Somaliland president says controversial deal with Ethiopia can deter Red Sea attacks

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The controversial deal Somaliland has reached with Ethiopia to lease a strip of land near the entrance to the Red Sea would help “ensure freedom of navigation” for international shipping that has faced attacks around the vital waterway, according to the president of the separatist country.

Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but failed in its long quest for global acceptance, signed the deal in January that exchanged access territory in the Gulf of Aden in exchange for formal recognition by landlocked Ethiopia. sea.

But Somalia has vehemently opposed the deal and its president has declared that no one will give up “not even an inch” of its territory.

Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi told the Financial Times that Ethiopia’s deal “would allow Somaliland to support international efforts to ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea,” where ships have been subject to repeated attacks in recent months by Houthi rebels. backed by Iran.

Ethiopia’s plan for the land around Berbera included a port and fleet that would help defend against maritime threats, he suggested. “Ethiopia will build a naval military base and have commercial ships and in return Ethiopia will give us recognition – that’s the basics,” Bihi Abdi said.

Bihi Abdi also said the agreement was an important step towards realizing his self-proclaimed nation’s dream of full independence. “The historic memorandum of understanding between Somaliland and Ethiopia will provide us with a clear path to international recognition,” he said from Hargeisa, the breakaway nation’s capital.

Ethiopia has sought access to the coast since the 1993 division with Eritrea left it landlocked. It sees the deal with Somaliland as a way to ease its dependence on Djibouti for sea access, although the United States, the EU, the Arab League and Egypt (which has a dispute with Ethiopia over a huge dam on the Blue Nile) have warned that the plan could intensify conflict in a region already hit by terrorism and war.

A senior Ethiopian official involved in the Somaliland talks said he was “optimistic” that a final deal would materialize, adding: “It’s just a matter of realpolitik and need.” Omar Mahmood, senior East Africa analyst at Crisis Group, said that while the deal had generated significant “repercussion”, Ethiopia did not want to “give up completely”.

China, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have also sought access to the Horn of Africa, a poor but strategically important region that includes Somalia and Djibouti. Somaliland has attracted a $300 million investment from Dubai-based DP World into Berbera and its broader economic zone, which accounts for around 75 percent of the Somaliland government’s revenue, with the aim of transforming it into a regional shopping center. The United Arab Emirates controls Berbera airport and has been establishing a naval base.

Hargeisa said international recognition could unlock more investment in its $3.4 billion economy that relies on maritime trade, remittances and camel farming. The recognition was an “economic game changer,” Bihi Abdi said.

The President of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, and the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed.
The President of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, and the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed. Somaliland separated from Somalia in 1991 after a decade-long war of independence. © Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Next to the president’s office is a framed copy of the agreement Somaliland signed with Britain when the former protectorate gained independence in 1960. It then joined the former Italian colony of Somalia, only to break away in 1991 after a decade of independence. . war and the fall of Somali dictator Siad Barre.

Somaliland has recently struggled to contain violence in the east, where some local clan leaders have declared their intention to sever ties with Hargeisa and reunite with Somalia. But the breakaway country has provided relative stability to its 5.7 million people compared with Somalia, which collapsed into conflict and warlord disputes after the fall of Barre and has been fighting a brutal Islamist-linked insurgency. to Al Qaeda.

Somaliland has its own army and elected parliament, prints its own currency and issues its own passports. The United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Türkiye, Ethiopia and Taiwan have established a presence there. Despite such autonomy, Mogadishu considers it fully part of Somalia and Somaliland has not been formally recognized by any country.

Bihi Abdi, a former Somali military pilot turned rebel fighter who is running for re-election in November, insisted that Somalis “support” the potential deal with Ethiopia that is not legally binding, although the precise details have been kept secret.

But it has encountered some internal opposition, including from Bihi Abdi’s own defense minister, who resigned in protest.

Some international capitals fear it could provoke a new division in a region beset by armed hostilities. Somalia is already fighting a long-running insurgency by the jihadist group al-Shabaab and Ethiopia is still recovering from a brutal and costly civil war in the Tigray region.

Washington, an ally of Mogadishu, said it was “concerned” by the agreement that “threatens to disrupt the fight” against Islamist militancy. Bihi Abdi dismissed this claim as “baseless.”

He also tried to downplay tensions with Somalia, saying a war between the two was “impossible.” He also said the agreement could actually help “prevent” any potential conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea by meeting Addis Ababa’s need for access to the sea.

“We have been working for international recognition of our independent status for more than 33 years,” said Bihi Abdi. “We are ready.”

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