Somalia’s Sovereignty in Checkmate with Ethiopia’s Latest Move?

Charlotte Chan, May 10, 2024

On January 1st 2024, the historical feud in the Horn of Africa between Somalia and Ethiopia woke from its temporary hibernation when Ethiopia signed onto a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) – a type of nonbinding agreement between two parties – with Somaliland to gain access to 20 kilometers of Somali coastline bordering the Gulf of Aden [1]. Landlocked Ethiopia lost its best bet of a naval base when Eritrea became independent in 1993 and Djibouti renounced their entry into the Red Sea, resulting in desperate measures to obtain port rights within neighboring countries [2]. This MOU grants the long-lasting wish of Somaliland leadership – global recognition of its sovereignty. Internationally unrecognized, Somaliland is deemed Somali territory, yet maintains de facto sovereignty over its own land, encompassing some 175,000 square kilometers along the Gulf of Aden [3]. This deal offers economic and military advantage for Ethiopia while making Somaliland a key shareholder of Ethiopian Airlines, valued at around $6 billion USD [4]. 


38 days after the MOU, Somalia retaliated, making use of their strategic alliance with NATO-backed Turkey and the recently signed defense (and now maritime) deal between the two nations [5]. This partnership between Somalia and Turkey enables Somalia to benefit from increased infrastructure as well as military and economic growth while Turkey is able to leverage failed Somali statehood to cultivate its philanthropic image and garner international support [5]. Furthermore, since Turkey is a NATO member, Ethiopia incurs greater risk of conflict as it could provoke a response from NATO-allied countries. This decade-long agreement to provide military aid and to patrol the 3,333 kilometer coastline bordering the Gulf of Aden reaffirms Somalia’s intent to strengthen security in the region [5]. Viewing this deal as an "act of aggression" that encroaches upon Somali sovereignty, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared this to be the start of a "war", vowing that Somalia will "defend itself by whatever means necessary," [6]. 


The main question surrounds the consequences of heightened tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia in their struggle for power and sovereignty, implicating not only local and regional security, but also the potential for civil unrest and further instability in the failed Somali state in addition to concerns of Ethiopia’s violation of international law [7]. The signed MOU may thus only exacerbate the situation at hand, escalating the conflict into a full-blown war that would result in civilian casualties, complications to global trade and political dynamics in the Red Sea, amidst Yemen Houthi rebel attacks and the ongoing war in Gaza [8]. 


Firstly, the deep historical context that has scarred the Horn of Africa is essential to understanding this complex, multi-variable conflict. In January 1991, the dictatorship of Siad Barre ended violently in rebel clan uprisings and a full blown civil war [9]. As a result, Somalia’s decentralized state system experienced highly politicized fractionalisation of clan identity and a vacuum for postcolonial power [9]. Resentment towards the Somali government caused the emergence of nationalist and other extremist non-state actors, vying for control and territorial dominance. The 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia aimed to dismantle the evolving Islamic Courts Union (ICU) – an association of sharia courts which maintained an armed force (encompassing the group that would become recognized as Al-Shabaab); however, the Ethiopia-backed Transitional Federal Government in Somalia failed miserably [10]. Perceived by some as a demonstration of military might against their rival, Ethiopia’s invasion was a double-edged sword that damaged its own economy while also failing to defeat ICU opposition and to ensure peace [11]. This catalyzed the insurgency of Al-Shabaab – an Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group –  which remains relentless in its quest for domination of the region contemporaneously. Al-Shabaab currently controls many important tactical positions in southern and central Somalia, with the exception of the capital, Mogadishu [12]. As ongoing clashes between the federal government and Al-Shabaab rage on, civilian lives are tethered to ticking time bombs.


Though cornered to rural areas by American and African Union forces [12], Al-Shabaab continues to carry out frequent assaults such as suicide truck bombings near governmental buildings, including one on the Education Ministry in 2022, and other locations of high civilian density [13]. From 2017 to 2022, the civil death toll amounted to about 3,600 due to Al-Shabaab attacks [14]. The general lack of Somali security enforcement in the region presents Al-Shabaab with an ideal opportunity to destabilize the country and halt economic progress as well as efforts to combat social unrest. 


Grappling with mass civilian displacement from flash floods in late 2023, a static economy, and persisting pressures of its humanitarian crisis, Ethiopia’s bold move is the last thing the Somali government and its people need to exacerbate its collapsed economic and political condition. The positive feedback cycle of insecurity and competition for power has driven an estimated 8.3 million Somali people in 2023 into a dire humanitarian crisis [15]. Due to terrorist insurgency, natural disaster, and economic stagnation, among other factors, the future of Somalia’s state legitimacy and development looks bleak. The federal government initiated a full-blown offensive on Al-Shabaab in August 2023, deracinating the terrorists from control in central Somalia, specifically in the Galmudug and Hirshabelle regions that have seen a staggering 80% increase in political violence upon initiation of Mogadishu’s Operation Black Lion offensive against Al-Shabaab [16]. However, in the face of Ethiopia’s recent aggression, efforts to escalate offensives at full force are likely to be set aside, as attention turns towards strengthening diplomatic relations, political partnerships, and investment in military arms to prepare to counter Ethiopia. 


Nonetheless, the fragile situation could escalate further into regional disputes that involve neighboring countries such as Egypt, Djibouti, and Kenya. Egypt’s precious Suez Canal, which generated more than 9 billion USD in 2023, speaks volumes of its significance to the country, meaning that Ethiopia’s agreement to establish a naval force and secure access to the port could pose a serious threat to Egypt’s national security [17]. In addition, the terrorist acts – from a hotel siege to university attacks [13] – committed by Al-Shabaab in Kenya are no secret; given this rise of disorder and a further weakened state, the probability of increased attacks on Kenya and other countries including in Ethiopia itself is highly likely [17]. Furthermore, Djibouti and China are staunch opponents of such a deal as the Belt and Road Initiative, a China-led infrastructure project aimed at expanding maritime trade networks, has become an integral aspect of Djibouti’s port development and trade links [18]. They are unlikely to turn a blind eye when Ethiopia secures its naval force in Berbera port, as evidenced by their support for Somalia’s retaliation against the agreement.  


Though it is not in the interest of any country to add fuel to this fire, the zero sum game of international politics has repeatedly displayed in history and contemporary global conflicts that political power relations are unpredictable and merciless – often at the expense of human lives. It is unlikely that either country will step down and capitulate, given their long history of rivalry in which both sides remained unwaveringly persistent to maintain their sovereignty. The extent to which Ethiopia pushes forward the deal to secure its naval base on the coastline of Somaliland and break free from their “geographic prison” in their ambition for hegemonic power will pave the regional political trajectory, as does Somalia’s intensity in its retaliation [17]. Geopolitics is never just black or white: it is a game of complex chess.


[1]‌ Mhaka, Tafi. “It Is High Time the AU Takes a Firm Stance against Ethiopia’s Aggressions.” Al Jazeera.

[2]‌Al Jazeera. “Ethiopia Signs Agreement to Use Somaliland’s Red Sea Port.”

[3] Harter, Fred. “‘We Are Ready for a War’: Somalia Threatens Conflict with Ethiopia over Breakaway Region.” The Observer, January 13th, 2024, sec. World news.

[4]‌ Reuters. “Ethiopian Airlines earnings jump 20% in 2022/2023 fiscal year.”

[5] ‌Donelli, Federico. “Red Sea Politics: Why Turkey Is Helping Somalia Defend Its Waters.” The Conversation. February 28th, 2024.

[6] British Broadcasting Corporation. “Ethiopia-Somaliland Deal Makes Waves in Horn of Africa,” January 8th, 2024.

[7] MJIL. “The Ethiopia-Somaliland Naval Base Deal Is a Violation of International Law.” Minnesota Journal of International Law. February 16th, 2024.

[8] Oyewole, Samuel. “Houthi Militant Attacks in the Red Sea Raise Fears of Somali Piracy Resurgence.” The Conversation. January 31st, 2024.

[9] The Organization for World Peace. “Somali Civil War.” The Organization for World Peace. January 13th, 2017.

[10] Center for Preventive Action. “Al-Shabab in Somalia.” Global Conflict Tracker. June 30th, 2023.‌

[11] Bamfo, Napoleon. “Ethiopia’s Invasion of Somalia in 2006: Motives and Lessons Learned.” African Journal of Political Science and International Relations 4 (2): 55-065.

[12] Al Jazeera. “Al-Shabab Claims Attack on UAE Military in Somalia.” Al Jazeera.

[13] Council on Foreign Relations. “Timeline: Al Shabab (2004–2022).” Council on Foreign Relations. 2023.

[14] “Somalia: Deaths Caused by Al-Shabaab.” Statista.

[15] United Nations Security Council. “Amid Devastating Drought, Ongoing Rights Violations, Somalia Pushes Forward in Fight against Al-Shabaab Terror Group, Security Council Hears | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases.”

[16] Relief Web. “Somalia: Al-Shabaab Strikes Back at Local Administrators - Situation Update | October 2023 - Somalia | ReliefWeb.”

[17] “The Potential Impact of the Ethiopia-Somaliland Deal.” February 21st, 2024.

[18] Saxena, Indu. “China’s Military and Economic Prowess in Djibouti: A Security Challenge for the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs Article Display.” Air University. 2021.