The Ethiopian government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) Jan. 1 with the breakaway territory of Somaliland, to access its port of Berbera for commercial and military activities. Somaliland has been a self-declared independent republic since 1991, although it remains largely unrecognized internationally, considered officially a part of Somalia. Its port of Berbera is operated by DP World, a major port operator from the United Arab Emirates.
Mogadishu is incensed at what it sees as a violation of Somalian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Although it lacks international recognition, Somaliland has a functional existence that is largely de facto independent of Somalia.
The Somalia-Somaliland dispute is among the border disputes the British Empire intentionally left in its wake, which can only be fully settled in the context of a development approach to the entire region involving all parties and coordinated through such institutions as the BRICS (of which Ethiopia is a new member).
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed discussed his vision of Red Sea access in a televised October 13, 2023 speech. “A population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison,” he stated, referring to Ethiopia’s current status as the most populous landlocked nation on the planet. In the speech, Abiy discussed ways of working out port access through Eritrea, Somalia, or the Somaliland territory, or of achieving better relations with Djibouti in terms of its current access to the sea through that nation, which results in $2 billion in port fees annually.
The MOU details Ethiopia’s access to the Berbera port and its option to establish a naval base with a 50-year lease. It also includes provisions for commercial maritime services. In exchange, Somaliland will receive a stake in Ethiopian Airlines and other benefits. The agreement does not explicitly state that Ethiopia will formally recognize Somaliland as an independent state. Ethiopia plans an “in-depth assessment” before making such a decision.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African coalition, has expressed concern about the agreement but stopped short of openly criticizing Ethiopia.
The Arab League has stated that it rejects any agreement that violates Somalia’s sovereignty.
Ethiopia views the agreement as a peaceful means to secure maritime access, emphasizing mutual benefits for all involved parties. The Ethiopian government has also noted that other countries have engaged in agreements with Somaliland, such as DP World’s management of Berbera port.
Currently, Ethiopia — a landlocked nation with a population exceeding 120 million — relies on Djibouti for sea access. Attempts to gain access through Eritrean ports have been unsuccessful. Somalia’s ports are considered less developed and secure compared to Berbera.
The MOU, signed in Addis Ababa, includes a provision for Ethiopia to lease a 20 km stretch of Somaliland’s coastline, potentially establishing a military presence. Further details and formal recognition of Somaliland are expected in a subsequent agreement.
Somalia’s federal government has expressed strong opposition to the deal, emphasizing the importance of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Somali MP Mursal Khaliif, in a posting on X, has called for a government response to Ethiopia’s actions. An emergency session of the Somali cabinet, led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, discussed the issue, with reports indicating Somalia’s rejection of the deal. Somaliland’s internal dynamics have also been turbulent, with parts of the region seeking to rejoin Somalia, contributing to regional complexity.
The sensitivity surrounding Somaliland’s status was highlighted by an incident in 2022, where the presence of a Somaliland flag at a meeting in Kenya led to a Somali delegation leaving the meeting.
Some international responses:
President of Somalia Hassan Sheikh Mohamud reported that he had a phone call with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who supported Somalia’s territorial integrity.
The U.K., while affirming “full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia,” contented itself with urging “restraint and dialogue to peacefully resolve issues.”
U.S. State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller responded to questions about the deal: “We were concerned by them [reports about Somaliland agreement]. We join other partners in expressing our serious concern as well about the resulting spike in tensions in the Horn of Africa. We urge all stakeholders to engage in diplomatic dialogue, and the United States recognizes the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia within its 1960 borders.”
African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat issued a statement calling for respect for “unity, territorial integrity and full sovereignty of all African Union member states.” The Chairperson “urges the two brotherly countries to engage without delay in a negotiation process to settle their differences in the most constructive, peaceful and collaborative manner in order to consolidate and deepen their cooperation to serve peace and security in the region.” He reaffirmed that the African Union will work for “an African solution to this new tension.”