Since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a memorandum of understanding on January 1 with Musa Bihi Abdi, the leader of the breakaway Somaliland region, the Somali nation reacted in unison by rejecting what it saw as yet another Ethiopian attempt to encroach on its territory.
Even though street protests, meetings, online discussions and local media so far denounce Somaliland’s treacherous move and Ethiopia’s total disregard for Somalia’s sovereignty, we are still far from the rhetoric of war or troop movements at the border.
But how did we go in a short time from a divided and dejected nation to a country in tune and imbued with the same fervor?
Ethiopia’s use of Somali dissension
Just after meeting and signing a rare agreement with the federal government delegation led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Djibouti, Musa Bihi promptly flew to Ethiopia to meet the Ethiopian Prime Minister. Barely a day has passed when images of the two political leaders signing the memorandum of understanding are circulating online.
Somaliland under Bihi, weakened financially and militarily, faces political and tribal insurgencies. After 32 years of political autonomy, elusive recognition and an increasingly disillusioned population, the secessionist leadership finds itself pushed to take desperate measures.
The MoU, the text of which has not been published, stipulates that in exchange for participation in the shares of the Ethiopian national airline and possible recognition of Somaliland as an independent state, Ethiopia will acquire a 20 km strip of Somali coastline overlooking the Red Sea. The land, granted in the form of a renewable 50-year lease, would include a corridor connecting the Ethiopian territory.
In a speech three months ago, Abiy expressed his intention to give his landlocked country access to the Red Sea. The three neighboring countries bordering the Red Sea, notably Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, then considered his quest as threatening their territorial integrity and rejected it unequivocally.
The weakest link among these sea-facing states was Somalia, although Eritrea was Abiy’s first choice because it was once part of Ethiopia. Abiy saw an opportunity in Somalia’s current fragmentation and Somaliland’s desperate quest of a recognition.
If we judge by the historical relationship between Somalia and Ethiopia, the audacity of the Ethiopian Prime Minister to put into action his quest for access to the Red Sea risks further destabilizing the Horn of Africa, giving it a dimension this time inter-state.
Somalia finds unity in the face of Ethiopian expansionism
Somalia has been politically divided since central authority collapsed in 1991 after President Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted by clan militias armed and equipped by Ethiopia.
Although a relatively stable federal government is currently in office in Mogadishu, its effective control is limited to the capital and its sub-region. The regional states, called member states, relics from the days of Ethiopia’s previous regime which dictated the Somali divisions enshrined in the interim constitution, have near control of the majority of the country.
However, the recent adventure of the Ethiopian Prime Minister has united the Somali nation, at home and in the diaspora. The quarrels between the member states and the federal government have faded, as have the dissensions between politicians and online hate-filled diatribes.
Nationalist rallies in Somalia are popping up almost everywhere, from the province of Awdal, whose coastline is set to host the Ethiopian naval presence, to Mogadishu, where mass gatherings are extremely rare for security reasons.
It must be said that Al-Shabab, whose insurgency was born because of the Ethiopian invasion of 2006 and whose counter-insurgency fight consumes a large part of the defense budget, sees recent events stealing its limelight.
President Hassan Sheikh, the less popular and arguably the least patriotic president Somalia has ever had, has since became vocal on Somali unity and territorial integrity to give himself a facelift. Corrupt or anxious to remain in power beyond his mandate, his slowness to react, even his timid initial response, gave rise to suspicions about his involvement in this affair.
Since then, he had on many occasions condemned the MoU and called on an already incensed population to defend the homeland against this latest Ethiopian encroachment attempt. Despite an indignation marked by a nationalism that he had despised in his predecessor, he still hesitates to take action and send a strong message to Ethiopia.