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At the core of the current debate surrounding the recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Ethiopia and Somaliland lie three major interests: Somalia’s unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty; Somaliland’s pursuit of de jure recognition of its de facto independence and sovereignty; Ethiopia’s renewed long-standing aspiration to regain access to the sea. Rooted in the region’s history, these issues have evolved to encompass a tangled mix of internal political dynamics, geopolitical significance, and international legal repercussions.

Clearly, the controversy is not merely about the lease agreement for a port or navy base. Several states, including China and the USA in Djibouti, and the UAE in Somaliland, have established similar arrangements for ports and military bases. What is new about the MoU is Ethiopia’s consideration of conferring formal recognition on Somaliland as an independent state.

Sovereignty in Limbo 

Somaliland’s legal argument for independence is based on its brief period of sovereignty in 1960, its subsequent voluntary union with Somalia, and the legal ramifications of the dissolution of this union owing to the collapse of the Somali government in 1991. Somaliland claims that it meets the conditions for statehood as set out in international law, particularly the Montevideo Convention. However, the international community’s reluctance to recognise it as a de jure sovereign state remains a significant obstacle. It is an indisputable fact that Somaliland was a recognised independent country in 1960, prior to its unification with Italian Somaliland to form Somalia. Somaliland’s argument for independence is rooted in the principle of respecting colonial-era borders, a fundamental principle of the Organization of African Unity (African Union). Somaliland asserts that, according to the AU’s principle, its borders as of 1960 – when it gained independence from British rule – should be recognised. This argument is centred on the notion that the African Union, which generally upholds the sanctity of colonial-era borders to prevent territorial disputes and conflicts, should recognise Somaliland’s borders as they were at the time of its brief independence. This position challenges the more commonly recognised notion of Somalia as a unified state, which includes the territory of present-day Somaliland. 

The 2005 African Union (AU) report on Somaliland indeed offered a nuanced perspective on the region’s status and its implications within the context of the AU’s principle of border intangibility. This principle generally upholds the borders inherited at the time of a country’s independence. The AU’s stance, as reflected in the 2005 report, recognises the complexity of the situation, balancing the need for stability and respect for existing borders with the unique historical and political circumstances of Somaliland. Ali Mazrui, a renowned Pan-Africanist scholar, suggested a pragmatic approach in line with these complexities. He advocated for the de facto recognition of Somaliland, proposing that it be allowed representation in AU meetings. He argued that this approach is similar to that of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at the United Nations, where the PLO participates in discussions without full member status. Mazrui’s suggestion aimed to provide a platform for Somaliland’s voice in the African Union, acknowledging its unique situation while not fully contravening the principle of border intangibility.

In effect, Somaliland’s demand is recognition of its independence, not independence per se. Sovereignty can only exist when it is de jure recognised. Somaliland’s push for recognition under the MoU is part of its broader effort to gain international recognition as an independent state, separate from Somalia. Somaliland has enjoyed de facto recognition for the last three decades with its own government and democratic institutions, and it operates independently from the federal government of Somalia. However, its quest for international recognition has been challenging, as most countries and international organisations continue to view it as part of Somalia.

As seen with Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia and South Sudan’s from Sudan, recognition requires substantial international support, especially from global powers and organisations such as the AU and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Crucially, the pathway to recognition often involves a negotiated referendum process between the capital of the region claiming independence and that of the main state. In this context, negotiations between Hargeisa and Mogadishu, facilitated by robust engagement from regional and global powers, have been considered vital. The most recent mediation efforts between Somalia and Somaliland, led by Djibouti on 29 December 2023, resulted in an agreement to resume talks aimed at resolving their long-standing disputes. While these talks are a significant development, the MoU could preclude their immediate resumption. 

As seen with Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia and South Sudan’s from Sudan, recognition requires substantial international support.

Collectively, these issues shape the complex and multifaceted debate surrounding Somaliland’s status, involving legal, political, geopolitical, and diplomatic considerations. 

Of course, the question of when and if Ethiopia will formally recognise Somaliland as a sovereign state and how the MoU will affect Somaliland’s chances of recognition beyond Ethiopia remains a key issue, although it is not the primary focus of this piece. Here, the primary objective is to provide analysis on how the MoU could signify a turning point in the region’s domestic, geopolitical, and diplomatic landscape.

Even though both parties have alluded to its contents in individual statements, the specifics of the MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland have not yet been finalised and made public. Statements have varied, sometimes appearing to confirm the existence of a distinct agreement, depending on the source. Addis Ababa describes the MoU as a critical step “paving the way to realise its aspiration of securing access to the sea and ports”, viewing it as a foundational stone for long-standing goals. Conversely, Hargeisa perceives the MoU as a groundbreaking move for international recognition, articulating the terms as follows: “In exchange for 20 km of sea access for Ethiopian Naval forces, leased for a period of 50 years, Ethiopia will formally recognise the Republic of Somaliland.” In what appears to be an attempt at damage control, a subsequent statement from Addis Ababa introduces a procedure for such recognition, stating that the MoU “includes provisions for the Ethiopian government to conduct an in-depth assessment before taking a position on Somaliland’s efforts to gain recognition”. The Somaliland Foreign Minister, Esse Kayd, also made it clear that the formal agreement cannot be signed without Ethiopia’s recognition of the Republic of Somaliland. This dilutes the initial declarations by both Ethiopia – that it has gained access to the sea – and Somaliland – that Ethiopia will formally recognise its independence. Thus, core elements of the MoU – access to the sea and recognition – are yet to be ironed out. These latest caveats raise fundamental questions of law and statecraft. Given the heated domestic politics and geopolitical implications, what is the benefit of publicly pronouncing an MoU without finalised details? Could the MoU lead to more misunderstanding than understanding? Could this potentially trigger additional warfare, in addition to the ongoing devastating wars in Sudan and Ethiopia? Reactions to the MoU from both regional and international actors have been knee-jerk. Will Ethiopia’s assessment result in the recognition of Somaliland? And will other states follow suit?

Legal consequences

From a legal standpoint, an MoU is not considered a binding agreement like a treaty and serves as a non-committal declaration of intent without imposing legal responsibilities on the parties involved. Either party has the option to end the agreement at their discretion, often without cause and at short notice. MoUs are not subject to the legislative procedures of oversight, review, and ratification as outlined in the constitution. When utilised as a binding agreement, an MoU can become undemocratic and circumvent the constitutional safeguards put in place to preserve parliamentary sovereignty. At the international level, an MoU is not governed by treaty law and breaches do not result in international responsibility, nor is it obligatory to be registered under Article 102 of the United Nations Charter. Hence, neither Ethiopia nor Somaliland have the legal standing to make an international claim regarding the MoU before an international court, and breaches do not automatically lead to compensation or reparations. Although it holds great political, diplomatic, and geopolitical significance, the MoU can be considered a mere “gentleman’s agreement”, with its true value lying in the realm of politics rather than law.

Political implications and geopolitical repercussions

For Ethiopia, the MoU diverts attention from internal conflicts, famine, and economic woes. For Somaliland, it potentially opens doors to international recognition, legitimising President Muse Bihi Abdi’s government, but it may also intensify conflicts in areas such as Laascaanood and Sool. For Somalia, it represents a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, necessitating an outright rejection of the MoU and the seeking of support from regional allies such as Egypt, Eritrea, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Somalia has already begun its diplomatic campaign, declaring the MoU null and void. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud had a phone call with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Hamad Thani, while similar conversations are likely or have already taken place with Eritrea and the KSA, and possibly with the Djiboutian leader. This, in turn, consolidates opposition to Somaliland’s bid for recognition and outside interference. 

Given the heated domestic politics and geopolitical implications, what is the benefit of publicly pronouncing an MoU without finalised details?

What is more, the MoU and its diversion of attention could alleviate the rising tensions and possibility of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but the potential causes for these are still on the horizon. Geopolitically, if and when the MoU is implemented, Ethiopia will have naval forces in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden that are aligned with the UAE’s strategic interests. The UAE, with the support of Somaliland and Ethiopia, could thus reinforce its presence there. This could be perceived as a threat by the Jeddah Red Sea Council – the KSA, Egypt, Eritrea, and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). In addition, it challenges Djibouti’s role, especially its monopoly over port services to Ethiopia – the second-largest population in Africa. 

IGAD and its predicament

Moreover, Djibouti, as the IGAD chair, could also see the MoU as undermining its mediation efforts between Somalia and Somaliland. Nairobi’s response might be more cautious than expected, influenced by its growing diplomatic rift with Addis Ababa, closer ties with Asmara, and domestic political considerations. Sudan’s divided representation, with the SAF opposing and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) potentially supporting the MoU, adds complexity. Uganda and South Sudan, as IGAD members, may initially remain neutral, but this could gradually change. Recently, Sudan, Chad, and the UAE were involved in a diplomatic tiff, resulting in the reciprocal expulsion of each other’s diplomats. The RSF is gaining control of Khartoum and could use the opportunity to declare itself the legitimate representative of the Sudanese state, placing the UAE in indirect control of Sudan. The RSF (under Hemeti) and the Coordination Body of the Democratic Civil Forces (Taqaddum, led by the former prime minister Abdallah Hamdok) recently held a meeting in Addis Ababa, and diplomatic support from Ethiopia may propel Hemeti to advance this claim as the legitimate representative of Sudan to IGAD and through that to the AU and the UN. This is a long shot, but not unthinkable.

Uganda and South Sudan, as part of IGAD, could shift from their neutral stance, potentially exacerbating the challenges in IGAD, already strained by regional conflicts. The IGAD chief’s latest statement, which refrains from mentioning or criticising the MoU and instead calls for a de-escalation between Ethiopia and Somalia, has been met with displeasure by Somalia. The Somali government has cited a bias towards Ethiopia in the statement and requested an immediate apology from the Executive Secretary, along with a retraction of the statement and the implementation of appropriate corrective actions, thereby highlighting IGAD’s predicament. 

Middle powers and UAE-KSA rivalry

Amid the intense competition among the great powers, regional powers such as the UAE and KSA are forming new alliances, carving out their own geopolitical spheres of influence. In Africa, these reach beyond the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, connecting the Middle East with North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel. The ongoing war in Gaza has disrupted shipping routes in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, revealing the interdependent nature of security in the Middle East and Africa. This is crucial, as over 15 per cent of global shipping passing through the strategic Suez Canal has been disrupted by these threats, particularly at the Bab el-Mandeb chokepoint. As a result, shipping companies are delaying entry into this key maritime corridor, leading to rising shipping costs and increased war-risk premiums.

With the UAE and KSA competing for influence, resources, and markets, both seek arable land, ports, and markets for their projected manufacturing and port development and management projects. This has led to the emergence of new power alliances between Middle Eastern countries and regimes in Africa, primarily driven by security concerns, resource access, and power politics. Their involvement in the Horn of Africa is driven by a combination of personal relationships, military strength, and financial influence, transitioning from state-centric to personality-driven and corporate-like powers. A key factor in this competition between the two blocs is the rivalry between their leaders and their desire to consolidate their personal power. 

Amid the intense competition among the great powers, regional powers such as the UAE and KSA are forming new alliances, carving out their own geopolitical spheres of influence.

First the alliance and now the rivalry between the KSA-led and UAE-led blocs are reshaping regional dynamics, with both blocs actively engaging in proxy wars and power politics across the Horn and North Africa. The involvement of Russia and Turkey in various regional contexts further complicates the situation. Key factors influencing this shift include the Gaza war, the Abraham Accord, and the Saudi-Iran rapprochement under Chinese auspices. The UAE and the KSA increasingly occupy pivotal positions, impacting the peace and security of African nations amid the perceived decrease in the US’s influence. These developments are part of the broader multipolar dynamic, with shifting focuses from traditional conflicts such as the Gaza war towards broader geopolitical strategies. 

Notably, the UAE’s growing military investments in Africa – particularly in Ethiopia and the Sudanese RSF – give it an advantage over the KSA which, owing to internal constraints, avoids such involvement. Generally, however, leaders in these two blocs face few domestic constraints on their power.

Reactions from international actors

The MoU has elicited various reactions from international organisations. The AU Commission stressed the importance of respecting the unity, territorial integrity, and full sovereignty of all African Union member states, including Somalia and Ethiopia. The Arab League expressed full solidarity with the Somali government’s decision to reject the MoU. The League considered the memo invalid, unacceptable, and a breach of Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial sanctity. ​The European Union (EU) and Egypt have issued statements expressing their support for Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The EU unequivocally stated the importance of respecting the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Somalia as per its constitution and the foundational instruments of the AU and UN. The UN is yet to pronounce itself.

The US State Department called for diplomatic dialogue to de-escalate tensions in the Horn of Africa following the MoU and reaffirmed its acknowledgment of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia within its 1960 borders. It is not entirely apparent which border is being referenced, but the message remains the same – a plea for diplomatic engagement. 

A clear US position, influenced by global concerns and its 2024 elections, is crucial. On the one hand, the only other power with significant leverage is the US, although the EU and China can also exert influence, to some extent. On the other hand, the US’s position is influenced by broader global concerns such as the Gaza war and maritime security. Despite its hyperpower status, the US has seen its role in maintaining global order diminish, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. This can be traced back to former US president Barack Obama’s policy of “leading from behind”, aimed at withdrawing from the protracted US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, responsibilities were delegated to the KSA, the UAE, and Israel. For instance, in the wars in Yemen and Tigray (Ethiopia), as well as the Jeddah mediation in Sudan, the Western world, particularly the US, seems to have outsourced responsibilities to the KSA. Internal governance issues continue to weaken the US’s role in maintaining global order. The new development must also be seen in light of escalating maritime threats in the region, partly owing to the Gaza war, with the effectiveness of the US’s “Operation Prosperity Guardian” facing severe curtailment. As observed in the conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Tigray in Ethiopia, the UAE, although a close partner of the US, does not always align its policies with those of the US. The pertinent question is: how do Gulf states like the UAE diverge from US policies while the US remains the primary guarantor of their security? In the case of the Gulf states, their special relationship with the military-industrial complex gives them enough clout to influence politics in the West and East. 

The Gaza war and rising tension in the Horn of Africa may lead the US to re-engage more robustly with these regions albeit not during the upcoming electoral campaign. The US has the necessary power and capabilities – economic, demographic, military, and technological – but its politics of identity challenges have weakened its assertive position in ensuring world order. With the 2024 elections approaching, the US’s engagement in the region may be affected, and the potential for disruptive actions by military adventurers in the region cannot be ignored. This illustrates the complex geopolitical dynamics involving the Gulf, the Horn of Africa, and the US, and highlights the reduced agency of African nations in shaping domestic politics. 

As diplomatic manoeuvres unfold, the MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland symbolises the rising geopolitical significance of Africa and the effects of competition among great and middle powers. This MoU will be used by two alliances: the Saudi-led bloc, increasingly collaborating with Somalia, Turkey, and Qatar, and the UAE-led bloc, comprising Ethiopia, Somaliland, and the RSF. These developments showcase the intricate interplay of domestic politics, geopolitical interests of extra-continental powers, and the agency of Pan-African institutions. National interests and various forms of power (economic, military, technological, demographic, and diplomatic) are projected, forcing new alliances and intensifying global competition. This scenario indicates escalating pressure on African institutions from both great and middle powers to align with specific blocs.

Despite its hyperpower status, the US has seen its role in maintaining global order diminish, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.

Due to the ineffectiveness of the multilateral system and the dispersed power polarity, Africa faces strategic policy dilemmas and complex questions regarding partnerships. The African Agency’s effectiveness hinges on its readiness and preparedness, which in turn depends on the quality of leadership, institutional strength, and governance.

Consequently, Africa must navigate tough decisions on various global issues. A key question emerges: How should the AU and IGAD approach these decisions? What principles should inform their decision-making in this context?

To ensure Africa’s voice is influential and respected by great and regional powers, and its concerns and aspirations are considered by the international community, Africa’s positions should be based on three core principles: 

Pragmatism – The AU and its member states should eschew dogmatic or idealistic stances in favour of a practical approach that prioritises the tangible improvement of living conditions in Africa. 

Dynamism – The AU and its member states must be ready to quickly adapt their policies in response to changing regional or global circumstances, including revising foreign or maritime policies and enhancing African countries’ capabilities.

Due to the ineffectiveness of the multilateral system and the dispersed power polarity, Africa faces strategic policy dilemmas and complex questions regarding partnerships.

A collective unified voice – Given the diversity and fragmentation in the AU and its 55 member states’ approach to partnerships with extra-continental actors, a unified stance is crucial. This collective action is vital in augmenting their agency and shielding Pan-African and regional decision-making from external interference. The AU must continue to issue common African positions, now extending this practice to partnerships with extra-continental actors. This involves defining shared interests, building overlapping consensus, and steering a common rule-based effort. Such a unified voice would amplify Africa’s agency and international clout, helping to counterbalance the asymmetries in international relations. It might require the AU to assert sovereignty over foreign affairs; while member states can enter agreements with third parties as sovereign entities, they should commit to a unified stance and act in unison, ensuring these agreements align with a commonly agreed position. These broad continental issues call for a pan-African transformation, necessitating national introspection and a revamp of the AU’s interventionist and integrationist mandate.