Ethiopia's dangerous game in East Africa could spark conflict | Opinions

On January 1, a controversial memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia.

This deal supposedly gives landlocked Ethiopia a 20-kilometer coastal tract of land to establish a naval base and the right to build a commercial port. In return, Ethiopia said it intends to recognize Somaliland as an independent country, becoming the first nation to do so.

Ethiopian leaders have said this measure aims to correct what they consider a “historical mistake” of not having access to the sea. But Somalia bears no responsibility for this alleged historical injustice; Ethiopia lost its coastline after Eritrea gained independence in 1993 following a three-decade war. Furthermore, Ethiopia's claim that it needs access to the sea to grow its economy conveniently ignores the fact that its economy became the fastest growing on the continent after becoming landlocked.

Now Addis Ababa's actions threaten to spark yet another war in East Africa. Unless the forces of reason prevail among Ethiopian leaders, the entire region could be dragged into conflict.

Two desperate leaders

By all indications, this provocative move has its roots in the deep internal crisis facing the leaders of both Ethiopia and Somaliland. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, governs a troubled Ethiopia, which faces widespread ethnic conflict and escalating armed rebellions.

Ethiopia's government, emerging from a devastating civil war in the Tigray region, faces new pogroms by rebel forces from the Amhara and Oromo communities – the two largest ethnic groups – challenging authority in Addis Ababa.

Regionally, Ethiopia is in a precarious situation. Detente with Eritrea is unraveling as mutual acrimony between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea intensifies. Tensions with Egypt over the Renaissance Dam are reaching a boiling point, as Cairo recently withdrew its representative from a negotiating platform over sharing the waters of the Nile River. Relations with neighboring Sudan are not at their best. best moment since December, when Prime Minister Abiy gave a red carpet welcome to the leader of Sudan's Rapid Support Forces, a bitter enemy of the Sovereign Council that rules Sudan.

Economically, Ethiopia is experiencing severe financial strain. Last month, the government failed to pay $33 million in interest on its international government bond and in recent years has struggled to hold enough hard currency, restricting the movement of U.S. dollars out of the country. The official exchange rate is considerably lower than the black market rate, a reliable indicator of deep financial problems.

For Abdi, leader of the breakaway region of Somaliland, the situation is equally dire on the home front. Last year, he lost about a third of the former “British-Somaliland” territory to SSC-Khaatumo, a regional administration recognized by the Federal Government of Somalia.

Other communities, especially in the Awdal region, are also rising up as a result of the MoU with Ethiopia. Last week, Somaliland's defense minister, a native of the same region, resigned in protest of the MoU.

Furthermore, President Abdi's five-year term expired more than a year ago. An unelected Senate, known as “Guurti,” extended its term by two years, over the objection of Somaliland’s opposition parties in the elected lower house of the regional parliament.

This MOU is therefore widely seen in Ethiopia and Somaliland as a desperate attempt by their leaders to divert attention from their deep internal problems. However, the global response and internal reactions have been remarkably rapid and consistent.

Diplomatic reaction

The Memorandum of Understanding has received a swift and unanimous international response, affirming the inviolability of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia. Major global and regional powers, including the African Union, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the European Union, China, the United Kingdom and the United States, among others, have stood firm against the violation of Somalia's sovereignty by Ethiopia.

China's strong response is particularly significant given Somaliland's ties to Taiwan and Somalia's historic support for the “One China” policy. Russia, on the other hand, has remained silent, possibly seeing an opportunity to promote its strategic interests in the region.

On the African front, Ethiopia could find itself isolated if it recognizes Somaliland and violates a founding principle of the African Union, which is to safeguard the territorial integrity of member states.

Ethiopia's reckless action could lead to a campaign to move the AU headquarters from Addis Ababa, as it would be considered inherently inadequate to host a union based on respect for the sovereignty of all member states. Furthermore, the vast majority of AU Member States are primarily and politically opposed to recognizing secessionist movements, as that would open a can of worms throughout the continent.

Regional bets

The Memorandum of Understanding threatens to reignite historic hostilities between Ethiopia and Somalia. The two nations have a history of conflict, particularly the 1977-1978 war, and the 1,600-kilometer (994-mile) border between Somalia and Ethiopia remains officially disputed. This latest move by Ethiopia is by far the most significant violation of Somalia's sovereignty and territorial integrity since its independence in 1960.

If Ethiopia proceeds to establish a naval base in Somaliland, Somalia's strategic response would be multifaceted and equally dramatic. Among the proportional countermeasures it could take, Somalia would almost immediately sever diplomatic ties, expel all Ethiopian forces from Somalia, and suspend virtually all trade transactions. That could include banning Ethiopian Airlines from using Somali airspace, a move that would almost certainly cripple Africa's largest airline and Ethiopia's biggest source of foreign currency.

In addition, Somalia could seek to sign strategic defense pacts with Egypt, Eritrea and other countries as part of its long-term territorial fortification strategy. Such measures would not sit well with Ethiopia, and the resulting escalation could trigger a regional conflagration in the Horn of Africa, already one of the most volatile regions in the world.

Perhaps most disturbing for regional stability is that the Ethiopian action could radicalize tens of thousands of young Somalis who are already outraged by what they see as a historic enemy dismembering their country.

Coincidentally, it was the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia between 2006 and 2008 that gave rise to Al Shabab, the most violent militant group in Africa today. This Memorandum of Understanding would be the most poignant recruiting tool for violent extremist groups as well as irredentist movements.

Options for de-escalation

By signing this Memorandum of Understanding with Somaliland, Ethiopia opted for a rules-based international world order, weakened by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. However, the response from Somalia and around the world has been firm and has reflected strong support for its sovereignty.

Instead of following this dangerous path, Ethiopia should engage directly with the Federal Government of Somalia to discuss cooperative agreements, such as the utilization of existing Somali ports, following the model between Djibouti and Ethiopia. This approach would be more conducive to regional stability and respect for the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Somalia.

Somalia has repeatedly affirmed its willingness to engage constructively with Ethiopia on mutually beneficial trade deals that include the use of its ports by its larger southern neighbor. And Ethiopia has many things to offer Somalia, such as cheap electricity and transport and logistics hubs.

But the path Addis Ababa has taken with this MOU ensures a mutually destructive outcome for both countries. The only difference is that, more than most countries in the world, Somalia knows how to survive – and even thrive – under comprehensive state failure. Ethiopia, on the other hand, would not be able to cope with the resulting conflagration.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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