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Ethiopia and Somaliland bring Africa one step closer to all-out war

By Simon Mwebaze

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.

The Horn of Africa has recently become the center of attention in African politics. Why? On January 1st, 2024, Somaliland and Ethiopia celebrated the new year by signing a Memorandum of Understanding that has the region in uproar. While the exact details of the MOU have not been shared publicly, disturbing details have reached the national and international community.

In the memorandum, the agreement gives Ethiopia access to the Red Sea. The access to the Red Sea will be via an agreement to lease part of the Somaliland coastline. The leased coastline would be used for commercial purposes and potentially an Ethiopian naval army base.

But there is a more controversial aspect of the MOU. In exchange for giving a stake in Ethiopian Airlines to Somaliland, Ethiopia would recognize Somaliland’s statehood.

While on the surface, this may not seem like a big deal, it is. Despite Somaliland’s separation from Somalia in 1991, Somalia still considers it part of its territory. Due to this, the Somali government expected consultations to be made with them before undertaking the MOU.

One single nation isn’t enough to cause uproar, however, but Somalia is not alone in its condemnation. The African Union, Egypt, the European Union, and the United States of America also view this move as a threat to regional peace and stability. They may have a reasonable reason to believe this, too, given the agreements’ potential consequences.

The MOU puts a couple of things at odds. First, the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu, is in outrage. There have been large protests over the MOU. More so, Somalia has threatened that if Ethiopia and Somaliland go ahead with their plans, it would be considered an act of aggression. It has also issued a warning that it would be willing to go to war if the agreement is implemented.

The reason Somalia is so bothered by the agreement is that Ethiopia accessing the Red Sea and establishing a military base poses a security concern to Somalia. Somaliland borders Somalia, after all, and would give a vantage point to Ethiopia. 

Since the past war between Ethiopia and Somalia in 1977-78 and the invasion in 2006 that created opportunity for Al-Shabaab to thrive, massive distrust exists between the states. This distrust creates a favorable environment for conflict if the MOU is implemented. 

It could also increase terrorism in the region if a war ensues between Somalia and Ethiopia. Both have army forces actively engaged in the conflict against Islamic extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab. Deploying more forces to the war would mean less deployment to fight against terrorism and less attention on solving a critical issue in the region. 

Ethiopia is one of the biggest contributors to the fight against Al-Shabaab. It contributes several soldiers to the fight and has also been pivotal since 2006. 

The MOU could also lead to civil unrest. Ethiopia has recently been facing civil conflict in the Tigray region. The war started in November 2020 and ended in November 2022. The war led to the deaths of thousands and led to division among Ethiopians. By agreeing to the MOU, Ethiopia faces the challenge of further grazing the wound left over by the recent Tigray war.

Recognizing Somaliland goes against the recommendations of the African Union, too. The African Union has not recognized and is not willing to recognize Somaliland. This is because the members have agreed to stick to the post-colonial borders, especially from the 1960s. Somaliland only broke away from Somalia in 1991, therefore missing out on recognition as a state.

Defying these recommendations could lead to souring regional relationships. This could lead to poor trade and developmental relationships with other African countries. It would not only affect trade in the region but security and intergovernmental collaborations like the AU forces in Somalia.

Going forward with the proposed plans would also worsen tensions with international countries. This includes EU countries and the US who have explicitly condemned the MOU. Rising tensions could result in the EU and US pulling critical financial, military, and technological support. Following through with the agreement would put Ethiopia and Somaliland at odds with the international community.

Despite all of these reservations, there are ample reasons Somaliland should be considered a state. The country has existed for over thirty years and is a democracy. They hold regular elections, have their own currency, and a functional government. These and other factors underpin the existence of a state. Regardless, the cost of the region recognizing its statehood may be too high.

Worsening regional and international relationships, reduced collaboration in trade and infrastructural development, and compromising the fight against terrorism in the region would be a high cost. The costs could not only impact the main participating countries including Somalia, Ethiopia, and Somaliland but also the region.

Despite the supposed benefits of implementing the MOU between Ethiopia and Somaliland, the region may be better off without it. Africa has its plate overwhelmingly full of conflict including the one in South Sudan, Burkina Faso and DRC. This is a lemon not worth the squeeze.

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Simon Mwebaze

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