Pity Ethiopia. Once the seat of a great empire, war, corruption and mismanagement fractured the country, and Eritrea’s 1993 independence cut Ethiopia off from the sea, making the country the world’s most populous landlocked state. Initially, it did not matter. Ethiopia and Eritrea’s rulers were allies against the Derg. Ethiopia did not need a port, as Eritrea allowed hundreds of Ethiopian trucks to transit its territory daily to the ports of Assab and Massawa. Peace did not last. Rivalries flared and, in 1998, war erupted ostensibly over the isolated border town of Badme, and a few tracts of barren mountains and scrubland, none of which had significant economic resources. This led one famous observer to characterize the conflict as “two bald men fighting over a comb.”

In 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for his willingness to accept arbitration awarding Badme to Eritrea. In reality, the supposed peace was a devil’s bargain. Abiy and Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki sought a truce only so they could settle scores with Ethiopia’s Tigray, rivals to them both. In public, Abiy railed against Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, oblivious to the fact that an embrace of military unilateralism rather than proper constitutional reform would create a self-fulfilling prophecy of separatism and ethnic grievance that will hobble Ethiopia for generations to come. Ethiopia today surpasses Pakistan and Nigeria as the country most at risk of a Yugoslavia-like disintegration .Like Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Abiy today follows the dictator’s playbook to sabre-rattle as a substitute for competent economic stewardship.

The world cannot complain Abiy gave them no warnings. The problem was never commercial outlets to the sea. Ethiopia has corridors through both Djibouti and Somaliland. Abiy, however, wanted more. In 2018, he declared he would reconstitute a navy, a move that required a permanent Ethiopian port. For a time, Abiy considered seizing Zayla (Seylac), a small Somaliland port just 27 miles south of the Djibouti border that Russia too once reportedly sought to lease. Last year, it appeared Abiy might instead move against Eritrea to gain sea access.

It was against this context that Abiy and Somaliland President Muse Bihi surprised the world by announcing a January 1, 2024 Memorandum of Understanding to trade a long-term Ethiopian lease for a Somaliland port for Ethiopian recognition of Somaliland’s independence Africans, Europeans (especially the United Kingdom), and many Arab states applauded. They each have growing ties with Somaliland. Once independent, Somaliland is a bastion of stability, democracy, and moderation in a troubled region. While Somalia irredentists in Mogadishu blustered, few beyond the State Department’s Africa Bureau paid them much heed.

The State Department, however, blindly opposes the Ethiopian-Somaliland memorandum. There are two reasons. First, Ethiopia’s navy might complicate the operational environment at a time of crisis in the Bab el-Mandeb. Frankly, such concern is justified given both Abiy’s erraticism and his tendency to pick fights with Egypt. Second, the State Department opposes any erosion of Somalia’s territorial integrity. This is silly, though. Somaliland has been separate from Somalia longer than it was part of it. When part of greater Somalia, Mogadishu launched a genocidal campaign against Somaliland’s Isaaq clan. There is no circumstance foreseeable where Isaaqs subordinate themselves to the entities that sought their deaths.

Somaliland authorities are not Pollyannaish toward Ethiopia, but feel they have no choice. The State Department talks about dialogue but fails to demand Mogadishu live up to negotiated agreements with Hargeisa. When, at US urging, Mogadishu reclaimed authority over Somaliland’s airspace, its first action was to try to strangle Somaliland. With the United States figuratively shipping rope to Somalia that Mogadishu turns into a noose, it should not surprise that Somaliland would cut a deal with Abiy, whatever the risks.

It is time for Washington to end a three-decade record of failure and embrace a holistic approach. Recognize Somaliland as Ethiopia, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia may soon do, giving Somaliland the rights of a sovereign state so it need not lease Ethiopia a port. Reward Somaliland’s success and top subsidizing Somalia’s failure.

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