Thursday May 18, 2018
by Mr. Mohamed Amin
Dubai’s state-owned DP World agreement with Somaliland and Ethiopia to manage
the Berbera port for the next 30 years or more is worrying and has led to the
emergence of a new source of intra and inter-state tensions.  This is not the first time countries in the region have
concluded port and maritime related agreements. Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and
most importantly Djibouti have all signed maritime related agreements of one
kind or another with several countries vying for a foothold in the potentially
lucrative maritime resources of the region as well as its strategic chokehold
location in the Gulf of Aden-Bab el Mandeb straits. The agreement between Somaliland, DP World, and Ethiopia
to manage the Berbera port has potential ripple effects that may escalate
inter-state and intra-state tensions in the Horn. Yet the development received
little attention from the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD),
the region’s main body, and the African Union (AU). The deafening silence from
IGAD and the AU is best described by a Somali proverb that states: “you
can’t wake up a man pretending to be asleep”
Somalia and Somaliland
Puntland, another semi-autonomous region of Somalia which
borders Somaliland has opted to remain part of Somalia. There have been minor
skirmishes between the two semi-autonomous regions over jurisdiction of some
border areas The internationally
recognized Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) vehemently opposes Somaliland’s
claim to independence. Somaliland, however, knows well that the FGS in
Mogadishu can do little to stop the agreement.
Somaliland declared independence from the rest of Somalia in May 1991 after the
overthrow of former leader of Somalia, Siad Bare. His overthrow was followed by
a long brutal civil war, particularly in central and southern regions. In the
chaos Somaliland declared independence from the rest of Somalia. Since then Somaliland has enjoyed relative peace and
stability compared to the South and has held several elections. The elections held last year in Somaliland were widely
reported to have been reasonably transparent and were followed by peaceful
transfer of power.In addition to the dominant Isaq clan, Somaliland has several
other clans some of whom either side with the semi-autonomous state of Puntland
to the south in part because of clan affiliation.Moreover, some observers note that the state-owned DP World
agreement with Somaliland has proved controversial among Somaliland’s
The fact, however, remains that both United Arab Emirates
through DP World and Ethiopia have given de facto recognition to Somaliland by
bypassing Mogadishu and dealing directly with Somaliland on such an important
matter concerning the unity and territorial integrity of Somalia.
Understandably, this has angered the FGS. So far the FGS has been restrained and limited its
response to submitting complaints through regional and multinational
organizations such as IGAD, the AU, the Arab League and the United Nations
Security Council. Although the Arab League is heavily influenced by Saudi
Arabia, UAE and Egypt (where it is headquartered), surprisingly it issued a
statement favourable to Somalia by reaffirming the unity and territorial
integrity of Somalia, while avoiding castigating the UAE directly: “The
control of the borders of the land, its airspace and the sea are the
responsibility of the federal government of Somalia, and the Arab League warns
against interfering with Somalia in any kind,“ said the statement. This is a strong statement given
the dispute is between heavy weight UAE and failed state Somalia.
Ethiopia’s de facto recognition of Somaliland is a violation of the agreement
establishing the IGAD, which in Article 6A, Sub-article (B) enjoins member
states to adhere to the principle of, ‘Non-interference in the internal
affairs of Member States.” Clearly Ethiopia benefits from having a 19% stake in
Berbera port as it is landlocked and currently relies on Djibouti port for most
of its imports and exports. However, this does beg the questions as to whether
Ethiopia is pursuing the right strategy, or doing so at the right time.
There are certain risks for Ethiopia in alienating the FGS and
more importantly a large section of the Somali population. First, although
Ethiopia is by far the region’s most powerful nation, all is not well with its
internal politics. The country is divided along ethnic and religious lines and
is the second most populous country in Africa with a population of over 105
million  and 86 languages. The two largest ethnic groups – the Oromo and the Amhara
(Amharic is the official government language) makeup over 61% of the population
(34.4% and 27% respectively).
Anti-government protests have occurred in both Oromia and Amhara
regional states which led to the arrest of thousands and the declaration of a
state of emergency. In February 2018 Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn
resigned and in early April 2018 Dr. Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as the new Prime
Minister of Ethiopia. Ahmed, an Oromo by ethnicity, is expected to calm recent
unrest in the country. His first visit outside capital Addis Ababa was to the
capital of the Somali region Jigjiga. This was not a coincidence. Oromia
and Somali regional states in Ethiopia have experienced clashes along their
regional boundaries large stretches of which are disputed between the two
regional states. Therefore, the Achilles heels of Ethiopia is not an
invasion from neighbouring countries but keeping its unity in diversity which
may be exploited by foreign powers to destabilize the country.
Furthermore, Ethiopia’s decision to take a 19% stake of the
Berbera port has a high potential of destabilizing Somalia and perhaps the
whole region. Two scenarios can be envisaged:
- The premature collapse of the
current FGS: Somalia’s current President Mohamed Abdulahi Farmajo studied
and worked in the US and is a dual US-Somali citizen. He is regarded by
many as a moderate and pragmatic figure and his popularity remains high. Unlike
the current president, the two preceding presidents had connection to
Islamist groups (Sheikh Sharif was head of ICU and Hasan Sheikh is
rumoured to belong to Damul Jadid. During
the election, President Mohamed was widely perceived as a Somali
nationalist, and actually his chances of winning increased after Somalia’s
arch-rival, Ethiopia, was seen to be backing the defeated president. However,
Somali nationalists may withdraw their support from the current president
if he does not show resolve in the Berbera port dispute. A possible
outcome of such scenario is the fragmentation of existing domestic
alliances and worsening of Somalia’s nascent state-federal relations,
perhaps leading to a total collapse of FGS. Such a scenario will not bode well
either for Ethiopia or the larger international community because what
happens in Somalia may have wider regional and global consequences as
demonstrated by past events.
- The reinvigoration of the
Al-Shabaab and Somali pirates: Al-Shabaab emerged in the aftermath of 2006
Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. It broke off from the Islamic Courts Union
(ICU) which was headed by Sheik Sharif who later became the interim
president of Somalia. Because
of the long history of hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, Al-Shabaab
were able to convince a substantial number of Somalis to join them by
portraying themselves as the only viable resistance to “the crusading
Christian Ethiopia”. In
hindsight, it is clear the US supported Ethiopian incursion into Somalia
to topple the ICU has resulted in blowback in the form of the creation of
Al-Shabaab. It is very possible that Al-Shabaab will use the Ethiopian
involvement in the Berbera port deal as a rallying cry to recruit and
Although it is very unlikely that Al-Shabaab will be able to
mount a conventional military challenge against Ethiopia, it retains the
capacity to launch terrorist acts inside Ethiopia. In the worst case scenario,
certain political actors in Somalia may encourage or lend support to Al-Shabaab
to carry terrorist acts in Ethiopia, in a manner reminiscent of the alleged
Eritrean support to Al-Shabaab. There are documented instances of Al-Shabaab being
utilized by, or forming tactical alliances with other actors to achieve
immediate goals. Finally, although the problem of piracy in the waters off
the Somali coast has abated not least due to the deployment of the
international naval forces off the coast of Somalia, to assume the problem has
been taken care of once and for all, may be an unwarranted conclusion. In the event the FGS is weakened or collapses, piracy in
the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast may experience a second
lease on life.
UAE, Djibouti and Egypt
Clearly the UAE aims at killing two or more birds with one stone with the
Berbera port agreement. First, by including Ethiopia in the agreement, the UAE
will acquire a degree of cover and legitimacy from potential challenges from
IGAD or the AU, for infringing on the sovereignty of a member state. Second, if
for whatever reason Somalia miraculously pulls together just enough resources
to confront Somaliland militarily, Ethiopia will punish any such act since it
is a beneficiary from the agreement and a shareholder in the Berbera port.
Third, the UAE seems intent on punishing both Djibouti and the FGS: the former
for ending the Doraleh Container Terminal contract and the latter for staying neutral in the Gulf crisis.
Djibouti has benefited from its relative stability and its
growing strategic significance due to its geographical location and the
emergence of threats such as piracy, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaida in the Arabian
Peninsula (AQAP) and the war in Yemen.  Based on recent history and as the Berbera port agreement
may potentially reduce Djibouti’s revenues if Ethiopian imports and exports are
shipped through Berbera port, Djibouti will most likely side with Somalia thus
further complicating the matter.
Egypt has good relations with UAE and Saudi Arabia and is one of
the four Arab countries blockading Qatar. On the other hand, Ethio-Egyptian
relations have been strained due to the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian
Renaissance Dam (GERD) and Ethiopian allegations that Egypt and Eritrea have
been lending support to insurgent movements operating against the Ethiopian
government. Moreover, Egypt has enjoyed historically friendly
relations with Somalia. Professor Shinn points out that:
“…Egypt has been a supporter of Somali unity and a strong Somali
state that can serve as a counterweight to Ethiopia…A unified Somalia that
might one day reassert its claims to Somali-inhabited areas of Ethiopia and
that has close links to Egypt would add to this leverage”.
The contestation over the agreement on Berbera port opens the
door for a closer alliance between Egypt and Somalia and risks escalating the
level of inter-state tensions in the Horn of Africa.
The UAE’s disregard for the sovereignty of Somalia in the form of the Berbera
port agreement is dangerous and may plunge the Horn of Africa region into
chaos. IGAD, the AU, the Arab League and the UN should pay close attention to
the issue as it unfolds and act pre-emptively to contain and de-escalate the
dispute. Somalia and the Horn of Africa cannot afford another source of
Current leaders of the region should abandon the zero sum game mentality
and awaken to the reality that the people in the region will rise or fall
together. Until they come to such realization, others who are driven by greed
and conceit will divide and exploit them.
Mr. Mohamed Amin has
a BA in International Development from Dalhousie in Nova Scotia, Canada and a
MA in Education from Mount Saint Vincent University, Nova Scotia, Canada. He
has worked as a Senior Policy Analyst for Canadian Federal Government in the
spheres of chronic and communicable diseases prevention and welfare reform. Mr.
Ahmed has also worked for private and non-governmental agencies in various
capacities. Mr. Ahmed is also a published poet and has authored several papers
and articles. He can be reached at [email protected]
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