Somalia has found a powerful ally in its escalating dispute with Ethiopia over a port deal signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi declared his country’s full support for Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity after meeting with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Cairo over the weekend.
Egypt Vows to Defend Somalia Against External Threats
In a speech on January 21st, El-Sisi stated that Egypt “will not stand idly by” in the face of any threats to Somalia’s security or any infringements on its sovereignty. He denounced what he called “expansionist ambitions” in the region and asserted Egypt’s readiness to provide Somalia with all means of support.
This affirmation of solidarity from the leader of the Arab world’s most populous country lends critical diplomatic backing to Somalia as it challenges the port agreement signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland in December. Somalia sees the deal as an illegal infringement on its territorial sovereignty and an expansionist move by Ethiopia to gain its long-held dream of sea access.
African Union Deploys Obasanjo as Mediator
As tensions escalate, the African Union has deployed former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as a high-level envoy to mediate between the two Horn of Africa nations. However, Somalia has so far rejected any mediation efforts, demanding that Ethiopia first cancel the port deal, which granted Ethiopia the rights to develop and run a sea and land port in the coastal region of Somaliland.
Somalia’s parliament also voted unanimously to ban Direct flights by Ethiopia’s state-owned airline Ethiopian Airlines earlier in January. Meanwhile, Ethiopia has defended the agreement as critical for its economic survival and a matter of restoring a historical right to sea access that it lost when Eritrea became independent in 1991.
Experts Warn of Potential Regional Conflict
Analysts monitoring the escalating situation warn that if left unresolved, the dispute could spark a wider regional conflict and destabilize the already volatile Horn of Africa region. The deal has strained relations between Somalia and Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but remains unrecognized internationally. Egypt’s strong backing of Somalia has positioned it in direct geopolitical opposition to Ethiopia, with whom it is already embroiled in a bitter dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Eritrea also remains a wildcard, while the potential reaction of powerful Gulf Arab states who have invested in ports and military bases along the Horn of Africa coastlines adds further uncertainty. Many worry that the current tensions could trigger a resurgence of the historic fractious geopolitical dynamics in the region.
Timeline of Key Recent Events
December 7, 2022: Ethiopia and Somaliland sign an agreement in Addis Ababa granting Ethiopia the rights to develop and run a seaport, airport, and logistical facilities in Somaliland’s coastal territory.
January 8, 2023: Somalia responds by banning all direct flights by Ethiopian Airlines and denying an ET flight entry into airspace over Somaliland.
January 17, 2023: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expresses concerns over Ethiopia’s Horn of Africa activities, accusing Ethiopia of becoming a “source of instability” in the region.
January 18, 2023: The African Union intervenes, deploying former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to mediate between Somalia and Ethiopia. Somalia rejects mediation outright unless Ethiopia cancels the port deal.
January 18, 2023: Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit slams the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal as a “violation of Somalia’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”
January 21, 2023: Egyptian President Sissi meets Somalia’s leader in Cairo and vows Egypt will not allow any threats to Somalia’s security, pledging solidarity against external “expansionist ambitions”.
Implications for Somalia
For Somalia, securing the backing of heavyweight regional allies like Egypt gives it more clout and leverage in challenging the port agreement. However, Egypt’s main interest likely lies more in counterbalancing its rival Ethiopia’s growing influence in the Horn and its own Nile water dispute rather than any special affinity for Somalia per se.
President Mohamud faces weakened support at home too, drawing criticism from opposition figures for allowing foreign interference in Somalia’s internal affairs. Ultimately, even with external diplomatic backing, Somalia has few good options in getting Ethiopia to reverse a deal the latter sees as crucial to its economy. This promises a protracted standoff even in a best case scenario.
Implications for Ethiopia
The rising tensions place Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed under growing pressure at home too. His expansionist visions abroad – like this Somaliland port deal – have drawn accusations that he is overreaching. The recent civil war and humanitarian crises exacerbated by drought have also eroded his standing.
Having staked much politically on finally attaining his nation’s centuries-old quest for sea access, however, Abiy is unlikely to cancel an agreement considered so vital for Ethiopia’s economic future. The loss of Somalia as a regional partner is also a blow. Ethiopia may seek to consolidate its ties with Eritrea, but Isaias Afwerki’s regime in Asmara is notoriously unpredictable and unreliable. Ethiopia also faces further international isolation.
Risk of Wider Regional Conflagration
In a worst case but now more plausible scenario, the current tensions could spark a wider regional war. Conceivably, Somalia could seek armed retaliation with Egypt’s backing. Neighboring countries like South Sudan, Uganda and even Kenya could be drawn into the fray. Inside Ethiopia too, Abiy may resort to force to consolidate control domestically if his political standing continues to suffer due to the foreign policy setbacks.
For now, Obasanjo and the African Union are pulling out all stops to mediate a solution. Much depends on cooperation from Cairo and Addis Ababa. However, any negotiated settlement would require major concessions from Ethiopia that could imperil Abiy’s leadership. With national interests deemed existentially vital on both sides, compromise may prove difficult if not impossible.
Outlook for Peace
Ultimately, for peace to prevail, all parties must recognize that long-term reconciliation and mutually beneficial integration – not zero-sum geopolitical competition – is the only path forward. No regional capital from Mogadishu to Asmara to Addis and beyond, can afford more conflict or instability.
Cool heads must remind their leaders that cooperation and trust-building joint investments yielding shared prosperity dividends for all countries offer the only viable future for the long-suffering but proud peoples of the Horn of Africa.
- Hassan Sheikh Mohamud: President of Somalia
- Abdel Fattah El-Sisi: President of Egypt
- Abiy Ahmed: Prime Minister of Ethiopia
|Hassan Sheikh Mohamud
|Primary backer; seeks to rally international support to cancel Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal
|Abdel Fattah El-Sisi
|Critical regional backer of Somalia; counters Ethiopian influence
|Defends deal as necessary for national economy & historical right; faces growing political pressure at home
|Muse Bihi Abdi
|Breakaway region; inked port deal with Ethiopia but faces blowback
|Moussa Faki Mahamat
|Deployed Obasanjo as envoy to mediate dispute
|Unpredictable actor; could back Ethiopia
|Ahmed Aboul Gheit
|Slammed Ethiopia-Somaliland deal as infringement on Somalia
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