Time to Temper Response to Ethiopia and Somaliland
The Somali Wire
The crisis in bilateral relations between Somalia and Ethiopia continues to show no sign of easing. Triggered when Addis signed a deal to lease a coastal area near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait from Somaliland, the growing tensions risk diverting Somalia away from its ambitious state-building and military goals for 2024. The Federal Government’s strategy of full-throated escalation could prove both counter-productive and destabilising in a critical year for the nation.
Mogadishu’s political elite have latched onto the crisis with particular vigour, seemingly hoping to milk it for maximum effect. Nationalist rhetoric and optics have been ramped up in recent days, with a ‘million- man march’ now planned for 11 January in opposition to Ethiopia. Military bands have been playing war anthems from the Ogaden War on repeat at Mogadishu’s national stadium. Meanwhile, the federal government has rejected appeals for calm from the international community, with Somali officials furious that key Western allies have not sufficiently condemned Ethiopia and Somaliland. The national mood is now reaching fever pitch.
Ethiopia and Somaliland are also doubling down on their Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), although they seem disinclined to respond to Mogadishu with their own inflamed rhetoric. Despite a subtle walk-back from a firm commitment to recognising Somaliland, Addis still appears on course to implement the deal. A senior Somaliland military delegation led by the Somaliland army chief Nuh Tani met with Field Marshal Birhanu Jula of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa this week. Hargeisa, however, is coming up against pockets of stiff opposition in Somaliland. The resignation of Defence Minister Abdiqani Mohamud Ateye and minor protests in the Awdal Region indicate local opposition.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (HSM), in the meantime, is continuing to maintain his bellicose rhetoric. In his latest comments, the president threatened to “knock on doors we have not knocked on before” if Ethiopia implemented the deal. Interpreted as a hint that Somalia might pivot from its traditional Western allies to seek Russian or Chinese support, HSM has sought public backing from Ethiopia’s adversaries Egypt and Eritrea. To underscore this point, he flew to Eritrea to meet Isaias Afewerki in Asmara on Monday. Before he left Mogadishu, HSM also met with an Egyptian delegation that delivered a formal invitation to Cairo from President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Cairo, spying an opportunity to deepen the wedge between Ethiopia and Somalia, has announced it is pulling out of the tortuous Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) negotiations. An increasingly important ally of Saudi Arabia, Egypt is also keen to push back against the ascendant influence of the UAE on the Red Sea.
Russia, however, has not fallen in line behind a statement espousing international principles of respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, unlike China and other foreign states. Leaving aside Russia’s blatant disregard for these tenets in Ukraine, its relative silence may be partly due to the fact that Russia views Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as an ally. Moreover, Moscow has long seen Somaliland’s strategic position on the Red Sea as important for its own ambitions in the arena; it was Russia, after all, that built a navy and airport in Berbera during the Cold War.
The Somali government has a clear domestic incentive to exaggerate and invoke a foreign threat. Villa Somalia’s political agenda is floundering, with the sweeping constitutional changes of the National Consultative Council (NCC) proposals still unstabled in parliament and facing significant opposition. This fresh crisis now offers an opportunity to unify Somalia’s factionalised elite, and Villa Somalia may yet seek to capitalise on the nationalistic fervour to push through its ambitions to concentrate power in Mogadishu.
The impact of the current crisis on the war against Al-Shabaab is hard to judge, yet months of populist campaigning against the militant group have been refocused on Ethiopia. It is still early days, but for the first time in recent years, both Mogadishu and Al-Shabaab are making rhetorical common cause against a ‘historical enemy.’
This raises a thorny dilemma for Mogadishu, which has been allied to Ethiopia in fighting Al-Shabaab since 2007. It may be for this reason that, despite accusing Addis of an act of aggression, Villa Somalia has not called on Ethiopia to withdraw the thousands of Ethiopian soldiers stationed in Somalia, either with the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) or independent Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) – perhaps an indication that relations are not as strained as they may appear. And despite singing from the same sheet of music as Al-Shabaab at the moment, Mogadishu is not yet ready to enter into partnership with the jihadists.
That may yet change, however, as the crisis, presents an opportunity for Qatar to re-insert itself as a kingmaker in Somalia and bring the militant group to the table as a legitimate political actor. The Gulf actor has long sought to bring Al-Shabaab into a power-sharing agreement in Mogadishu. As ATMIS continues to draw down its force levels throughout 2024 and the Somali National Army campaign to combat the extremists has stagnated, the unpalatable prospect of dialogue with Al-Shabaab is beginning to appear highly likely.
More immediately, Villa Somalia’s posturing will not be able to change the realities that Somaliland will continue to seek international recognition from Somalia, nor that Ethiopia remains a strategic ally desiring access to the sea. Somaliland’s trajectory toward independence and its longstanding conduct of international relations autonomously from Mogadishu is in large part due to Villa Somalia’s failure to seriously engage Hargeisa in political dialogue or to make unity a viable and attractive prospect– for more than 30 years.
It is in Mogadishu’s best interests then to restore diplomatic channels with Hargeisa to cool tensions and draw Somaliland back to the table for constructive and conclusive dialogue. Somalia still faces mammoth domestic tasks, not least in state-building ambitions, and its political elite would be better served looking inward, towards stabilisation and state-building, instead of externalising its problems by hyperbolising the Somaliland-Ethiopia MoU.