The Ethiopian-Somali Red Sea Agreement in the context of the geopolitical rivalry in the Horn of Africa

The Ethiopia-Somaliland deal has stirred controversy, poised to reshape alliances in the Horn of Africa and Middle East. Yet, given Ethiopia's geography and economy, and Somalia's security woes, all three parties must unite to avoid exploitation and foster regional peace and prosperity.
The Ethiopian prime minister has repeatedly called Red Sea access an existential question for his country. [Reuters]

On 2 January 2024, Muse Bihi Abdi, President of Somaliland, a breakaway Somali territory, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. The deal grants Ethiopian navy forces access to 20 kilometres of Somaliland’s coastline in the Gulf of Aden for 50 years. Ahmed, in turn, agreed to conduct an "in-depth assessment" of Somaliland's recognition. Based on the agreement, Somaliland also obtains a stake in Ethiopian Airlines. (1)

The move has caused controversy, and there are indicators that it will reconfigure geopolitical allegiances and cause further splits in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. However, given Ethiopia's geographic and economic situations, as well as Somalia’s security crisis, all three parties involved have the potential to reduce tensions by avoiding being used by other geopolitical powers and finding a common ground to advance regional peace and prosperity.

Ethiopia’s geographical constraints and regional interests

Ethiopia is the largest and most populous country in the Horn of Africa. It shares borders with Eritrea to the north, Djibouti to the northeast, Somalia to the east and southeast, Kenya to the south, South Sudan to the west, and Sudan to the northwest. Ethiopia’s quest for an outlet to the sea can be traced to the 1920s, (2) although this became apparent in 1993 after the country became landlocked due to the secession of Eritrea, its former province along the Red Sea. (3) Since then, Ethiopia has been eyeing sea access as the country’s governments believed the geographical location limits their economic growth and ability to utilise the prospects or solve the challenges that come with the country’s large population, which is estimated to be almost 130 million as of 2024. (4) The 1998 Ethiopian-Eritrean war, which remained unresolved until 2018, and the closure of the border between the two countries forced Ethiopia to rely on Djibouti for port access and trade. However, due to the country’s leadership and political agenda, relying on Djibouti isn’t enough because of its limitations in regards to Ethiopia’s geostrategic aspirations and economic interests.

The Ethiopian agreement with Somaliland came as a shock to many because of the status and controversy surrounding the territory; but a similar move was expected, although with other neighbouring countries. For example, the Ethiopian prime minister has repeatedly called Red Sea access an existential question for his country, worthy of holding talks with Eritrea. Also, fear of a new war spread across Ethiopia and beyond in November 2023 after a rumour that Ethiopia may invade Eritrea to secure port access. (5). Ahmed refuted the rumour, but the moves from some of its neighbours showed that they were not comfortable. Moreover, the deal with Somaliland has brought back bad memories, as Somalia and Ethiopia have previously fought fatal territorial conflicts, among which was the 1977–1978 war over the disputed Ogaden region, (6) wreaking havoc on their bilateral relations.

Ethiopia’s foreign policy for almost three decades shows that it is willing to get its way in the region by any means necessary. This can be seen in the MoU with Somaliland, which includes provisions for the Ethiopian government to conduct an in-depth assessment of Somaliland's efforts to gain recognition, (7) despite the fact that Somalia, a UN member state, is the de jure holder of the territory and the United Nations (UN) does not list Somaliland as a member state. Somalia has demanded that Ethiopia rescind the agreement (8), which it calls “an act of aggression," (9) and signalled its readiness to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. (10) Yet, it seems that, beyond commercial interests, Abiy wants the Red Sea presence as a legacy regardless of its implications. Some also believe it might be a way to reconstruct his image and administration, which have been tainted by the recent Tigray war (11) and the new conflicts in Amhara and Oromia. (12)

Somaliland: 33 years of pursuing independence

Somaliland is part of Somalia to the east in the Horn of Africa region. It is located strategically on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, bordering Djibouti to the northwest and Ethiopia to the south and west. The territory declared independence from Somalia in 1991 after the collapse of the Siad Barre regime, and it has since been a de facto state with its own functional government, steady democratic gains and relative stability compared to the rest of Somalia. Despite several attempts and efforts, no country has formally recognised Somaliland as a sovereign state, restricting its access to international markets. The region's drive for recognition has led to the establishment of diplomatic presence in various countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, and the attraction of consulates to its capital, Hargeisa, as well as the unilateral signature of a port investment agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). (13).

Since Somaliland's three decades of self-government, there have been failed efforts to unite it with Somalia, as well as appeals for peace between the two. In December 2023, following a meeting hosted by Djibouti's President, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, in Djibouti, Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud signed an agreement to revive diplomatic talks, implement past agreements, resolve continuing issues, and strengthen cooperation on security and criminal activity. (14) The communiqué also urged both parties to resolve ongoing conflicts that recently flared up in the regions of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn, where violent clashes over sovereignty had broken out, as some residents in these regions aspired to not be controlled by Somaliland and to establish their own federal member state of Somalia, a position some believe threatens Somaliland’s struggle for independence.

Besides, it seems from Somaliland's later agreement with Ethiopia that Abdi believed there are no contradictions between his agreement with Ethiopia and the communiqué with Somalia, and that the deal with Ethiopia is more significant because it had the potential to boost the territory's quest for statehood and international recognition, especially given Ethiopia's influence in East Africa and the African Union (AU). This explains Abdi's support from some of Somaliland's political leaders and pro-Somaliland residents, who voiced their desire for Somaliland to become Africa's 55th state. However, there are indications that the deal could face significant obstacles due to criticism from some Somaliland lawmakers and residents. For example, demonstrations erupted in Borama, with protesters chanting, "Our sea is not for sale." (15) Abdiqani Mohamoud Ateye, Somaliland's Minister of Defence, resigned days after the Ethiopian deal was signed, stating in a local television interview that "Ethiopia remains our number one enemy." (16)

The Red Sea access deal and the geopolitical rivalry in the Horn of Africa

The Ethiopia-Somaliland deal came in the light of a brewing geopolitical rivalry and power struggle in the Horn of Africa, emphasising the region's crucial location along the Red Sea. The Gulf nations, Turkey and Iran are all involved in the contest, as are the United States, China and Russia. The region has been the focal point of a Saudi-Iranian rivalry on the one hand and an intra-Gulf conflict between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Qatar and Turkey, with the Gulf nations focusing on the Somali coastline for security and commercial reasons. This resulted in increased investment in ports, military bases and infrastructure in countries like Djibouti, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. (17)

In addition, the situation between Somalia and Ethiopia is becoming intense as a result of the Red Sea access deal with Somaliland, as seen by the escalating diplomatic crisis, war of words and threats by Mogadishu to go to war to prevent the deal from being implemented. The AU and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have urged caution and reiterated their support for Somalia's territorial integrity. (18). The AU also offered mediation and requested both nations to resolve the conflict via dialogue, but Somalia rejected it, saying, "There is no space for mediation unless Ethiopia retracts its illegal MoU and reaffirms Somalia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."(19) Meanwhile, Ethiopia snubbed the IGAD meeting in Uganda in January, which was meant to address Sudan's conflict and concerns over the Ethiopian-Somaliland agreement. (20) On 17 February 2024, Somalia accused Ethiopian security of attempting to prevent its president from attending the AU summit, but the Ethiopian Prime Minister's spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, denied the claim, stating that the Somali delegation was stopped when its security detail attempted to enter a venue with weapons. (21)

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Sudan conflict, Israel's war on Gaza and the Houthis’ Red Sea attacks have all limited the global community’s interest in the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal or the development relating to it. However, the tension between Somalia and Ethiopia has revealed a possible formation of alliances between regional powers and competitors in Africa and the Middle East.

On the one hand, Somalia has received support from regional and Western powers that support Mogadishu’s assertion of its jurisdiction over Somaliland and consider Ethiopian efforts to establish a presence in Somaliland illegal. The Arab League, led by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, expressed support for Somalia and condemned the agreement. (22). Egypt has had a strained relationship with Ethiopia for years over the $4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia built on the Blue Nile, but they disagree on its filling and operation. Also, Somalia and Turkey announced a defence agreement that includes backing for sea assets and allows Somalia to reassert its maritime sovereignty (23)—a move that many believe is intended to impede Ethiopia's sea access agreement and place the Turkish navy in a strategically important region, thus giving Ankara a huge advantage over its competitors.

It is worth noting that since the signing of the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement, numerous prominent US officials have released remarks (24) reaffirming the US's support for Somalia's territorial integrity (25). The United Kingdom (UK) also voiced its worry about the agreement, urging prudence and stating its support for Somalia. Nonetheless, there appears to be an informal softening of decades of positions in the West, such as a call from a US official to ease tensions between Somalia and Somaliland through dialogue on their shared future and the different diplomatic visits to Somaliland. In fact, one member of parliament in the United Kingdom, Alexander Stafford has advocated for the UK to recognise Somaliland after the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal. (26)

Still, some of the countries proclaiming their support for Somalia, including Western countries, have relatively "good" relations with Ethiopia. Turkey has a long history of investing in Ethiopia; and in 2021, the Turkish parliament approved a military pact with the East African country. There are also several memoranda of understanding (MoU) between Qatar and Ethiopia to improve bilateral cooperation. However, the UAE has been singled out as the major backer of the Ethiopian move to have a military presence on Somaliland's coastline, not only because of the UAE's support for the Ethiopian government during the conflict in the Tigray region but also because of a report that the Dubai-based logistics group, DP World, which is heavily invested in the Port of Berbera, the commercial capital of Somaliland on the south coast of the Gulf of Aden, has shown an interest in cooperating in developing the new Ethiopian port. (27)

Despite international and regional condemnations, the Ethiopia-Somaliland connection has endured, and work toward Ethiopian port access is said to continue. In late February, the Ethiopian Ministry of Defence and Uganda's Ministry of Defence and Veteran Affairs (MODVA) signed a MoU to strengthen military and defence cooperation, improve information exchange, increase military capacity, and collaborate on regional security issues (28). Moreover, some see the UAE's support for the Ethiopia-Somaliland sea access deal as a possible indication that the Gulf country could shift its policies in relation to Somaliland, while others are of the opinion that the recent $35 billion UAE investment in Egypt's Ras El-Hekma region, among other UAE investments in the transcontinental country, (29) could influence Cairo's position on the matter, possibly leading to a shift in position or soft-handling approach by the Arab League towards the issue.


Ethiopia's deal with Somaliland to gain sea access, as well as the consequent diplomatic conflict between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa, have the potential to exacerbate the ongoing Red Sea crisis. The circumstances surrounding the deal may bring developing conflicts to a head and significantly worsen regional instability in the region, which includes Sudan, which is experiencing catastrophic political, security and humanitarian challenges. Although the increased tension in the Horn of Africa is partially due to uncertainty about what could happen after the deal, some Somalis feel it will render their peace efforts and the December 2023 agreement with the breakaway territory ineffective.

Another possible implication is that if this agreement is implemented completely, it might further complicate Ethiopia's sensitive relationship with Somalia and undermine the progress achieved by the Somali government to reintegrate into international institutions, resolve domestic issues and combat terrorism. Many Somalis have boycotted Ethiopian Airlines since the deal was announced, and there are also concerns that al-Shabaab would take up arms following the agreement. This security concern has been corroborated by the group’s call to protect Somalia's land. (30) Some also fear Ethiopia's decision to recognise Somaliland would encourage separatist groups currently fighting in different African countries.

The worst-case scenario, which is unlikely, would be an armed conflict involving Ethiopia, Somaliland and Somalia. This will certainly complicate the security situation in East Africa as a whole, impede cooperation agreements between Somalia and the United States in the fight against terrorism on one hand, and between Somaliland and its partners on the other. This will also have an impact on the foreign military presence in Djibouti as well as the interests of Gulf countries in the Horn of Africa. As a result, none of the three nations can afford wars; and the best approach would be to ease the tensions and deal with the new development based on common prosperity considerations and economic progress possibilities for all parties involved.

Finally, collaboration between the three nations is conceivable, particularly through regional institutions such as IGAD, or the East Africa Community (EAC), of which Somalia is now a member alongside the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania. Regardless of the geographical reasons and economic interests, signing a deal with a unilateral secession territory casts Ethiopia in a negative light as an untrustworthy neighbour in the region, especially as many believe Addis Ababa has other options for peaceful sea access, such as cooperating with Eritrea and Djibouti on fair terms for port use. Another option Ethiopia could have utilised is the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, (31) which is now being developed.



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3- Christopher Clapham, "Eritrean independence and the collapse of Ethiopian centralism: Causes, consequences, and implications", Geopolitics and International Boundaries, Vol. 1 No. 2, 1996, pp. 115-129.

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