Ethiopia-Somalia Tensions Rise, Drawing Global Stakeholders Amid Regional Stabilization Efforts

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CDS Africa

Administrator . Updated July 8, 2024

The Ethiopian Somali conflict traces its origins to the 19th century when Ethiopia annexed the Ogaden region, historically inhabited by Somalis. This territorial dispute intensified after World War II when Britain transferred the Ogaden and Haud areas to Ethiopia. Somali aspirations for self-determination and unity as part of a Greater Somalia led to insurgencies against Ethiopian rule, exacerbated by Somalia's internal instability since 1991. Ethiopia, militarily and economically advantaged due to Somalia's civil war and lack of central governance, has maintained control despite ongoing tensions.

Recent incidents, such as unauthorized Ethiopian military actions along the border reported in June 2024, highlight the persistent nature of the conflict, often framed as a border dispute but rooted in economic competition and resource scarcity exacerbated by environmental challenges like drought and desertification. The historical context includes clashes dating back centuries, with notable conflicts such as the Ogaden War in 1977, fueled by Cold War dynamics. Resolving these issues remains elusive, hindering both nations' abilities to address pressing social and economic challenges.         

Somalia Declares War on Ethiopia Over a Breakaway Region

A prominent advisor to Somalia's president has stated that the country is ready to go to war in order to prevent Ethiopia from acknowledging Somaliland as a breakaway entity and from establishing a port there.

A memorandum of understanding signed on January 1 2024 permitting landlocked Ethiopia to establish a naval station on Somaliland's coast has jolted the Horn of Africa, one of the world's most turbulent areas. Somalia claims Somaliland as part of its territory and declares the pact void. Tensions remain high between Ethiopia and Somalia, which fought each other in 1977–1978 over a disputed area. In an effort to drive Islamists out of Mogadishu, Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, which helped to ignite the Al-Shabaab insurgency. Today, Ethiopia supplies a significant portion of the troops serving in the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

Somaliland was a British colony until 1960. The area enjoyed five days of independence before willingly joining Somalia, a former Italian colony. Somaliland seceded from the union in 1991, following a decade-long liberation fight against a Soviet-backed military dictatorship.

Today, Somaliland is a de facto autonomous state with its own currency, parliament, and diplomatic missions abroad. When the agreement was signed, Somaliland's president, Muse Bihi Abdi, stated that Ethiopia had agreed to offer official recognition in exchange for a 50-year lease on a section of coastline that it will develop for "naval and commercial" purposes. However, Ethiopia stated that it had only committed to "make an in-depth assessment before taking a position on Somaliland's efforts to gain recognition." Somalia's leadership is angry with the agreement that would enable landlocked Ethiopia access to the Red Sea.

The agreement provided Ethiopia with access to the sea via Somaliland in exchange for Ethiopia's recognition of Somaliland as an independent republic. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud signed a "law nullifying the memorandum of understanding" signed by the Government of Ethiopia and Somaliland. Ethiopia is the world’s most populous state without access to the sea. Somalia and Ethiopia had calm relations until January 2024, when the pact with Somaliland triggered diplomatic tensions between the East African neighbors.

Turkeys Role in the Somali - Ethiopian Conflict

Ethiopia and Turkey, which have maintained friendly connections since the early twentieth century, have gotten even closer in recent years as both face criticism from the west over domestic policy.

However, recent developments are putting the relationship to the test. These include Turkey adopting responsibility for protecting Somalia's waterways, which are believed to encompass the Gulf of Aden, as well as Ethiopia's ambitions to acquire access to the sea through a pact with Somaliland. Michael Bishku, a Middle Eastern and African history researcher who has conducted study on Ethiopia-Turkey relations, explains why Turkey's relationships with Ethiopia are primarily economic, whereas those with Somalia are emotive, in terms of supporting an underprivileged Muslim country. Turkey mediated discussions between Somalia and Ethiopia on Monday to reduce diplomatic tensions between the two east African neighbors, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

Tensions between the two African countries have been simmering since Ethiopia signed a memorandum of understanding with the breakaway territory of Somaliland in January, which Somalia condemned as an infringement on its sovereignty and territorial integrity. According to the contract, Somaliland would provide Ethiopia access to the sea in exchange for Ethiopia acknowledging Somaliland as an independent nation.

On September 2, in the Turkish capital of Ankara, a second round of talks is scheduled, according to the Turkish ministry. Ethiopia and Somalia agreed on Monday to resume Turkey-mediated negotiations to address their differences, following a contentious accord between Ethiopia and the separatist territory of Somaliland earlier this year that took the two countries to the brink of war. Turkey has publicly supported Somalia's territorial integrity, which is home to Turkey's largest military post overseas. However, Ankara maintains close connections with Addis Ababa, with Ethiopia purchasing more than a dozen drones from Turkey in 2021.

The Stakeholders Involved

There have been fruitless diplomatic attempts to resolve the issue on a bilateral and global level. Even the use of force has been attempted, but this has only served to exacerbate the issues already present and increase the suffering and poverty of the populations in both nations. The conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia involves a number of external parties and stakeholders, each with different interests and influences.

Historically, neighboring nations such as Kenya and Djibouti have had roles in mediating conflicts and helping to stabilize the region. The African Union (AU) has played a critical role, deploying the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to support peacekeeping and counter-terrorism operations, mainly against Al-Shabaab insurgents. The United Nations (UN) also maintains a substantial presence through its peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, which try to provide relief and promote communication between opposing parties.

International powers such as the United States and the European Union have a keen interest in the Horn of Africa because of its strategic location and security concerns. The United States has offered military and financial assistance to combat terrorism and promote stability, whilst the European Union has focused on development aid and capacity-building programs.

Furthermore, Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have increased their influence through investments and diplomatic relations. China, with its Belt and Road Initiative, has also attempted to strengthen its economic presence in the region. While these external parties try to stabilize the region, they frequently pursue their own strategic goals, complicating the conflict dynamics between Somalia and Ethiopia.

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CDS Africa

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