Somalia says Somaliland's Red Sea deal reveals Ethiopia's aggressive and crude ambitions

Egypt opposes Addis Ababa gaining access to waterway through Somalia's breakaway region

Protesters in Mogadishu, Somalia rally against the recent Ethiopia-Somaliland port agreement. Reuters
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Somalia's prime minister told Arab foreign ministers on Wednesday that a disputed deal between Ethiopia and the breakaway region of Somaliland to grant Addis Ababa access to the Red Sea betrayed its crude and aggressive ambitions to hurt Arab national security.

Hamza Abdi Barre was addressing an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers held at the request of Somalia to discuss the deal, which was signed on January 1.

Somalia maintains that Somaliland's deal with Ethiopia is a breach of international law and its own sovereignty.

The meeting was held virtually, rather than at the organisation's Cairo headquarters, because of the ministers' prior engagements, he said.

“I call on Arab nations to close ranks and stand fast in the face of this Ethiopian plot and declare solidarity with Somalia," said the Somali prime minister. “We want you to come up with strict resolutions against the aggressive Ethiopian ambitions and those behind them ... it's a direct threat to Arab national security and shipping in the Red Sea.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, whose country is embroiled in a long-running and bitter water dispute with Addis Ababa, told the meeting the deal was the latest in a series of unilateral actions by Ethiopia that ignore the interests of fellow African governments.

“It has vindicated the Egyptian view regarding the effect of these policies on regional stability and raising tension among its nations,” he said.

“Ethiopia has become a source of unrest in its regional surroundings.”

Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991, but is not internationally recognised. It is strategically located close to the Bay of Aden, near to the southern mouth of the Red Sea.

“This unilateral move by Ethiopia poses a threat to Arab national security and Red Sea shipping,” Somalia’s ambassador to the Arab League, Elias Abu Bakr, said earlier this week. “It’s an attempt to hurt the sovereignty and independence of the Federal Republic of Somalia.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland's President Muse Bihi Abdi signed the memorandum of understanding for access to the sea on January 1 this year. As part of the deal, Somaliland would lease a 20km stretch of its coastline to Ethiopia.

The agreement was met with protests across Somaliland, with residents divided in opinion. Some see potential economic benefits, while others fear compromising their sovereignty.

Somaliland’s defence minister Abdiqani Mohamud Ateye resigned over the deal.

He accused Ethiopia of attempting to acquire the stretch of coastline without proper negotiations. “Abiy Ahmed wants to take it without renting or owning it,” he said.

“Ethiopia remains our number one enemy,” he said in an interview broadcast on local television on Sunday.

With a population of more than 120 million, Ethiopia is the most populous landlocked country in the world, and relies heavily on ports in Djibouti for foreign trade. Mr Abiy has said that access to the Red Sea was an existential necessity for his country.

Egypt wary of Ethiopian access to Red Sea

It is not clear what concrete action the Arab ministers can take in response to the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal, which has yet to be finalised.

Egypt, which has a total of 1,500km of Red Sea coastline, fears that Addis Ababa could establish a military presence in the Red Sea, potentially threatening Cairo's interests in the strategic waterway.

Mr Shoukry called on Arab and international parties to reject any moves that compromise Somalia's sovereignty and vowed that Egypt would offer Mogadishu “what it needs from support and training for its cadres so that it can safeguard its sovereignty”.

“Egypt will stop at nothing when it comes to helping Somalia during this important circumstance."

Egypt depends on the Nile for almost all of its freshwater needs. It has been at odds with Ethiopia over a dam Addis Ababa is building on the river, which Cairo fears will reduce its share of the waters.

Last month, it suspended negotiations with Ethiopia over the dam, arguing that Addis Ababa was not negotiating in good faith and had reneged on agreements reached during more than a decade of talks.

Egypt, which contends that its share of the Nile waters is an existential issue, sees the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal as an opportunity to put diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia, which for years has rejected Egyptian proposals to resolve the dam issue.

It has invited Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud for talks in Cairo and dispatched its Foreign Minister to Eritrea, a long-time enemy of Ethiopia that has stated its opposition to the deal with Somaliland.

Eritrea, which has close ties with Egypt, became independent in 1993 after a decades-long civil war against Addis Ababa. Its secession deprived Ethiopia of access to the Red Sea.

But Egypt also has genuine concerns about Ethiopia gaining access to the Red Sea at a time when attacks on commercial ships by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have stoked regional tensions and led to a reduction in the number of vessels transiting the Suez Canal, which usually earns Egypt about $9 billion a year.

Egypt’s state media has accused Ethiopia, which wields significant influence in the Horn of Africa, of trying to undermine Egyptian interests on behalf of other countries, with Israel often mentioned as a prime suspect.

An Egyptian security delegation travelled to Somalia last week to discuss how Cairo can help the Mogadishu government handle the crisis arising from Somaliland’s deal with Ethiopia, sources told The National.

Cairo is determined to derail the deal, they said, primarily through efforts to reunify Somalia and boost its military and logistical capabilities to enable it to deal with any eventuality.

“Things appear to be inching towards a genuine preparation this time round [for Egypt] to be involved in a non-diplomatic confrontation with Ethiopia,” Egyptian columnist Amr Hashem Rabie wrote this week on the Masr360 news website.

“Let us be reminded of the inevitability of Egypt’s intervention to bolster efforts to reconcile all Somali factions so that they can stand up to Ethiopia’s ambitions. It cannot be ruled out that Egypt might arm Somalia so that it can restore its sovereignty over Somaliland.”

Updated: January 17, 2024, 5:13 PM