Why a Port Deal Has the Horn of Africa on Edge

The government of landlocked Ethiopia has signed a preliminary agreement with Somaliland, a self-declared breakaway republic in northwestern Somalia, granting Ethiopia commercial and military access to the territory’s gateway to the Red Sea — a port deal that threatens to inflame tensions in the tumultuous Horn of Africa region.

In a memorandum of understanding signed with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia on Monday, the leader of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, said he would lease more than 12 miles of sea access for 50 years to the Ethiopian Navy. In return, Ethiopia would formally recognize Somaliland as an independent nation, a move that Mr. Abdi said would set “a precedent as the first nation to extend international recognition to our country.”

Somaliland would also get a stake in the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, Mr. Abiy’s national security adviser, Redwan Hussien, said during the deal’s announcement. He did not provide further details.

The agreement for access to the Somaliland port of Berbera is not legally binding but, after extensive negotiations in the coming months, it could lead to an enforceable treaty between the two parties.

Here’s a look at why the agreement matters.

How does the deal affect the region?

The pact has rattled the Horn of Africa area, which is already encumbered by civil war, political wrangling and widespread humanitarian crises. Observers say the agreement could also provoke further tensions in the Red Sea, a vital global shipping route that has become increasingly dangerous amid the Israel-Hamas war.

The biggest objection has come from Somalia, where Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre’s cabinet held an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the deal. Somalia’s government called the agreement “null and void” and asked both the African Union and the United Nations Security Council to convene meetings on the issue. Somalia also recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia for urgent consultations.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, far right, of Somalia after speaking to Parliament in Mogadishu on Tuesday about the port deal, alongside Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre. Credit…Feisal Omar/Reuters

“Somalia belongs to Somalis,” President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said in an impassioned speech in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon in which he vowed to defend his country’s sovereignty. “We will protect every inch of our sacred land and not tolerate attempts to relinquish any part of it.”

Just days earlier, he and Mr. Abdi had met in neighboring Djibouti to chart a path forward — talks that experts say are now likely to be in shambles.

Eritrea and Egypt will also be concerned with Ethiopia’s having a major naval presence in the strategic Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, observers say.

And in Djibouti, which charges Ethiopia about $1.5 billion a year to use its ports, observers say that the loss of such income could lead to instability for President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has benefited from that cash inflow during his more than two decades in office.

Why is sea access important to Ethiopia?

Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous nation, lost its sea access when Eritrea seceded and declared independence in 1993.

Since then, Ethiopia has relied on Djibouti for international trade, with more than 95 percent of its imports and exports passing through the Addis Ababa-Djibouti corridor, according to the World Bank. The $1.5 billion a year in fees that Ethiopia spends to use Djibouti’s ports is a huge amount for a nation that has found it hard to service its large debts.

For years, Ethiopia’s government has sought to diversify its seaport access, including exploring options in Sudan and Kenya. In 2018, it signed a deal to acquire a 19 percent stake in the port at Berbera, but the deal fell through.

Workers carried goods along a street market in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in October.Credit…Michele Spatari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In recent months, Mr. Abiy has become more assertive about his country’s ambitions to acquire a port along East Africa’s seaboard. In remarks aired on state television in October, he said that his government needed to find a way to break its 126 million people out of their “geographic prison.” He also referred to a 19th-century Ethiopian warrior who he said declared the Red Sea as Ethiopia’s “natural boundary.”

The comments jolted the region, with observers and officials worrying that Mr. Abiy might start another war as he faces internal divisions and just a year after the end of vicious conflict in the country’s northern Tigray region.

“The entire region was up in arms about these statements,” said Samira Gaid, the senior Horn of Africa analyst at Balqiis Insights, a research consultancy in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. “Everyone has been on notice since then about how a regional hegemon like Ethiopia would want to gain access to the sea.”

What’s in it for Somaliland?

Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991, established its own currency and flag, and has held numerous parliamentary and presidential elections. The territory is considered an oasis in a turbulent region, hosting a major literary festival that attracts prominent authors and a marathon in its capital, Hargeisa, that draws participants from all over the world.

But Somaliland has not received what it covets most: recognition.

President Abdi, who came to power in late 2017, has overstayed his term and is operating under an extension structure that is not recognized by the country’s political opposition. In addition, his government has faced a major challenge in Las Anod town, where rights groups say dozens of civilians have been killed and injured in fighting between the authorities and members of a local clan.

Given all of these challenges, “this deal is a lifeline” for President Abdi, Ms. Gaid said. “With this kind of statement now, he tips the edges and comes up now with more bargaining power.”

Hussein Mohamed contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia. An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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