The dilemma of geography: Ethiopia is trapped and the repercussions of reaching a port on the Red Sea

The world’s attention is now turning to the geostrategic waterways of the Red Sea. At a time when the conflict over the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Peninsula to the north of it is escalating, and the world is preoccupied with confrontations with Ansar Allah fighters in Yemen following the prevention of ships heading to Israel from passing, the continuation of the war on the Gaza Strip and the expansion of the conflict in the region, another potential conflict looms on the southern side of these turbulent waters in the Horn of Africa, after Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, signed a memorandum of understanding between him and Musa Bihi Abdi, President of the separatist Somaliland region, which does not enjoy international recognition in exchange for access to the Red Sea, and as a result escalated political tensions in the Horn of Africa after the signing of the aforementioned memorandum.

Ethiopian plans towards the Red Sea were not born of the current moment since the independence of Eritrea and the transformation of Ethiopia to a landlocked country. Ethiopia is thinking of getting out of its captivity in light of its aspiration for leadership and hegemony in the region. In light of the above, this research paper is divided into three sections:

The maritime access deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland

Following Eritrea’s independence in 1993, Ethiopia turned into the largest landlocked country in Africa, after losing the ports of Assab and Massawa ports overlooking the Red Sea, as the coastline became within the territory of its neighbor Eritrea, and these two ports have remained part of the geopolitics of the Ethiopian Empire throughout the past centuries. Since that time, Addis Ababa has intensified the search for permanent sea ports that reduce the severity of the geographical dilemma it suffers and so that it does not have to pay more.

Ethiopia relies more than 95% on the port of Djibouti for international trade, using a network of roads and a railway line linking the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and Djibouti and covering a total of 752 kilometers. It is the first fully electrified cross-border railway line in East Africa. Yet Ethiopia pays fees of up to 2 billion US dollars annually to use the port in Djibouti.

Ethiopia is keen to use the Red Sea ports to support its growing trade needs, and Ethiopia’s access to the sea has become more urgent if framed in the relaunch of the Belt and Road Initiative, a major infrastructure project promoted by Ethiopia’s strong partner, China. Titled “Ethiopia’s National Interest: Principles and Implications” highlights the urgent need for access to the Red Sea, and following the presentation of this document, the Ethiopian Prime Minister delivered a speech on what he called “Ethiopia’s existential necessity to access an outlet in the Red Sea.” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s speech in parliament included a statement that “the Red Sea and the Nile will determine Ethiopia’s future,” either to sustainable development or to its demise. He added that his government needed to find a way to release 126 million people from their “geographical prison.” That speech raised many concerns among neighboring countries about Ethiopia’s intentions towards its neighboring countries that have ports on the Red Sea.

On January 1, 2024, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Somaliland, and the memorandum of understanding has raised several diplomatic disputes in the Horn of Africa region and beyond. Although the details of the agreement are not publicly known, the leaders of the two countries touched on the details of its content, which include that Ethiopia will obtain a 50-year lease on a strip of land on the Red Sea coast in Somaliland for maritime and commercial use, access to the port of Berbera and the establishment of infrastructure. In return, Somaliland gets a share of Ethiopian Airlines, in addition to Somaliland getting a pledge that Ethiopia will achieve recognition as a sovereign state, and if it decides to do so, Ethiopia will be the first country to recognize Somaliland, where the separatist state has operated independently since it declared independence from Somalia in May 1991, but lacks international recognition.

It seems that there are several objectives that Ethiopia is adopting through this deal, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Through the agreement, Ethiopia gains access to a very important strategic corner of the world, Bab al-Mandeb, where nearly 15 percent of global trade passes.
  • Economic growth: Direct access to the Red Sea is critical to Ethiopia’s economic growth and development as import and export companies face direct challenges that affect the country’s competitiveness in global markets. The costs of transporting goods from the port to the mainland via Djibouti are a significant burden for Ethiopia and an unaffordable cost.
  • Energy and Infrastructure: Ethiopia’s goal of direct access to the Red Sea is linked to the hydropower project, which aims to export energy to the surrounding countries and those bordering the Red Sea. The Red Sea region is rich in energy resources, especially oil and natural gas, and therefore Ethiopia wants to be part of the investment in the energy sector.
  • Regional influence: The deal will give Ethiopia the right to build facilities on the Gulf of Aden that can be used for 50 years as a military base and for commercial purposes, so Ethiopia will be able to access the port through a leased corridor from Somaliland and through its establishment of a military base that will have military influence in the Gulf of Aden, giving Addis Ababa long-term influence in the region.

International positions on the maritime access deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland

The maritime access deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland raised a number of divergent positions regionally and internationally, especially with the increasing instability in the region. The list of countries opposed to the memorandum of understanding included a number of countries in the region such as Egypt, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Western powers such as the United States, the European Union, China and Turkey, where Turkey supported Somalia’s position and stressed the need to respect Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while stressing the continuation of cooperation between the two countries.

The United States stressed respect for the sovereignty of Somalia and called on the parties to engage in diplomatic dialogue as the United States of America fears the escalation of tensions in the Horn of Africa region, which threatens the interests of neighboring countries. China has a similar position with the Republic of China, as China seeks to recognize Taiwan as part of its territory, as well as the Republic of Somalia to be internationally recognized as part of its territory, as both countries reject the autonomy of their separatist areas.

Somalia is the largest opponent of the port deal. The President of the Somali Federal Government, Sheikh Hassan Mohamud, announced that the memorandum constitutes a violation of Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and announced that Somalia will defend its territory against the Ethiopian “aggression.” Al-Shabaab, which controls the territory of southern and central Somalia, announced that the agreement is a violation of the sovereignty of Somalia.

The Eritrean capital, Asmara, seems apprehensive of Addis Ababa obtaining any naval bases, as the Eritrean regime has always sought to keep Ethiopia locked in. While Egypt is also concerned about Ethiopia’s large maritime presence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, Cairo has announced that it will not tolerate any violation of Somalia’s territorial integrity.

It is not surprising that Djibouti opposes the memorandum of understanding. Djibouti charges Ethiopia nearly $2 billion annually to use its ports, which is a large income for the resource-poor country.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has visited a number of regional capitals, including Asmara and Cairo. This has sparked speculation and possibly exaggeration about an imminent alliance between Eritrea, Egypt and Somalia to challenge Ethiopia’s actions.

The League of Arab States urged Ethiopia not to go ahead with the deal, and declared its solidarity with Somalia in rejecting and condemning the memorandum signed between Ethiopia and the “Somaliland” region regarding the landlocked state’s access to a sea port on the territory of the region as a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Somali state.

The spokesman for the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Counselor Jamal Rushdie, expressed his rejection of any memorandums of understanding that violate or violate the sovereignty of the Somali state or try to take advantage of the fragility of the internal situation in Somalia.

The AU also rejected the bias of any party and called for restraint and cooperation in order to reach a peaceful and amicable solution, and called on the African Union to calm and reduce the escalating tension between Ethiopia and Somalia and respect the unity and sovereignty of the territory and full sovereignty of all member states of the African Union.

The position of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation was consistent with the position of the African Union and the League of Arab States, where it expressed its support for Somalia, reiterating concerns about the Ethiopian presence in the Red Sea region.

Although the agreement between Somaliland and Ethiopia is still in its preparatory stage, it demonstrates Ethiopia’s new strategic initiative towards the Red Sea. This development is expected to have significant qualitative effects on the formation of regional balances in the region. Although most regional and international actors have rejected this initial agreement, it is poised to establish a new reality that has direct repercussions on the delicate geopolitical dynamics throughout the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.

The repercussions of the maritime access deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland

The Horn of Africa region is already full of security challenges including piracy, human trafficking, terrorism and competition for strategic ports, so the outbreak of conflict in the Horn of Africa will be a nightmare for all international powers concerned with the security of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, especially since this maritime region is already facing great challenges.

The situation in the Horn of Africa has an overlapping impact beyond the countries bordering the Red Sea, where the countries of the Horn of Africa are the largest strategic depth for the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Moreover, China, the United States and European countries have military bases in Djibouti and the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia compete to secure ports on the Red Sea coast and have influence in the Horn of Africa. Therefore, Ethiopia’s coming to this complex landscape will further complicate the situation.

The signing of the MoU has ignited a new crisis in the Horn of Africa, whose countries suffer from security fragility, civil wars and the activity of armed movements. As the security repercussions of the Red Sea Agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland extend beyond the bilateral relationship, cooperation between Ethiopia and Somaliland offers a new dynamic in the security scene in the Horn of Africa, which affects regional stability and enhances the opportunities for terrorism and piracy.

Al-Shabaab is likely to increase its retaliatory attacks against Ethiopian forces by expanding its movements by expanding inside Ethiopia by exploiting the tension in relations between Ethiopia and Somalia to promote recruitment and support funding. It will also expand in the Somaliland region to fight against Ethiopia, which may enhance the escalation of the threat of extremism and violence in the Horn of Africa. Al-Shabaab announced that Addis Ababa will not be able to seize an inch of Somali waters, calling on Somalis to “liberate the country” and engage in a military operation.

There is also a possibility of sliding into a regional war that threatens the stability of the Horn of Africa, as the agreement hinders the negotiation efforts carried out by Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to preserve the unity of Somalia. In addition, there is tension of regional relations in the Horn of Africa in the context of the escalation of positions rejecting the countries of the Horn of Africa for the Ethiopian step to recognize Somaliland as an independent state, especially that this step would encourage some nationalities and ethnic groups to demand separation and independence from the mother country, which threatens the security, unity and cohesion of the countries of the region.

At the same time the agreement threatens additional conflict for Ethiopia, which has faced internal instability in the regions of Oromia, Tigray and Amhara for the past three years.

Similarly, Somaliland’s political actors should not drift behind short-term gains in recognition and economic gains while ignoring the larger long-term consequences of their relations with Mogadishu and Addis Ababa, which could turn its territory into an open arena for political and perhaps military conflict later.

Conclusion

Although direct access to the Red Sea carries benefits for Ethiopia, ends its dependence on its neighbors, enhances its economy and enhances its security and position in the region, as Ethiopia is working to secure its communication with the outside world by expanding its narrow and enclosed geographical area and to achieve its goals towards the Horn of Africa region by being one of the dominant regional powers on the African continent, this agreement faces many challenges, including the legitimacy of the agreement and the widespread rejection of Ethiopia’s neighbors and other countries in the region.

Ethiopia’s desire for maritime access to the Red Sea amid tense diplomatic relations with neighboring countries requires the international community to stand cautious and call for diplomatic solutions to avoid escalation of the conflict, maintain regional stability and respect the sovereignty of neighboring countries.

References

  1. Abdi Latif Dahir, why a Port Deal Has the Horn of Africa on Edge, New York Times,2 January 2024, available at

Somaliland Deal to Grant Ethiopia Red Sea Access Draws Condemnation – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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