Ethiopia-Somaliland Port Deal Sparks Regional Tensions in the Horn of Africa

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Ethiopia’s deal to lease a port in Somalia’s breakaway region of Somaliland has heightened tensions in the Horn of Africa, prompting concerns about regional stability. The memorandum of understanding, signed on Jan. 1, involves Ethiopia leasing 20 km around Somaliland’s port of Berbera for 50 years. In return, Ethiopia would receive stakes in state-run companies and potential recognition as an independent nation.

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Somalia strongly opposes the deal, labeling it an act of aggression and declaring intentions to block it. Ethiopia contends that it is pursuing a commercial arrangement to address its need for sea access. The dispute revolves around Ethiopia’s quest for a port as it currently relies on ports in Djibouti for over 90% of its trade, incurring hefty fees exceeding $1.5 billion annually.

Ethiopia lost sea access in the early 1990s when Eritrea seceded. Prime Minister Abiy’s push to regain access enjoys broad political support. He also seeks a sea base for Ethiopia’s navy, which is currently restricted to training exercises on an inland lake.

The Somali government, considering Somaliland an integral part of its territory, rejects its effective autonomy. Somaliland declared independence in 1991, but it lacks international recognition. Ethiopia recognizing Somaliland could set a precedent with wider implications.

Amid chronic instability in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan, analysts fear external actors may be drawn into the dispute due to the Horn of Africa’s strategic location. Middle Eastern powers, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and Qatar, vie for influence in the region. The lack of public support for the port deal from any country complicates the geopolitical landscape.

Egypt’s President al-Sisi, amidst tensions with Ethiopia over a dam dispute, emphasizes non-tolerance for threats against Somalia. Eritrea’s stance remains undisclosed, and the UAE, managing the Berbera port, refrains from commenting beyond an Arab League statement. The situation underscores the complex web of geopolitical dynamics in the Horn of Africa.

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