Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement sparks tensions over sovereignty, trade, and territorial disputes in the Horn of Africa

  • 26 Jan 2024
  • 2 Mins Read
  • 〜 by Waceera Kabando

Ethiopia’s agreement with breakaway region Somaliland, seeking port access in exchange for potential sovereignty recognition, could cause upheaval in the Horn of Africa. Somalia views it as an attack on its sovereignty, considering Somaliland is just a de facto country and has called upon the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to stop the plans by Ethiopia to invade part of its territory.

In an attempt to nullify the agreement, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud signed a law that would make all further steps by Ethiopia and Somaliland illegal. The Head of State aligned his actions to his commitment to safeguard the country’s unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity as per international law.

Ethiopia lost its access to the Red Sea ports in 1991 after the Eritrean War of Independence. Ethiopia and Somalia fought a war in 1977-78 over a disputed Ogaden region, and tensions still run deep.

Besides using the port for international trade, Ethiopia also wants to lease land from Somaliland to build a naval base. Somaliland, in return, gets an equivalent value in shares of Ethiopian Airlines. The main beneficiary of this complex power play might be Somaliland. After its unilateral declaration of independence in 1991, it has established stronger governance structures than the rest of Somalia.

The dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia has been driven significantly by economic interests and by the effort to control scarce resources. Some of these interests and insecurity felt by Somalia are about:

  1.       The Juba and Wabi Shibeli rivers, whose sources are in Ethiopia;
  2.       The discovery of gas and oil in the Ogaden;
  3.     The challenging geographic shape of Somalia hinders efficient communication and transport between the northern and southern regions; and
  4.     Ethiopia’s long-standing trade necessity for access to the sea through Indian Ocean ports in Somalia.

Despite there being bilateral and multilateral diplomatic attempts, this has only led to more disputes, even in the presence of military involvement. The resumption of trade, communications, and other exchanges between formerly warring parties has been known to ameliorate historical enmities between the states.

The Somali Republic was created in 1960 with the merging of former British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland. The national flag and emblem is a five-pointed star representing:

  1.       Djibouti;
  2.       North-Western Province of Kenya;
  3.       Ogaden Province of Ethiopia; and
  4.       The two territories already united to form Somalia.

Ethiopia argues that its dispute with Somalia centred on Mogadishu’s unwillingness to negotiate the demarcation of the borders of former Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia. The northern portion, being the Ethiopia-British Somaliland border, states it has already been demarcated and cannot be a subject up for discussion or negotiation.

The Somali Republic states that the dispute has nothing to do with problems associated with border demarcations, but rather, it is a question of respecting the rights of the people of Ogaden to self-determination and of recovering land. Somalia claims this land to be ‘lost’ because of the 19th-century treaties that Ethiopia signed with the various European colonial powers.