Debating Ideas reflects the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books. It is edited and managed by the International African Institute, hosted at SOAS University of London, the owners of the book series of the same name.
On 1 January 2024, Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, and Muse Bihi, the President of Somaliland, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Addis Ababa. The MoU contained an agreement to lease 20 kilometres of coastline to Ethiopia, which would allow it to re-establish its naval forces, for a period of 50 years. In exchange, Abiy Ahmed agreed that the Ethiopian government would engage in an “in-depth assessment” of the question of Somaliland’s recognition. This came just three days after Muse Bihi had met with the President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud, in Djibouti on 29 December 2023, at the invitation of President Ismael Omar Guelleh, where a communique was signed by Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud and Muse Bihi on the continuation of talks between both sides. The background to the communique was the unresolved political status of Somaliland that had unilaterally seceded from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Since then, no Somali government has recognized what most Somalis perceive until today as the unlawful secession of Somaliland. Also, no other government has yet recognized Somaliland, which claims a particular status as a former British Protectorate (1888–1960). Against this backdrop, Abiy Ahmed’s initiative is of special significance.
Somalia has been in turmoil for decades. Yet, since 2012, with international assistance, successive governments in Mogadishu have been re-establishing a very limited form of state order. These endeavours are so far confined to pockets of south-central Somalia, whereas much of the Somali hinterland is controlled by Al Shabaab (an Al Qaeda affiliate) or clan militias. Nonetheless, the international community is increasingly engaging with Somalia again. Part of this engagement is the dialogue between Somalia and Somaliland, which was initiated at the Somalia-conference in London in 2012. These talks stalled in 2020 and were resumed at the end of December 2023 in Djibouti. The MoU on 1 January disrupted the agreement to restart the dialogue. Moreover, it also entails the potential for very serious, new conflicts in the wider Horn of Africa. The reasons are as follows.
First, Somaliland had developed as a viable de facto state since 1991. While the region in northwestern Somalia initially had been ridden by internal conflicts among the ruling Isaaq clan-family, peace and political stability prevailed from the late 1990s onwards. However, the idea that Somaliland was an independent state was not only rejected by many in the rest of Somalia where members of other clan-families, such as Darood, Hawiye and Rahanweyn dominate. It was also opposed by a part of the population claimed as Somaliland citizens by the government in Hargeysa. This political contestation led to violent conflict in eastern Somaliland. The area had been militarily occupied by Somaliland in 2007. Locals belonging mostly to the Dulbahante clan had long resisted Somaliland’s domination. In January 2023, an uprising took place in Lasanod, the capital of Sool region. The Somaliland government reacted with a heavy hand, shooting civilian demonstrators. Eventually, locals took up arms and a fully-fledged war escalated in February 2023, leaving, over the next few months, thousands injured or dead on all sides. On 25 August 2023, forces defending Lasanod managed to oust the Somaliland army and drive it out of much of the Sool region. Since then, a frontline runs through Somaliland, 150 kilometres east of Burao. Those forces now controlling the far east of Somaliland announced their own administration, called SSC-Khaatumo. They wish to become a federal member state of Somalia. It is clear that the recognition of Somaliland as an independent state would trigger new fighting across the recently established frontline in Sool region.
Second, the government in Mogadishu is not ready to accept the recognition of Somaliland by Ethiopia, with whom Somalia had, since 2006, cooperated in fighting Al Shabaab. On 2 January 2024, the Somali Foreign Ministry announced that the “Federal Government of Somalia vehemently condemns and strongly rejects the outrageous actions of the Federal Government of Ethiopia in signing an unauthorized Memorandum of Understanding with Somaliland” and that “Somaliland remains an integral part of the Federal Republic of Somalia”. It is clear that any unilateral political move by Ethiopia regarding Somaliland is likely to create a serious conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia. Both share a very long border. Currently, thousands of Ethiopian troops are still stationed in Somalia as part of the African Union mission helping to fight Al Shabaab. An unfriendly act by Ethiopia is likely to lead to the expulsion of these forces.
Third, the Somali government started an offensive against Al Shabaab in mid-2022, assisted by local clan militias in central Somalia. While this operation entailed serious setbacks throughout 2023, including Al Shabaab re-capturing territories that had already been liberated by government forces and massive counter-attacks by Islamic extremists on the army and its allies, it nevertheless resulted in considerable losses for Al Shabaab. The MoU between Abiy Ahmed and Muse Bihi, however, pours new water on the mills of Al Shabaab. On 2 January, Ali Dheere, the spokesperson of the group, announced that Al Shabaab would fight any secession of Somali territory. Al Shabaab also does not recognize Somaliland, given the group wishes to bring the whole of Somalia under Islamic rule and, eventually, would even like to integrate other Somali inhabited territories in the Horn into an Islamic Somali state. Thus, the MoU also would most likely result in heightened Al Shabaab activities, and possibly an attempt of the group to expand into the area of Somaliland where Ethiopia would establish its naval base.
Fourth, further countries in the wider region, including Egypt, have already announced that they would not tolerate any violation of the territorial integrity of Somalia. Ethiopia is embroiled in a protracted conflict with Egypt over the usage of the Nile water. Also, Eritrea would likely try to profit from any new conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia. Relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara have become noticeably cooler since the end of their joint war against Tigray that ended in December 2022. Eritrea had already noticed with contempt the endeavours by Ethiopia to gain access to the Red Sea.
This all comes at a time when Abiy Ahmed is facing massive internal opposition from armed groups and political actors in Tigray, in the Amhara-inhabited areas and even among the Oromo (the ethnic group to which he belongs). Moreover, the Ethiopian state is basically bankrupt, due to the long war-effort in Tigray in the north. In 2022, Ethiopia lost its shares in the Berbera corridor because, according to Somaliland authorities, it did not financially contribute to rehabilitating the port as agreed in 2016. Today, Addis Ababa could not even finance building a navy, even if it would get access to the sea by Somaliland. Muse Bihi has lost much legitimacy among his own people, the Isaaq, in Somaliland many of whom supported his rule until recently. The war over Lasanod was not popular among many Isaaq. It cost many lives, showed the “dark side” of Somaliland, which was until then considered as peaceful and democratic by many external observers, and burdened the economy. The defeat in August further undermined the president’s reputation. Besides, the oppositional Waddani party demands the holding of elections by the end of 2024, which would be already two years later than the scheduled date in November 2022, when the term of Muse Bihi had officially ended. In summary: the MoU of 1 January 2024 was signed by two rulers who are facing considerable domestic challenges. It is also likely to create further conflicts in the wider region.
What ways exist to settle the conflict-complex comprising Somalia, Somaliland and Ethiopia? In an interview given to Deutsche Welle, Horn of Africa specialist Matt Bryden stressed, at the very end, that a diplomatic solution to the tensions caused by the MoU and the unclear status of Somaliland vis-à-vis Somalia would have to involve serious talks between Somalia and Somaliland. This is correct as far as the Somalis are concerned. What he failed to mention, however, is that Somaliland is internally contested. This means, as much as Somalilanders claim the right to be independent, others in the eastern regions wish to be part of Somalia. Serious talks between Mogadishu and Hargeysa would have to deal with the fact on the ground that around 30 percent of the territory claimed by the government of Somaliland either is integrated into Puntland (eastern Sanaag), a federal member state in north-eastern Somalia, or is part of the emerging SSC-Khaatumo administration. Additionally, even in the central and western regions of Somaliland, people are afraid that inviting Ethiopia to lease land on the sea would be synonymous with permanently selling territory to the powerful neighbour. It would be prudent if political actors in Hargeysa would not only look at short-term gains but realize that in the long run, Somaliland (in whatever form) would not only have to live amicably with Ethiopia but also with Somalia. Regarding Ethiopia, it seems that imperial fantasies animated Abiy Ahmed’s initiative, perhaps inspired by the aggression of Russia against Ukraine. While Russia’s war of aggression revived the dormant NATO, Ethiopia’s hunger for resources and power, which partly underlay the recent MoU, could have another effect: it could unite Somalis across clan belonging and political (and religious) orientations. Somali nationalism, historically going back to the mid-20th century, is a considerable force. In the face of an external threat, as posed, in the eyes of many Somalis, by permanently dividing Somalia through recognizing Somaliland and establishing an Ethiopian military base on Somali soil, many feel the urge to unite. In the 21st century, Ethiopian rulers should realize that peaceful cooperation, based on stable alliances between Mogadishu, Addis Ababa, Hargeysa and Djibouti, would secure the provision of all people in the Horn better than a narrow-minded power-politics.