Tensions are rising between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa over the latter's signing of a memorandum of understanding with the breakaway Somaliland region that guarantees Ethiopia access to a sea and a military base on the Red Sea.

The memorandum was met with outrage from Mogadishu, of which the breakaway Somaliland region is a subordinate state, with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declaring in his speech to his country's parliament that he "will not accept that a piece of the country's land be taken", considering the memorandum a flagrant violation of international laws and cannot be implemented in any way.

The Somali president signed a law cancelling the agreement, noting that this law is Somalia's official position and "a strong message to all those who want land, sea and air invasion of the Somali people".

The Somali government also recalled its ambassador to Addis Ababa, stressing that it would take all legal measures to enable it to defend its sovereignty as a people and territory.

As Somaliland's capital Hargeisa marched welcoming the joint move as progress toward recognition of independence, thousands of Somalis in the capital Mogadishu protested the memorandum with banners reading "Our sea is not for sale".

Al-Shabaab says Addis Ababa will not be able to seize an inch of Somali waters (French)

Mogadishu Options

Somalia's tough stance has raised many questions about Mogadishu's ability to block the implementation of the memorandum, as observers believe that Mogadishu has broad options to pressure the Somaliland government.

Somali researcher and political analyst Mohamed Aptdon said his government can mobilize the street and Somali public opinion at home and abroad against the agreement.

It also has the ability – adds Aptdon in his interview with Al Jazeera Net – to conclude a joint defense treaty with one of the major countries regionally or internationally, which will negatively affect the Ethiopian ambition to obtain a port across the Somali coast.

He stresses the existence of the escalation card in the hands of the Somali decision-maker, who may move towards declaring a rupture and stopping economic cooperation between the two countries, accompanied by intensifying diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia by turning to regional and international forums.

International reactions

Following the signing of the memorandum, several positions were issued by regional and international parties, with statements urging the African Union, the European Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the United States and a number of countries to respect the unity, sovereignty and integrity of Somalia.

The Arab League also expressed its "full solidarity" with the Somali government in "rejecting and condemning" the memorandum of understanding.

The Intergovernmental Authority on East African Development (IGAD) also expressed deep concern over the recent developments and their implications for regional stability, calling on the two member countries of the group to cooperate to reach a peaceful and amicable solution.

Exhausted Somalia

Abdirazek Karrar, a political analyst specializing in the Horn of Africa, said Somalia is suffering from internal weakness and exhaustion as a result of the decades-long civil war and the frantic activity of al-Shabaab, thus limiting Mogadishu's options.

But at the same time, the citizens of Somaliland are not united in rallying around the independence project, as Solo's second region, Somaliland has witnessed an area of violence over the past months, a card Mogadishu can use, according to Karrar.

The Sool region and its capital, Lasaanood, have been in a state of insecurity since late 2022, against the backdrop of conflicts between the Somaliland government and the region's major clans, as the latter refuses to secede from Somalia and seeks to establish its own entity affiliated with Mogadishu, which was met with categorical rejection from Hargeisa.

Principle of State Sovereignty

At the continental level, Karrar believes in his speech to Al Jazeera Net that the government of President Hassan Sheikh Sharif is able to benefit from the adherence of the Organization of the African Union to the principle of the sovereignty of the nation-state and respect for the borders inherited at independence, to embarrass Ethiopia, the host of the Union and attract support from inside and outside the black continent.

Close security and military co-operation between Washington and Mogadishu has yielded tangible results in curbing al-Shabaab last year, providing the ground for Somalia to receive Western support as counterterrorism is one of the most important determinants of US policy towards the region, he said, adding that Ethiopia's latest move "represents the kiss of life for al-Shabaab".

The group has declared that Addis Ababa "will not be able to seize an inch of Somali waters", calling on Somalis to "liberate the country" and engage in a "religious war" against Ethiopia, threatening to push the crisis in a more dangerous direction.

Legally, Abdirazek Karrar believes that Ethiopia is willing to sign an agreement similar to the one it concluded with DP World, but this time Somaliland will not accept the signing of the agreement except in exchange for recognizing its independence and full sovereignty, which carries with it a risk for Ethiopia, because it requires it first to work to mobilize more similar recognition to grant the agreement an international legal value, once signed.

If the agreement stalls, Addis Ababa will not be able to back down from recognition, and therefore will have no choice but to resort to force, which is difficult in the current circumstances.

Abiy Ahmed (left) believes that the solution to Ethiopia's problems depends on obtaining a sea port (Reuters)

Ethiopian Papers

On the other hand, Ethiopia and Somaliland seem to be continuing to develop the memorandum of understanding, which some Ethiopian elites explain by pointing out that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea guarantees landlocked countries the right to conclude agreements with coastal states to access the sea and benefit from port services, and that the Horn of Africa region is teeming with international military bases, so why is this forbidden to Addis Ababa?

"Ethiopia relies on its position that this will not be the first agreement concluded by the separatist Somaliland region with an external party, as there are precedents in this area with international companies and bodies."

The Somaliland government signed two agreements with DP World (2016 and 2018) to operate a regional trade and logistics hub that includes the development of a free economic zone project in the commercial port city of Berbera.

The UAE company retains a 51% stake in the project, the first phase of which was completed in 2021, enabling the port to operate with an operating capacity of up to 500,<> containers per year.

Somaliland Prime Minister Muse Bihi's quest for independence recognition will push him to give Ethiopia 20 kilometers ashore in exchange for that goal, regardless of the economic returns.

Abdirazek Karrar agrees, explaining that the recognition of a country with continental and international weight such as Ethiopia is an important boost to Hargeisa's efforts in this field, and that what may tempt the two sides to develop their understandings is the relative stability and democratic system in Somaliland, which "made many academic centers and personalities sympathize with Hargeisa's right to self-determination."

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed adopted early on the thesis that the solution to Ethiopia's problems depended on obtaining a sea outlet, and that this enabled him to co-opt an estimated percentage of Ethiopian elites and masses behind this idea.

He added that Ethiopia's access to the sea is not a modern idea, but a revival of an idea that has remained firmly entrenched in the Ethiopian collective mind.

Old crises in new molds

Ethiopia's memorandum of understanding with Somaliland has raised tensions in the Horn of Africa, while many international and regional parties have come together to contain the escalating conflict between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa and prevent the region from sliding into greater chaos.

This emerging crisis adds more gunpowder to the explosive barrel of the Horn of Africa, whose countries suffer from security fragility, civil wars and the activity of armed movements, while the outbreak of conflict in the Horn of Africa will be a nightmare for all international powers concerned with the security of the Red Sea.

Observers believe that this crisis is subject to escalation, especially if it is linked to the Ethiopian Prime Minister's attempt to export his internal crises to neighboring countries, and if the tension between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa is not contained, it will reach an unprecedented degree, accompanied by regional alignments that raise the cost of recognizing the independence of the separatist Somaliland region.

However, there are calls for the countries of the region to deal realistically and objectively in order to address the dilemma of Ethiopia's need for a sea port, while the latter must be realistic in its demands, and Mogadishu must formulate an appropriate equation to solve the Somaliland crisis instead of conflict.

Source : Al Jazeera