The Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement and the enduring relevance of sea power

The Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement and the enduring relevance of sea power


16 | 01 | 2024


In exchange for the recognition of independence from Somalia, Ethiopia would get a 50-year lease of a portion of coast in the Indian Ocean

En la imagen

Tropical cyclone in the Arabian Sea approaching Somalia [NASA]

On January 1st, the government of Ethiopia and the unrecognized territory of Somaliland signed a MoU which could have important geopolitical consequences for the region if eventually enforced. Such consequences would affect its stability, as well as maritime security in a region that is already experiencing significant problems. Although the content of the memorandum has not been made public yet, it apparently involves Ethiopia’s support for the recognition of Somaliland as an independent state, in exchange for a 50-year lease of a small part of Somaliland’s coast in the Indian Ocean.

Still to be formalized, what was agreed in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) could lead to a spike in geopolitical tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia. The latter, strictly opposed to the independence of Somaliland since the inception of such movement, has called for an immediate termination of the ongoing efforts to crystalize the agreement. But more importantly, it would also grant Ethiopia, a land-locked country, commercial and naval access to ports alongside the Indian Ocean’s coast—although the precise location of such ports is yet to be decided.

Red Sea crisis

The announcement of the agreement between the two actors comes at a critical moment for maritime security in the region. Following the numerous Houthi attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Bab El-Mandeb regions, which began in mid-October, the transit of maritime commerce has been reduced by almost 90% with several of the major shipping giants having suspended transits through the region. Since the first attacks took place, more than 30 incidents have been reported involving anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, UAVs and USVs launched from Yemen—including the hijacking of several merchant ships in the Indian Ocean. Most of the attacks, however, have been effectively addressed by US, British and French warships deployed to the region.

In mid-December, the United States launched ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian,’ a multinational coalition under the mandate of the Combined Task Force 153 headquartered in Bahrain, in an effort to diminish the threats to maritime security in the area and restore the flow of maritime commerce. After several warnings and calls for the Houthis to cease their activity, a combined US-UK attack took place in the early hours of January 12th, with attacks against several strategic locations on land.

Ethiopia’s dilemma

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had previously expressed Ethiopian national desire to have access to the waters of the Red Sea, claiming geographical, historical, and economic reasons. Ethiopia is the most densely populated land-locked country in the world, with a population of roughly 125 million. With the secession of Eritrea in the 1990s and the subsequent loss of their ports and any access to the sea, the nation has faced significant economic struggles ever since, becoming heavily dependent from Djibouti for international trade (which crosses through the Addis-Djibouti Corridor).

Although the contents of the MoU have not been made public yet, the deal with Somaliland reportedly includes a 50-year lease of part of the latter’s coastal territory in exchange for Ethiopia’s political support towards their independence from Somalia. Abiy’s office announced via X (formerly Twitter) that “the memorandum of understanding shall pave the way to realize the aspiration to secure access to the sea and diversify its access to sea ports.”

Such agreement would provide Adis Abeba with access to commercial and naval activity in strategic waters, astride some of the most important maritime routes that cross the Red Sea. Although there is no indication yet on what port would be leased to them, it is expected that having direct access to maritime commercial traffic would help improve Ethiopia’s economic situation, and potentially benefit its military posture.

In his latest declarations, the Ethiopian Prime Minister highlighted the importance of gaining access to sea, describing it as an “existential issue” and claiming the Red Sea is Ethiopia’s “natural boundary.” These arguments, partly based on historical claims, mirror those which prompted Russia to invade Crimea in 2014, as well as those of China in the South China Sea, and could eventually make Abiy’s government attempt to use military force to exercise its claims.

However, unlike Russia and China, Ethiopia does not have the military capacity to enforce its claims. Furthermore, it is already strained by a complicated economic situation, and the move could bring an additional confrontation with Somalia. Thus, pushing to do so against other countries in the region could prove fatal for a country which is already affected by internal crises.

Importance of sea power

Although it is still too soon to tell how the situation will evolve over the following months, it is clear that Ethiopia is facing a significant strategic decision which could heavily impact its future. The move made with the MoU is clearly aimed at easing the economic struggles faced by the country during the past decades, but the opposition of other regional actors – namely Somalia – could bring more complications to the table.

Nevertheless, the decision made by Abiy’s government is also a significant indicator of the importance that sea power will have over the following decades. Maritime commerce accounts for the 80% of the world’s trade in terms of volume, and 50% in terms of value. Furthermore, with the return of great power competition and the emphasis that countries like China, the United States and many others have placed on strengthening their naval capabilities, sea power is back as a dominant feature of global geopolitics.