An Outlet to the Sea:

Somali-Ethiopian relations have recently entered another round of tensions as the two sides have been unable to reach a consensus. The same is true of Ethiopia’s relations with its other neighbors in the region including Eritrea and Djibouti, which became apparent during Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s televised speech on 13 October 2023. The prime minister spoke about Ethiopia’s "natural right" to direct access to the Red Sea. He called upon Somalia to make a cooperative effort to address this issue, which the Somali government has refused to do. This indicates that there will be increased tensions in bilateral ties during the coming period.

Driving Factors

There are many reasons for the recent uptick in tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia, including the following:

1. Ethiopia’s insistence on Red Sea access: During the Ethiopian prime minister’s speech on 13 October 2023, he indicated that his country had the right to an outlet to the Red Sea through neighboring countries with coastal access. Ethiopia is targeting countries including Somalia with these efforts, since the latter has one of the longest coastlines on the African continent. The Somali coastline stretches 3025 kilometers, while Somalia also controls many key ports, including the ports of Bosaso and Berbera on the Gulf of Aden and the ports of Kismayo, Merca, and Hobyo on the Indian Ocean.

It is worth noting that Red Sea access is of strategic importance to Ethiopia because this would be the country’s only outlet to the sea. Ethiopia has been landlocked since Eritrea became independent in 1993. The former now largely depends on the port of Djibouti for international trade, using a network of roads and the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, which covers a total of 752 kilometers and is the first fully-electrified cross-border railway in eastern Africa. However, Ethiopia pays fees as high as 2 billion USD annually to use the port in Djibouti.

In August 2023, Ethiopia expressed interest in helping build the LAPSSET (Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport) Corridor, a major project connecting these countries to the port of Lamu in northern Kenya. Kenya is developing this corridor, which is expected to cost 17.3 billion USD. Ethiopia is keen to use Red Sea ports to support its growing trade needs. This is perhaps why it has included the Red Sea as part of its ongoing plans for rebuilding its national identity. The Ethiopian Ministry of Peace published a draft document entitled "Ethiopian National Interests: Principles and Content" in which it affirmed the importance of Ethiopia’s economic and strategic interests in the Red Sea. This document also indicated that it was important for Ethiopia to secure its right to use the waters of the Nile and Red Sea, since the existence of the Ethiopian nation is directly linked to these bodies of water.

Ethiopia’s interest in an outlet to the Red Sea is also the result of the country dealing with the fallout of the Ukrainian war and COVID-19 pandemic. Prices of basic foodstuffs have risen 48.1 percent as of July 2023. This can be partly attributed to the rising costs of shipping for imports, especially for fertilizers that Ethiopian farmers need. If Ethiopia had a port on the Red Sea, these costs would be greatly reduced. Drawing on a 2018 UN study, Ethiopia argued that a sea port would provide 20-30 percent of national revenue and contribute 25-30 percent of the national GDP. The Red Sea is of significant strategic importance as one of the world’s main waterways for international shipping and trade. Approximately one third of all international freight passes through the Red Sea, which connects the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal.

2. Somalia opposes Ethiopia’s Red Sea strategy: Somalia has refused to engage with Ethiopian calls to hold negotiations on the possibility of access to a Red Sea port. Ali Omar, the Somali minister of state for foreign affairs, indicated that his country was committed to bolstering peace, security, trade, and regional integration. By this, he seemed to mean that Ethiopia would not be granted access to important strategic assets including ports. Omar also emphasized the inviolability of Somali sovereignty and territorial integrity, including its land, seas, and airspace, as stipulated in the country’s constitution. He stated that borders were more than lines on a map, but rather embodied collective identity, history, and the aspirations of the Somali people. Omar reaffirmed that this matter was not open to negotiation and was beyond the scope of debate or compromise. Other countries neighboring Ethiopia that also have an outlet to the sea, including Eritrea and Djibouti, have adopted similar stances. Both Eritrea and Djibouti have expressed complete opposition to Ethiopian efforts in this regard.

3. A dark history in regional relations: There is an unfortunate historical legacy that affects relations between countries in this region, most notably with regard to the Ogaden region of Western Somalia. The roots of this began with the UK giving Ogaden to Ethiopia after World War II. However, Somalia continued to try to annex that region after 1960, when formerly British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland united to form the Somali Republic. The first Somali constitution stipulated that the nascent republic would endeavor to regain its sovereignty and unity through annexing other regions, including Ogaden in western Somalia, French Somaliland (which became Djibouti), as well as northeastern Kenya.

In May 2019, the Ethiopian minister of foreign affairs posted a map of Africa on his website in which Somalia was not listed and its territory appeared within Ethiopian borders. Although the ministry apologized to Somalia in an official statement expressing its deep regrets for any confusion or misunderstanding this had caused, Somalia took this to mean that Ethiopia had plans to annex the country. The map in question did include Somaliland, which unilaterally declared independence in 1991, but is not internationally recognized as a country.

4. Somalia feels Ethiopia is trying to become the sole regional leader: Somalia is aware that Ethiopia is trying to become the sole regional power in east Africa and the Horn of Africa. This perhaps explains Ethiopia’s pragmatic stances and actions towards Somalia as the former pushes to achieve its own interests. For example, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia in late 2006 to deal with security threats posed by the Islamic Courts Union. Ethiopia was afraid that these groups would extend their reach within Ethiopia and create internal instability. Ethiopia withdrew its forces from Somalia in early 2009, before bringing them back again via AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia), which was launched in 2007.

Ethiopia has also sought to keep Somalia internally divided in order to prevent a strong centralized government with full control of its people and territory from forming. Ethiopia wants to maintain its control over Ogaden and prevent the longstanding dream of Greater Somalia from coming to fruition. It sees Somalia as the best candidate to host the naval fleet that Ethiopia is trying to build, particularly after the Ethiopian parliamentary assembly ratified a draft law to rebuild the country’s naval forces in December 2018. In 2018, Ethiopia announced that it intended to reestablish its naval forces with French assistance.

Potential Repercussions

The escalating tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia have many potential repercussions for bilateral and multilateral relations, including the following:

1. Reduced Ethiopian support for Somali counterterrorism: Increasingly tense relations between Ethiopia and Somalia could have negative implications for bilateral coordination on counterterrorism efforts against al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab’s operations are focused on Somalia, although it also carries out operations in neighboring countries. Ethiopia contributes military forces to ATMIS (the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia), along with Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda. This mission began its work in April 2022 in accordance with a resolution issued by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, and with the approval of the UN Security Council.

This mission replaced AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia), which had launched in 2007. Potential confrontation between Ethiopia and Somalia could threaten Ethiopian involvement in this mission, which could in turn result in terrorist operations expanding their scope in Somalia and eastern Africa. This is of particular concern since the 2023 Global Terrorism Index 2023 identified al-Shabaab as one of the most dangerous and bloody terrorist organizations worldwide.

2. Return of Somali refugees to Ethiopia: One of the potential repercussions of conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia is that Ethiopia would likely repatriate Somali refugees. There are currently 100,000 Somali refugees in Ethiopia who fled violence in their country after the outbreak of hostilities in the city of Laascaanood in February 2023. Most of these refugees are women, children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.

Although communities in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian government have welcomed these refugees, their continued flight to Ethiopia has also strained the country’s resource base. In response to this need, UN agencies and partner organizations asked for 116 million USD in aid for these refugees in March 2023. This support will prioritize child protection services, preventing and responding to gender-based violence, documentation, and education. It should be noted that Ethiopia has hosted 884,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, most of whom are from South Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea.

3. Escalating conflicts in the Horn of Africa: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently stated that if Ethiopia did not gain access to a Red Sea port, this would be a potential source of future conflict with neighboring countries. This increases the likelihood of instability in a region with a high incidence of violence in recent years. Ethiopia has offered a great deal to try to convince neighboring countries to provide an outlet to the sea, including proposing that its neighbors could be given a share of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in exchange for Ethiopian access to sea ports. Ethiopia’s neighbors have roundly rejected these proposals. Alexis Mohamed, a senior advisor to the president of Djibouti, criticized Ethiopia’s request for Red Sea access, and affirmed that Djibouti is a sovereign country and that its territorial integrity was non-negotiable in the present and future.

Eritrea took a similar stance on this question: The Eritrean Ministry of Information issued an official statement emphasizing that Eritrean sovereignty and territorial integrity could not be infringed upon under any circumstances. The Eritrean Afar National Congress (EANC) also called on the Ethiopian government to recognize the Afar people’s territorial rights. The EANC indicated that the coastal lands and resources in Danakil, including the port of Assab, were part of the traditional homeland of the Afar people of Eritrea and legally belonged to them under international law. It should be noted that Ethiopia’s efforts to access the Red Sea through neighboring countries are not the first of their kind. Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi previously sought to make similar agreements by offering shares in the Renaissance Dam for Red Sea access, but these were not taken seriously by any of Ethiopia’s neighbors.

4. A new internal opposition front within Ethiopia: Somalia’s resistance to Ethiopian overtures for Red Sea access was met with sympathy among residents of the Ogaden region, who are originally from Somalia. The Ogaden National Liberation Front called for action against Abiy Ahmed’s central Ethiopian government and advocated for seceding from Ethiopia. This could lead to broader opposition in Ethiopia against the ruling regime, particularly in light of domestic unrest even after the signing of the Pretoria Agreement on 2 November 2022 to end hostilities with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. There have also been armed clashes between the Ethiopian army and local Fano militia in the Amhara Region, in addition to conflicts with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) for the past several years.

5. Openings for the al-Shabaab terrorist organization: Current tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia could provide opportunities for the terrorist organization al-Shabaab to relaunch its activities and reposition itself as a pro-Somali group standing up to an "overreaching" Ethiopian aggressor. In a statement issued on 19 October 2023, al-Shabaab attacked the Ethiopian prime minister and Ethiopian demands for an outlet to the sea in Somalia. The statement accused the Ethiopian prime minister of "plotting to annex Somalia" and expressed al-Shabaab’s full rejection of Ethiopian proposals. It promised that not even an inch of the Somali coastline and territory would be ceded to the "Ethiopian crusaders."

In conclusion, Ethiopia’s aspirations for a Red Sea port in Somalia or another neighboring country align with its focus on "port diplomacy" to overcome its current limitations as a landlocked country. This has been a top priority for Ethiopian decision-makers since the early 2000s, since Ethiopia sees these steps as necessary to achieve its ambitions to expand its regional influence through the Horn of Africa. However, Ethiopia’s plans could have negative implications for its current and future relations with Somalia across various spheres, especially since its ambitions are at odds with Somali national sovereignty and territorial integrity. These escalating tensions could push the entire Horn of Africa to the brink.