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Why Somaliland, Ethiopia port deal is good for the region

February 24th, 2024 8 min read

On January 1, 2024, a Memorandum of Understanding between Somaliland and Ethiopia was signed by H.E. President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland and H.E. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia which has instigated regional, international, and global geopolitical contests. Somaliland Representative to Kenya Ambassador Dr. Mohamed Ahmed Mohamoud elaborates on the issues surrounding the deal and the geopolitical tensions that have arisen because of the memorandum of understanding.


What promoted Somaliland to enter this deal with Ethiopia at this moment?

A: First, the Republic of Somaliland and Ethiopia share common interests in security, trade, and deep-historical ties of people-to-people relations. Second, Somaliland and Ethiopia have worked together on many fronts over the last three decades, and the recently signed MOU will only further enhance socio-economic, security, political, and diplomatic engagement between the two countries. Third, as with other countries in the world, Somaliland has the right to enter bilateral deals that advance its national interests and priorities. Somaliland is more than capable of managing bilateral and multilateral agreements with other countries, and this cannot be stopped by anyone.

Following Somalia’s vehement protests against the Somaliland-Ethiopia MOU agreement, how has Somaliland reacted to these oppositions?

A: Somalia has remained a failed state for decades and has actively but unsuccessfully sought to stifle Somaliland’s growth as a democratically, sovereign nation. This is not the first time Somalia has protested an agreement Somaliland has entered. In 2018, Somalia protested Somaliland’s Berbera Port modernization agreement with UAE’s DP World, but their protests lacked legal backing and support. The reality is that countries in the Horn of Africa region and the international community are cognizant of Somaliland’s sovereign status and its capacity to manage its affairs in accordance with its own national laws while upholding regional and international instruments. Because of this, a cooperative partnership between Somaliland and Ethiopia in trade, security, and development will also contribute more benefits for the entire East African community, and beyond.

There are concerns among several regional states regarding this MOU. How can you address these concerns and persuade countries that remain skeptical?

A: The Government of the Republic of Somaliland continues to reassure all concerned parties that this agreement with Ethiopia will only positively serve the Horn of Africa region and beyond. This deal is in line with both bilateral and multilateral cooperation as it promotes regional economic integration, free trade flow, and development. It also fosters international cooperation and foreign investment which will significantly contribute to regional economic growth. It is important to note that leasing a military naval base is not unprecedented in the Horn of Africa region. Somaliland’s neighbor, Djibouti, has hosted several naval bases for many years now. Parties that have expressed concerns over the Somaliland-Ethiopia need to start looking at this deal from a very objective lens that is not based on baseless rhetoric propagated by Somaliland enemies. The Republic of Somaliland is a frontier and a major contributor to regional peace and international security. Neighboring countries such as Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia have benefited from Somaliland’s commitment to safeguarding regional stability both onshore and offshore over the past three decades.

Several countries and members of the international community, specifically belonging to bilateral and multilateral institutions, who have spoken of the deal have also raised concerns about this deal in fear that the agreement can potentially instigate new conflict in the region. How do you see these calls?

A: The Somaliland – Ethiopia agreement will not contribute to regional instability. It is important to demystify this deal and examine the facts which is that the Somaliland-Ethiopia agreement will make the Horn of Africa region more prosperous and economically viable. In addition, a midst escalating insecurity in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden with fuel and trade costs rising, a Somaliland-Ethiopia cooperation would significantly contribute to maritime security and stability in the region.

It seems that this deal raised a lot of regional and international dynamics how do Somaliland and Ethiopia manage these dynamics?

A: Somaliland and Ethiopia play a crucial role in maintaining regional and international stability, and their bilateral cooperation will benefit the entire Horn and East Africa region. Somaliland and Ethiopia are both committed to advancing regional economic integration, combating terrorism, mitigating the impact of climate change, and supporting neighboring countries in matters of security and stability.

How will Ethiopia recognizing Somaliland, as stipulated in the MOU, impact regional and global affairs?

A: When Somaliland gains its inalienable rights of international recognition, this will present an opportunity for the region and the overall continent. Somaliland has achieved notable milestones since re-gaining its sovereign and territorial integrity on 18 May 1991. The Somaliland case is a unique one and differs from the historical experiences of other countries. Despite lacking international recognition, Somaliland hosts many citizens from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Many people visit Somaliland and choose to stay in the country for extended periods of time because not only does Somaliland have peace, but it is a country that has long upheld its democratic national values which enhance economic opportunity for all.

If Ethiopia recognizes Somaliland, do you expect that other countries will follow suit?

A: Yes, we are very optimistic, and hopeful that many countries in Africa and elsewhere will follow this momentum because many countries see Somaliland as a reliable and valuable partner for regional and global affairs of peace, security, economic development, and Somaliland’s geopolitical landscape has also a lot of significance as Red Sea- Gulf of Aden is the main gateway of the global trade and maritime. In other words, the regional and international communities are all aware that since 1991 Somaliland pursued its democratic statehood without much assistance from the international community. In this regard, Somaliland is not burdened or dependent on external assistance but Somaliland peacebuilding and state-building trajectory rooted in our unique experiences of political and social resilience. In the meantime, it is notable to underline that the Republic of Somaliland has fulfilled the criteria of statehood laid down by international law so no doubt that the recognition of Somaliland is not only a breakthrough at the continental level but also will reflect on the wider global geopolitical landscape.

You are aware that the deal signed by Somaliland and Ethiopia has shaken geopolitical affairs with even some members of the Kenyan parliament openly discussing it. What are your thoughts on this?

A: I have specifically seen Kenyan MP Farah Maalim talk about this deal on multiple occasions, where he has openly incited violence against both Somaliland and Ethiopia because of the signed MOU. While on a recent visit to Garoowe, Farah Maalim explicitly stated that he could mobilize 500,000 Kenyan Somali youth to fight against Somaliland and Ethiopia to support Somalia. First and foremost, it is entirely unacceptable to see a parliamentarian use such inflammatory language when discussing the signed Somaliland-Ethiopia agreement. This type of rhetoric only encourages insurgency, extremist ideology, and acts of terrorism in an already vulnerable region. As a Kenyan MP, an individual like Maalim needs to refrain from meddling in and being so overly involved in the affairs pertaining to other countries.

Somalia’s President in the African Union Submit, and Somalia’s Representative to the UN both concurrently stated that Ethiopia is making annexation of part of Somalia which meant the Somaliland – Ethiopia deal what is your reaction to this provocative allegation?

A: First of all, Somali leaders are misguiding the international community and regional actors, and in this case, they need to understand that signing agreements and annexation have divergent interpretations in international law. Somaliland- and Ethiopia have equally agreed to enter a bilateral agreement which is mutually beneficial to both countries. Regarding the phenomenon of annexation, it only happens in the matter of forceful, and military occupation, did you ever hear that Ethiopian troops invaded Somaliland, the answer is no, this is unfounded propaganda that Somalia leaders designed to mislead the international community and regional actors.

Some members of the international community raised their feelings over the deal, arguing that Al-Shabab terrorists will further exploit and jeopardize regional peace and stability

A: This is an unbalanced political view, and it is an excuse to undermine the partnership framework, and maritime cooperation between Somaliland and Ethiopia. On the other hand, both Somaliland and Ethiopia have had sufficient experience fighting against terrorism over the past decades. The two countries played very prominent roles the regional stabilization, peace, and security. So, this deal will not jeopardize the fight against terrorist groups but will reflect on much more security enhancement, greater cooperation of all parties, and preventing the terrorist entities not to spreading over the region and beyond.

Could you provide a brief overview of the history of Somaliland?

A: The Republic of Somaliland was initially a product of the European Partition of Africa in 1884. Somaliland became a British Protectorate, known as British Somaliland, following subsequent agreements between Somali elders and the British Empire of that time. After close to 80 years under British indirect rule, Somaliland gained independence on 26 June 1960 and became the first East African country to officially become independent from a colonial power. However, following the wave of pan-Africanist, anti-colonial movement of the mid-1900s, Somaliland decided to voluntarily join into a union with the UN trusteeship and former Italian colony of Somalia on 1 July 1960, to form the Somali Republic. It is important to note that this merger was never legally ratified and ultimately failed. Somaliland reinstated its sovereignty and political independence in 1991. In the national referendum held in 2001, 98% of the Somaliland people overwhelmingly affirmed this decision to regain their national sovereignty and political independence. As a result, Somaliland’s constitutional democracy was born and since 2002, subsequent peaceful, free, fair, and transparent elections have been successfully held in the country.

How can the statehood of Somaliland be defined on its modern state roots?

A: The context of the African state formation concurrently took place following the European scramble for Africa. This marked the beginning of Africa’s modern statehood trajectory which also played an instrumental role in allowing colonial powers to manipulate political and territorial affairs in the African continent. In this context, the Somali partition in the Horn of Africa was indeed a part of the divisions experienced in East Africa. Consequently, the British Protectorate of Somaliland was founded between 1884 and 1886 where the British colony entered treaties with clans that lived in Somaliland. The Republic of Somaliland today is based on the 1960 territories and borders of British Somaliland. This is the case for the majority of recognized African states today. The African Union’s 1964 Cairo Declaration mandated that African states uphold and respect the borders established upon their achievement of national independence from colonial empires. So, the modern statehood of the Republic of Somaliland today is deeply rooted in its historical origins.

In the case of Somaliland, were there additional agreements or border demarcations made during the colonial era?

A: Yes, there are subsequent international treaties that the British Empire of the colonial period entered with other countries while it was governing the then British Protectorate of Somaliland. Because of this, Somaliland’s borders are delineated and defined by the Anglo-French Treaty of 1888; the Anglo-Italian Protocol of 1894, and the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1897. Then the Republic of Somaliland gained independence from Britain on 26 June 1960 and then re-instated its sovereignty in 1991, after the union under the now-dissolved Somali Republic failed. Somaliland’s borders and territory today are determined by the border demarcations established over a century ago.

Can you please elaborate on the significance of Somaliland within Africa and globally?

A: The Republic of Somaliland is situated in the Horn of Africa and is bounded by the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Due to its proximity to the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which is a passageway that is crucial to global shipping and trade, Somaliland is a corridor for both regional and international transportation of goods. Because Somaliland has enjoyed over 30 years of peace and security, the country is not only a major contributor to regional stability but plays a vital role in regional economic integration and free trade. Somaliland’s Berbera Port is one of the largest and most strategic ports in Africa and the sub-Saharan region, a gateway to many African countries. As one of the only countries with a functioning democratic system in the Horn of Africa, the Somaliland people have successively elected their leaders and representatives through elections based on the principle of “one person, one vote”. The Republic of Somaliland is a beautiful country with a rich history, culture, heritage, and the Geo-strategic potential to continue positively serving the Horn of Africa region and the broader world.