Ethio-Somaliland Relationship in the Era of PM Abiy & President Bihi

In April this year, a new star has risen from the horizons of Horn of Africa in the name of Mr. Abiy Ahmed, the young ambitious and energetic Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Unlike most of the regional leaders, Mr. Ahmed has proven to be revolutionary, innovative reformer, energetics and quite daring about bringing drastic change to the centuries backward Ethiopia and the entire Horn of Africa. First, he dared to cross the Tigre Taboo and normalized relations with Eritrea by lift the No 1 barrier, namely seceding the land in dispute to the Eritreans in line with the ruling of the International Court of Justice; a decision his predecessors were not bold enough to make. He has therefore broken the iceberg and jumped the most difficult hurdle. This development has presumably shaken the sleepy mood of the quasi leaders in the Horn – or so they tend to pretend.  More importantly, he opened Ethiopia’s jails and released thousands of political prisoners who were unlawfully held behind pars. He also promised to adopt full-fledged democratization of the nation, and to hold fair and free elections within a couple of years. In the foreign affairs front, Mr. Ahmed has indeed adopted a rather unorthodox strategy aimed at crushing all the barriers hindering regional economic integration. At times, his ideas sound unrealistic or overoptimistic.

Yet, some observers believe that Mr. Ahmed is an Ambitious Reformer who could lead the way to real economic growth, prosperity and social justice to this impoverished region.

As far as Somaliland is concerned, the effects that this shift in Ethiopia’s strategic policy could bring about are of twofold:

  • First, the impact that the new Ethiopian vision could have on the bilateral relationship with its Eastern neighbor.
  • Second, the impact that the new geopolitical dynamics could have on the entire Region

A communique released at the end of a recent meeting between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and President Farmaajo of Somali has stressed safeguarding the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia”.  Some observers have interpreted this statement as an indication of a shift in the direction of the Ethiopian relationship with Somaliland, which has restored its independence from the old failed union with Somali in 1991 but yet has to obtain international formal recognition. At present, the Ethiopian government, like many other nations worldwide, is dealing with Somaliland as De Facto nation and is treated like any other sovereign state in the region.

The reinstatement of the sovereignty of Somalia is not new and has been always repeated over the years whenever a Somali leader meets with another world leader.  The sovereignty episode is enshrined on the UN Charter. It is therefore diplomatically customary for leaders to repeat this statement to confirm that their countries are normalizing their relationships – particularly where these relations have not been previously so warm.

 

The direction of the new Ethiopian strategy towards Somaliland is yet to be drawn and declared. No reliable information has emerged so far on this issue ever since the new MP came to power. In the meantime, we are of the opinion that our neighbor would carefully read the history of the region and make an informed decision on this sensitive question.  The historical facts indicating the solid centuries-old Ethiopian Somaliland strategic relationship could be summarized as follows:

Historically, Ethiopian and Somaliland interests were always the most interconnected in the region. The Empires of IFAT and ADAL of the 15th and 16th centuries were located on the shared territories presently known as Eastern Ethiopia and Western Somaliland, stretching from the City of Herar in the West up to the Port of Berbera. Similarly, historians have narrated the active trade between the City of Herar and the ports Zayla and Berbera.  In 1853, the British explorer Richard Burton has extensively described the close relationship between Herar and Zayla and the heavy traffic of the caravans between Herar and Berbera. On the contrary, Somalia (the south) never had any close trade or other meaningful contacts with the mainland Ethiopia due to the geographical realities of the territories.

Since Somaliland has reclaimed its independence in 1991, all the incursions and hostilities against Ethiopia have ceased and the Somaliland government has always honored its obligations in this regard. Hardly any shots were fired at the Ethiopians from the Somaliland side for more than 27 years. Ethiopia is and has been well aware of this reality and has concluded security agreements with the successive Somaliland Governments. On the contrary, thousands of Ethiopian soldiers’ lives have been lost and continues to be the case in the fight with the terrorist organizations operating from Somalia.

The Ethiopian Government is fully aware of its interest in Berbera and Zayla on the Red Sea and would not composite these vital interests in favor of some assumed access to the remote ports of Kismanyo and Mogadishu in the Indian Ocean.  In this connection, the Ethiopians hold 19% stake in the DP World Berbera Port Concession. The company is currently engaged in USD 120 million expansion of the port and the construction of Highway linking the port to the Ethiopian border.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the borderline linking Somaliland and Ethiopian was being demarcated in accordance with Anglo- Ethiopian Treaty of 1897. On the contrary, the borders linking Somalia (south) and Ethiopia are marked in Dotted Line (between Gaalkayo and Dolo – please refer to Africa Political Map) which indicates that these borders are disputed and are not backed by any international treaty. Therefore, it is the best interest of the leaders of Ethiopia and Somalia to first agree on their shared boundaries before engaging in any economic integration etc.

Hassan Abdi Yousuf
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia