Somalia Stands Firm on Ethiopia Port Deal

Somalia has stated that they “will never accept” the establishment of an Ethiopian naval base in the breakaway region of Somaliland, in connection to a deal signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland on January 1st which sought to lease some of Somaliland’s ports to Ethiopia. The Somali statement also comes as Kenya attempts to broker peace between Ethiopia and Somalia, proposing a different deal.

A Memorandum of Understanding

The deal in question was signed between Ethiopia and the breakaway government of Somaliland on January 1st. The ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MoU) will see Ethiopia gain access to the Somaliland port of Berbera. In exchange for access to 20km of coastline, and thus access for Ethiopia to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, Ethiopia has stated they will recognize Somaliland’s independence, and establish official diplomatic ties.


Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) pictured when signing the deal with Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi (right), on January 1st 2024 (Photo from Somaliland MFA).

If Ethiopia recognizes Somaliland’s independence, it will be the first state to have done so. Ethiopia has long maintained unofficial diplomatic ties with Somaliland, however the establishment of official ties would provide a sense of legitimacy to Somaliland.

Though Somaliland has largely operated independently since 1991, it has gone unrecognized on the international stage. The borders are based upon former colonial borders, with Somaliland being a previous British colony, and Somalia itself being a former Italian colony. The African Union’s official policy opposes border shifts to colonial borders, meaning it opposes Somaliland’s independence.

Rising Tensions

After the MoU was signed, Somalia immediately rejected it, claiming it was a violation of their sovereignty. Ethiopia maintained their position, claiming the deal that was signed was legitimate, and not a violation of Somalia’s sovereignty.

Fears of a regional conflict quickly rose as Somalia vowed to defend their acclaimed territory, as well as when Egypt, who has their own disputes with Ethiopia, vowed to support Somalia. In the minds of many was the fact that Ethiopia and Somalia have gone to war twice in the last 50 years.


Somalian President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo, January 21st, 2024 (Photo from Presidency.eg).

Although the MoU was signed several months ago, tensions have remained high. Earlier in April, Somalia expelled the Ethiopian ambassador from Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and additionally ordered the closure of Ethiopian consulates in Garowe and Hargeisa.

Multiple different groups, in particular the African Union (AU) and IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an east African trade bloc of which both Somalia and Ethiopia are members), have attempted to mediate the crisis with little success. Somalia initially rejected any form of mediation, claiming they would only accept a full Ethiopian withdrawal from the deal.

Many international entities have also condemned the deal, with many referring to it as a violation of Somalia’s sovereignty.

Notably, Ethiopia has yet to go ahead with the deal. However, they also have yet to withdraw from it.

More recently, on April 11th, the Somali Foreign Minister, Ali Omar, said that while “Somalia will never accept (a) naval base,” they were “ready for commercial access in accordance with the international law of the sea.” He further added that Somalia would be willing to discuss different proposals so long as they “safeguard (our) sovereignty, political independence and unity.”

Kenya’s Proposal

One such proposal came from Kenya on the same day, April 11th. The proposal came as Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was in Kenya in order to speak with Kenyan President William Ruto. The talks were largely centred around the crisis with Ethiopia, as well as the two nations mutual problem of Al Shabaab, a Somalia based Islamic militant group.


Somalian President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud pictured with Kenyan President William Ruto in the State House in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 11th, 2024 (Photo from PCS).

President Ruto has been negotiating with Djibouti and IGAD in order to propose a regional maritime treaty that would facilitate the means for landlocked states in the area to negotiate commercial port access.

Korir Sing’oei, Kenya’s Principal Secretary for Foreign Affairs, stated that “IGAD can be able to formulate a treaty for sharing maritime resources,” adding that if the deal goes into effect, that Ethiopia would have “stable and predictable access to maritime resources” without any perceived violations of Somali sovereignty.

Secretary Sing’oei stated that Somalia and Ethiopia were considering Kenya’s proposal.

The exact details of Kenya’s proposal, namely where exactly Ethiopia would receive port access, is unknown.

Additionally discussed by President Ruto and President Mohamud was the acclaimed use of the deal by Al Shabaab for propaganda purposes. Kenya and Somalia have claimed that Al Shabaab is using the deal as a way to claim that the Somali government does not have the means to safeguard Somalia’s sovereignty, in order to foster both recruitment and anti-government sentiment.

These claims echo the same claims that the Somali government made a few days after the MoU’s signature, that it was being used for propaganda purposes by Al Shabaab. Additionally, it was claimed that any regional instability spawned by the deal could embolden the group, who has suffered a number of losses against the Somali government in recent times.

Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray is a published journalist and historicist with over 5 years experience in writing. His primary focus is on East and West African affairs.

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