Ethiopia’s Somaliland gambit rattles a shaky Horn


War between Ethiopia and Somalia is unlikely but their row over Somaliland perpetuates the region’s woes.

The latest saga in the neverending carousel of bilateral frictions in the Horn has seen Somalia accuse Ethiopia of engaging in acts of aggression and violating its sovereignty.

These accusations came after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 1 January with Muse Bihi Abdi, leader of the de facto state of Somaliland, reportedly leasing twenty square kilometers of Somaliland’s coastline to Ethiopia for the next fifty years.

Although the official agreement has not been made public, it’s believed Ethiopia will use this leased stretch of Somaliland’s coastline to develop a naval base as part of the landlocked nation’s first seaport since 1993, when Eritrea seceded, in exchange for official recognition by Ethiopia of Somaliland’s statehood and shares in its national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines.

Among the subsequent diplomatic escalations, Somalia turned away a plane on 17 January that was reportedly transporting Ethiopian officials to Somaliland to discuss the deal.

On 17 February, Somalia’s President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, accused Ethiopian officials of attempting to block his access to an African Union (AU) summit held in Addis Ababa, a charge Ethiopian officials denied.

At the AU summit, Mohamud accused Ethiopia of trying to annex part of his country’s territory. He previously suggested Somalia is prepared for war to stop Ethiopia from recognizing Somaliland and building a naval base in the breakaway region.

In an unverified allegation, Mohamud claimed senior officers from Ethiopia’s military were in Somaliland preparing the ground for the territory’s annexation. Abiy, for his part, has said Ethiopia has no intention of going to war with Somalia.

While inter-state conflict is an unlikely outcome, this diplomatic row is further destabilizing a fragile region where numerous internal conflicts, such as those in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan, have drawn in neighboring countries, both directly and indirectly.

Converging Interests

Owing to either tactical diplomacy or miscommunication, there has been mixed messaging about the agreement coming from the leaders of Ethiopia and Somaliland. While Ethiopia’s leaders are being rather cagey, Somaliland’s have been more forthcoming about the content and purpose of the deal.

Somaliland’s goal is to secure recognition by one of Africa’s most influential countries, potentially creating a domino effect of recognition that eventually results in Somaliland’s inclusion in the UN and the opening up of its economy to greater international trade.

In the modern international system of states, empirical characteristics of statehood are much less consequential than juridical ones. What this means is the only practical barrier to statehood is the recognition of an entity’s statehood by its peers.

Because of the AU’s policy orientation against redrawing borders, Somaliland has remained in limbo since 1991 when it declared independence amid political tumult in Somalia. The Horn, however, has strong precedent for formalizing such claims: Eritrea and South Sudan are the only two cases of internationally recognized secession in postcolonial Africa.

Over the years, Somaliland’s leaders have established a relatively stable, effective, and democratic de facto state that more or less possesses all the empirical traits of statehood. The former British colony is trying to release itself from the rest of Somalia, a former Italian colony that was unified with Somaliland in 1960. Somalia continues to have its juridical statehood recognized despite its lack of a strong central government for decades.

Ethiopia’s reason for signing this deal is to try and overcome its landlocked status, which presents significant political and economic drawbacks. Most notably, Addis Ababa makes annual payments of around 1.5 billion U.S. dollars to the government of Djibouti for use of its port.

However, without significant investments in infrastructure, the MoU is unlikely to affect the import and export of goods from southern Ethiopia, which is currently better linked with ports in the Kenyan cities of Mombasa and, in the future, Lamu.

Ethiopia has sought an agreement with Eritrea, its northern neighbor, but has been unable to reach one because of fluctuating relations. Eritrean troops fought alongside the Ethiopian military during the war in Tigray, but relations soured after Abiy signed a peace deal in November 2022 with President Isaias Afwerki’s rivals in Tigray.

Abiy’s rhetoric about Ethiopia’s ties to the Red Sea raised Eritrean suspicions of restorationist ambitions on the part of Ethiopian leaders. Tensions arose after Abiy used the words of nineteenth century Abyssinian warriors as justification for Ethiopia’s apparent desire to reclaim its access to the sea through Eritrea, either diplomatically or by force.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Strategically, giving Ethiopia direct access to the Red Sea and one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes would be invaluable to one of Africa’s largest economies.

In the wake of a tumultuous few years marked by civil wars, religious unrest, and economic instability, this could give Ethiopia the boost it needs to become the major player it aspires to be in the region.

By saving on the $1.5 billion sent to Djibouti every year alongside the boost in growth created by better port access, Ethiopia could increase its debt repayments and slowly start to wean its way off its reliance on Chinese and Western loans and investments.

Doing so would open up Ethiopia’s diplomatic versatility, potentially allowing it to attract more investment from elsewhere while reducing its vulnerability to predatory lending.


Militarily, the agreement with Somaliland will allow Ethiopia to build naval capabilities—as long as it can secure funding for their development—and project its influence on its smaller and weaker neighbors, particularly Somalia and Eritrea.

Naval capabilities will also aid Ethiopia’s leverage in its dispute with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), giving Ethiopia’s armed forces more options if diplomatic relations break down and war arises.

Yet the question remains whether the benefits outweigh the harms—and whether either will actually come to fruition. Abiy must decide whether potentially increased economic growth years in the future is worth the potential catastrophic short-term security consequences for Ethiopia and the wider region.

Complicating Factors

The fact that Somalia has been unable to successfully put down the al-Shabaab insurgency within its own borders raises serious doubts about its ability to launch a full-scale conventional war against its neighbor; especially the neighbor that has been most prominent in that counter-insurgency effort.

Nonetheless, Somalia’s threats of war over the MoU present a conundrum for the Ethiopian government. The diplomatic posturing risks sparking a major regional war at a time when Sudan is in a crisis of its own, Ethiopia’s relations with Egypt over the damming of the Nile are rocky, Somalia and Turkey recently signed a maritime security and economic partnership agreement, and the presence of al-Shabaab, which remains a relatively powerful Islamist group, is growing on the border with Ethiopia.

On top of this is Ethiopia’s delicate domestic balance, with an Ogaden region whose Somali majority’s often fragile loyalties to leaders in Addis Ababa would be tested in a war with Somalia, a nation with which they share many social and economic ties.

The continued presence of the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) further stresses these domestic tensions. Sympathizers of the ONLF would be unlikely to side with Ethiopia in an Ethio-Somali war, potentially creating further chaos in a conflict between the two nations.

In addition, much of the Amhara region’s loyalty to the Abiy government has collapsed due to the attempted demobilization of their regional militia, armed conflict has been ongoing in the Oromia region since 2019, and the northern region of Tigray’s population is still suffering the effects of the brutal two year civil war that ended over a year ago.

Inhabitants of these regions are unlikely to acquiesce to fighting another war—this time on the side of the Abiy regime—any time soon, whether that be in Somalia or Eritrea, or with Egypt.

With al-Shabaab controlling large swaths of southern Somalia and the Somali army unable to quell the militant group alone, thousands of Ethiopian troops are still stationed in Somali territory as part of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS). The fate and role of this AU force in the event of Somalia declaring war is hard to predict.

Turbulent History

The recent breakdown in relations between Ethiopia and Somalia is part of a long history of diplomatic tensions and war between the two countries.

This turbulence dates as far back as the sixteenth century during the reign of Emperor Dawit II, when the Muslim Adal Sultanate undertook a conquest of Christian Abyssinia with the support of the Ottoman Empire.

Since Somalia’s independence in 1960, relations between Ethiopia and Somalia have been mired by the all too familiar story of broken promises and random cartographic lines drawn by Somalia’s former colonizers, Britain and Italy. During the Cold War, these tensions were exacerbated by the world’s two superpowers, the U.S. and Soviet Union.

The focal point of the conflict has been the Ogaden, which, although claimed by Somalis, was first granted by Britain to Ethiopia in 1897 following an invasion by Emperor Menelik II in 1887 and then again in 1941 after British troops put an end to Italy’s six-year occupation of Ethiopia.

The first large-scale hostilities erupted between the two states from January to March 1964 following the brutal suppression of the 1963 Ogaden rebellion by Emperor Haile Selassie I and the Ethiopian imperial army.

After a ceasefire was signed, simmering discontent among Somalis in the Ogaden, alongside growing support within the Somali government and military for the irredentist greater Somalia or ‘pan-Somali’ movement, exploded into the Ogaden war in 1977.

After almost a year of bloody conflict, an intervention by 16,000 Cuban troops supported by a host of Soviet military experts ultimately pushed the Somali army back into Somalia, ending the conflict and restoring the status quo ante bellum.

A period of relative peace between the two countries would follow until the early 1990s, when both the regimes of Mengistu Hailemariam in Ethiopia and Siad Barre in Somalia were overthrown.

In Somalia, the collapse of the Barre regime ushered in a period in which various clan-based rebel groups started vying for power, any semblance of centralized government collapsed, and Somalia was turned into a failed state. The brutality of the Barre regime during years of civil war and its eventual overthrow prompted the Somali National Movement (SNM) to unilaterally declare Somaliland’s independence in 1991.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia a coalition of rebels mainly from Eritrea and Tigray overthrew Mengistu in 1991. The incoming regime in Addis Ababa allowed Eritrea to vote in favor of secession in 1993, confining Ethiopia to its current landlocked status.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from 1991 to 2018, brutally suppressed the ONLF and other opposition movements in the Ogaden.

In response to the collapse of the Somali state, Ethiopia intervened militarily from 2006 to 2009 in support of the weak interim government, a move that had the unintended consequence of empowering an emergent al-Shabaab.

Ethiopia has had a military presence in Somalia ever since, further complicating the situation if Somalia were to declare war.

During Ethiopia’s recent two-year war in Tigray, Somalia’s former leader, Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed (‘Farmaajo’), formed a tripartite alliance with Ethiopia and Eritrea, allegedly sending 5,000 troops to train in Eritrea and, presumably, fight in Tigray.


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Main Image: Map of the Horn region ; Ethiopia Insight

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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About the author

Jussi Grut

Jussi Grut is a researcher who has a master's degree in War Studies from King's College London, focusing on the history and politics of East Africa. He is currently based in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he is working on interfaith dialogue initiatives to counteract Hindutva extremism.


  • Deliberate or not, this is misleading missive and it contains some factual errors. First, Ethiopia Prime Abiy Ahmed was single-handedly provoked and instigated this whole episode of diplomatic raw and potential regional conflict by ignoring both the intentional laws governing national sovereign rights and but he also breached the AU charter vis-a-vis respecting and keeping the inter-state colonial drawn border lines as they were. If he insists taking on that path the restive Ethiopia itself will be at risk of being among the first causality of the next floodgates of seperatist groups within backed by other african counries. Secondly, Somaliland enclave in the nothern regions of somalia proper has never been a separate and independent country in terms of either de-jure or de-facto status .Also, half of the Somali native clans in that particular region are against any secessionist idea and there wasn’t peace but there has been serious and ongoing conlic over years now. Third, Both separation of Eritrea and South Sudan from Ethiopia and Sudan respectively were blessed and allowed to part ways by their former mother nations. There was neither neighboring African country nor other other that partook in the process.Third, as per recent interview with the finance minster of Djibout, the mentioned 1.5 billion that Ethiopia spent in Djibouti is not only port for services but it includes other trade trasanction and activities of both private and public sectors. About a half of that is related to port services.

  • The ogadan had never been a British colony like that of somaliland.
    Ogadan was part of Ethiopia and could be part of Ethiopia like that of Ethiopian provinces
    But British created time bomb, by uniting Somaliland with Somalia as like that of British did in sudan and south Sudan
    You the writer is a propaganda machine.
    don’t live for food

    • Your ignorance is apparent. I recommend you to go back and study history again as you claim Ogaden was part of Ethiopia. Search Ogaden and Reserve Area handover to Ethiopia in 1956 and the Minillik conquer on Harar in 1897.

      • My people, like Ahmed died becouse of lack knowledge .
        Ogadan had never been part of Italian or either British colony’s.
        during or after Colonialism .

        For Your information Ethiopian land was beyond ogadan and goes to south Arebia.

  • The united nation has created a time Bomb , borh in south sudan, sudan since 1947, Eritrea and Ethiopia since 1952 and Somaliland and somalia since in the day the British the United nation united in 1960.
    These people are suffering by The UN doctrine
    The writer, I feel shame for You. Your eduction is not greater than elementary knowledge .

  • It was the U N, that united somaliland with Somalia in 1960, as they did Eritrea united with Ethiopia in 1952 and south sudan with sudan in 1947.
    Haw much east African people should died by these time Bomb?
    shame on the UN.

    God protect East African . T

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