On January 1, 2024 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland, according to which Ethiopia will recognize the Republic of Somaliland, in return receiving 20 km of territory of the «unrecognized state», which will provide Addis Ababa with access to the sea.
At first glance, the event is quite ordinary. A bilateral, as diplomats say. However, it immediately attracted the attention not only of neighboring countries, but also of serious world players. Why?
If the terms of the agreement are met and the relevant documents are signed, Ethiopia will be the first United Nations Member State to recognize the self-proclaimed republic of Somaliland. And there is a prospect that it will be recognized by a number of other states in the not too distant future.
The point is that this so far «territory» has, on the one hand, all the features of a state, but on the other hand, it is considered to be a «failed state». So let us try to understand the reasons for this paradox. Part of it lies in the history of the region, which is traditionally called the «Horn of Africa».
In the 19th and first half of the 20th century, colonial countries divided Somalia into five parts — the United Kingdom (UK) took two parts while Italy, Ethiopia and France each took one. Somalis fought for independence from all colonial powers. Northern and Southern Somalia gained independence on June 26, 1960 and July 1, 1960 respectively. All parts of Somalia eventually formed Greater Somalia.
Somaliland was a British protectorate for 75 years before it gained independence on June 26, 1960. Thereafter, it voluntarily merged with the former Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic. By the way, this decision is still regretted by the majority of the population of the «state». That is, legally Somaliland existed as a sovereign state for about 5 days. And these days it spent in the status of an independent country recognized by members of the UN.
But let’s not go into historical details (rebellions, clan wars, UN and US military aid) and get straight to the point.
Somaliland has existed as a de facto independent country since 1991. It has successfully rebuilt its economy and infrastructure (by African standards) despite the damage caused by the rebellion. However, the international community has decided not to recognize Somaliland until the African Union (AU) does so first. The AU in turn feared that recognition would encourage other parts of Somalia such as Hiranland, Jubaland, Puntland and other parts of Africa (South Sudan, Eritrea, etc.) to demand independence as well. The paradox is that although Somaliland is not recognized by the international community, it has its own flag, parliament, currency and national identity.
Thirty years after its arbitrary declaration of independence, Somaliland is still on the periphery of the international political system, despite significant successes in state-building and peacekeeping, as well as substantial investment by the diaspora in the development of its homeland. Formal recognition by Ethiopia would provide Somaliland with a great opportunity to overcome international isolation.
Somaliland is now extremely disadvantageous to the Global North because it shows that political order, democratic institutions and a certain degree of development can be achieved without much international assistance. Paradoxically, the territory of the unrecognized state is relatively safe, especially when compared to neighboring Somalia. Terrorist groups seem to avoid this territory, which is not the case, again, with Somalia.
What does this have to do with Ethiopia? Geopolitical aspect. Ethiopia lost access to its Red Sea ports in the early 1990s when Eritrean rebels in the north gained control of the northern coastal region and then declared independence.
Ethiopia is now heavily dependent on Djibouti for international trade, 95% of which passes through the Addis-Djibouti sea corridor. Having only one route makes Ethiopia extremely vulnerable.
But, as we know, almost no country in Africa takes serious steps without the patronage of a «big player». So Ethiopia is now essentially a protectorate of the United States. The US is focused on controlling Ethiopia’s internal affairs. Moreover, it is the US that would benefit from cooperating with Somaliland, but it cannot be the first to recognize the country. Why?
Let’s imagine that the US recognized Somaliland’s independence. And then, at one of the emergency meetings of the UN Security Council, China would remember about its veto right. But what does China have to do with it? It has to do with the fact that Somaliland not only recognizes Taiwan’s independence, but also has strong diplomatic relations with it, which naturally makes China nervous. And until Somaliland breaks ties with Taiwan, it will not be recognized by the Middle Kingdom at the UN. And this is not to mention other countries, which may also vote at the General Assembly against admitting a new member to the organization.
Another strategic line is revealed here, with point «A» in the U.S. and «B» in China. It is already clear that the U.S. and China are in a kind of cold war, trying to pull as many players as possible to their side (and strategically important from the point of view of geopolitics, such as Somaliland and Djibouti). The region in which they are located falls into this category.
This is confirmed by the fact that the U.S. has stationed its permanent military base in Africa precisely in Djibouti. However, Beijing is not backing down, pulling influence in Djibouti on itself through multimillion-dollar investments. The Chinese are literally undermining the influence of the States in this country in every possible way. In 2018, the U.S. accused China of attacking U.S. warplanes with powerful lasers near a Chinese military base in Djibouti, resulting in injuries to two American pilots.
So, realizing the seriousness of Beijing’s intentions, the U.S. decided to switch to another country that has an equally good location — Somaliland. But what will Somaliland give the U.S.? After all, it is clear that China’s nervousness over Somaliland’s recognition of Taiwan is not the key argument.
Somaliland has more than 800 kilometers of coastline in the Gulf of Aden and is in close proximity to Yemen, where Iranian-backed proxy groups operate. In addition, the territory of the unrecognized state is located near the «heart» of the Bab el Mandeb Strait, through which about 9% of the world’s oil and most of the maritime trade between Europe and Asia passes. This strait is also part of the fastest route for the U.S. 6th Fleet from the Mediterranean and the 5th Fleet in the Indian Ocean.
Given the development of events in the Middle East (the conflict between Hamas and Israel, rocket attacks and bombardment of the Yemeni Houthis, etc.), we can assume with a high degree of confidence that the destabilization of the situation in this region will continue. And the Americans together with their allies will play no small role in this endeavor.
Thus, it can be concluded that the Somaliland case is nothing but a veiled attempt by the U.S. to get its hands on an extremely favorable place to implement its foreign policy strategy. Ethiopia is just a pawn that was probably offered very good barter terms (access to the sea, military assistance in Tigray, etc.).