Can the Horn of Africa divide be healed?


Seven months after the self-declared Republic of Somaliland agreed on New Year’s Day to lease part of its coastline to neighboring Ethiopia, tensions continue to run high in the Horn of Africa.

Somalia is not happy with the maritime agreement, the details of which are still unclear.

First, it believes the deal is illegal and an “act of aggression” because Somaliland, which seceded from Somalia in 1991 at the start of a long civil war, is considered part of Somali territory.

There are also angry reports that Ethiopia would become the first country to recognise Somaliland as a sovereign nation in exchange for the use of a port.

Both the African Union (AU) and the US support Somalia’s territorial integrity and urge all parties to reduce tensions.

Turkey has now intervened diplomatically, bringing together Ethiopian and Somali delegates for talks in the capital Ankara.

Were the negotiations successful?


The foreign ministers of Ethiopia and Somalia came to the Turkish capital on July 1, but they refused to meet one-on-one.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry described the talks as “frank, cordial and forward-looking”.

The two sides have agreed to meet again in September – and sources told the BBC that if progress is made then, the leaders of the two countries may meet. So there is hope.

Why is Turkey involved?

Ankara has close ties with Mogadishu. The two governments have signed a 10-year defense pact, under which Turkey will help guard Somalia’s coastline and rebuild the country’s naval forces in the Horn of Africa.

According to Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud, it was Ethiopia that asked Turkey to facilitate the talks.

It is suggested that Addis Ababa wants to defuse tensions as Somalia wages an extensive diplomatic campaign to gain support from Western and Gulf countries.

However, there were still “no indications” that Ethiopia was prepared to withdraw from the deal, President Mohamud said afterwards.

What have Ethiopia and Somaliland agreed on?

The exact wording of the agreement signed by the leaders of Ethiopia and Somaliland has not been made public. This is a problem because there are different versions of what the two sides agreed to in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

An MoU is a declaration of intent and not a legally binding agreement. What does seem clear is that Somaliland is willing to grant Ethiopia access to the sea for trade via a port. However, it is not clear which port that would be.

There is also a military aspect. Somaliland has said it could lease part of its coastline to the Ethiopian navy, a detail confirmed by Addis Ababa.

In return, Somaliland would receive a stake in Ethiopia Airlines, the country’s successful national airline.

But the tricky part is whether Ethiopia has said it will recognize Somaliland as an independent state. That’s something no other country has done in the 30 years since the former British protectorate said it would leave Somalia.

On the day of the signing, Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi said the agreement contained a section stating that Ethiopia would recognise Somaliland as an independent country at some point in the future.

Ethiopia has not confirmed this. Instead, in an attempt to clarify what was in the MoU, the government said on January 3 that the deal contained “provisions… to conduct an in-depth assessment to take a position on Somaliland’s efforts to gain recognition.”

Why is this so controversial?

For Somalia, Somaliland is an integral part of its territory. Any suggestion that it could make a deal with another country or lease parts of it without Mogadishu’s approval is highly problematic.

The day after the MoU was signed, Somalia described the deal as an act of “aggression” that was an “obstacle to… peace and stability.” It also recalled its ambassador from Addis Ababa.

The Ethiopian ambassador to Somalia subsequently left Mogadishu.

Immediately after the deal, Somalia’s president intensified his rhetoric, saying: “We will defend our country, we will defend it by all means possible and we will seek the support of any ally who wants to help us.”

He also called on young people to “prepare to defend our country” and described Ethiopia as his country’s “enemy”.

Ethiopia and Somalia have a long history of rivalry.

In 1977 and 1978, Ethiopia and Somalia fought a devastating war over control of what is now called the Somali region of Ethiopia.

Protests against the deal also took place in Mogadishu, with tens of thousands of people turning out to voice their opposition.

What is the status of Somaliland?

Somaliland, a former British protectorate, declared independence from Somalia in 1991 and has all the hallmarks of a country, including a functioning political system, regular elections, a police force and its own currency.

Over the decades, the country has also largely escaped the chaos and violence that hit Somalia.

But its independence is not recognized by any country.

If Ethiopia, as Somaliland said, at some point agrees to recognize it, it would have a major impact on the Horn of Africa.

Why does Ethiopia want this deal?

Last year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described access to the sea as an existential issue.

Ethiopia lost its ports when Eritrea seceded in the early 1990s. With more than 100 million people, it is the most populous landlocked country in the world.

Mr Abiy’s statement raised fears that Ethiopia could try to achieve its goal through force.

The agreement with Somaliland is described as historic and its intentions are peaceful.

“The position taken by the government is strongly rooted in the desire not to go to war with anyone,” the Ethiopian Communications Agency said in January.

But in an oblique reference to the controversy, Mr Abiy posted on X on January 6: “If we expect things to happen in ways that we are used to or that we know or can predict, opportunities may pass us by.”

He added that sometimes it is necessary to think ‘out of the box’ to achieve goals.

What have others said?

AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat was among the first to call for calm and mutual de-escalate the simmering tension“.

His view was shared by the US government, the Arab League and the European Union.

In late June, top US diplomat Robert A. Wood told a meeting of the UN Security Council that his country “remains concerned about tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia and the negative impact this is having on shared security interests.”

Egypt, which is at loggerheads with Ethiopia over a huge dam on the Nile River in Ethiopia’s northern highlands, has also pledged support to Somalia.

Earlier this year, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi assured his Somali counterpart that Egypt stood by Somalia and supported its “security and stability.”

Somali President Mohamud flew to Eritrea in January and March as part of his efforts to mobilize regional support. Eritrean leader Isaias Afeworki was a close ally of his Ethiopian counterpart during a brutal civil war in northern Ethiopia between 2020 and 2022, but relations between the two countries have since deteriorated.

Eritrea is also reportedly concerned about Ethiopia’s ambitions to gain access to its coast.

Another neighbour, Kenya, which has close ties with both Ethiopia and Somalia, has remained silent and has yet to make a formal comment, while Uganda has also failed to take a clear position.

Saudi Arabia and China, two countries with important roles in the region, said they would support Somalia’s territorial integrity, in a move hailed in Mogadishu as a diplomatic victory.



Additional reporting from BBC Monitoring.

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