Somaliland president says contentious Ethiopia deal can deter Red Sea assaults

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Financial times

Muse Bihi Abdi says accord can secure ‘freedom of navigation’ in waterway where Houthi rebels have attacked international shippin

The contentious deal that Somaliland has struck with Ethiopia to lease a strip of land near the entrance to the Red Sea would help “secure freedom of navigation” for international shipping that has faced attacks around the vital waterway, according to the breakaway country’s president.

Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but has failed in its long-standing quest for global acceptance, signed the accord in January that swapped access territory on the Gulf of Aden in return for formal recognition from landlocked Ethiopia.

But Somalia has vehemently opposed the deal, with its president declaring that “not an inch” of its territory would be signed away by anyone.

Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi told the Financial Times that the Ethiopia accord would “allow Somaliland to support international efforts to secure freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea”, where vessels have come under repeated assaults in recent months from Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

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

Bihi Abdi also said the deal was an important step to realising his self-declared nation’s dream of full independence. “The historic memorandum of understanding between Somaliland and Ethiopia will provide us with a clear pathway towards international recognition,” he said from Hargeisa, capital of the breakaway nation. Ethiopia has sought access to the coast ever since the 1993 split with Eritrea left it landlocked. It views the Somaliland deal as a way to alleviate its dependence on Djibouti for sea access, although the US, EU, Arab League and Egypt — which has a dispute with Ethiopia over a huge dam on the Blue Nile — have warned that the plan could escalate conflict in a region already battered by terrorism and war.

A senior Ethiopian official involved in the Somaliland talks said he was “optimistic” that an final agreement would materialise, adding: “It’s just a matter of realpolitik and necessity.” Omar Mahmood, senior analyst for Eastern Africa with Crisis Group, said that while the deal had created significant “blowback”, Ethiopia did not want to “completely give it up”.

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 $300mn investment from Dubai-based DP World into Berbera and its wider economic zone, which represents about 75 per cent of Somaliland’s government revenue, with the aim of transforming it into a regional trade hub. The UAE controls the airport in Berbera and has been setting up a naval base.

Hargeisa said international recognition could unlock further investments into its $3.4bn economy that is based on sea trade, remittances and camel livestock. Recognition was an “economic game-changer”, Bihi Abdi said.

By the president’s office there is a framed copy of the agreement that Somaliland signed with Britain when the former protectorate secured its independent in 1960. It then united with the former Italian colony of Somalia, only to break away in 1991 after a decade-long independence war and the fall of the Somali dictator Siad Barre.

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

Somaliland has its own army and elected parliament, prints its own currency and issues its own passports. The UK, the UAE, Turkey, Ethiopia and Taiwan have all established a presence there. Despite such autonomy, Mogadishu considers it fully part of Somalia and Somaliland has not been formally recognised by any country.

Bihi Abdi, a former Somali military pilot turned rebel fighter who is standing for re-election in November, insisted Somalilanders “support” the prospective deal with Ethiopia that is not legally binding, although the precise details has been kept under wraps.

But it has met some domestic opposition, including from Bihi Abdi’s own defence minister who resigned in protest.

Some international capitals fear its potential to cause a new rift in a region beset by armed hostilities. Somalia is already fighting a long-running insurgency by the al-Shabaab jihadi group and Ethiopia is still reeling from a brutal and costly civil war in the Tigray region.

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

He also sought to play down tensions with Somalia, saying war between the two was “impossible”. He also said the deal could actually help “prevent” any potential conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea by satisfying Addis Ababa’s need for sea access.

“We’ve been working towards international recognition of our independent status for over 33 years,” Bihi Abdi said. “We’re ready.”