National Interest

An East African Port Deal the World Should Applaud

Although many are skeptical of the newly announced deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland, it has the potential to benefit the entire region of the Horn of Africa, Egypt, and the Red Sea.

A view of Berbera Port and Berbera city on August 31, 2021. (Photo by Ed Ram/AFP via Getty Images)
A view of Berbera Port and Berbera city on August 31, 2021. (Photo by Ed Ram/AFP via Getty Images)

Many countries’ skepticism of a recently announced deal that gives Ethiopia naval basing rights in exchange for recognizing Somaliland’s independence is misguided. While the pact has stirred consternation, especially in Somalia (which claims Somaliland as part of its territory), it has the potential to benefit the entire Horn of Africa region, Egypt, and the security of the Red Sea.

With about 130 million people, Ethiopia is the world’s most populous landlocked nation. Throughout its 2000-year history, it has struggled for access to the Red Sea—at times holding ports, at other times contending with the Ottoman Empire and European powers for control of the coast. After World War II, the Italian colony of Eritrea, with its two ports, was reincorporated into Ethiopia. However, the nation again lost direct sea access when Eritrea split and became independent in 1993. Since then, Ethiopia has depended on the tiny country of Djibouti as its single port with one road and railroad to move imports and exports. Besides Eritrea and Djibouti, Ethiopia also borders four other coastal polities: Sudan (currently engulfed in a civil conflict), Kenya (whose ports are too distant), Somalia, and Somaliland.

Somaliland is an Oklahoma-sized autonomous region of about 7 million people with over 500 miles of coast on the Red Sea. A former British colony, it gained independence in June 1960. It voluntarily joined with the former Italian Somaliland when that territory became independent in 1960, and the two formed the Somali Republic. The union was a disaster, as Somalia came under the rule of the brutal General Siad Barre, who tried to destroy the independence-minded Somalilanders, including inflicting thousands of deaths by bombing Hargeisa, its largest city.

In 1991, during the chaos that followed the Somali Civil War, Somaliland split from the federation. A decade later, Somalilanders voted in a referendum and overwhelmingly approved a constitution reaffirming Somaliland’s independence. Since then, Somaliland has built an imperfect but tenacious democracy, a comparatively free society, and an open, free-market economy, while most citizens have remained adamant about protecting their independence. And they have done it on their own, with minimal international assistance.

Conversely, next door, Somalia has been an international burden for decades, absorbing billions of dollars of assistance—including $500 million in security assistance from the United States—but achieving minimal progress with economic viability, democracy, governance, or even controlling its territory. It has hosted thousands of international troops under multiple peacekeeping missions to help it defeat al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-linked extremist movement, with limited success. It has also failed to hold a single “one person-one vote” election, opting instead to select its leaders through non-transparent, corrupt conclaves of elites and elders.

However, what Somalia has that Somaliland doesn’t have is international recognition, which accrued after the 1991 disintegration of the joint Somali Republic. This results in the bizarre situation of a “de facto” Somaliland that functions more effectively as a nation than does the “de jure” Somalia.

The reasons Somaliland hasn’t gained international recognition are varied. The African Union (AU) and Somalia are major stumbling blocks. The AU fears that granting Somaliland legitimacy may fracture other member states with separatist movements, despite its 2005 fact-finding mission determining that Somaliland’s recognition quest was “historically unique and self-justified.” Meanwhile, a solid nationalist trend that includes irredentist claims on Somali-inhabited areas of East Africa prevails within elements of Somalia, making it impossible for Mogadishu to accept the reality of Somaliland’s independence.

Even though Mogadishu has virtually no practical control over Somaliland, the United States defers to Mogadishu’s sovereignty claims by maintaining a nonsensical “One Somalia” policy. This, despite parts of the U.S. Government—such as the Pentagon—being eager to engage closely with Somaliland. Even more absurdly, the United States’s Ambassador to Somalia is, in effect, the Ambassador to Mogadishu airport—unable to circulate in the country or even the city. Meanwhile, many countries maintain consulates in Hargeisa and do regular business with Somaliland.

A Potentially Monumental MoU

The announcement of the Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal drew strong criticism from the AU and Somalia. At the same time, Egypt, the United States, the European Union, and the Arab League voiced support for Somalia’s “sovereignty.” In a bit of over-the-top drama, Somalia even threatened war with Ethiopia. Egypt, meanwhile, opposes Ethiopian initiatives because of its dispute with Ethiopia over the massive Blue Nile dam project.

While the proposed port deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland is still at the aspirational Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) stage with many details to be defined, the general framework will benefit both. Ethiopia will lease a twelve-mile strip of Somaliland’s coast for fifty years while Somaliland will gain formal diplomatic recognition from Ethiopia and a stake in Ethiopia’s national air carrier. Somaliland has a modern port at Berbera, recently upgraded through a major investment by the UAE’s DP World, but the location for Ethiopia’s concession is still uncertain. In addition to a port for Ethiopian imports and exports, Ethiopia will establish a base—for a navy that hasn’t floated a ship since 1991. While Ethiopian recognition of Somaliland is significant, it will also likely open the door to other countries to follow suit since several have stated discretely that while they could not be the first to offer recognition, they could be second.

If the project is realized, it would have far-reaching benefits. The return of a professional Ethiopian navy to the Red Sea would improve stability in a critically important waterway menaced by piracy and other disruptions. Even Egypt, bitterly opposed to the deal, would benefit economically if more shipping transits the Suez Canal. Adding another port and an efficient transit corridor would be a significant economic boost to the region and offer additional ways to bring relief supplies into countries that frequently suffer from humanitarian disasters.

The deal could also release some pressure building in East Africa ever since Abiy declared that sea access was an existential issue last year. Many believed his remarks were a prelude to war with Eritrea, a catastrophic scenario. Given that Ethiopia could secure strictly commercial maritime access through other means, Abiy appears to believe that a naval base is indispensable to his cherished ambition of being the leader who restored Ethiopia’s status as an unassailable great African power. If the MoU with Somaliland fails, Abiy will likely continue his quest in a far more destabilizing way.

Possibilities of Choppy Water

There are complications, to be sure. Despite its great potential and high economic growth, Ethiopia faces a difficult financial situation thanks in part to the recent devastating war in Tigray and ongoing insecurity in other regions. Addis Ababa must be creative in funding an expensive project like building a base and navy.

Furthermore, Mogadishu may stop cooperating with Ethiopia on countering al-Shabaab in response to what it views as Ethiopia’s violations of its sovereignty (notwithstanding al-Shabaab’s long control of chunks of Somalia about which Somalia’s governing elites have often demonstrated a curious lack of focus). It may also try to stir clan trouble in areas of Ethiopia inhabited by ethnic Somalis or try to inflame an ongoing clan insurgency in Somaliland’s east.

Nonetheless, provoking clan trouble elsewhere risks exacerbating Somalia’s profound and often violent rivalries. The countries that provide the most funding for Somalia’s armed forces and government would also disapprove of such a campaign. There would be more evidence that Mogadishu is not sufficiently serious about fighting al-Shabaab to merit strong international support.

Similarly, there is little reason to believe that the Somaliland-Ethiopia deal will empower al-Shabaab. The terror group rose to prominence as an anti-Ethiopian insurgency and has always fused irredentist and nationalist sentiment with radical Salafism. It is propagandizing about the deal and vowing to resist Ethiopia. Yet thousands of troops, including many Ethiopians, have been inside Somalia for well over a decade. It is unlikely that an agreement implemented far to the north of where most Somalians live would boost al-Shabaab recruitment more than that reality.

Regional powers opposed to Ethiopia, such as Egypt and, increasingly, Eritrea, may seize the opportunity to work with Somalia to undermine Ethiopia. However, while Eritrea may not cherish the prospect of an eventual Ethiopian navy operating in the neighborhood, the port deal would resolve Ethiopia’s landlocked status and, therefore, remove a perennial source of friction in the Ethiopia-Eritrea relationship. Egypt is strongly motivated to oppose Ethiopia but still has the same problem that has stymied its efforts to stop Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam, namely its incapacity to do much about it.

Finally, a recently signed economic and military agreement between Somalia and Turkey has stirred hopes among Somalian partisans that Turkiye will confront Ethiopia on Somalia’s behalf. However, there is little to fear that the agreement portends such a destabilizing development. In addition to Somalia’s president acknowledging that the deal is unrelated to Ethiopia, Ankara has no reason to involve itself in the dispute, not least because of its strong military and economic ties with Ethiopia.

The Horn of Africa is an increasingly strategic region, yet the United States’s ability to defend its interests there continues to wane. Washington is partly hampered by incorporating the fiction that Somaliland is functionally part of Somalia into its policies. It is time for a pragmatic American approach that correctly calculates U.S. interests, starting with working to ease the tensions around the proposed Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal. If cooler heads prevail, the port deal’s economic and security benefits will be well worth applause.

Although many are skeptical of the newly announced deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland, it has the potential to benefit the entire region of the Horn of Africa, Egypt, and the Red Sea.

Read the article, coauthored with Tibor Nagy, in the National Interest.