January 1, a controversial memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia.
Apparently, this agreement grants landlocked Ethiopia a 20 km piece of coastal land for the establishment of a naval base and the right to build a commercial port. In return, Ethiopia said it intended to recognize Somaliland as an independent country, making it the first nation to do so.
Ethiopian leaders said the move was aimed at correcting what they consider a “historical mistake” of not having access to the sea. But Somalia takes no responsibility for this alleged historical injustice; Ethiopia lost its coastline after Eritrea gained independence in 1993, following three decades of war. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s claim that it needs access to the sea to develop its economy conveniently ignores the fact that its economy became the fastest growing on the continent after becoming landlocked.
Today, Addis Ababa’s actions threaten to spark a new war in East Africa. If the forces of reason do not prevail among Ethiopia’s leaders, the entire region could be drawn into conflict.
Two desperate leaders
By all accounts, this provocative move is rooted in the deep domestic crisis facing the leaders of Ethiopia and Somaliland. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, governs a divided Ethiopia, grappling with widespread ethnic conflicts and increasingly intense armed rebellions.
The Ethiopian government, emerging from a devastating crisis civil war in the Tigray regionfaces new pogroms perpetrated by rebel forces from the Amhara and Oromo communities – the two largest ethnic groups – challenging the authority of Addis Ababa.
Regionally, Ethiopia finds itself in a precarious position. Détente with Eritrea is collapsing as mutual acrimony between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki intensifies. Tensions with Egypt over the Renaissance Dam are reaching a boiling point, with Cairo recently withdrawing its representative from a negotiating platform on how to share the Nile waters. Relations with neighboring Sudan have not been at their best since December, when Prime Minister Abiy rolled out a red carpet to welcome the leader of the Sudan Rapid Support Forces, a staunch enemy of the Sovereign Council that rules Sudan.
Economically, Ethiopia is experiencing serious financial difficulties. Last month, the government failed to pay $33 million in interest on its international government bonds, and in recent years it has struggled to maintain enough hard currency, limiting the circulation of U.S. dollars out of the country. The official exchange rate is considerably lower than the black market rate, a reliable indicator of serious financial difficulties.
For Abdi, the leader of the Somali separatist region of Somaliland, the situation is just as dire domestically. Last year he lost approximately one third of the former territory of “British-Somaliland” to SSC-Khaatumo, a regional administration recognized by the Federal Government of Somalia.
Other communities, notably in the Awdal region, are also rising thanks to the memorandum of understanding with Ethiopia. Last week, Somaliland’s defense minister, from the same region, resigned in protest against the memorandum of understanding.
Additionally, President Abdi’s five-year term expired more than a year ago. An unelected Senate, known as “Guurti”, extended its term by two years, despite the objection of Somaliland’s opposition parties to the elected lower house of the regional parliament.
This MoU is therefore widely seen in Ethiopia and Somaliland as a desperate attempt by their leaders to divert attention from their deep domestic problems. However, the global response and national reactions have been remarkably rapid and consistent.
The MoU elicited a rapid and unanimous international response, affirming the inviolability of Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Major global and regional powers, including the African Union, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the European Union, China, the United Kingdom and the United States, among others, have strongly opposed Ethiopia’s violation of Somalia’s sovereignty.
China’s strong response is particularly significant given Somaliland’s ties to Taiwan and Somalia’s historical support for the “one China” policy. Russia, on the other hand, has remained silent, perhaps seeing an opportunity to promote its strategic interests in the region.
On the African front, Ethiopia could find itself isolated if it decides to recognize Somaliland and violates a founding principle of the African Union, which is to safeguard the territorial integrity of member states.
Ethiopia’s reckless action could lead to a campaign to move the AU headquarters from Addis Ababa, as it would be deemed inherently unfit to host a union based on respect for the sovereignty of all member states . Furthermore, the vast majority of AU member states are fundamentally and politically opposed to recognizing secessionist movements, as this would open a Pandora’s box across the continent.
The MoU threatens to reignite historic hostilities between Ethiopia and Somalia. Both countries have a history of conflict, including the 1977-1978 war, and the 1,600 km (994 mile) border between Somalia and Ethiopia remains officially contested. This latest move by Ethiopia constitutes by far the most significant violation of Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity since its independence in 1960.
If Ethiopia decided to establish a naval base in Somaliland, Somalia’s strategic response would be multifaceted and equally dramatic. Among the proportional countermeasures it could take, Somalia would almost immediately sever diplomatic relations, expel all Ethiopian forces from Somalia, and suspend virtually all commercial transactions. This could include banning Ethiopian Airlines from using Somali airspace – a move that would almost certainly cripple Africa’s largest airline and Ethiopia’s biggest source of hard currency.
Additionally, Somalia may seek to sign strategic defense agreements with Egypt, Eritrea and other countries as part of its long-term territorial fortification strategy. Such measures would not suit Ethiopia and the resulting escalation could trigger a regional conflagration in the Horn of Africa, already one of the most unstable regions in the world.
Perhaps more worrying for regional stability, Ethiopia’s action could radicalize tens of thousands of young Somalis already outraged by what they see as a historic enemy dismembering their country.
Coincidentally, it was Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia between 2006 and 2008 that gave rise to al-Shabab, the most violent militant group in Africa today. This memorandum of understanding would be the most poignant recruitment tool for violent extremist groups as well as irredentist movements.
By signing this memorandum of understanding with Somaliland, Ethiopia bet on a rules-based international order, weakened by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. However, the response from Somalia and the world was firm and reflected strong support for its sovereignty.
Rather than continuing down this dangerous path, Ethiopia should engage directly with the Somali federal government to discuss cooperative agreements, such as the use of existing Somali ports, following the model between Djibouti and Ethiopia . This approach would be more conducive to regional stability and respect for the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Somalia.
Somalia has repeatedly affirmed its willingness to engage constructively with Ethiopia on mutually beneficial trade deals that include the use of its ports by its larger southern neighbor. And Ethiopia has many things to offer Somalia, such as cheap electricity and transportation and logistics centers.
But the path Addis Ababa is taking with this MoU guarantees a mutually destructive outcome for both countries. The only difference is that, more than most countries in the world, Somalia knows how to survive – and even thrive – in the face of a widespread failed state. Ethiopia, on the other hand, would not be able to cope with the resulting conflagration.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.