Ethiopia-Somaliland: Historic understanding on joint port development and more

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On Monday, Ethiopia and Somaliland reached a significant agreement for the joint development of Berbera port, marking a “historic” development as the landlocked Ethiopia seeks enhanced access to maritime routes, officials announced. Ethiopia was able to reach this historic agreement with Somaliland following months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the breakaway region of Somalia.

Centered on the Berbera port in Somaliland, the deal follows Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed breaking the silence on Red Sea access for his nation in October of 2023. At the time his statements had raised concerns in the region. Berbera, situated on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, serves as an African gateway to the Red Sea and the entrance to the Suez Canal. It is also the site where Ethiopia’s rich cattle and animal livestock resources are exported to the Middle East, albeit mostly in illegal trade. Getting control of its own ports will allow Ethiopia to better manage this trade.

Prime Minister Abiy Announced historic agreement with Somaliland on X

Presently, Ethiopia heavily depends on Djibouti, its neighboring country, for most of its maritime trade. “We have now reached an agreement with our Somaliland counterparts, and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was formally signed today,” stated Abiy during the signing ceremony held in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, alongside Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi.

President Abdi announced that, as a component of the accord, Ethiopia is set to become the inaugural nation to officially acknowledge Somaliland as an independent state soon. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) facilitates Ethiopia’s entry into commercial maritime activities at the port of Berbera. It also paves the way in granting access to a naval base on the Red Sea through a leasing arrangement, revealed Redwan Hussien, Abiy’s National Security Adviser. Additionally, Somaliland is slated to acquire a share in the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines Group, although specific details were not disclosed, as stated by Hussien.

Despite declaring autonomy from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has yet to achieve broad international recognition. For Its part The Republic of Somalia maintains that Somaliland is part of its territory. Last week, Somalia’s SONNA state media agency announced that, with Djibouti taking the lead in mediation, Somalia and Somaliland had agreed to restart discussions aimed at resolving their long-standing disagreements.

Ethiopia, the most populous landlocked country in the world, lost direct access to the sea in 1993 after Eritrea declared independence, leading to three-decades of fraught relations. Since then, Ethiopia has primarily relied on Djibouti for its trade activities. However, in 2018 a peace agreement with Eritrea promised to rekindle ties, but relations between Asmara and Addis Ababa cooled visible in 2023.

Given the circumstance, Somaliland is an attractive option for Ethiopia’s port ambitions. It is geographically accessible to Ethiopia’s mainland, but more importantly, this de facto autonomous region, which declared “the restoration of its independence from Somalia” in May 1991 could be amenable to Ethiopia in return for security assistance and recognition of its vaunted statehood. So far Somaliland has only received recognition by Taiwan, itself a semi-autonomous region of The People’s Republic of China. It maintains diplomatic missions in seven countries, most notably Ethiopia. Somaliland has been relatively successful and most importantly peaceful. It has managed all its affairs independently since about 1993 and has become self-reliant in many ways. It holds elections, has its own currency, and by regional standards, its telecom and banking sectors are notable.

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