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Analysts cite deep Turkey, UAE involvement behind scenes. Foreign Ministry rejects President Hassan Sheikh’s AU summit allegations

On December 1, 2023, the UN Security Council announced it had lifted a 31-year-old arms embargo on Somalia. Later that month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank announced USD 4.5 billion in debt relief for the Horn of Africa nation.

The move saw Somalia’s debt-to-GDP drop from 64 percent to just six. It is a debut afforded to Somalia following a long period of disengagement with the Bretton Woods institutions.

Almost simultaneously, Somalia signed a treaty of accession with the East African Community (EAC), after being admitted to the bloc the month prior.

This Wednesday, the Somali parliament approved a milestone military pact with Turkey. The agreement would see Turkey train Somali naval forces and provide security on its waters and coasts, in exchange for 30 percent of revenues from the Somali Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Djibouti has also reached a similar agreement with Ankara, simultaneously.

Somalia’s latest international pact guarantees Turkey complete authority over the management and defense of Somalia’s waters, as well as lucrative commercial opportunities in its resource-rich EEZ.

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Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre described the defense and economic deal with Turkey as “a historic day for the country,” after Somalia’s council of ministers approved the deal on Wednesday.

“Somalia will have a true ally, a friend, and a brother in the international arena,” he said.

Analysts observe the lifting of the arms embargo, significant huge debt relief, and strengthened ties with the Arab League, have become a source of concern in Addis Ababa. They see Mogadishu’s growing strength and its recent overtures for the establishment of an Egyptian military presence in Somalia have caused a stir in Arat Kilo, which is already at an impasse with Cairo over the GERD.

An analyst who spoke to The Reporter on condition of anonymity argues the recent developments in Somalia are part of a global tussle over influence in the Horn.

“The West lifted Somalia’s arms embargo not only to fight Al-Shabaab, but because it wants Somalia to counter the UAE’s growing interests in the Horn. In the meantime, the UAE is using Ethiopia as its ally in the region,” said the analyst. “Ethiopia moved to find alternative and manageable port access because Djibouti is hosting several military bases amidst growing global and regional tensions over the Red Sea.   As much as the west wants to recognize Somaliland, it fears Ethiopia’s growing interest in the Red Sea.”

Somalia’s scramble to garner diplomatic and military support from the Arab League, mainly Egypt and Turkey, gained momentum following the MoU signed between Ethiopia and breakaway Somaliland on January 1, 2024.

Some pundits see the renewal of ties with the Arab world as a preemptive move aimed at deterring Ethiopia’s efforts for sea access via Somaliland, while others argue it is a stepping stone towards reclaiming the breakaway territory.

Somaliland President Muse Bihi was quick to downplay Mogadishu-Ankara military pact, addressing Somali President Hassan Sheikh directly.

“The agreement with Ethiopia will be implemented, and you cannot change it, whether you bring Egypt or Turkey,” he said.

Turkey already operates a large and expansive military base in Somalia. Turkish companies like the Albayrak Group and Favori LLC have also reportedly been given free reign in managing Somali ports and airports.

However, Ankara is looking to expand its presence not only in Somalia, but in the Horn at large.

Meanwhile, the UAE is looking for much the same thing, especially following the expulsion of DP World, the Emirati logistics giant, from Djibouti as a result of a bitter arbitration case in London.

The UAE has since been looking for a strong ally in the Horn, and Somaliland presented itself as the ideal partner for both the Emirates and Ethiopia. DP World is already involved in the ports of Bosaso and Berbera.

Sources claim the MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland was partly conceived and supported by the UAE, which wants to maintain strong interests in the Horn away from the many military bases in Djibouti and Turkey’s alliance with Mogadishu.

“The UAE has been mediating between Somaliland and Somalia. It secured Ethiopia’s alliance. Hassan Sheikh definitely knew what was going to happen. He was in Djibouti discussing with Muse Bihi just a week before Bihi flew to Addis Ababa to sign the MoU,” claims an observer in the diplomatic community. “Hassan Sheikh knows Ethiopia is going to recognize Somaliland statehood, and he definitely consented. But, in the final hours, Somalia withdrew [its consent] for some reason. Hassan Sheikh, especially, is unhappy with the disclosure of the news about Somaliland’s recognition because it puts him in hot water. Somalia’s clan-based politics is making Hassan Sheik’s tenure difficult.”

The observer argues the Somali President is only trying to avoid the pressure from the politics at home.

“What is for certain is that Hassan Sheikh was aware of the agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland before January 1, 2024. It’s DP World that manages both the Bosaso and Berbera ports. UAE investments in Somaliland ports are useless unless Ethiopia utilizes them, so it’s certainly the UAE behind the Somaliland recognition issue,” he told The Reporter.

“If the UAE knew that Ethiopia is going to recognize Somaliland, then for sure Somalia knew this before the MoU was signed. I believe Hassan Sheikh consented at first but he might have changed his mind in the eleventh hour, likely because of some disagreement. Most likely, neither Ethiopia or Somalia wanted the disclosure of Somaliland’s statehood publicly – they wanted to do it silently. But Muse Bihi is cautious that, if the agreement is not made public, Ethiopia might refuse to recognize [Somaliland] after gaining access to the port,” he said.

Constantinos Berhutesfa (PhD), a former senior official at the AU and UN, is among the regional analysts who argue the MoU with Somaliland is a mistake.

“For Ethiopia, it would have been better to just recognize Somaliland without preconditions like sea access or signing an MoU. Ethiopia should have recognized Somaliland’s statehood before. If it had, other countries would have followed. The US and UK are currently considering this. If recognized, Somaliland will be a leading democratic government. No African government is as stable and democratic as that of Somaliland, even without statehood,” Constantinos told The Reporter.

“The reason the international community is apprehensive of recognizing Somaliland stems from fears it would trigger a disintegration of Somalia. Puntland and Jubaland may also try to go independent. The EU couldn’t recognize Somaliland because Italy was against it. It is Italy that has been blocking Somaliland’s recognition. But since the UK is no longer under the EU, it can recognize Somaliland statehood as a former colonial territory. The West is now reaching an agreement to recognize Somaliland in order to fight the Houthis in the Red Sea region,” said Constantinos.

He argues Somalia can do little to prevent Somaliland from declaring full independence.

“If Ethiopian troops withdraw, Somalia cannot sustain,” foresees Constantinos.

The recognition of Somaliland would also be the nail in the coffin for Mogadishu’s aspirations for a ‘greater Somalia.’

“When the OAU was established, it was decided that colonial borders would be recognized. So there is no greater Somalia under AU principles, because it would include Djibouti, Ogaden, and other territories in Kenya. Somalia’s very continuity is in question, let alone aspirations for the greater Somalia project,” said Constantinos.

Yet, the UAE-Turkey scramble for influence in the Horn is becoming a worrisome source of friction for the region.

During the AU summit last week, Hassan Sheik accused Ethiopia of attempting to annex part of Somalia and called for the relocation of AU headquarters after claiming Ethiopian security forces barred him and his entourage from entering the AU premises in Addis Ababa.

Birtukan Ayano (Amb.), a state minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the AU summit organizing committee, told the media that Hassan Sheikh’s accusations are “totally baseless.”

“As per AU protocol, nobody is allowed to enter the premises armed, except the organization’s security. It is AU security personnel that handle security issues, not the Ethiopian government,” said Birtukan.

Witnesses say members of Hassan Sheikh’s security detail attempted to enter the AU headquarters while armed, which led to unnecessary confrontations, including one of the President’s guards attempting to jump over a wall to enter the AU premises.

Observers say Hassan Sheikh was just trying to score a point against the Ethiopian government.

“Hassen Sheikh is now using every loophole to garner support from the Somali diaspora. The Somali diaspora is very strong and active,” said Constantinos. “Many of them fled the country using Ethiopian passports after entering via Ogaden. Now, Somalia is using the ‘annexation’ rhetoric to mobilize the Somali diaspora aboard. Hassen Sheikh is garnering good diplomatic support using the MoU as a pretext.”

Analysts, however, seem to agree that Hassan Sheikh will not attempt to use the MoU as a pretext for open conflicts, rather as a means to galvanize support.

During an address to Parliament a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) also dispelled concerns of war between Ethiopia and Somalia. He did, however, warn that third parties could use the tensions as an opportunity for inciting a proxy conflict.

“The people of Ethiopia and Somalia are bound by blood. Many Ethiopians have died for the peace of Somalia. There is no country that has paid as dearly for peace in Somalia as Ethiopia. This is because the peace of Somalia is the peace of Ethiopia,” said the PM.

During a digital media briefing on Wednesday this week, Molly Phee, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, urged Somalia and Ethiopia to engage in talks.

“The issue of Ethiopia’s desire for increased commercial port access – a valid concern – should be resolved through talks with the federal government of Somalia and neighboring states, or possibly as part of a regional approach that is based on cooperation and regional economic and security integration,” said Phee.

The Assistant Secretary had this to say about Somaliland’s quest for statehood:

“The issue of Somaliland’s status should be resolved by the people of Somalia, including the people of Somaliland – not by external actors.  The region can ill afford more conflict.”

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