Ethiopia: On Course to Recognizing Somaliland’s Statehood

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On New Year’s Day Ethiopia and Somaliland announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The specifics of the agreement are not fully disclosed, but the key points involve Somaliland obtaining a share in Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s prized airline. In return, Ethiopia gains entry to the port of Berbera and secures land (with a 20km coastline) near the town of Lughaya for a naval base along the Gulf of Aden. There is a strong possibility that Ethiopia will ultimately acknowledge Somaliland as an independent sovereign state.

Somaliland gained its independence from Britain on June 26, 1960, was then recognized as such by 34 countries, including the U.K. Five days later, amid excitement and nationalist fervor, it proceeded to voluntarily merge with former Italian colony of Somalia on July 1, 1960. It would turn out to be fateful decision. As the smaller of the two in terms of population, Somaliland quickly found itself receiving dictates from Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. The following 31 year of union were a dark period of tumult, eventually culminating in full blown war, whereby Somalia desperately tried to cling to Somaliland, causing tremendous suffering and scorn.

According to a recent article by Georgetown University Professor Ken Opalo “The unification and subsequent separation of Somaliland with Somalia has some similarity with that of Eritrea, which also peacefully entered union with Ethiopia in 1952. Somaliland also willingly entered union with the rest of Somalia in 1960, only to witness the violation of the terms of union shortly thereafter. Like Eritrea, Somaliland also leveraged a widespread civil war to claim its independence under circumstances that made it too challenging for the war-fatigued capital to resist. The key distinction lies in the fact that while Eritrea had a consenting government in Addis Ababa to facilitate its secession, the neo-founders of Somaliland in the late 1980s lacked a credible counterpart among the various warlords who battled the Siyad Barre regime and subsequently turned against each other after 1991.”

The New York Times. June 26,th 1960

The eventual dissolution Somaliland’s union with Somalia could not be ratified by Mogadishu, which has been marred in a long saga of bad governance, corruption, and terrorism. However, neither was Somaliland’s brief union with Somalia ratified by their respective law makers. In any case given the root causes of the breakup that followed ratification matters less. Somalilanders have long emphasized their separate status from rump state Somalia. Their state is relatively calm, holding regular elections, issues a passport accepted in several countries, including the U.K, South Africa, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, France, Malaysia. Its close tie with neighboring Ethiopia has been a process spanning decades.

Notwithstanding Somaliland’s distinct history, revelation of the MoU ignited a diplomatic uproar by authorities in Somalia, which expressed intense displeasure and withdrew the ambassador from Addis Ababa. So far, a series of statements and declarations out of Mogadishu have not garnered an official response from Addis Ababa, although Somaliland called them “insincere” and “hysterical”.

With a GDP of nearly US$3.5 billion and a population of 5.7 million, Hargeisa stands to benefit significantly from a long-term economic deal centered around ports and logistics. In addition to the prospect of obtaining official recognition from Ethiopia, Somaliland is pursuing the port agreement for economic necessities. Nearly half of the government’s budget relies on revenue from trade taxes and port duties. However, it is expected that there will be opposition within the country to the deal, particularly on the domestic political front.

A Significant Move by Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s decision to eventually recognize Somaliland carries notable significance as it marks the first instance of a UN member state acknowledging Somaliland’s autonomous status since its self-proclaimed independence in May 1991, following the Somalia Civil War.

Despite establishing official contacts after declaring independence, including engagements with Ethiopia in strategic and infrastructural agreements, Somaliland’s international recognition has been constrained. Recognition by Ethiopia’s could enhance Somaliland’s legitimacy, foster economic cooperation, and establish diplomatic ties. Given its strategic location, if Somaliland garners recognition by a UN member state, the ripple effect might encourage other nations to follow suit, contributing to a broader acknowledgment of Somaliland’s sovereignty, albeit the extent of this impact hinges on the nature and scope of Ethiopia’s recognition.

In addition to Ethiopia, Somaliland has consulates services in key countries, including the United States, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Kenya. If Ethiopia proceeds to fully recognize its neighbor as an independent state, then these other nations are likely to follow suite, an outcome that will tip the scale as far as the AU’s decision goes. For instance, the U.S has shown interest in Somaliland for military purposes. While the State Department’s rhetoric has been strategically ambiguous regarding Somaliland, overcrowding of military bases in Djibouti has become an issue for the Pentagon, “raising concerns about “strategic competition and potential risk of confrontation with China in Djibouti” and is exploring the viability of Somaliland as an alternative relocation point.

Access to the Zaila -Berbera corridor is critical to Ethiopia and an economic lifeline for Somaliland

However, an underlying complexity lies in Somaliland’s lack of Mother State Permission from Somalia. This adds diplomatic controversy surrounding the principle of sovereignty, for the AU, which must contend with numerous claims for statehood across the continent. The AU does not want to be  seen to be encouraging balkanization of Africa, but the legal case for Somaliland is strong, a point discussed below.

President Mussa Bihi Abdi stated, “We functioned independently as Somaliland for three decades, despite the odds, but never got the recognition we deserved—We just needed one country to open that door, and its suiting for Ethiopia to be that nation”. He added, “The first to recognize Somaliland was always going to be the most difficult, after that there will certainly be others that follow”.

On January 6th, Somalia’s president Hassan Sheik Mohamud signed a law nullifying the MoU between the Gov’t of Ethiopia & Somaliland as illegal and void on grounds of protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity. But how Mogadishu intends to enforce this claim is not clear. As mentioned, Somaliland has been its own entity for thirty years and authorities in Somalia have had no say in that time. This power equation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Ethiopian troops have been crucial to Somalia’s security. As part of The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) They played a key role in defending against Al Shabab for years. It currently contributes about 5000 troops to the ATMIS.  Before the formation of ATMIS, Ethiopia was the leading country behind The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Outside of this multilateral effort, Ethiopia also commands a significant force combating Al Shabab in Somalia. According to a 2020 Reuters report, “Ethiopia, which shares a long and porous border with Somalia, contributes around 4,000 of the 17,000 troops under the AU, and has around 15,000 additional soldiers in Somalia bilaterally: that is more than any other nation.”

The task of ATMIS slated to end in 2023 was extended at the request of Mogadishu, which needed the protection against increasing attacks by Al Shabab. Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) have overseen the most difficult sectors of Somalia, where Al Shabab has the strongest presence. These areas include sector 3, Bakool and Bay centered on the town of Baidoa. The withdrawal of these forces now scheduled for December 2024 could leave a security vacuum, in which Al Shabab will certainly take advantage of.

Now what?

On January 8, 2024, to shore up support, President Hassan Sheik Mohamud of Somalia traveled to Eritrea, where Somalian soldiers recently trained. He is also slated to travel to Egypt this week. This follows an earlier visit to Somalia by an Egyptian delegation. Furthermore, Somalia is seeking support from Qatar as well as the Arab league, of which it is a member state. Simultaneously military commanders of Somaliland and Ethiopia convened in Addis Ababa this week.

While most Somalilander’s look forward to the day where their country’s independence becomes officially recognized by the international community, there is some pushback to Ethiopia setting up a navy base in their territory, including by some of its officials. This month AP reported, “Somaliland’s defense minister resigns over deal to give Ethiopia access to the region’s coastline. The issue will certainly be hotly debated in the upcoming elections scheduled for November.

As the 2018 rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia continues to fade, a new reality seems to be emerging in the Horn of Africa (HOA), one where Asmara and Addis Ababa become estranged again, Somaliland gains its vaunted recognition, and Sudan fractures into spheres of influence. While Ethiopia continues to grapple with insecurity. Never in recent memory has there been this level of tumult and geopolitical realignment in the strategic HOA.

It remains to be seen if Ethiopia will proceed to lobby AU member states on behalf of Somaliland at the upcoming 37th regular session. There is a good case to be made based on a 2005 fact finding mission led by former deputy chairperson of the AU, which concluded, “Union between Somalia and Somaliland was never ratified and malfunctioned from 1960 to 1990, making Somaliland’s search for recognition historically unique and self-justified in African Political History.” The report adds by saying, “Objectively viewed, the case should not be linked to the notion of opening a pandora’s box, and as such the AU should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case.”

As far as Ethiopian authorities are concerned their bid to diversify, and gain control of a seashore is more critical than ever. This fact became crystal clear in the past few years, whereby logistical bottlenecks and sabotage on country’s maritime trade became more frequent. For example, turbines imported for the Grand Ethiopian Renascence Dam were routinely held up throughout the past three years. Sensitive imports such as military equipment was frequency held in Djibouti, which as mentioned is brimming with foreign military bases.

For Somaliland, it is once in a generation opportunity to seal their nation’s fate among nations. It is also a means to economic revival. In that sense, the MoU is a masterstroke in diplomacy.

The delay in achieving full state recognition and UN membership for Somaliland has multifaceted impacts, restricting its diplomatic outreach and hindering its legitimacy on international political and developmental platforms, including within the UN itself. Despite these challenges, Ethiopia’s recognition represents a significant step in Somaliland’s prolonged pursuit of official statehood and a prominent role on the global stage. It could be a harbinger for an international acknowledgment of Somaliland’s de jure independent status.

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