Ethiopia, after attaining fully-fledged BRICS (an association consisting of nations) membership beginning 2024, has suddenly come under global condemnation over recognizing its neighbour Somaliland. As it political development stands, Ethiopia became the first African nation to publicly and officially declare breakaway Somaliland as an independent African State.

Somaliland (unrecognized) is situated in the northwest of recognized Somalia. It is located in the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden and bordered by Djibouti to the northwest, Ethiopia to the south and west, and Somalia to the east. In 1991 Somaliland, now with approximately 5.7 million, broke away from Somalia. Since 1991, the territory has been governed by democratically elected governments that seek international recognition as the government of the Republic of Somaliland.

Somaliland’s Economy

Somaliland has the fourth lowest GDP per capita in the world, and there are huge socio-economic challenges for Somaliland, with an unemployment rate between 60 and 70% among youth, if not higher. According to International Labour Organization (ILO), illiteracy exists up to 70% in several areas of Somaliland, especially among females and the elder population. Agriculture is the backbone of Somaliland’s economy, and the largely untapped maritime resources. Since Somaliland is unrecognized, international donors have found it difficult to provide all kinds of aid including finances.

Relations with Ethiopia

On the 1st of January, 2024, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland, where Ethiopia will lease the port of Berbera on the Red Sea, and a 20-km stretch of Red Sea coastline, for 20 years, in exchange for eventual recognition of Somaliland as an independent state. If this agreement is honoured, Ethiopia would become the first United Nations member state to recognize the breakaway nation.

The agreement signed in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Muse Bihi Abdi of the breakaway republic of Somaliland preceded a shocking announcement that has already set the tone for interstate relations in the Horn of Africa.

The memorandum of understanding was for the leasing of 20km (12 miles) of Somaliland’s sea coast to landlocked Ethiopia. In exchange, Somaliland will receive shares in its neighbour’s flagship carrier, Ethiopian Airlines – and receive formal recognition as a sovereign state.

International recognition has been a long-sought goal for Somaliland, a region in northern Somalia that has enjoyed de facto independence since 1991. But the groundbreaking agreement has created shockwaves in the region and fury in Somalia, which views it as a hostile violation of Somalia’s sovereignty.

“As a government, we have condemned and rejected the illegal infringement of Ethiopia into our national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said in a statement on X shortly after convening an emergency cabinet session. “Not an inch of Somalia can or will be signed away by anybody.”

African Union’s Reaction

On January 3rd, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called for mutual respect between Ethiopia and Somalia, signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between Ethiopia and the region of Somalia (Somaliland). He further urged both Ethiopia and Somaliland to refrain from any action that unintentionally, may lead to a deterioration of the good relations between the two neighbouring Eastern African countries.

In the official statement, Moussa Faki Mahamat stressed the imperative to respect unity, territorial integrity and full sovereignty of all African Union member states including the Federal Republic of Somalia and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The Chairperson underscored the importance of adhering to the norms of good neighbourliness to promote and consolidate peace, security and stability in the Horn of Africa region.

Somalia’s Reaction

The agreement has also further strained fragile relations between the neighbours. “This is by far the most egregious violation of the sovereignty of Somalia by a foreign country in about a decade and a half,” Abdi Aynte, a Somali politician and former minister of planning, told Al Jazeera. “The last country to have violated Somalia’s sovereignty was Ethiopia when it invaded in 2006, which ended disastrously. The 2006 invasion in fact led to the rise of al-Shabab, the most violent militant group in the region, so you can only imagine what this could do in Somalia and across the region.”

Another politician, lawmaker Abdirahman Abdiskakur, has called for the African Union’s headquarters to be moved away from Ethiopia, according to the Somali National News Agency. With military action unfeasible, Somalia will likely use formal diplomatic channels at the AU or United Nations to prevent any implementation of the agreement. Thus far, the European Union and the United States have issued statements expressing support for Somalia’s position.

European Union

The European Union also issued an official statement asking for the highest respect for Somalia sovereignty after Ethiopia deal with Somaliland. The EU said in a statement that it “would like to remind the importance of respecting the unity, the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia pursuant of its constitution, the Charters of the African Union and the United Nations.”

“This is key for the peace and stability of the entire Horn of Africa region,” the statement from an EU spokesperson said.

Observations from Researchers and Political Experts

The article’s author has spoken to a number of experienced researchers and academic experts over the rising tensions. For instance, George Nyongesa, Senior Associate at the Africa Policy Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and Tutorial Fellow and PhD Candidate at University of Nairobi: Ethiopia’s vast land mass and population, coupled with the fact that it is cut off from the sea due to the breakaway of Eritrea, make it the largest landlocked country in the world. This lack of access to international waterways poses a significant threat to its existence. The primary objective of a country’s foreign policy has always been to safeguard its own interests on the global stage. Therefore, Ethiopia’s decision to pursue somewhat economic cooperation with Somaliland based on reciprocal interests should be seen as diplomatic realism or a pragmatic foreign policy.

By gaining access to Somaliland’s seaport, Ethiopia will potentially enjoy a strategic advantage in terms of trade, as this will facilitate smoother transportation of goods in and out of the country. The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two countries is likely to have an impact on the regional dynamics, potentially influencing the stance of the entire region towards Somaliland’s status. It remains uncertain what additional diplomatic resources Somalia possesses apart from recalling their ambassador in this high-stakes diplomatic chess agame. As events continue to unfold, Somalia’s relationships with other significant actors in the region are expected to evolve in the moves the country decides to pull.

Additionally, neighboring countries may also seek to benefit from this emerging new order. The reaction of the region as a whole could significantly contribute to Somaliland’s quest for international recognition. Depending on how other regional players, such as Kenya and Uganda, respond to this move, it could either contribute to stability or introduce new complexities in the Horn of Africa. This development has the potential to bring about changes in the diplomatic dynamics of the region. It is worth noting that the African Union has historically been cautious about recognizing new states in order to preserve the territorial integrity of its member countries. Therefore, as Ethiopia’s actions trigger regional actors’ reaction, that may force discussions within the African Union regarding the status of Somaliland and the potential implications it may have for the broader region.

Dr. Israel Nyaburi Nyadera, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Egerton University in the Republic of Kenya and Expert at the Valdai Discussion Club: After all, African States have the prerogative to recognize other countries. Historically all members of the continental organization, the African Union have recognized Somaliland. African States have the prerogative to recognize other countries. The anticipated recognition of Somaliland as an independent state by Ethiopia is likely to have far reaching implications if Moghadishu and Addis Ababa cannot find a middle ground. It is a result of historical rivalry between Somalia and Ethiopia that has resulted into armed conflict at some point but also a combination of geopolitical and geostrategic interests on the part of Ethiopia and Somaliland. They both have a lot to gain from this new partnership and it will take the government in Mogadishu a lot of diplomatic efforts to quash these efforts. The internal stability in Somalia as well as the renegade approach by the administration in Hargeisa, perhaps, gives very low expectations.

In terms of what this could result into, (1) it may give courage to some other African countries to recognize Somaliland as an independent state, (2) I don’t know whether Ethiopia will use its new position within BRICS to lobby on behalf of Somaliland, after all that access to the sea will also benefit the BRICS +, (3) It is likely to increase tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia leaving a move that may force Somalia to rethink its relationship with Kenya (which has been bad due to among other reasons the maritime dispute between the two). In the event Ethiopia sways Kenya on its side, it will further isolate Somalia. (4) Somalia is likely to protest the move by Ethiopia at various forums including the United Nations, African Union and the Arab League. Its success will, however, be based on its diplomatic masterclass and ability to compromise since either way, there will be some implications on its territorial integrity.

Nevertheless, Ethiopia becoming the first state to formally acknowledge Somaliland’s independence threatens to damage diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Somalia, two states with a lengthy history of military conflict and animosity. Somalia has vowed to defend its territory as it branded the accord between Ethiopia and Somaliland an “aggression” early January. The Government in Mogadishu said it had recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia and issued an appeal to the international community to stand by its side over the “blatant assault” on its sovereignty.

Under the governments of Ethiopia’s Mengistu Hailemariam and Somali President Siad Barre, both countries supported rebel factions in each other’s countries, which would go on to weaken and eventually lead to the overthrow of both leaders by 1991. Somaliland, a former British protectorate, has been seeking full statehood since claiming independence from Somalia in 1991. But the move has not been recognized internationally and is fiercely opposed by Mogadishu although in reality the central government exercises little authority over the region’s affairs.

Somaliland (unrecognized) is situated in the northwest of recognized Somalia. It is located in the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden and bordered by Djibouti to the northwest, Ethiopia to the south and west, and Somalia to the east. In 1991 Somaliland, now with approximately 5.7 million, broke away from Somalia. Since 1991, the territory has been governed by democratically elected governments that seek international recognition as the government of the Republic of Somaliland

Modern diplomacy