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Analysts split on possibility of escalation

A milestone sea access-forrecognition deal inked between Ethiopia and breakaway Somaliland has pushed a wedge between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has been busy with shuttle diplomacy, mobilizing allies against what Mogadishu calls a violation of Somalia’s sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the Prosperity Party reaffirmed its commitment to the deal during a central committee meeting on January 26, signaling an end to the tensions is still out of reach. Mogadishu has warned of escalation “to a different level” if the MoU is not retracted.

Sources say back-channel diplomacy is underway at IGAD; and with other regional conflicts, foreign interests, and shifting geopolitical landscapes, it is difficult to see a way through the impasse.

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Whether tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia are going to culminate in dialogue or escalate into conflict remains unclear. In the meantime, several factors are adding fuel to the fire sparked by a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Ethiopia and breakaway Somaliland on the first day of 2024.

“So far, Ethiopia hasn’t come into Somalia. If they do, then that will be a problem at a different level,” Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, president of Somalia, said during an interview with Al-Jazeera on January 22, 2024.

The President said “it would be a different case” if Ethiopia continued ahead with the memo, hinting at the possibility of conflict.

The statements come following calls from IGAD and the AU for Addis Ababa and Mogadishu to de-escalate and engage in constructive dialogue. The Somali President has opted for a diplomatic tour around the region, conferring with potential allies in Cairo, Asmara, and Qatar.

The latter is reportedly training Somali Air Force pilots, while Eritrea is providing training to Somalia’s troops, and Egypt has reportedly expressed willingness to send its forces to Somalia.

Although analysts and pundits view Hassan Sheikh’s diplomatic overtures as an attempt to mobilize military alliances with Arab League members and Eritrea, the President claims he did not discuss military action with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in particular, who has publicly stated Egypt’s readiness to back Somalia.

“We did not discuss [about] the Egyptian military coming to Somalia,” said Hassan Sheikh. “The actual problem has not reached [this level] yet. We are saying to Ethiopia: ‘Don’t do it, please.’”

IGAD’s calls for dialogue have been muted by a statement from Mogadishu warning there is “no room” for talks unless Ethiopia retracts the MoU. Ethiopia’s absence from an IGAD extraordinary session last week has also muddled potential avenues for discussions.

Meanwhile, Somaliland officials have asserted their commitment to the agreement. During an interview with local media, Muse Bihi, the president of Somaliland, reaffirmed that Ethiopia has “agreed to recognize Somaliland statehood.”

Still, details of the MoU remain scarce, and statements from either signatory made following the initial signing on New Year’s Day hint at ambiguities in the execution of the deal.

Somaliland has made clear its position that Ethiopia must first recognize its sovereignty before it grants access to a 50-year lease on a stretch of its coast for a naval base and commercial port facility.

On the other hand, Ethiopian officials have hinted at “an in-depth assessment before taking a position on Somaliland’s efforts to gain recognition.”

The impasse is noted by analysts such as Mehari Taddele, an assistant professor at the School of Transnational Governance and Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

“Core elements of the MoU – access to the sea and recognition – are yet to be ironed out,” reads an analysis from Mehari, titled ‘Unveiling the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU: Hopes and Uncertainties.’

“What is the purpose of publicly pronouncing an MoU without finalized details?” asked Mehari. “For Ethiopia, the MoU diverts attention from internal conflicts, famine, and economic woes. For Somaliland, it potentially opens doors for international recognition, legitimizing President Muse Bihi Abdi’s government.”

Mehari observes Somaliland’s legal argument for sovereignty is based on a brief period of independence in 1960, prior to unification with Somalia. Although Somaliland has been a de facto state since 1991, it has not managed to gain recognition from international organizations, other states, or Somalia.

There is thus no clear path towards recognizing Somaliland, as recognition would require the backing of IGAD, AU, and the international community.

Mehari’s analysis explores the potential role that rivalries on the other side of the Red Sea play in the tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia, as well its potential effects on regional geopolitics. The UAE and Saudi Arabia stand out as regional powers whose growing rivalry is increasingly spilling over into Africa, particularly East Africa.

Ethiopia’s presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden align with the interests of the UAE, which has been a steady supplier of arms to Ethiopia in recent years, observes Mehari. However, the Jeddah Red Sea Council (Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Egypt, and Sudan represented by the Sudanese Armed Forces) would be opposed to the move, he argues.

The rivalries are also visible in Sudan, where Hemedti’s RSF enjoys backing from the Emirates, while al-Burhan’s SAF receives support from Saudi-aligned Egypt. El-sisi’s government backed out of trilateral negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) last month.

The conflict in Gaza and the ensuing blockade by Yemeni Houthis is also sure to influence the situation, according to the analysis.

The events that have unfolded over the last few weeks have magnified tensions and uncertainty in a region already crippled by violence and drought. However, some observers argue the tensions will not spill over into an all-out war.

Constantinos Berhutesfa (PhD) is a former AU official  who keeps a close eye on regional development. He says war between Somalia and Ethiopia is unlikely.

“Deterrence is what Somalia is trying to do. Hassan Sheikh is mobilizing alliances for deterrence in case of any escalation. Even if Somalia has the weapons and alliance of the Arab League, it cannot opt for war with Ethiopia or Somaliland,” he says.

The Somali government is heavily reliant on an AU/UN peacekeeping mission comprising troops from neighboring countries, including Ethiopia. Nearly 20,000 Ethiopian soldiers are engaged in the containment of Al-Shabaab, largely in southern Somalia and Mogadishu.

The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) is scheduled to end in 2024, following more than 15 years of presence in Somalia. The UN Security Council voted to lift an arms embargo on Somalia last month, and external creditors agreed to write off USD 4.5 billion of Somalia’s debt at around the same time.

Still, Constantinos argues Somalia is not in a position to declare war.

“Somalia’s nationalism is currently growing stronger, and armed groups like Al-Shabaab might move to destabilize Puntland and Somaliland. Al-Shabaab will also continue to exploit Ethiopia’s vulnerabilities, and attack the Ethiopian Somali region. Such disruptions will continue, but all-out war is unlikely between Ethiopia and Somalia. Of course, Egypt is siding with Somalia but Egypt could not even properly support Sudan’s government. It is the only country that has been supporting al-Burhan’s government, but he is not holding on. I do not expect Somalia will do anything even with Egypt’s backing,” he said.

However, other analysts observe the situation can potentially push Mogadishu to an agreement or alliance with Al-Shabaab.

“When they are ready, we are ready, but they are not ready,” said Hassan Sheikh about Al-Shabaab during the interview with Al-Jazeera. “They do not believe in a Somali state. How do I negotiate with someone who does not believe in a Somali state? This is a problem. They have a global agenda, not a local agenda. How can I negotiate with someone who has a global Islamic agenda but is operating in Somalia?”

A senior official at IGAD who spoke to The Reporter on condition of anonymity also doubts the possibility of conflict.

“I do not think Ethiopia and Somalia will go to war. It cannot happen under the existing context in Ethiopia. Of course Hassan Sheikh is using shuttle diplomacy and going here and there, mainly to secure weapons supply,” the official said.

“Somalia is doing so for deterrence. Somalia would never think to attack Ethiopia in an all-out war. The only thing Somalia can do is enhance its deterrence potential. Partly, Somalia cannot attack Ethiopia and cope, and partly because of the fact that Ethiopia has nearly 20,000 troops in Somalia. Somalia cannot think of war with Ethiopia until that force withdraws. But if it withdraws, Al-shabaab will threaten the Somalia government,” he told The Reporter.  “I do not expect war at all.”

Others are not so sure. They argue Somalia might host and support groups hostile to Ethiopia, indirectly impacting Ethiopia and Somaliland.

“Somalia has territorial claims in Ethiopia, Kenya (northern frontier district), Djibouti, and Somaliland. Including Somalia itself, it makes five, which is represented on the Somali flag – the five points on the star represent this,” said an analyst who spoke to The Reporter on condition of anonymity. “Even Al-Shabaab flags this territorial claim and the ‘Greater Somalia’ narrative. It is difficult to expect the MoU to be a simple case. There is also heavy third-party involvement in the Somalia-Somaliland case.”

Though Hassan Sheikh stated Somalia is ready to offer any of Somalia’s four ports for Ethiopia but through formal channels, analysts say Somalia is not in such position. “Hassan Sheikh cannot order ports under Somaliland, Puntland and other areas. He controls only port of Mogadishu currently. So how he can deal with Ethiopia over ports he does not control? The only way for him to negotiate with Ethiopia, is if he first reaches agreement with Somaliland. But Somaliland is not willing to that,” said another analyst.

Nonetheless, both Constantinos and the analysts believe the only way forward is an apolitical dialogue between Ethiopia and Somalia.

The MoU has also put Ethiopia under immense diplomatic pressure, particularly from the west.

Washington is alarmed by the potential for an Al-Shabaab revival as Mogadishu is distracted by the MoU. During the IGAD session in Uganda last week, Mike Hammer, US special envoy to the Horn, warned that Al-Shabaab is already attempting to mobilize and seize the gap.

It is amidst these tensions, that Redwan Hussein, security advisor to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, recently tweeted “we shall redouble our efforts to ensure better understanding. Will listen to friends for a possible coordination of efforts lowering rhetoric. We will continue to strive to reach a conclusion with amicable considerations which benefit all.”

According to The Reporter’s insider sources, IGAD leaders are engaged in back-channel diplomacy both on the MoU and Sudan situations. The backdoor diplomacy is an extension of IGAD’s heads of state and governments meeting last week in Entebbe, where both Ethiopia and Sudan were absent.

“Ethiopia and Sudan were absent from Entebbe meeting because they did not want to be ruled by decisions the session could have passed. Instead, they preferred a back-channel diplomatic discussion, where they can negotiate on possibilities,” claims the source.

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