Geopolitics Of Ethiopia’s Port Deal
Ever since Ethiopia and semi-autonomous region of Somaliland signed a controversial memorandum of understanding that ignited flames of outrage among Somali nationalists everywhere, it instantly attracted various international media attention. Though the full content of the MoU is yet to be made public, the gist of it is to grant Ethiopia exclusive 20 kilometers for naval and commercial ports in the Red Sea. We know this from statements made by the two actors.
Immediately when the news became public, it compelled Western powers such US and UK, international institutions such as United Nations, African Union, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation all to issue statements reaffirming the sovereignty of Somalia.
Though Abiy Ahmed and Muse Bihi are war criminals in their respective roles on slaughters in Tigray and Las Anod and both have very little support from their peoples, they deserve to be dealt with fairness. Neither one of them claimed a purchase or a sale of any land that belongs to Somalia. Yet the emotive masses, politicians, and traditional leaders continue claiming: ‘Muse Bihi—president of Somaliland who signed agreements with Somalia’s president 48 hours earlier in Djibouti—conspired with Ethiopia to sell her part of Somalia’s land, sea, and air territory for recognition and a percentage of the Ethiopian airways.’ By design or otherwise, this spin of the facts has turned attention away from the real issue.
Selling the Land Strawman Argument
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addressed the Somali parliament on the day after to offer a load of glittering generalities that cleverly avoided addressing the real issue. “Nobody can sell a single foot of Somalia’s territory,” he passionately declared. On Friday of the same week he spoke to the worshipers at the mosque in the presidential compound and reiterated the same message: “My name is Hassan Sheikh Mohamed. I have a long record and every knows me. I would never sell a foot long of Somalia’s land, nor could Muse Bihi.”
President Mohamoud’s real position was articulated in his inaction. He neither stated nor filed a formal complaint charging Ethiopia on undermining Somalia’s territorial integrity or ‘illegal purchase of a Somali territory’, nor has he suspended diplomatic ties with that nation, nor has he demanded the non-ATMIS Ethiopian troops that he invited to freely operate in Somalia to demobilize due to the threat.
The UK has urged restraint and dialogue. “The UK is concerned by escalating tensions in the Horn of Africa,” the British embassy in Somalia said on X (Twitter). “We reaffirm our full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia,” it added. UK is the lead pen-holder on Somalia’s entire foreign affairs for UN Security Council though it has clear conflict of interest. At least one British company was granted oil exploration rights by Somaliland.
So in 2022 when the Somali government declared Genel Energy’s acquired rights to the oil blocks in the Nugaal Valley as an “illegal claim”, the UK started to discreetly encourage the secession of Somaliland to secure its own exclusive domain of exploitation. The process was going smoothly until a year later when the unthinkable occurred in Goojacadde which was then Somaliland’s largest military outpost. People of Las Anod and their affiliated clans have dealt a decisive defeat to Somaliland.
Soon after, SSC-Khatumo was founded and it was declared a political entity that is independent of Somaliland and is part of Somalia’s federal states. Since the oil fields were located in that new entity, UK was compelled to recalibrate its strategy to protect its spoils. A confederation system of governance for Somalia and Somaliland became the most feasible insurance policy.
Just like UK, the US is Somalia’s pen-holder on maritime issues for the UN Security Council. And, like the other pen-holder, it was neither shocked nor outraged by the news that Ethiopia was getting a military seaport in the Red Sea-one of the most crucial strategic seawaters in the world.
“We join other partners in expressing our serious concerns as well about the spiking tensions in the Horn of Africa. We urge all stakeholders to engage in diplomatic dialogue,” replied Matthew Miller, State Department Spokesperson, when asked about US’ position on the MoU signed by Ethiopia and Somaliland. He, of course, followed up his equivocation with the usual pacifier: “The United States recognizes the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia within its 1960 borders.”
For those who may be unaware, this is an effective pacifier for those oblivious to the arbitrary diplomatic powers granted to the pen-holders to manage that “sovereignty” as it suites its interest. US is in full support of the Ethiopia and Somaliland deal as the area between Zeila and Lughaye is where Heemaal-1 and Heemaal-2 oil blocks identified by the American oil company Chevron in the 80s are located. So is the natural seaport of Bulle Ade that Chevron used to use back then.
Against the integrity of that position of trust, the US has been advancing its geopolitical interests that, at times, sail against Somalia’s strategic interest and territorial integrity. US’ independent dealing with Somaliland on Berbera military base is a case in point.
If you are in the wilderness, the most reckless thing to do is to avoid the path that is most traveled and brave your own new path, but if you are dealing with Somali politics, that is the most prudent thing to do. The popular path is that of deception, corruption, and foreign servitude at the expense of national interest.
Strange Phenomena Occurred on the Way to Zeila
Ethiopia’s objective to acquire a seaport in Zeila has been cooking for a while. You could find more details in my old article Somalia’s New Race Against Time. However, in recent years the US started to become seriously concerned about Ethiopia’s internal strife and the unpredictability of Abiy Ahmed’s foreign policy—close ties to China, joining BRICS, and recently signing military agreement with Russia—and the reckless leadership of Muse Bihi governments may be lured by Russia. A Russian naval base in the Red Sea meant a profound impact of the geopolitical balance of power.
Abiy Ahmed and Muse Bihi are political desperados facing similar bleak political future. Each is desperate need for a quick fix that could change his political fate. Abiy became more belligerent last year when he asserted his country was exploring all options to secure a port by way of diplomatic negotiation or by military means. And Muse knows that power continues to slip out of his hands and unless he succeeds in securing ‘recognition’ for Somaliland he has no chance of remaining in power.
Ethiopia started gradually building its naval force a decade ago before Abiy came to the scene and without having any access to the sea. It was a strategy of ‘build it and they shall come.’ That huge investment, strategic patience, and latest bold move was not at random. As the old adage goes, nothing in politics or international relations happens at random. If one stakeholder to any given deal opts to naively show up at any negotiation table it does not mean others have not planned or crafted a strategy to help them achieve their objective.
However, there is another critical factor behind the sense of urgency driving this matter- Zeila’s close vicinity to the Bab al-Mandeb, a narrow strategic maritime strait through which one-third of the world’s commercial shipping passes. As Ansarullah (the Houthis) imposed unilateral sanctions on Israel by denying any commercial vessel to deliver any goods to that country as long as it continues its genocidal violence and starvation on Gaza, global maritime trade has been facing serious threat.
The US and UK have turned to Ethiopia-Israel’s closest ally in Africa. UAE was already an investor in Abiy’s seaport adventurism. President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti who had some strategic and clan-based reservations about any Ethiopian naval base in his neighborhood was apparently persuaded. His formal reaction to this controversy was released a week after it headlined in every major media outlet. Somalia and Somaliland’s figureheads were dragged along, figuratively speaking.
The deal was supposed to have been closed in two phases: An MoU to be signed in Addis Ababa then the official treaty to be signed in Mogadishu with the Somali government in front of the guarantor- international community. When all the ducks seemed in line, three new factors presented themselves- one was in favor of expediting the process, and the other two were in favor of dismissing the whole process.
Saudi Arabia, concerned for the future of its multi-billion dollar Red Sea Global project, wanted the deal expedited. Eritrea which considers a deal that would grant Ethiopia a naval power in the Red Sea a national threat wanted the deal aborted. And Egypt, which considers such possibility, an existential threat as it may embolden Ethiopia to demand more of the Nile’s water, wanted the deal aborted. Egypt’s agricultural industry is wholly dependent on the flow of the Nile which is already reduced by Ethiopia’s mega dam.
So when the key drivers decided strategic cautiousness in the finalization and implementation phases of the deal, Abiy and Muse decided to go rogue. They knew that time was ticking against their respective political self-interests. Each is barely surviving rapidly declining popularity and a violent civil strife of his own.
Meanwhile, the two pen-holders continue to exploit Somalia as a geopolitical pawn while the latter continues to sing revolutionary songs about a mirage of sovereignty.