Somalia has rejected international mediation efforts and calls for restraint from the African Union (AU) over a controversial port deal signed between Ethiopia and the breakaway region of Somaliland last month. The agreement grants Ethiopia a 19% stake in the Port of Berbera in exchange for building a trade corridor to it, but Somalia sees this as infringing on its sovereignty and has threatened conflict.
Somalia Firmly Opposes Deal and Outside Involvement
On January 18th, Somalia dismissed attempts by Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo to mediate discussions with Ethiopia. Somalia’s Deputy Information Minister Abdirahman Yusuf stated “any other talk or meeting without the Ethiopian government annulling the agreement it signed with Somaliland is unacceptable.”
Earlier, the Arab League and AU urged the parties to exercise restraint and hold talks. But Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre declared on Twitter that “the Federal Government of Somalia will not entertain any mediation efforts as long as Ethiopia has not rescinded its deal with Somaliland.” He reiterated Somalia’s position that the agreement was “null and void” as Somaliland’s “secession is illegal” under international law.
The deal has rallied various African and Middle Eastern states. Morocco’s Foreign Minister chaired an emergency Arab League meeting that slammed it as a “direct assault on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia.” Egypt also warned it undermines stability in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region.
Background to Relations Over Somaliland
Somaliland unilaterally declared independence during Somalia’s civil war in 1991. No country recognizes its sovereignty, but it has maintained de facto self-rule with its own government based in Hargeisa. Tensions between Somalia’s federal government and Somaliland have eased recently, with leaders meeting in mid-2022 after three decades of hostility. However, lasting reconciliation looks uncertain now.
Somalia asserted the port deal was illegal as foreign policy is within the federal government’s powers. Somaliland’s Foreign Minister rebutted that it can sign deals relating to “our ports and lands.” The row aligns them with different regional actors – Turkey backs Somalia, seeing Saudi-aligned Somaliland’s separatism as a threat. Somaliland also agreed last year to allow the UAE to build a military base on its territory. Ethiopia likely aims to sideline Somalia and gain leverage over these rivals.
War of Words Raises Probability of Military Conflict
Rhetoric between Somali and Somaliland leaders has grown increasingly bellicose. Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud warned “anyone who infringes upon our sovereignty will regret it as we are prepared to give any sacrifice to defend our nation.” Somaliland’s leader Musa Bihi Abdi said his military is ready “to go to war to defend our territorial integrity” against “any foreign incursion” – implying Somalia and its partners. Clan elders also urged Somaliland’s youth to “take up arms and defend their homeland.”
The possibility of hostile clashes seems to be growing. On January 17th, Somalia refused entry to an Ethiopian Airlines charter flight bound for Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital. It argued this would breach sovereignty as the flight entered Somalia’s airspace without federal approval. Somaliland’s Foreign Minister accused Somalia of planning an attack on its waters with Turkey’s support.
Both sides also appear to be seeking military assistance from allies. Somaliland granted landing rights to EgyptAir on January 18th as Cairo backs Somalia. The UAE has reportedly delivered armored vehicles to Somaliland too. Meanwhile, Turkey’s increase in weapons exports and troop deployments to Somalia last year indicate it may support aggressive action.
International Community Warns of Spillover Effects
Diplomats and analysts widely caution that an armed conflict would severely impact regional stability and have spillover effects. The US State Department expressed “grave concern” over rising tensions, urging “restraint and dialogue.” Neighboring Ethiopia faces turmoil itself amid a two-year civil war.
Some experts say the row may increase violence across the Horn of Africa by exacerbating divides. It disrupts the African Union’s peace initiatives in Somalia too. Moreover, competition over the Red Sea corridor risks embroiling various outside players. Reports suggest the deal was partly brokered by Emirati security firm Lancaster6, likely stirring regional rivalries. Triton Group CEO Fedele Donnelli notes it “made complex geopolitical dynamics suddenly very explosive.”
With neither side willing to make concessions currently, the situation remains perilous. Al Jazeera’s Rob Pritchard writes the “risk of miscalculation is extremely high when each party…seems confident their allies will defend them” and deter compromise. For now, events seem to be spiraling with international attempts to defuse tensions having little effect. Unless cooler heads prevail soon, armed clashes may erupt whether by miscalculation or aggressive intent.
Outlook Going Forward Remains Unclear
It is unclear precisely how circumstances will develop from here and whether violence can still be avoided. But Somalia appears unwilling to rescind its hardline stance unless Ethiopia and Somaliland scrap their port agreement. Neither shows signs of doing so. Ethiopia said it “will not be deterred” and that Somalia cannot stop Somaliland “exercising control over its ports.” Somaliland also vowed not to “recoil.”
With Somalia rejecting mediation and insisting the deal is annulled, while Somaliland refuses to relinquish economic independence, the current deadlock may well persist. The likelihood of miscalculation or opportunistic military action remains high, especially with external powers possibly offering to back their local partners.
Some analysts think Somalia may eventually be compelled to compromise if the port corridor aligns Ethiopia and Somaliland’s interests too closely. Its federal structure in theory accommodates semi-autonomous states deciding local affairs. But for now, neither rival government can afford to show weakness by surrendering leverage, so tensions seem poised to continue boiling in the weeks ahead.
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