismail Guelleh, and Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. He was hoping to advance negotiations on Somaliland’s status.

Instead, he was told in no uncertain terms that recognition of Somaliland’s independence was off the table.

Frustrated, Bihi visited Addis Ababa, where, on New Year’s Day, he made a dramatic deal with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – one that could redraw the map of the Horn of Africa.

The text of the deal – which at this stage is just a memorandum of understanding, with details to be hammered out later – has not been made public. It was signed in such haste that even members of Bihi’s cabinet were not consulted beforehand.

According to official sources, the deal will give landlocked Ethiopia access to a 20km strip of Somaliland’s coastline for the next 50 years. In return, Ethiopia will recognise Somaliland as an independent state – or so Bihi’s administration claims. Ethiopia has not confirmed this detail, but it has not denied it, either.

The quest for international recognition has been the driving force in Somaliland’s politics for more than three decades, and to be the president that delivered Ethiopia’s support would secure Bihi’s legacy – and potentially his re-election later this year.

“Recognition by any state, but particularly Ethiopia – which is the seat of the African Union, a regional power with considerable clout – would potentially create some momentum behind Somaliland’s quest for recognition,” said Matt Bryden, co-founder of Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based think tank.

The deal with Ethiopia also helps to distract from some of Bihi’s other, more immediate problems. He is facing enormous political opposition to his decision to delay presidential elections, which were originally scheduled for 2022. They are now planned for late 2024.

And his military engagement last year in the contested Las Anod region backfired spectacularly: not only was Somaliland defeated by local militias, losing a significant chunk of its military capacity in the process; but the human rights violations committed in the process totally undermined Somaliland’s reputation as a regional bastion of democracy and the rule of law.

Against this backdrop, the deal with Ethiopia is a political lifeline for Bihi – and should help him shore up his power base in Somaliland’s heartlands. If, that is, Ethiopia upholds its side of the bargain.

Running dry

Abiy Ahmed was supposed to visit Hargeisa last week. At least that’s what sources in Somaliland’s presidency hinted to the local press corps, who spent the week anxiously tracking flights online. He would have been the first-ever foreign head of government to visit Somaliland’s capital city – but he never arrived.

Abiy has been under immense pressures of his own. Tensions still simmer in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, after the conclusion of a brutal civil war in 2021 – won by Abiy’s federal forces, with a lot of help from Turkish drones. A new conflict is brewing in the Amhara region, where the Fano militias – originally empowered by Abiy to fight in Tigray – feel abandoned by his government. The relationship with neighbouring Eritrea has frayed badly in the wake of the Tigray conflict.

Domestically, a sluggish economy, hit hard by the Tigray war, has led to a sharp rise in the cost of living.

So Abiy, too, needs a win – and for an Ethiopian leader, wins don’t come much bigger than access to a port. Ethiopia is the world’s most populous landlocked country. Its port access disappeared when, after a bitter civil war, Eritrea declared its independence in 1991, leaving 120-million people without a direct route to the sea.

This has had enormous political and economic repercussions. The United Nations estimates that landlocked developing countries are on average 20% less developed than they would be if they had access to the sea.

“Effectively, as a country you are crippled,” said Timothy Walker, who researches African maritime issues at the Institute for Security Studies. “Without it, you are always at a disadvantage.”

Currently, most of Ethiopia’s trade goes through the port of Djibouti, which costs Ethiopia an estimated $1.5-billion every year in fees – and leaves it vulnerable to any policy changes by Djibouti’s government.

In recent years Abiy, who wants to turn Ethiopia into a continental superpower, has made sea access into a nationalist rallying cry. “Ethiopia has a natural, historical, political and legitimate right for access to the Red Sea,” he said in a speech last year, saying that the rapidly-growing population cannot continue to live in “a geographic prison”.

The proposed deal with Somaliland would undoubtedly help Ethiopia break free from this prison – but not everyone thinks it is a good idea.

Choppy waters

International support for the deal has been non-existent. The African Union, the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have all reaffirmed their support for Somalia’s territorial integrity. So too have the United States and the European Union.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction has been strongest in Somalia itself, with a furious President Mohamud declaring the deal “null and void” on national television. “We will defend our territory and we will die for it,” he said, later warning that the deal could strengthen Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab.

The bombastic rhetoric disguises several fundamental weaknesses, however. “Somalia doesn’t have an army capable of projecting influence beyond its borders. It barely controls parts of southern Somalia,” said Sahan Research’s Bryden.

More significant still is the presence of large numbers of Ethiopian troops within Somalia itself – there to secure vast swathes of territory against Al-Shabaab. Were they to withdraw, there would be a serious security vacuum across southern Somalia which the federal government does not have the capacity to fill.

“The federal government in Mogadishu is in a difficult position,” said Dr Peter Chonka, a senior lecturer in global digital cultures at King’s College London. “The irony here is that for all of the protests about Somalia’s sovereignty, the federal government and the federal member states still need Ethiopia to be an active security partner within the country against Al-Shabaab.”

That leaves Ethiopia, for now, in the driver’s seat. But pushing ahead with the controversial deal is not without risks for Abiy: neighbours Djibouti, Egypt and Eritrea have both signalled their unhappiness with his plan, further raising regional tensions.

Relations with Egypt are already poor after Ethiopia opened a giant hydroelectric dam on the Nile River.

The vociferous diplomatic resistance may explain why Abiy has not yet travelled to Somaliland to seal the deal – and why the proposed port will remain in the centre of a diplomatic storm for some time to come.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.