Ethiopia's Maritime Move a Game Changer in the Horn of Africa?

Jan 7 , 2024
By Hintsa Andebrhan

In the shifting geopolitical reality of the Horn of Africa, recent developments point to a nuanced, yet potentially transformative, set of interactions involving Ethiopia, the self-declared state of Somaliland, and major international players, including the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), and various European countries.

Somaliland's quest for international recognition as an independent state, a status it unilaterally declared in 1991 following the collapse of the Somali government, is at the centre of the latest diplomatic tussle. Despite its self-governance and relative stability, Somaliland remains unrecognised by the international community, largely due to concerns about the implications of such a move on broader regional stability and the principles of international law.

Ethiopia, a key regional power, has historically maintained cordial relations with Somaliland, primarily driven by economic and security interests. The Berbera Port, strategically located by the Gulf of Aden, is a focal point of these interests. In 2018, Ethiopian authorities agreed to acquire a 19pc stake in the Berbera Port project, a venture mainly financed by DP World, a multinational logistics company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

This investment was seen as part of Ethiopia's broader strategy to diversify its maritime access and reduce its dependence on Djibouti. However, details of Ethiopia's involvement in the Berbera Port project have remained somewhat opaque, with limited tangible progress observed since the initial announcement.

According to official statements from Somaliland, the recent developments suggest their country's deepening of ties with Ethiopia. Vital in the emerging partnership is the deal for Somaliland to grant a 20Km maritime access to Ethiopian naval forces, leased for a 50-year, in exchange for Ethiopia's formal recognition of Somaliland. The agreement, if realised, would mark a significant shift in the regional geopolitical terrain, potentially challenging the existing balance of power and the diplomatic status quo.

For Ethiopia, such a move could have far-reaching implications. While it offers a strategic advantage in maritime access, it risks undermining its longstanding commitment to the principles of the African Union (AU) Charter, particularly the organisation's rule on territorial integrity and the respect for existing borders. Ethiopia's potential recognition of Somaliland could be perceived as a departure from these principles, potentially inviting scrutiny and criticism from other African states and international bodies.

The role of the United States (US), the UK, and other European countries in these developments could be layered, to say the least. There are suggestions that certain political elites in these countries, along with think tanks and lobbyists, are encouraging Somaliland's quest for independence. This support, however, appears to be subtle, with no official recognition or direct intervention, possibly due to the sensitive nature of the issue and its implications for international law and regional stability.

The involvement of the US and other Western powers is often viewed through the lens of their strategic interests in the region, particularly about the Gulf of Aden, a vital maritime route for global trade and energy supplies. Nonetheless, official policy positions of these countries continue to align with the overarching principle of non-interference in the internal political affairs of sovereign states, by the Charter of the United Nations.

Ethiopia's domestic imperilments further complicate the situation. The country has been bogged down in internal conflicts and growing economic and diplomatic tensions. The decision to deepen ties with Somaliland and potentially recognise it as a sovereign state is a move that could have significant implications for Ethiopia's internal dynamics as well as its relationships with neighbouring countries and the broader international community.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 07,2024 [ VOL 24 , NO 1236]

Hintsa Andebrhan ( worked as a researcher with the United Nations Population Fund and IPAS International Ethiopia. Interested in history and politics, his work was on social affairs.

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