Ethiopia's maneuver to establish a port raises concerns in a volatile region

gEconomic policy in The Horn of Africa is already off to a combustible start in the new year. On January 1, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, and Muse Bihi Abdi, his counterpart in neighboring Somaliland, made a surprise announcement. At a joint press conference in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, they revealed that landlocked Ethiopia would lease a seaport and a 20-kilometre stretch of Red Sea coast in the breakaway Somali province. In return, Somaliland will receive shares in Ethiopian Airlines, Africa's largest airline, and may receive formal diplomatic recognition by the Ethiopian government. This would make Ethiopia the first country to officially recognize the former British colony, which declared its independence from the rest of Somalia more than three decades ago.

The memorandum of understanding signed by the two leaders has thrown an already volatile part of the world into greater uncertainty. Authorities in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, reacted angrily to news that Ethiopia is ready to abandon the African Union's longstanding policy against redrawing the continental map. An advisor to Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the Somali president, complains that “Abiy Ahmed is spoiling things in Somalia.” Just three days ago, Mr. Mohamud and Mr. Abdi signed an agreement, mediated by the president of neighboring Djibouti, to resume talks on the disputed constitutional status in Somaliland. This deal is now in tatters. Following an emergency cabinet meeting on 2 January, Somalia declared the new agreement “null and void” and recalled its ambassador from Addis Ababa. Mahmoud urged Abiy to reconsider, saying the deal would only increase support for Al-Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-linked jihadist group that controls much of the countryside and which debuted partly in response to Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in 2006.

Image: The Economist

By contrast, Abiy portrayed the agreement as a diplomatic victory that fulfills Ethiopia's decades-long quest for direct access to the sea. In recent months, the prime minister has alarmed observers with aggressive calls for Ethiopia's population of about 120 million to escape what he calls “geographical prison.” Although Ethiopia previously had two ports as well as a navy, it lost these ports when Eritrea, a region located to the north, seceded to form its own state in 1993. Since the bloody border war between 1998 and 2000, which deprived it of… Arrival to Eritrea. On the coast, Ethiopia relied on the port of Djibouti for almost all of its foreign trade. In 2018, it struck a deal with Somaliland and DP World, a UAE port operator, under which it acquired a 19% stake in the recently expanded port of Berbera, about 160 kilometers from Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. Leaders in Mogadishu were angry; Four years later, the deal failed.

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Abiy has long made clear his ambitions to make Ethiopia a power on the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, one of the world's busiest and most geopolitically controversial shipping lanes. The peace agreement with Eritrea, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2019, was welcomed at the time as an opportunity for Ethiopia to regain tax-free access to its neighbour's ports. The prime minister also touted a mysterious agreement with former Somali president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, under which Ethiopia would use four unnamed ports along the coast of Somalia, including the Somaliland port. Neither materialized, partly because Abiy launched a disastrous war centered on Ethiopia's northern Tigray region in 2020, and also because the authority of Somalia's central government barely extends beyond Mogadishu. Recently, foreign diplomats and analysts expressed their fear that the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who is turning into a messianic and unpredictable, is planning to go to war with Eritrea in order to seize a slice of its coast. However, Abe can now claim that he achieved his goals through diplomacy rather than force. “Based on the promise we have repeatedly made to our people, [we have realised] Wanting to reach the Red Sea,” he announced in a glossy promotional video released on January 1. “We have no desire to forcefully coerce anyone.”

For Somaliland's leaders, this agreement represents a breakthrough in their three-decade quest for international recognition. “Somalia has been using stalling tactics since the talks began in 2012,” says Mohamed Farah of the Academy for Peace and Development, a think tank in Hargeisa. “We can't wait forever.” They hope the rest of Africa will follow suit wherever Ethiopia goes: the African Union is headquartered in Addis Ababa. Abe also enjoys strong relations with the powerful Gulf states, led by the United Arab Emirates (The United Arab Emirates). In fact, some foreign diplomats doubt it The United Arab EmiratesShe, who is also close to the Somali government, may have played a role in mediating the deal. Her announcement came as Abiy also hosted Sudan's most notorious warlord, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), whose paramilitary force, flush with Emirati money and weapons, is close to victory over the Sudanese army. From this perspective, the Ethiopian military base in Somaliland is the latest step in a plan to secure the Emirati sphere of influence throughout the broader Gulf region and the Horn of Africa.

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More disruption is likely. Although Eritrea's rulers may breathe easier now that Abiy Ahmed has achieved his goals without resorting to weapons, the prospect of an Ethiopian navy on their doorstep, however remote, will not be welcome. Djibouti, which stands to lose out on competition for Ethiopian trade flows, is also unhappy. This deal is also likely to displease Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of which are increasingly at odds with the agreement The United Arab Emirates In its quest for regional hegemony. In order to calm nerves, Somalia appeals to the African Union and the United Nations United nations Security Council to intervene. But as one Western diplomat noted, “This is the age where no one will stand in your way if you are cruel and reckless.” This is a lesson my father took to heart long ago.

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