Recently the Horn of Africa has seen an increase in geopolitical tensions, with Ethiopia and Somalia at the center of a growing conflict that poses a risk to regional stability. Understanding the underlying reasons and possible consequences of this conflict is essential as both countries confront internal obstacles and outside stressors. Ethiopia’s landlocked complexities as Africa’s second-most populous country are inflaming tensions in an already conflict-ravaged region. To make matters worse, Ethiopia and Somaliland signed a landmark Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), giving Somaliland full recognition in exchange for 20 kilometers of its coastline. This deal infuriated Somalia because it highlights its inadequate state control. Water access and sovereignty – both vital for the survival of a state – are the focal points of Ethiopia’s and Somalia’s mistrust.

Historical Background
Ethiopia and Somalia share a strong historical bond, originating from the relationship between the Abyssinian Empire and the Adal Sultanate. Throughout time, people from both nations have engaged in trade, exchanging goods, ideas, and customs because of important historical regional trade routes. The historical link between Ethiopia and Somalia stresses its influence on their cultural, economic, and political contexts.

Ethiopia was the first African country liberated in World War II. Emperor Haile Selassie I, who ruled from 1930 until 1974, had a vigorous style of leadership, as his ancient feudal empire prospered and progressed with aid and political support from the United States (US), Western European countries, and Japan. By the late 1960s, however, Ethiopian university students led a series of protest campaigns, both at home and abroad. By 1974, a communist military junta named the Derg, or the committee, deposed the elderly Emperor and turned the centuries-old Abyssinian empire towards the Soviet Union.

Somalia, on the other hand, did not exist as a state until 1960 when British and Italian Somali colonies were joined to form the Somali Republic. The first generation of modern Somali leaders adopted a new flag with a five-pointed white star of unity. This symbol represents the areas where Somali ethnic groups have traditionally resided, namely, Djibouti, the former British colony of Somaliland, the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, the North-Eastern Province in Kenya, and the former Italian colony of Southern Somalia. Independent Somalia became a disruptive element in the Horn of Africa, which at the time was relatively stable. Somalia’s government aimed to ‘re-unite’ ethnic Somalis by acquiring territories in neighboring countries to create a greater Somalia. This ambitious political aim became a new source of conflict, especially for Ethiopia as the Ogaden represents roughly 20 percent of Ethiopia’s total territory.

In 1977, President Siad Barre invaded the Ogaden Region in Ethiopia. He believed it was an opportune time given that the Ethiopian Emperor had been ousted and the new Derg was facing difficulties centralizing their authority. Nevertheless, President Siad Barre’s ambitions were short-lived as by the spring of 1978 Somali troops began to retreat from the Ogaden region because of Soviet and Cuban military and financial aid for the new communist regime in Ethiopia. Somalia’s failed invasion led Ethiopia to have one of Africa’s largest armies and for President Barre to lose popular support across Somalia. The Ogaden War caused the deaths of approximately 30,000 to 40,000 individuals, highlighting the destructive consequences of the conflict for both countries.

From 1990 to 2024, Ethiopia and Somalia experienced notable political transformations and advancements. In Ethiopia, the most significant political occurrence happened in 1991 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front ousted the communist Derg regime and set up a new administration. Post-Cold War Ethiopia was progressive as it formally recognized minority ethnic groups, allowing for its coastline province Eritrea to secede, and decentralize the economy. Ethiopia encountered diverse obstacles, however, such as the emergence of ethnic tensions and conflicts in areas like Oromia and Tigray. Ethiopia shifted to a federal system of governance during the tenure of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In Somalia, instability and conflict defined the political scene. Somalia went through a civil war, resulting in the central government’s downfall in 1991. This led to the rise of different armed groups and an extended time without a central government, causing disorder.

Where are we now?
Ethiopia has been landlocked since Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Conflict, climate change, and disease outbreaks are drivers of the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. As Africa’s second-most populous country, Ethiopia is home to more than 21 million people who require urgent assistance, including 4.5 million people who are internally displaced. Ethiopia has tried through various diplomatic means to gain secure access to the ocean. In 2002, it signed an agreement with Djibouti, which resulted in 95 percent of its import-export trade passing through the port of Djibouti. Due to its large population and growing economy, the Ethiopian government recognizes that a single port, far from its populated regions, is not sustainable in the long run. By 2018, Ethiopia purchased a 19 percent stake in the Berbera Port in Somaliland to diversify its maritime access points. Although Somaliland is an autonomous state it is not officially recognized and its secession elections were not deemed legal by the UN.

Somalia’s central authorities have often been preoccupied with clan conflicts, Al-Shabaab terrorism, and piracy. As a result, the Somali state has not been able to exert any real political or economic control over the Somaliland Region. This has created a complex geo-political situation: there is room for opportunity for Ethiopia to take advantage of the self-proclaimed autonomous Somaliland ports but risks for Somalia, as their sovereignty will be undermined.

Building Trust and Cooperation: A Realistic Prospect?
Ethiopia’s aggressive deal is double-binded. On one hand, the country needs direct water access for its survival and on the other, it risks another conflict with Somalia. The fragile statehood of Somalia led its government to immediately nullify the MOU. Although there has been no mobilization of troops on either side, the new deal created an opportunity for Türkiye to potentially instigate the situation.
In April 2024, Erdoğan announced that Turkey would begin to train and bolster the Somali navy. Ethiopia’s initial legal move might have sabotaged building trust and cooperation with its historical enemy.

Landlocked countries have specific rights to reach the sea according to international maritime law through agreements made with coastal countries. These rights can be exercised via a corridor agreement: regulations for the transit of goods via an approved route. For instance, in 1997, Nepal was able to secure transit rights through Bangladeshi territory to access the ports of Chittagong and Mongla. But, how was this possible and how did they avert potential conflicts? Their arrangements are founded on Bangladeshi and Nepali governments maintaining positive and cooperative relations.

The claim of Somaliland’s water is a hurdle for all actors involved. It seems clear that a long-term solution will require a consensus among all states concerned; recognized or not. Regardless of this puzzling MOU, Ethiopia, Somaliland, and Somalia will always be neighbors. Whether they like it or not, cooperation is the focal point of their multilateral survival.

Written by Kaleb Zewdineh, Edited by Viktor Kharyton
Photo credit: Magda Ehlers, Pexels