Charting New Waters Ethiopia’s Bold Leap towards a Strategic Alliance with Somaliland

In a move marked by strategic foresight and geopolitical complexity, Ethiopia recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Somaliland, paving the way to realising Ethiopia’s aspiration to secure access to the Red Sea. This significant development requires a nuanced understanding of the current status of de facto states, the geopolitical centres of the world, and the intricate dynamics of the Horn of Africa.

The World of De Facto States

De facto states, territories that possess a semblance of independence and governance but lack widespread international recognition, dot various parts of our world. They exist in a unique realm of international politics, often navigating a precarious balance between seeking legitimacy and maintaining their de facto autonomy. This category includes places like Taiwan, Northern Cyprus, and Somaliland. These entities often seek strategic partnerships and alliances to bolster their international standing and economic well-being.

The Four Epicenters of Geopolitics

Globally, four regions stand out as epicentres of intense geopolitical activity: Urosia (a term combining Europe and Russia), the South China Sea, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa. These areas are characterised by complex interplays of power, influence, and strategic interests involving foremost global and regional authorities.

A Brief on Somaliland

Somaliland, located in the Horn of Africa, has a unique and complex political history. It was a British protectorate known as British Somaliland until 1960. That year, it gained independence and briefly existed as an independent nation for a few days before deciding to unite with Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic on July 1, 1960. Initially driven by the dream of creating a Greater Somalia encompassing all Somali-inhabited regions in the Horn of Africa, this union soon became problematic. The centralised government in Mogadishu marginalised the people and areas of former British Somaliland.

Dissatisfaction culminated in a brutal civil war during the 1980s, led by the Somali National Movement (SNM) against the dictatorial regime of Siad Barre. In 1991, following the collapse of Siad Barre’s government, Somaliland declared its independence, reinstating the sovereignty it had relinquished in 1960. Since then, Somaliland has established its own government, currency, and democratic institutions, including regular elections, although it remains unrecognised internationally.

Despite this lack of formal recognition, Somaliland has been relatively stable and peaceful compared to the rest of Somalia, plagued by ongoing conflict and instability. The region continues to seek international recognition, striving to demonstrate that it meets the criteria for statehood.

Ethiopia and the Red Sea Access

For landlocked Ethiopia, access to the Red Sea is paramount. The Red Sea is a vital maritime corridor, offering access to major global shipping routes. By strengthening ties with Somaliland, Ethiopia potentially secures an alternative way to the sea, diminishing its reliance on Djibouti, with whom relations have been sometimes tense.

The loss of Ethiopia’s direct access to the sea is a significant chapter in its recent history, often attributed to a strategic oversight by the then Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, and his party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In 1993, following the long and arduous struggle for independence by Eritrean forces, Ethiopia acknowledged the independence of Eritrea. While resolving one of the region’s most protracted conflicts, this recognition inadvertently led to Ethiopia becoming landlocked, as it ceded the entire coastline along the Red Sea to the newly formed nation of Eritrea.

During the negotiations and the declaration of Eritrea’s independence, Zenawi and the EPRDF did not secure Ethiopia’s historic right to access the sea, a move perceived in retrospect as a significant diplomatic and strategic error. This oversight has had far-reaching implications for Ethiopia over the past three decades. Being landlocked has significantly impacted Ethiopia’s trade and economic development, as the country became dependent on neighbouring countries for maritime access. The increased logistical challenges and costs of import and export activities have burdened its economy and affected its regional influence. This dependency also contributed to political and military tensions, most notably with Eritrea, further complicating Ethiopia’s regional relationships and aspirations for economic growth and stability.

Stakeholder Reactions to the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU

The signing of the MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland is likely to elicit varied reactions from global and regional powers.

The Western World and Europe: Western nations, traditionally advocates of territorial integrity, might view this development cautiously. However, recognising the stability and democratic strides in Somaliland, they might also see this as an opportunity to support a burgeoning democracy in a volatile region.

Russia and China: Both countries, driven by their strategic interests in Africa, might perceive this as an opportunity to expand their regional influence. With its significant investments in the Belt and Road Initiative, China and Russia, looking to extend their geopolitical reach, could find avenues for engagement or influence through this new dynamic. Of course, with its One China policy intact, China may see the issue with further extra caution.

Middle Eastern Nations (UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt): The reaction of Middle Eastern countries, particularly those with vested interests in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, will be multifaceted. The UAE, which already has a presence in Somaliland, might view this as a positive step. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, however, will weigh this development against their broader strategic interests in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.

Djibouti: As Ethiopia’s primary outlet to the sea, Djibouti might view this MoU with concern, potentially seeing it as a threat to its position as Ethiopia’s principal maritime gateway.

Somalia: The Federal Government of Somalia considers Somaliland part of its territory and will oppose this MoU vehemently. It views any engagement with Somaliland as a de facto entity challenging its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Ethiopia’s decision to be at the forefront of recognising Somaliland as a sovereign nation is a calculated move that could significantly enhance its regional bargaining power. By being the first to acknowledge Somaliland’s independence, Ethiopia positions itself as a visionary leader and a proactive player in the Horn of Africa’s future.

This early support strengthens bilateral relations and potentially grants Ethiopia favourable terms in future agreements, particularly concerning access to the Red Sea and security collaborations. Conversely, if Ethiopia were to wait and follow in the footsteps of others’ recognitions, its gesture would likely lose its significance and impact, merely becoming one among many without the added advantage of being the pioneering supporter. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s move is timely with the gradual yet evident momentum toward Somaliland’s independence.

Ethiopia’s decision to be at the forefront of recognising Somaliland aligns with what many see as an inevitable and sustainable shift in the region’s political landscape. By standing with this inevitable tide, Ethiopia secures a partner in Somaliland. It demonstrates strategic foresight and adaptability, essential for maintaining influence and leadership in an ever-evolving geopolitical environment.


In conclusion, Ethiopia’s MoU with Somaliland represents a strategic manoeuvre within the complex tapestry of Horn of Africa politics. It brings into focus the delicate issues surrounding de facto states, regional geopolitics, and the interests of global powers. While the benefits for Ethiopia regarding access to the Red Sea are clear, the reactions of various stakeholders will be pivotal in shaping the future of this engagement. Therefore, This move by Ethiopia must be navigated with caution and strategic insight, understanding that in international relations, every action has a ripple effect, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

12th Year • January 16 2024 – February 15 2024 • No. 125


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