Ethiopia has been facing a mounting condemnation from different quarters after signing a memorandum of understanding with Somaliland to get 20 square kilometers of land to access the sea over the Gulf of Aden. Somalia saw Ethiopia’s move as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Actors like Egypt and the Arab League resonated with similar voices. The African Union itself saw the MoU as inappropriate. However, there are also actors who opposed the deal out of concern for potential conflict in the region and urged negotiation- the United States. The European Union issued a brief “reminder” about “the importance of respecting the unity, the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia pursuant of its constitution, the Charters of the African Union and the United Nations. This is key for the peace and stability of the entire Horn of Africa region.”
How is Ethiopia assessing the reactions from different actors?
In an interview with state-owned media, Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporate, Redwan Hussien, National Security Advisor to Ethiopian Prime Minister who was also briefing diplomats based in the capital Addis Ababa regarding the issue, said “what happened is not what didn’t expect.”
He was asked why there were entities that opposed the deal with Somaliland. He answered it with another question. “Why was it that there was an effort to ensure Ethiopia does not have access to the sea?”
Mr. Redwan also highlighted the circumstances under which Ethiopia became a landlocked country. He said Ethiopia was a victim of plots – insinuating actors that actively worked to make Ethiopia landlocked.
But he also said that there are actors who opposed the deal with Somaliland out of fear that it would trigger a regional conflict in an already troubled region. And then he sees a different category of opposition that is based on “going with the flow of international condemnation.”
Another important point that Redwan Hussein highlighted is that Ethiopia has been making efforts to secure alternative access to the sea for more than 25 years now by pointing out conversations over Port Sudan ( with the government of Sudan) and Lamu ( with the government of Kenya. Proximity to Ethiopia has been a challenge – apparently from logistical point of view – and from the point of view of ensuring the security of imports and exports.
He added that conversations are still continuing with other countries that offer alternatives to port and that Ethiopia is still open for conversation with other countries as well. He framed the conversation with Somaliland not as an exception. In fact, he asserted that major countries, including those who are now condemning Ethiopia, knew about the conversation with Somaliland and the agreement although they did not speak about it in public. Without naming names, he went further to claim that there are actors that tend to see Ethiopia’s military base as necessary in connection with regional security.
Mr. Redwan also pointed out that it has reached to a point that Ethiopia can no longer afford to rely on Djibouti port alone. He said Ethiopia [economy] has been growing and that all areas of the country have become exporters and importers. He also noted that Ethiopia is located near the area that has attracted multiples of actors and implied a security implication for Ethiopia if it continues to remain aloof. He reinforced his point saying that the Djibouti route – the only one Ethiopia is currently using – has been risky from the point of view of internal conflict as well. He said there have been attempts to control the route – and he said that in the context of internal conflict.
For the Ethiopian government, as explained by Redwan Hussien, the agreement with Somaliland is an action along with broadening Ethiopia’s alternative to access to the sea.
What Redwan emphasized in the interview is that several actors – from far away- are already in the region with military bases and that Ethiopia has been excluded while it is living in the heart of the region (the Horn of Africa).
“It is no longer a question of national interest for Ethiopia. It has become a matter of existence,” he asserted.
He highlighted that Somalia itself has been having conversation with many other countries from near and far on similar matters. In fact, actors like Turkey have a strong military base in Somalia and a strong military presence. And it is one of the countries that opposed land lease deals between Ethiopia and Somaliland.
Egypt, historically has been funding Ethiopian guerrilla fighters including the Oromo Liberation Front, is seizing the recent development as an opportunity and pursuing a military pact with Somalia. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somali President, is scheduled to travel to Cairo.
Egypt and Ethiopia have been in controversy over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the last round of talks in December 2023 ended without an agreement as the former has been attempting to force Ethiopia to accept a colonial era arrangement over the Nile for which Ethiopia was not a signatory.
Historically, Somalia invaded Ethiopia in the 1970’s when Ethiopia was undergoing internal crisis following the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution that overthrew Haile Selassie I Imperial government.
Ethiopia’s Condition For Considering Recognition of Somaliland
“When the agreement is completed, Ethiopia receives the land and the process is finalized,” said Redwan, “Ethiopia will take a stand to consider taking a stand in recognizing Somaliland as a sovereign country.” He reiterated that the Somaliland government has been existing for over thirty years.
The Somaliland government saw the agreement that aligns well with the country’s interest – especially from the point of view of recognition. There was celebration in Hargeisa when president Muse Bihi Abdi returned home after the agreement.
A considerable number of Ethiopians are noticeably opposing the agreement for they see it as something that constitutes danger to Ethiopia under the existing circumstances. The country is deeply divided along political lines with ongoing civil wars in the Amhara and Oromia regions. Security for citizens, especially in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, has become a disaster to the point that mobility of Ethiopians from city to city has become a risky business. There are also many who tend to see Abiy Ahmed’s government’s latest move as another strategy to distract attention from the local domestic crisis.
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