The new year has already brought a rapidly deteriorating security outlook to the Horn of Africa. The year kicked off with news of a memorandum of understanding signed by Ethiopia and Somaliland giving Ethiopia access to the Port of Berbera and a stretch of coastline along the Gulf of Aden. According to Somaliland’s officials, Ethiopia agreed in exchange to recognize Somaliland as a sovereign state. The reaction in Mogadishu was apoplectic. The announcement immediately extinguished the glimmer of progress in talks between Somalia’s government in Mogadishu and the leadership of the autonomous region headquartered in Hargeisa that had emerged in December. But the fallout goes much further.
Discounting the power of Somali nationalism has never been a good bet. The leadership of al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization that has bedeviled Somalia and its neighbors since the early 2000s, is well aware of this fact. By condemning the port access deal, al-Shabaab seeks to position itself as a champion of Somalia’s territorial integrity, and to undercut support for the Transitional Federal Government that has worked for decades with the United States and the African Union to try to stitch the Somalian state back together and subdue the extremists. This puts pressure on Somalia’s President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, to push back on Ethiopia with ever more vigor. Rounding up international statements of support will not be enough. One week after the bombshell deal was announced, the Somali President was calling on his Eritrean counterpart, Isaias Afwerki, in Asmara. Given the Eritrean dictator’s belief that his country’s security requires the weakness of its neighbors, and that Ethiopia’s historic access to the sea existed on what is now the Eritrean coast, it is not hard to imagine the sense of alarm that the January 1 agreement triggered in Eritrea—or the sense of opportunity for a regime that has long played a regional spoiler role.
Underestimating the audacity and appetite for risk of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is another bad bet. Unable to retain the support base that saw him through his war with the Tigray region, and plagued by internal security and economic crises, he has turned to his port access project as a new, and dangerous, rallying point. While the Somali and Eritrean leaders met, Ethiopian officials reportedly held talks on military cooperation with Somaliland. Just as the Prime Minister has refused to give an inch on the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, infuriating Egyptian officials, he is willing to alienate Djibouti and Somalia in pursuit of his ambitions.
One hopes that U.S. policymakers, so concerned about the implications of instability on the other side of the Red Sea, are elevating these issues to the highest level. In particular, it is urgent that Washington recognize the remarkably destabilizing role that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is playing in these dynamics, as well as those in Sudan, presumably in attempt to ensure they are the dominant influence in a maritime corridor vital to global commerce. In pursuit of influence and security, the UAE may end up tipping the entire region into chaos.