The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali, has restated that his country harbours no plans to harm Somalia in its pursuit of accessing the sea, as Addis Ababa considers it as a brotherly country.

While addressing the African Union (UN) annual Summit in Addis Ababa, Dr. Abiy said Ethiopia’s efforts to have an audience with the President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh, to engage on the matter have not been successful yet.

“Ethiopia considers Somalia as a friendly country, and His Excellency President Hassan Sheikh as a good friend. We have zero intentions to harm Somalia. We have zero intentions to create any problem in our region. Right after we signed an MoU with Somaliland, we have tried all our best to meet President Hassan Sheikh as a good friend and neighbour to exchange ideas on this matter, but we could not succeed,” explained Abiy.

“We have also tried to reach President Hassan Sheikh through our older brother, H.E Ismaïl Omar Guellé to meet him in person in Djibouti to discuss this matter, again we could not succeed. In Uganda, we have asked President Museveni, President Ruto, also to arrange a venue, and we exchange ideas face to face with H.E. President Hassan Sheikh because we consider him as a good friend, and we believe that we can sit and talk and solve our problems without bringing the issue on this table (African Union).”

“I would like to emphasise that Ethiopia maintains its role as a friendly neighbour early open to addressing any concerns desired by Somalia in the spirit of goodwill. We have all the leaders in our region, President Ismaïl (Djibouti) is here, President Ruto (Kenya) is here, and all other leaders in the region are there. We can sit and talk,” he added.

Abiy recently revived his country’s peaceful quest for reliable access to the sea, including a naval base, during the second half of last year. As a former member of his country’s intelligence community, he’s professionally trained to view national affairs in a far-reaching and comprehensive way.

Accordingly, he wanted to preemptively avert the impending consequences of his country’s landlocked status on domestic and regional stability.

In brief, the combination of his country’s debt problems – which are attributable to the pandemic, its two-year-long Northern War from 2020-2022, and a severe drought – and its demographic explosion could lead to a political crisis with time that would have very serious security implications for the Horn.

Anticipating this, he wanted to reach a deal for reliable and low-cost access to the sea on better terms than Ethiopia’s presently onerous one with Djibouti and then reconstruct the Ethiopian Navy.

That second goal is highly important in order to defend the maritime logistics (particularly fertilizer and fuel) upon which his country’s economic stability and therefore its political stability and security depend.

PM Abiy proposed a deal last fall whereby Ethiopia would swap stakes in its national companies in exchange for commercial-military port rights. Regrettably, none of the universally recognized coastal states was interested due to the regional security dilemma influencing them to consider this a threat.

Somaliland was therefore the only viable partner for achieving this goal, the attainment of which would preemptively avert the impending consequences of Ethiopia’s landlocked status on domestic and regional stability, ergo why negotiations over this issue with them were initiated.

It requested formal recognition of its independence as an additional term for providing Ethiopia with the access that it sought, thus leading to the MoU. In hindsight, this sequence of events was predictable and logical.

Diplomatic complications of this deal

Ethiopia obtains reliable access to the sea and will also be able to reconstruct its navy, thus preemptively averting the impending consequences of its landlocked status on domestic and regional stability, albeit at the expense of worsening ties with Somalia with all that could possibly entail in the worst-case scenario.

For its part, Somaliland obtains its first-ever official recognition from a UN member state that also importantly hosts the African Union headquarters, alongside profitable stakes in at least one Ethiopian national company together with potential security guarantees vis-a-vis Somalia.

As for Somalia, it’s finally forced to face the on-the-ground diplomatic-military reality of the past 33 years that it had hitherto been reluctant to acknowledge, but the silver lining as Mogadishu sees it is that this presents an opportunity to organize a coalition of countries for containing Ethiopia.

On balance, this development is obviously much better for Ethiopia and Somaliland, though the risk that both would have presumably foreseen prior to clinching their MoU is that a regional containment coalition might assemble on this pretext and could most likely be informally led by Egypt and Eritrea.

Does this MoU violate any laws or international norms?

Somalia claims that this MoU is a gross violation of its sovereignty, Somaliland says that it has the UN-enshrined right to independence as a sovereign state, and Ethiopia says that this agreement isn’t at the expense of any third parties’ objective interests since it fully complies with international norms.

Opinions among others differ, but the prevailing response among members of the international community has been to reaffirm commitment to international law and respect for UN member states’ sovereignty, though without commenting on the legitimacy of Somaliland’s independence aspirations.

About that, its officials compellingly argue that since they were the first Somali polity to obtain internationally recognized independence in summer 1960 prior to merging with the former UN trust territory of Somalia in a failed unity experiment, they have the right to restore their independence.

Furthermore, they’ve proven themselves to have all the functional characteristics of an independent state in the one-third of a century since reasserting their independence in 1991, which Somalia has been unable to reverse.

To the contrary, the socio-economic development gap between them continues to widen as Somaliland remains a beacon of stability in the Horn while Somalia continues struggling to defeat Al Shabaab, impose the federal government’s writ over several very autonomous regions, and resolve clan disputes.

With these observations in mind, it can be said that Somaliland does indeed operate as an independent state, but each UN member state’s respective foreign policy calculations towards the region in particular and the world in general account for why no one other than Ethiopia has yet to formally recognize this.

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