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On 1 January, Somaliland agreed to lease parts of its coastline to Ethiopia in exchange for formal recognition, but the announcement will probably further damage already-strained political relations in the region.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 10 January 2023.

Ethiopia has made progress in gaining access to a seaport. On 1 January, regional authorities in Somaliland said they would lease part of their coastline to Ethiopia, in return for recognition of independence. Somalia has vehemently opposed the deal arguing that Somaliland is part of its territory. But Mogadishu seems to have little means to oppose it; the deal is unlikely to lead to military action.

Still, the announcement will probably further damage the already-slim prospects for a diplomatic outcome over Somaliland’s independence. Al-Shabaab has also said it will seek to prevent the deal. But there are few signs that it might benefit from the dispute. So we do not anticipate that the terrorism threat in Somaliland and Ethiopia will be particularly heightened over the coming months (our threat levels are at high and moderate, respectively).

Controversial announcement raising diplomatic tensions

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is pressing ahead with his ambition to gain unfettered access to ports on the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden. On 1 January, Abiy and Somaliland leader Muse Bihi Abdi signed a memorandum of understanding for the leasing of 20km of Somaliland’s sea coast. In exchange, Addis Ababa would formally recognise Somaliland and sell shares in Ethiopian Airlines to its government. This would make Ethiopia the first country to fully recognise the autonomous region since it declared independence from Somalia in 1991.

There is widespread domestic and international opposition to the deal. International observers cited in the global press have cited concerns that the deal would breach international law and spark an armed conflict in the Horn of Africa. In a statement on 3 January, the African Union (AU) emphasised the need to respect the ‘unity, territorial integrity and full sovereignty of all AU states’. Somalia declared the agreement ‘null and void’ and has since recalled its ambassador from Addis Ababa. The Somaliland defence minister also resigned on 7 January alleging that ministers were not consulted.

Agreement likely to stall despite limited options for Somalia

Somalia appears to have little to no means to militarily block the deal. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said in a cabinet meeting last week that ‘not an inch of Somalia can or will be signed away’. The country’s military chief also reportedly told naval forces ‘to resume their duties’, which we interpret to mean in preparation for a potential conflict. But the military is already struggling to recapture Somali territory occupied by Al-Shabaab. And the phased withdrawal of AU peacekeeping forces by December 2024 will probably further stretch their military resources.

Still, we assess the deal is more likely than not to stall over the coming years. A similar accord in 2017 for Ethiopia to gain access to Berbera port collapsed in 2022 after Somaliland alleged that Addis Ababa had not followed through on its commitments. And recent Somaliland statements suggest this deal is highly contingent upon Ethiopia recognising the region’s sovereignty. Ethiopia has not explicitly said it would do so. The authorities reportedly said after the announcement that the deal instead includes provisions for it to conduct an ‘in-depth assessment’ on formal recognition.

Faltering regional diplomacy in the Horn of Africa

The risk of interstate armed conflict in the region will probably remain low over the coming months. We had assessed in November 2023 that there was a small but growing chance of Ethiopia taking military action over Eritrea over the coming years to forcefully gain access to a port. And Somali President Mohamud visited Eritrea on 8 January ‘to discuss issues of mutual benefit’. But Abiy now appears likely to prioritise gaining access to the Somaliland coastline rather than engaging in military action in Eritrea within the medium term (next five years).

We assess that the port agreement is nonetheless likely to further erode the low prospect of a diplomatic outcome over Somaliland independence. The breakaway region and Somalia had agreed to resume talks over the issue in December after successive failures between 2012 and 2020. But recent statements by both parties suggest neither side is willing to compromise. Mogadishu has reiterated that Somaliland remains ‘an integral part’ of Somalia, while the regional authorities have said they have ‘never been a federal member state’.

Sporadic bouts of armed violence in Somaliland between regional security forces and clan-linked militia are likely to recur over the coming months. This is particularly around Las Anod city, where fighting was concentrated last year. Local politicians there in 2023 called for unification with Somalia amid armed violence with regional forces. Humanitarian reports suggest that during these the authorities indiscriminately shelled urban areas.

Al-Shabaab unlikely to benefit greatly from dispute

Al-Shabaab has said it will seek to ‘fight’ the deal. In a video published on extremist channels on 3 January, it said it will not accept ‘an inch of Muslim land to be taken away by Ethiopia’. Ethiopia has for several years taken part in counter-insurgency operations alongside Somali forces in areas along the country’s shared border. Addis Ababa referenced the ongoing military operations after Somalia condemned the deal. In our view, this was probably to pressure the Somali authorities into conceding to the agreement.

Regional cooperation against Al-Shabaab is unlikely to significantly weaken, however. Neither country seems to want to allow the jihadist group to consolidate its position in Somalia. This would probably enable it to resume cross-border operations into Ethiopia similar to 2022 when hundreds of fighters attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to gain control of several towns across the border. And the last Al-Shabaab attack in Somaliland was in 2022, roughly 380km away from the leased area. So we do not anticipate it would be able to target operations there.

Image: Demonstrators hold banners and flags during a demonstration in support of Somalia’s government following the port deal signed between Ethiopia and the breakaway region of Somaliland at Eng Yariisow Stadium in Mogadishu on 3 January 2024. Photo by Abdishukri Haybe/AFP via Getty Images.