Tensions Escalate: Somalia Threatens Conflict with Ethiopia Over Somaliland Port Deal

In a volatile turn of events, Somalia has issued a stark warning, declaring its readiness to go to war to prevent Ethiopia from recognizing and developing a naval base in the breakaway territory of Somaliland. The memorandum of understanding signed on January 1, allowing landlocked Ethiopia access to Somaliland’s coast for a naval base, has intensified already deep-rooted tensions in the Horn of Africa.

Somalia claims Somaliland as part of its territory and vehemently opposes the agreement, declaring it void. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has called on Somalis to prepare for the defense of their homeland, while protests against the deal have erupted in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

Somalia’s Warning: Rising Tensions with Ethiopia Over Somaliland Port Deal


A senior adviser to Somalia’s president has stated that diplomatic options are being pursued, but war is a real possibility if Ethiopia proceeds with the agreement. The historical context adds complexity, as Ethiopia and Somalia engaged in a conflict in 1977-78 over a disputed region. Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia in 2006 further strained relations, contributing to the emergence of the Al-Shabaab insurgency.

The unexpected port deal with Somaliland has caught Somalia off guard, with the adviser alleging that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had denied seeking sea access through Somaliland when questioned about it in a summit in Saudi Arabia in November.

Somaliland, once a British colony until 1960, enjoyed a brief period of independence before voluntarily uniting with Somalia. However, the union was tumultuous, leading to Somaliland’s declaration of independence in 1991 after a decade-long struggle against a Soviet-backed military regime. Despite functioning as a de facto independent state with its currency, parliament, and diplomatic missions, Somaliland faces the challenge of lacking international recognition.

Turbulent Times: Somalia’s Warning Sparks Potential Conflict with Ethiopia

Western governments insist on recognition from African countries before acknowledging Somaliland, aligning with the African Union’s policy against altering colonial-era national boundaries. The absence of recognition hampers Somaliland’s ability to attract investment and access international finance.

Somaliland’s Foreign Minister, Essa Kayd, sees the port deal with Ethiopia as a potential catalyst for legitimizing self-determination and sparking a domino effect of other countries recognizing the territory. However, confusion surrounds the deal’s details, as neither Somaliland nor Ethiopia has made the full text public.

President Muse Bihi Abdi initially stated that Ethiopia agreed to recognize Somaliland in exchange for a 50-year lease of a coastline stretch for naval and commercial purposes. In contrast, Ethiopia asserted that it had only agreed to assess Somaliland’s efforts to gain recognition. A Western diplomat familiar with the deal labeled it a “memorandum of misunderstanding,” highlighting the differing interpretations.

Foreign Minister Kayd insists that Ethiopia granting recognition to Somaliland is the linchpin of the deal. The negotiations have been ongoing for years, with both parties seeing a mutually beneficial solution – Ethiopia gaining sea access and Somaliland achieving international recognition.

Ethiopia’s historical quest for sea access echoes its construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a transformative hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile. Despite objections and military threats from Egypt, Ethiopia proceeded with the dam, illustrating its commitment to strategic projects.

While Somalia is currently grappling with the Al-Shabaab insurgency and is unlikely to initiate a conflict with Ethiopia, the port deal has the potential to exacerbate existing tensions in the region. President Mohamud’s recent visits to Eritrea and Egypt, Ethiopia’s main regional rivals, signal a shift in alliances against the backdrop of the port deal.

The adviser to Prime Minister Abiy drew parallels between Ethiopia’s pursuit of sea access and the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, suggesting a determination to address what Abiy sees as a legacy issue. The outcome of the deal with Somaliland could shape regional dynamics for years to come, influencing Ethiopia’s strategic decisions and alliances.

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