Deal with Ethiopia will help in defeating Houthi rebels, Bihi says

Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland speaks during a news conference on October 10, 2018. Picture taken October 10, 2018. REUTERS

HARGEISA, Somalia - The breakaway region of Somaliland insists the deal signed with Ethiopia would significantly help in handling Houthi rebels along the Red Sea, by securing 'freedom of navigation' which has been problematic for over a decade.

Somaliland region is fighting for recognition, over three decades after cutting ties with Somalia, but the deal signed with Ethiopia has been condemned by several international partners who maintain that the move was an infringement of Somalia’s sovereignty.

Ethiopia is set to get 20 kilometers of the Red Sea for construction of a Naval Base and port in exchange for recognition of Somaliland as a sovereign state. The agreement is yet to be actualized according to officials.

But Muse Bihi Abdi, the leader of the breakaway region, told the Financial Times that the Ethiopia accord would “allow Somaliland to support international efforts to secure freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea”, where vessels have come under repeated assaults from Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

“Ethiopia will build a naval military base and have commercial ships and in exchange Ethiopia will give us recognition — that’s the basics,” said Bihi Abdi.

He defended the deal as an important move that would improve trade ties within the Horn of Africa, even after Somalia termed the deal as 'illegal' while demanding that Ethiopia should 'withdraw' from the arrangement.

“The historic memorandum of understanding between Somaliland and Ethiopia will provide us with a clear pathway towards international recognition,” he said from Hargeisa, the capital of the breakaway nation.

Ethiopia has sought access to the coast ever since the 1993 split with Eritrea left it landlocked. It views the Somaliland deal as a way to alleviate its dependence on Djibouti for sea access, although the US, EU, Arab League, and Egypt — which has a dispute with Ethiopia over a dam on the Blue Nile — have warned the plan could escalate conflict in a region already battered by terrorism and war.

Senior Ethiopian officials insist that the deal will be actualized soon, with Somaliland periodically confirming that implementation is in the advanced stages. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has remained conspicuously silent on the matter.

“It’s just a matter of realpolitik and necessity.” Omar Mahmood, a senior analyst for Eastern Africa with Crisis Group, said that, while the deal had created significant “blowback”, Ethiopia did not want to “completely give it up”.

China, Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have also sought access to the Horn of Africa, a poor but strategic region that includes Somalia and Djibouti.

Somaliland has attracted $300mn in investment from Dubai-based DP World into Berbera and its wider economic zone, which represents about 75 percent of Somaliland’s government revenue.

The aim is to transform the location into a regional trade hub. The UAE controls the airport in Berbera and has been setting up a naval base.

Hargeisa said international recognition could unlock further investments into its $3.4bn economy based on sea trade, remittances, and camel livestock. Recognition would be an “economic game-changer”, Bihi Abdi said.

Somalia has already reached out to Turkey and Egypt for assistance, with the two countries pledging support for protection of the country's 3,333 kilometers of coastline. The two countries have also promised to provide warships in the Red Sea following Somalia’s request.


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