A port deal puts the horn of Africa on the brink
With Washington focused on the threat to international shipping from Yemen, trouble is brewing on the other side of the Red Sea as well. On Jan. 1, 2024, Ethiopia and Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia that proclaims independence, signed a memorandum of understanding that allows Ethiopia direct access to the Red Sea in return for officially recognizing Somaliland’s independence. The memorandum has inflamed regional tensions among multiple states in the already volatile Horn of Africa. At a time when Somalia remains mired in conflict and Ethiopia is battling multiple internal insurgencies in the aftermath of its brutal two-year civil war, the current tensions, if not quickly ameliorated, could exacerbate these conflicts and potentially spawn new ones.
So far, the three countries have offered little assurance that they wish to resolve this row quickly and diplomatically. However, neither Somalia nor Somaliland have the capabilities to take each other head on in a conventional military confrontation. This is doubly true for Somalia if it wishes to challenge Ethiopia militarily over the memorandum. Instead, there exists a multitude of proxy options that the three sides, including other regional states, could take that appear much more likely of a scenario should this crisis turn bloody. Waiting in the lurch, moreover, is al-Qaeda’s al-Shabaab, which seeks to gain from this increasingly worrying crisis.
The memorandum signed by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi has not been published. Reportedly, it allows Ethiopia access to Somaliland’s major port in Berbera and provides Ethiopia additional territory in Somaliland’s west that it can lease to build a naval base on the Gulf of Aden. Abiy had already begun stoking regional tensions prior to the signing by announcing his determination to resecure landlocked Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea in October 2023. Ethiopia, the most populous land-locked country on Earth, previously had direct access to the Red Sea prior to Eritrea’s independence in 1993, and resecuring such access has been an objective of nationalists of various stripes. Some observers saw Abiy’s rhetoric as nationalist drum-beating intended to deflect from his government’s domestic troubles, but it nearly sparked a war with neighboring Eritrea regardless. While the current deal with Somaliland avoids this immediate risk, Ethiopia is viewed suspiciously in the Horn of Africa, perhaps no more so than in Somalia, creating a new set of potential conflicts.
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In return for access to the sea, Somaliland’s government maintains that Ethiopia will formally recognize its independence as a sovereign nation — a much-coveted recognition that Somaliland has worked toward since unilaterally announcing its separation from Somalia in 1991. Ethiopia has been more circumspect in how it has framed this part of the deal, but it has not contradicted Somaliland’s claim either.
International actors that are heavily engaged in Somalia such as the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Turkey, and East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development have all voiced concern about the escalation in tensions in the Horn of Africa. By restating their commitment to Somalia’s “territorial integrity,” they have also all implicitly criticized Ethiopia and Somaliland for the deal. The African Union has also come out defending Somalia’s territorial integrity, reflecting many countries’ wish to avoid setting a precedent that could encourage separatists within their own territory. But this has not mitigated the escalatory dynamics in the Horn itself.
For its part, the Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu has vehemently rejected the memorandum, stating that it is a flagrant violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity (even though it lacks de facto sovereignty over most of Somaliland). It has also recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia, marking the first stage in a possible deterioration of relations, and recently began denying flight permissions for Ethiopian Airlines to cross Somali airspace. The rhetoric from the government in Mogadishu has been uncompromising and at points bellicose and is matched by that of ordinary Somalis who have rallied around the country in recent weeks in opposition to the memorandum. Somalia has so far rejected overtures from international partners to engage in mediation with Ethiopia, stressing that its position is nonnegotiable.
Another key player in this evolving saga looks to be al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in East Africa. The group has come out in strong opposition to the memorandum and implicitly threatened to attack Ethiopia and Somaliland over a deal that it says “violates Somalia’s sovereignty.” Hoping to shore up public support and mobilize its members and supporters to acts of violence, al-Shabaab’s messaging also acts as a real challenge that complicates any plan of action meant to calm down regional tensions.
Effectively, a major multisided zero-sum competition is heating up between Somaliland and Ethiopia on one side and the Federal Government of Somalia on the other. A conventional war remains unlikely. But there is a possibility of significant escalation in indirect conflict between various forces and/or proxies between the competing sides. At minimum, tensions seem likely to lead to the freezing of critical regional counter-terrorism cooperation at a time when al-Shabaab is poised to profit from widespread Somali anger.
Conventional War Is Unlikely
Neither Somalia nor Somaliland has much in the way of conventional militaries with which to fight a protracted conflict. The broad failure of internationally assisted state-building and military capacity-building in Somalia is well documented: The vast majority of what could be construed as “security forces” in Somalia are clan militias or warlord armies of questionable loyalty to the central government (which is itself perennially divided). Within the nominal Somali National Army, the only consistently effective units are small special forces groups trained by the United States and Turkey to combat al-Shabaab. No Somali government since 1991 has had the conventional military capacity to challenge the authority of the Somaliland administration in the latter’s territory, and no degree of bellicose rhetoric from Mogadishu will change that.
Somalia’s inability to wage a conventional war with Somaliland applies as well to the case of Ethiopia, which has traditionally had one of the largest and best equipped militaries in Africa and presently maintains several thousand troops in Somalia as contingents in the African Union peace enforcement mission and as unilateral deployments. Egypt, which has its own acrimonious dispute with Ethiopia and has a close relationship with Somali President Hassan Sheikh, has staunchly backed Mogadishu in the dispute. But setting tough rhetoric aside, Cairo has struggled to effectively support its principal ally within Sudan’s ongoing civil war despite sharing a border with the country. It is therefore unclear how significantly Egypt could become involved in any proxy conflict with Ethiopia.
Somalia’s volatility notwithstanding, Somaliland’s military, and the state’s stability as a whole, has also been exposed as more brittle in recent months than the government in Hargeisa or its international admirers would like to admit. In December 2022, protests erupted in eastern Somaliland among the minority Dhulbahante clan (a subclan of the wider Darod, which has strong ties to the neighboring Puntland state in Somalia) in response to the Somaliland government’s heavy-handed administration of the disputed Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn regions. These protests soon morphed into a clan insurgency centered around the provincial capital of Sool, Las Anod, in which the Dhulbahante, under the banner of the Sool Sanaag and Cayn-Khatumo movement, sought to break away from Somaliland and return into union with Somalia (albeit as an autonomous constituent member state). One of the authors traveled to Las Anod in June 2023 to interview these clan militias and found that, while poorly organized and fractious, they shared a strong rejection of Somaliland’s independence and enmity toward the Isaaq clan that dominates Somaliland’s politics. Most surprisingly, however, on Aug. 25, 2023, the previously disorganized Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn militias organized a joint multifront offensive that routed the Somaliland forces, breaking Somaliland’s siege of Las Anod, advancing roughly 90 kilometers westward toward the informal boundary between Isaaq and Dhulbahante-inhabited territories, and capturing some 300 soldiers. According to Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn officials and Western diplomatic sources in the region, the offensive had been facilitated by the fracturing of Somaliland along clan lines, with one sub-clan of the Isaaq that has been vocally opposed to Bihi, the Garhajis, turning its guns on Somaliland forces at around this time.
Despite tough rhetoric from Bihi and his ministers and pro-war rallies in Hargeisa, Somaliland has not been able to launch any offensive to retake Las Anod to date. In other words, Somaliland is no longer in de facto control of roughly one-third of the territory to which it lays claim, and specifically the eastern provinces that form (in its view) the eastern buffer zone and international border with Somalia’s Puntland state. The Somaliland military, meanwhile, has experienced a strategic setback and fracturing without yet showing signs of regrouping. Somaliland’s ability to wage a conventional conflict is likely limited.
Given the inability of either Somalia or Somaliland to mount a conventional military challenge, it is far more likely that, should this brewing conflict persist, it will take the form of a multisided proxy conflict — not a historically unknown scenario in the region. Given the brittleness of both Somalia and Somaliland as well as Ethiopia (which is presently fighting multiple large-scale insurgencies), this scenario is hardly more reassuring than the prospects of a conventional war. One central question in it all is what role al-Shabaab will play.
Al-Shabaab’s Potential Responses
Al-Shabaab, as mentioned above, is already attempting to mobilize its supporters to violently stop the memorandum’s implementation. The group’s official statement rejecting the deal underscores its ideological hybridity. Al-Shabaab is a transnational Salafi-jihadist organization in its vision and ambitions and loyalty to al-Qaeda. But the group’s leadership is entirely Somali, and the group has historically capitalized on Somali nationalism and irredentism, particularly in opposition to Ethiopia’s military interventions, in order to build its social base within Somalia. Unsurprisingly, al-Shabaab seems to see this moment as an opportunity in which the collective anger among the wider Somali populace can serve to breathe new life into the organization. The memorandum therefore may end up marking the most energetic period for al-Shabaab in years and act to accelerate the group’s long-plotted expansion into Ethiopia and Somaliland.
Al-Shabaab’s robust propaganda machine has made numerous statements since the memorandum was announced. Many of its top leaders, including Ali Mohamud Rage, Jama Abdisalam, and Mahad Karate, have publicly spoken out against the memorandum. Al-Shabaab’s central leadership has also released an official statement condemning it, adding that combating the deal is a religious obligation and that all Somalis must “liberate” their country from the Ethiopian invaders. On the ground, it has organized protests throughout the territory it holds from southern to central Somalia, in which it publicly called for jihad against the memorandum’s implementation.
While the threats are all rhetorical for now, there remains a strong precedent to suggest that the group will take action. This level of mobilization suggests the group retains the ability to recruit and potentially enable acts of terror, despite the major military offensive against al-Shabaab since the fall of 2022. Al-Shabaab has already been able to make some gains on the ground in Somalia as a counter-offensive in central Somalia slowed and a planned major second front in southern Somalia was repeatedly delayed. As African Union forces continue to leave, al-Shabaab has gone on its own offensive, retaking many former African Union bases or assaulting waning bases still occupied. This growing momentum, coupled with popular Somali anger over the memorandum (as well as the current war in Gaza), offers al-Shabaab new opportunities to spread its violent message, recruit more widely, and encourage or inspire supporters to take up violence for its stated agendas. In other words, the memorandum could not come at a worse time in the fight against al-Shabaab.
Worse yet, there remains real concern that al-Shabaab could expand its terror campaign internationally. As noted above, al-Shabaab’s leadership has openly called for jihad against the memorandum’s implementation, which puts both Ethiopia and Somaliland within the group’s crosshairs. These threats are not unfounded. For instance, Ethiopia has long been a stated target for Somali jihadis, dating back to the mid-1990s. Indeed, this is what caused Ethiopia to launch its first invasion of Somalia to combat the militants in 1996. With the rise of al-Shabaab in the mid-2000s, Ethiopia again invaded Somalia to combat the group. Since that period, Ethiopia has been a major focus of al-Shabaab’s propaganda, which has culminated in several bombing attempts, and even al-Shabaab’s own multiday invasions of Ethiopia in 2022. Some al-Shabaab fighters even reached the mountains surrounding Moyale in southern Ethiopia, where they have reportedly maintained camps since. More recently, in 2023, following the destruction of mosques in Addis Ababa, al-Shabaab released a separate series of statements calling on Muslims to attack the state as a response. Ethiopia, for its part, has also routinely announced the arrests of al-Shabaab members plotting attacks on its soil over the years. If the aforementioned al-Shabaab invasions of Ethiopia were meant to help “erect its black flag” within the country, recent calls for jihad over the memorandum only serve to revive and rejuvenate that desire. Indeed, knowledgeable sources in Somalia with whom the authors have spoken have reported that al-Shabaab is looking to escalate operations in Ethiopia in the coming months.
More complicated is al-Shabaab’s threat to Somaliland. Somaliland has been relatively safe from al-Shabaab’s violence since a series of coordinated bombings in the capital of Hargeisa in 2008. This is not to say that al-Shabaab is not active within Somaliland, but most of its activity is relegated to the eastern region of Sanaag, much of which is outside Hargeisa’s control. For instance, in 2019, al-Shabaab said it briefly occupied a village just outside the regional capital of Ceerigaabo. A year later, the group captured several other villages near the coastal city of Las Qoray. And in 2022, al-Shabaab conducted a suicide bombing just outside of Las Qoray.
Even in areas actually within Hargeisa’s control, the al-Shabaab threat is present. As Somaliland officials told one of the authors on a research trip in 2021, al-Shabaab actively maintains sleeper and support cells in many Somaliland cities, including Hargeisa, Burco, and even the port city of Berbera, where the memorandum itself would be implemented. Though it remains more difficult for al-Shabaab to operate in Somaliland, that it maintains cells throughout the proclaimed state, including in Berbera, is a cause for concern. Similarly, al-Shabaab managed to dispatch a small team of fighters to eastern Somaliland in March 2023 amid the eruption of the Las Anod conflict in an effort to establish a small bridgehead there, although the fighters likely left without succeeding. Somaliland officials, as well as outside analysts and policymakers, should not be complacent and mistake relative peace in Somaliland as evidence that al-Shabaab cannot or will not attempt to operationalize its cells there.
Concerns of Proxy Conflict
Finally, the memorandum could have drastic effects on Somaliland’s own domestic politics and security. Somaliland’s own government has been shaken by the memorandum, with the defense minister resigning in protest just a week after it was signed. Somaliland authorities have also been arresting journalists and even former state ministers for speaking against the proposed agreement, suggesting that the memorandum is not quite as popular as Bihi would like. Indeed, while there have been rallies in support of the agreement in Isaaq-dominated urban areas such as Hargeisa and Burco, Somaliland’s minority clans have typically been in opposition. The Gadabuursi of Somaliland’s western Awdal region, where the Ethiopian port is reportedly set to actually be built in the town of Lughaya, have protested against the agreement.
Though their size and strength are hard to gauge, there are in fact armed militias in Awdal that are hostile to the Somaliland administration and have recently denounced the memorandum. These militias could pose another internal threat to Somaliland, not unlike in Somaliland’s recent war with the militias around Las Anod. Notably, the Dhulbahante militias that eventually routed the Somaliland military around Las Anod began as a poorly equipped insurgency before growing by way of indirect support from Puntland, which allowed (if not actively encouraged) the transit through its territory of arms and supplies to Las Anod from sympathetic clans elsewhere in Somalia. In the case of Awdal, the Somaliland administration faces a potential challenge insofar as, like with the Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn movement the Awdal dissidents operate along one of Somaliland’s self-proclaimed borders, in this case with Djibouti. Long-time Djiboutian strongman Ismail Omar Guelleh has been rattled by the memorandum since Djibouti stands to lose its position as the principal port for Ethiopian imports and exports, a position that has granted it significant revenue and geopolitical heft. Djibouti may resort to clandestinely supporting dissident Awdal militias on its border to undermine the functioning of the Lughaya port if the memorandum proceeds as planned.
The government in Mogadishu may also lean on the now well-armed Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn movement based in Las Anod, which President Hassan Sheikh reluctantly agreed to recognize in October 2023, to apply pressure on Somaliland from the east. Unable to wage a conflict directly against Somaliland, Mogadishu might conceivably arm or even deputize the Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn militias to advance beyond their current positions around Oog into the central core of Somaliland. At the same time, increased support to the Oromo Liberation Army, an ethnic Oromo rebellion currently mounting an insurgency against Abiy’s government, could be on Mogadishu’s table given the latter’s previous support to the Oromo Liberation Army’s predecessors.
While Mogadishu may be eager to wage a proxy conflict with Somali clan militias against Somaliland and/or the Oromo insurgency in Ethiopia, the persistent and ever-evolving divisions within Somalia’s political elite and among its clans would complicate this strategy. These divisions also provide potential opportunities for Ethiopia and/or Somaliland to try to undermine Somalia by backing local forces hostile to the central government–although at present, the shared opposition among Somalis toward the memorandum seems to be overshadowing their other longstanding divisions.
One should not assume that Ethiopia and Somaliland inevitably have the upper hand, however. Somaliland also appears to be the most internally divided it has been in years. Somaliland military’s defeat at the hands of the Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn militias on Aug. 25, 2023, exposed fissures that are likely to widen given apparent domestic opposition to the memorandum. While many Somalilanders and the nation’s international advocates are understandably excited by the prospects of the memorandum building toward international recognition of Somaliland, if Hargeisa does not handle the domestic and regional fallout effectively, it could prove to be a highly destabilizing gamble for the aspiring nation-state. Abiy’s government, meanwhile, is continuously struggling to maintain its authority internally following Ethiopia’s tumultuous civil war, and this bold gamble by Abiy may jeopardize efforts to stabilize the country.
The current tensions, while troubling, were not entirely unpredictable. The terms of this memorandum are particularly provocative for Somalis given Ethiopia’s fraught imperial and postimperial history with Somalia and the persistence of Somali irredentism that sees Ethiopian Somalis as occupied subjects. But the truth is that any other country that pledged to recognize Somaliland would catalyze a similarly angered response from Mogadishu and Somalis at large, making it likely that some type of crisis of this sort would emerge sooner or later. The status quo has been unsustainable, as the chances of a reunification of Somaliland and Somalia are close to nil under current conditions. Despite the indications of growing internal cracks within Somaliland detailed above, it is most likely that a majority of Somalilanders (or at least a majority of the crucial Isaaq constituency) seek independence and will do whatever they feel is needed to achieve that goal (including violently suppressing dissent).
The maximalist positions taken by the three principal parties in this dispute make it unlikely that negotiations will result in a major breakthrough — if they are even held at all. International parties are attempting to bring all sides to the table, but so far there appears to be little appetite for any side to start making concessions. It is also entirely possible, given Abiy’s erratic nature and the many internal challenges that Ethiopia faces, that Ethiopia could end up walking back or effectively freezing the memorandum, which could lead tensions to subside, at least temporarily.
Notwithstanding the possibility that diplomacy does prevail, however, it appears for now that the Horn of Africa is in for another protracted crisis. To make matters worse, this crisis comes at the worst possible time in the region’s shared fight against al-Shabaab.
Without the continued intelligence-sharing between the three major parties to this crisis, al-Shabaab also stands to expand its mobilization and recruitment bases, which further puts all three parties at risk of fresh acts of terror. Failing that, the region risks further confusion and, potentially, bloodshed from which jihadis, particularly al-Qaeda’s al-Shabaab, stand to benefit.
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Caleb Weiss is a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the Islamic State across Central and East Africa. He is also a co-editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, primarily tracking jihadist insurgencies in Africa. He has conducted extensive fieldwork across much of East Africa, including in Somalia/Somaliland and the Great Lakes region.
James Barnett is a nonresident research fellow at Hudson Institute specializing in African security studies. He is presently pursuing a PhD (DPhil) in political science at Oxford University, and he has conducted extensive fieldwork in conflict zones in West and East Africa, including in Somalia/Somaliland.