Abiy Ahmed’s administration sold the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that Ethiopia signed with Somaliland, on January 1 this year, as if Ethiopia secured its own port. It dominated state-owned media outlets for weeks. As it turns out, port access does not seem to be part of the deal.
In an interview with Somaliland National TV this week, Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi reportedly said that the land lease agreement is for a military purpose – not a commercial one. Somaliland seems to be interested in Ethiopia to continue using the Berbera port for its import and export needs. However, the Somaliland president is said to have stated that his government wants to express interest in going ahead with the agreement.
The Ethiopian government is yet to remark on the latest statement. The ruling Prosperity Party held executive and central committee meetings for several days. The port deal was apparently one of the agenda items discussed. The party said the agreement with Somaliland was signed in line with the party’s conviction that Ethiopia’s growing population and economy needs a sea access that can accommodate the needs. The party also asserted that the agreement it signed with Somaliland demonstrates “Ethiopia’s stand on regional economic and cultural integration.” The next step is, said the party, to finalize and implement the MoU and work on getting alternative access from other neighboring countries on the basis of “give and take.”
In a remark after the MoU was signed, Redwan Hussien, advisor to the Prime Minister has clearly stated that Ethiopia will be using it both for military and commercial maritime purposes. He even highlighted that Ethiopia will be developing infrastructure in the coastal land to be rented from Somaliland – a country that has control over a good portion of the Gulf of Aden coastline.
There have been reports that if the agreement is finalized and implemented, Ethiopia gets a 20 kilometers of coastline from the breakaway Somaliland in return for recognition of independent statehood. However, the Ethiopian government clarified that the business of recognizing Somaliland is something that is not happening right away. Abiy Ahmed’s government said it is something it will consider. What is clear is, according to the Ethiopian government, Somaliland will get a certain portion of stake from Ethiopian Airlines.
Given the Somaliland President’s position that Ethiopia will not be building a port for commercial purpose in the land it will get from Somaliland, it remains to be seen if the MoU agreement will be finalized.
Despite that, the deal has caused tension in the region, perhaps unprecedented in recent times. Somalia sees the deal as a violation of its territory. It sees Somaliland still as its part despite the former’s existence as a de facto state for over three decades. Consequently, Somalia has been mobilizing diplomatic, political and even military support. Egypt among the forerunners lining up behind Somalia in the event of military conflict – it seems to be even pushing for a military conflict. The Arab League has reflected a similar stance painting Ethiopia as an aggressor. However, Somaliland sees the Egyptian stance as an interference in its internal affairs. Ethiopia says the reactions are not unexpected.
Concern over possible conflict is growing. The African Union, European Union, and the United States have been urging a peaceful resolution between Ethiopia and Somalia. But Somalia said there is no “Space for mediation” before Ethiopia retracts the MoU.
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