Op-ed: Ethiopian Naval Base in Somaliland is a Strategic Necessity for Regional Security

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By Hamidi Jama

Introduction

The geopolitical landscape of the Horn of Africa has witnessed a transformative development with Somaliland and Ethiopia’s announcement of a potential Ethiopian naval base in Somaliland. This strategic move is not only aimed at enhancing maritime security in the Gulf of Aden but also addressing broader regional crises that affect the Red Sea and Suez Canal. This article explores the multifaceted implications of this naval base for regional security, political dynamics, and economic stability, emphasizing the importance of support from key stakeholders such as Egypt.

Background

In January 2024, Somaliland, which has been self-governing since 1991, signed a significant port access agreement with Ethiopia. This agreement allows Ethiopia access to a 12-mile strip of Somaliland’s coastline to develop a naval base. This deal is integral to Somaliland’s strategy for gaining international recognition and diplomatic legitimacy, which it has sought since declaring independence from Somalia. The Somaliland government views this agreement as a pivotal step towards Ethiopia’s goal of regaining maritime access. However, there are differing interpretations, with Ethiopian officials suggesting the inclusion of a commercial seaport, highlighting the complex nature of the agreement.

Strategic Importance

The Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea are critical maritime corridors for global trade, especially for oil shipments. These regions have historically been hotspots for piracy and militant activities, posing significant risks to international shipping. An Ethiopian naval presence in Somaliland could bolster maritime security, deter piracy, and counter Houthi rebel activities from Yemen. Somaliland’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Essa Kayd, has identified three potential coastal sites for the naval base, reflecting the strategic depth and logistical considerations of this initiative. This development enhances Ethiopia’s capacity to project power and influence, aligning with its broader geopolitical and security objectives.

Geo-strategy, Geo-security, and Geo-economic Importance of Somaliland

Somaliland’s geographic location at the crossroads of vital maritime routes lends it immense geo-strategic, geo-security, and geo-economic significance. The region’s stability is crucial for the security of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. The establishment of an Ethiopian naval base can serve as a critical element in securing these maritime routes, which are essential for global trade. The MOU between Ethiopia and Somaliland is not only beneficial for the immediate region but also for broader international stakeholders, including Egypt. The stability and security of the Suez Canal, a key global trade artery, are directly impacted by the security of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, Egypt has a vested interest in supporting the Ethio-Somaliland MOU as it promises to enhance regional security and by extension, safeguard the Suez Canal.

Historical Context: U.S. and Soviet Agreements

Somaliland’s strategic significance is not new. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union recognized the strategic value of the region. The Berbera military airport in Somaliland was used by the U.S. as a strategic airbase. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union also utilized Berbera as a naval base, demonstrating the long-standing military significance of this region. These historical agreements underscore the enduring strategic value of Somaliland’s location for major powers.

Political Ramifications

The agreement has stirred significant controversy, particularly from the Somalia national government in Mogadishu, which considers Somaliland part of Somalia. Mogadishu’s objections highlight the contested nature of Somaliland’s status. Despite this, Somaliland maintains that the naval base is a pathway to increased regional stability and international recognition. Interestingly, Mogadishu has shown some openness to negotiating terms for an Ethiopian commercial port, indicating a potential area for diplomatic engagement. This nuanced position reflects the complex interplay of sovereignty, security, and economic interests in Somalia-Ethiopia relations.

Security Implications

Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi has highlighted the security benefits of the Ethiopian naval base. In an interview with the Financial Times, Abdi suggested that an Ethiopian naval presence could help contain the Houthi threat in the Gulf of Aden. The Houthis, an armed group in Yemen, have disrupted shipping routes and contributed to regional instability. A robust Ethiopian naval base could serve as a deterrent to these militant activities, ensuring safe passage for commercial vessels and strengthening the overall security architecture in the Gulf of Aden. This development aligns with broader international efforts to stabilize the region and secure vital maritime trade routes.

Conclusion

The establishment of an Ethiopian naval base in Somaliland represents a significant shift in the geopolitical dynamics of the Horn of Africa. It holds the potential to enhance maritime security, deter piracy and militant activities, and contribute to regional stability. The support of key stakeholders, particularly Egypt, is crucial for the success of this initiative, given its implications for the security of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. As the region navigates these dynamics, the ability of the involved parties to manage their divergent interests and collaborate towards shared security objectives will be critical. The unfolding developments in Somaliland will be closely watched by regional and international stakeholders, given their far-reaching implications for security and stability in the Gulf of Aden and beyond.

Editor’s Note: Hamidi Jama is a maritime security commentator and analyst. He can be reached at hamidijama8@gmail.com