The Horn of Africa ushered in the new year with news of a deal that would ensure that diplomatic relations in the region got off to a bumpy start in 2024. Ethiopia, it was announced on 1 January, had signed a memorandum of understanding with the breakaway region of Somaliland, opening the door to an agreement to exchange a stake in flagship carrier Ethiopian Airlines for access to the Gulf of Aden.
Such transactions of economic reciprocity are generally routine, as scholars of international relations and law like myself are aware.
But this deal has another element. It intertwined sea access with Ethiopia’s formal recognition of Somaliland – and this has sparked quite a diplomatic stir. Ethiopia’s neighbor Somalia has demanded that the agreement be immediately retracted. In Somaliland itself, the deal has been greeted by protest and the defense minister’s resignation.
Prior to the memorandum of understanding with Somaliland, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had signaled his intention to gain Red Sea access for his landlocked country – a bid observers warned could have a destabilizing effect in the region.
Ethiopia is reeling from an intense and bloody two-year war within its own borders, coupled with ongoing strife among different ethnic groups. As a result of the violence, Ethiopia is currently experiencing massive internal displacement and famine.
Geopolitical tensions created by the pact with Somaliland could serve to exacerbate Ethiopia’s problems – and that of the region. But despite the risk, both sides know they have much to gain.
Somaliland’s quest for recognition
Since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has operated as a fully functional de facto state, boasting its own defined territory, population and government.
However, it still lacks the international recognition that would allow Somaliland full participation in the global community, such as membership in the United Nations. A formal nod would also unlock access to protections under international law and economic opportunities.
The agreement with Ethiopia would be a step toward providing that critical missing link.
Recognition of a new state under international law requires established nations to acknowledge the sovereignty and legitimacy of the territory. This can be achieved through either expressed or implicit means.
Expressed recognition takes the form of an official unequivocal declaration. In contrast, implicit recognition can emerge through bilateral treaties, alliances or diplomatic exchanges – essentially signaling acceptance of a country without making an official declaration of recognition. Implicit recognition often provides a strategic advantage, safeguarding a country’s interest without triggering regional discord.
Mastering the art of crafting treaties with implicit acknowledgments can be crucial to avoid overcommitting a country diplomatically. Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was expected by the international community to navigate this diplomatic tightrope, balancing a degree of acknowledgment of Somaliland with restraint. Doing so might avoid rupturing relations with Somalia and imperiling regional security dynamics.
An ambiguous deal
The specific details of the memorandum of understanding remain unpublished. So far, any insights gleaned stem mainly from a joint press conference held by Ethiopia’s and Somaliland’s two leaders in Addis Ababa and subsequent press releases.
Nuanced distinctions in each party’s priorities have emerged: Somaliland places emphasis on explicit recognition; Ethiopia directs its focus toward regional integration.
And some larger discrepancies in messaging pop out when you look closer. Both sides point to economic and security benefits. But Ethiopia’s Jan. 3 statement suggests only an “in-depth assessment” of the request for state recognition. This seems at odds with Somaliland’s claim of guaranteed recognition in exchange for sea access.
But because the actual text of the agreement isn’t publicly available, its implications remain shrouded in secrecy – further adding to the unease in the region over the deal.
Rising regional tensions
In the days since the memorandum of understanding was inked, tensions have deepened between Somalia and both Ethiopia and Somaliland. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud issued a stern warning against the agreement and threatened to defend Somalia through all available means.
He urged Somali civilians to stand united against potential incursions and cautioned Ethiopia against escalating the situation into armed conflict.
Mohamud has also been seeking support from allies. Already in 2024, he has traveled to Eritrea for security talks aimed at strengthening bilateral ties and addressing regional and international concerns. He also received an invitation from Egypt in an apparent show of support.
Ethiopia’s precarious situation
In a further sign of growing tensions, Ethiopia’s army chief of staff has engaged in talks with his Somaliland counterpart to discuss military cooperation.
Considering Ethiopia’s delicate situation with domestic secessionist forces, critics have been quick to note that Ethiopia may not be best placed to entertain the idea of recognizing Somaliland. Not only would it risk conflict with Somalia, doing so could also lead to the renewal of a breakaway push within Ethiopia itself.
Somaliland is situated to the south and east of Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State. The region is governed by the Somali branch of the Ethiopian Prosperity Party, whose legitimacy has long been contested by the Ogaden National Liberation Front, ONLF, a group demanding autonomy for Somalis in Ethiopia.
Until a peace agreement in October 2018, the ONLF had been engaged in a decades-long secessionist war with the Ethiopian government. More recently, in 2020, a push for independence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia resulted in a two-year armed conflict that displaced millions of people and forced hundreds of thousands into famine.
Meanwhile, the Amhara – an indigenous ethnic group in Ethiopia – have been resisting the federal government’s attempt to disarm their militia and regional special forces. And the state of Oromia also saw calls for independence before an Oromo prime minister, Abiy, was elected by parliament in 2018.
A renewed push for autonomy from Ethiopia’s Somali community could serve to reignite any number of these simmering internal conflicts and Somali irredentism.
Uneasy international response
Global attention to growing tensions in the Horn of Africa has been mounting: The U.S. has expressed serious concern, and the African Union has urged Ethiopia and Somalia to de-escalate the tensions in the name of regional peace.
Similar statements have come from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development — an African trade bloc — the European Union and the Arab League.
Djibouti, which neighbors Somaliland to the northwest, has called for dialogue and a diplomatic solution.
But such calls – from both international and regional players – have done little to calm tensions.
In the days since the deal was announced, tens of thousands Somalis have protested in the streets of Mogadishu, calling the move an aggression against the nation’s sovereignty.
And while residents of both Somaliland and Ethiopia have largely supported the memorandum – hopeful in turn that it would lead to international recognition and economic uplift – not everyone is behind the deal. In Somaliland, Defense Minister Abdiqani Mohamud Ateye resigned on Jan. 8, stating that the handing over of access to the coast to Ethiopia represented a threat to Somaliland’s sovereignty.
It would seem that the memorandum of understanding has served to reopen old wounds across the region.
Written by Alemayehu Weldemariam, Ph.D. Fellow, Center for Constitutional Democracy, Indiana University.
Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.