The recent memorandum of understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, which allows Ethiopia sea access, is a significant milestone in the Horn of Africa region. This arrangement, soon to become a treaty, will formally recognise Somaliland’s sovereignty within its borders as they were in 1960, a notable development given Somaliland’s three decades of de facto international engagement. Although the concept of territorial lease is relatively new to Africa, it has a solid foundation in international law. For nations in the Horn of Africa, such agreements are more than just legal formalities; they symbolize a deep mutual respect and understanding. Furthermore, these agreements embody a commitment to shared prosperity, reflecting the objectives of the African Union.
Somalia’s characterization of the agreement as an “aggression” on its sovereignty mirrors the ongoing conflict between the two countries. Despite Somaliland gaining independence before Somalia on June 26, 1960, and the absence of a ratified Act of Union, Somalia persists in making territorial claim over Somaliland. This is despite the fact that the unlawful Somalian occupation of Somaliland between 1960 and 1991 ended following a liberation movement that stopped the Hargeisa Holocaust, also known as the Isaaq genocide – one of the gravest crimes against humanity.
The African Union’s call for calm and mutual respect between Ethiopia and Somalia is a standard diplomatic response to emerging tensions. However, this strategy will not adequately address this conflict. As highlighted by Matt Brydon, Director Sahan Research, in a recent Aljazeera interview, the conflict from the memorandum of understanding is between Somaliland and Somalia, and not between Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopia is only acting on the a fait accompli of Somaliland’s independence.
The international examples of Kosovo and Bangladesh’s declarations of independence show that a ignoring the root cause will not work. For example, India’s recognition of Bangladesh escalated tensions with Pakistan. However, the global community didn’t treat this as merely a bilateral issue between Pakistan and India. As more countries recognised Bangladesh, tensions decreased, eventually leading to Pakistan’s acceptance of the situation on the ground.
Efforts to stop nations from recognising Bangladesh would have been unproductive and such conflicts, particularly in the Horn of Africa, cannot remain unresolved indefinitely. This is evident in nearby Yemen, where unresolved disputes have been exploited by external forces. As Africans, it’s crucial to prevent such situations in both Somaliland and Somalia. Often, these external actors are undemocratic and do not prioritise the welfare of African nations. It’s important to ensure that such interference does not occur in our region.
Somaliland’s situation is fortunately less complex than that of Bangladesh. In 2005, the African Union’s fact-finding mission acknowledged the unique circumstances of Somaliland, suggesting it receives special consideration. All the African Union needs to do now is to act on the recommendations of this fact-finding mission. A public statement confirming that Ethiopia’s scheduled recognition of Somaliland does not breach the African Union charters and the principle of colonial borders would suffice. This would clarify that it’s within the rights of individual African states to either recognise Somaliland or resume diplomatic relations, based on their recognition in 1960.
The African Union ought to complement such statement with action by allowing Somaliland to join as an observer. This move would support stability and democracy in the region. The AU’s role should go beyond just suspending undemocratic regimes; it must also recognise and encourage the only democracy in the Horn of Africa. Importantly, the AU should reject the narrow-minded and fearmongering arguments, such as those from the US, which use Al-Shabaab as a pretext to undermine Somaliland’s aspirations. Somaliland has commendably managed to keep its territory free of pirates and terrorists without any external aid. Therefore, it is unfair to place hurdles in Somaliland’s way due to Somalia’s.