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The Berbera Port Agreement and its Potential Repercussions

Thursday May 18, 2018

by Mr. Mohamed  Amin

Dubai’s state-owned DP World agreement with Somaliland and Ethiopia to manage the Berbera port for the next 30 years or more is worrying and has led to the emergence of a new source of intra and inter-state tensions. [1] This is not the first time countries in the region have concluded port and maritime related agreements. Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and most importantly Djibouti have all signed maritime related agreements of one kind or another with several countries vying for a foothold in the potentially lucrative maritime resources of the region as well as its strategic chokehold location in the Gulf of Aden-Bab el Mandeb straits.[2] The agreement between Somaliland, DP World, and Ethiopia to manage the Berbera port has potential ripple effects that may escalate inter-state and intra-state tensions in the Horn. Yet the development received little attention from the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the region’s main body, and the African Union (AU). The deafening silence from IGAD and the AU is best described by a Somali proverb that states: “you can’t wake up a man pretending to be asleep”


Somalia and Somaliland
Somaliland declared independence from the rest of Somalia in May 1991 after the overthrow of former leader of Somalia, Siad Bare. His overthrow was followed by a long brutal civil war, particularly in central and southern regions. In the chaos Somaliland declared independence from the rest of Somalia.[3] Since then Somaliland has enjoyed relative peace and stability compared to the South and has held several elections.[4] The elections held last year in Somaliland were widely reported to have been reasonably transparent and were followed by peaceful transfer of power.[5]In addition to the dominant Isaq clan, Somaliland has several other clans some of whom either side with the semi-autonomous state of Puntland to the south in part because of clan affiliation.[6]Moreover, some observers note that the state-owned DP World agreement with Somaliland has proved controversial among Somaliland’s neighbours.[7]

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Puntland, another semi-autonomous region of Somalia which borders Somaliland has opted to remain part of Somalia. There have been minor skirmishes between the two semi-autonomous regions over jurisdiction of some border areas[8] The internationally recognized Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) vehemently opposes Somaliland’s claim to independence. Somaliland, however, knows well that the FGS in Mogadishu can do little to stop the agreement.

The fact, however, remains that both United Arab Emirates through DP World and Ethiopia have given de facto recognition to Somaliland by bypassing Mogadishu and dealing directly with Somaliland on such an important matter concerning the unity and territorial integrity of Somalia. Understandably, this has angered the FGS.[9] So far the FGS has been restrained and limited its response to submitting complaints through regional and multinational organizations such as IGAD, the AU, the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council. Although the Arab League is heavily influenced by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt (where it is headquartered), surprisingly it issued a statement favourable to Somalia by reaffirming the unity and territorial integrity of Somalia, while avoiding castigating the UAE directly: “The control of the borders of the land, its airspace and the sea are the responsibility of the federal government of Somalia, and the Arab League warns against interfering with Somalia in any kind,“[10] said the statement. This is a strong statement given the dispute is between heavy weight UAE and failed state Somalia.

Ethiopia’s de facto recognition of Somaliland is a violation of the agreement establishing the IGAD, which in Article 6A, Sub-article (B) enjoins member states to adhere to the principle of, ‘Non-interference in the internal affairs of Member States.”[11] Clearly Ethiopia benefits from having a 19% stake in Berbera port as it is landlocked and currently relies on Djibouti port for most of its imports and exports. However, this does beg the questions as to whether Ethiopia is pursuing the right strategy, or doing so at the right time.

There are certain risks for Ethiopia in alienating the FGS and more importantly a large section of the Somali population. First, although Ethiopia is by far the region’s most powerful nation, all is not well with its internal politics. The country is divided along ethnic and religious lines and is the second most populous country in Africa with a population of over 105 million [12] and 86 languages.[13] The two largest ethnic groups – the Oromo and the Amhara (Amharic is the official government language) makeup over 61% of the population (34.4% and 27% respectively).[14]

Anti-government protests have occurred in both Oromia and Amhara regional states which led to the arrest of thousands and the declaration of a state of emergency.[15] In February 2018 Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned and in early April 2018 Dr. Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Ahmed, an Oromo by ethnicity, is expected to calm recent unrest in the country. His first visit outside capital Addis Ababa was to the capital of the Somali region Jigjiga.[16] This was not a coincidence.[17] Oromia and Somali regional states in Ethiopia have experienced clashes along their regional boundaries large stretches of which are disputed between the two regional states.[18] Therefore, the Achilles heels of Ethiopia is not an invasion from neighbouring countries but keeping its unity in diversity which may be exploited by foreign powers to destabilize the country.

Furthermore, Ethiopia’s decision to take a 19% stake of the Berbera port has a high potential of destabilizing Somalia and perhaps the whole region. Two scenarios can be envisaged:

  1. The premature collapse of the current FGS: Somalia’s current President Mohamed Abdulahi Farmajo studied and worked in the US and is a dual US-Somali citizen. He is regarded by many as a moderate and pragmatic figure and his popularity remains high.[19] Unlike the current president, the two preceding presidents had connection to Islamist groups (Sheikh Sharif was head of ICU and Hasan Sheikh is rumoured to belong to Damul Jadid.[20] During the election, President Mohamed was widely perceived as a Somali nationalist, and actually his chances of winning increased after Somalia’s arch-rival, Ethiopia, was seen to be backing the defeated president.[21] However, Somali nationalists may withdraw their support from the current president if he does not show resolve in the Berbera port dispute. A possible outcome of such scenario is the fragmentation of existing domestic alliances and worsening of Somalia’s nascent state-federal relations, perhaps leading to a total collapse of FGS. Such a scenario will not bode well either for Ethiopia or the larger international community because what happens in Somalia may have wider regional and global consequences as demonstrated by past events.
  2. The reinvigoration of the Al-Shabaab and Somali pirates: Al-Shabaab emerged in the aftermath of 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. It broke off from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which was headed by Sheik Sharif who later became the interim president of Somalia.[22] Because of the long history of hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, Al-Shabaab were able to convince a substantial number of Somalis to join them by portraying themselves as the only viable resistance to “the crusading Christian Ethiopia”.[23] In hindsight, it is clear the US supported Ethiopian incursion into Somalia to topple the ICU has resulted in blowback in the form of the creation of Al-Shabaab. It is very possible that Al-Shabaab will use the Ethiopian involvement in the Berbera port deal as a rallying cry to recruit and fundraise.

Although it is very unlikely that Al-Shabaab will be able to mount a conventional military challenge against Ethiopia, it retains the capacity to launch terrorist acts inside Ethiopia. In the worst case scenario, certain political actors in Somalia may encourage or lend support to Al-Shabaab to carry terrorist acts in Ethiopia, in a manner reminiscent of the alleged Eritrean support to Al-Shabaab.[24] There are documented instances of Al-Shabaab being utilized by, or forming tactical alliances with other actors to achieve immediate goals.[25] Finally, although the problem of piracy in the waters off the Somali coast has abated not least due to the deployment of the international naval forces off the coast of Somalia, to assume the problem has been taken care of once and for all, may be an unwarranted conclusion.[26] In the event the FGS is weakened or collapses, piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast may experience a second lease on life.

UAE, Djibouti and Egypt
Clearly the UAE aims at killing two or more birds with one stone with the Berbera port agreement. First, by including Ethiopia in the agreement, the UAE will acquire a degree of cover and legitimacy from potential challenges from IGAD or the AU, for infringing on the sovereignty of a member state. Second, if for whatever reason Somalia miraculously pulls together just enough resources to confront Somaliland militarily, Ethiopia will punish any such act since it is a beneficiary from the agreement and a shareholder in the Berbera port. Third, the UAE seems intent on punishing both Djibouti and the FGS: the former for ending the Doraleh Container Terminal contract[27] and the latter for staying neutral in the Gulf crisis.[28]

Djibouti has benefited from its relative stability and its growing strategic significance due to its geographical location and the emergence of threats such as piracy, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the war in Yemen. [29] Based on recent history and as the Berbera port agreement may potentially reduce Djibouti’s revenues if Ethiopian imports and exports are shipped through Berbera port, Djibouti will most likely side with Somalia thus further complicating the matter.[30]

Egypt has good relations with UAE and Saudi Arabia and is one of the four Arab countries blockading Qatar. On the other hand, Ethio-Egyptian relations have been strained due to the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and Ethiopian allegations that Egypt and Eritrea have been lending support to insurgent movements operating against the Ethiopian government.[31] Moreover, Egypt has enjoyed historically friendly relations with Somalia.[32] Professor Shinn points out that:

“…Egypt has been a supporter of Somali unity and a strong Somali state that can serve as a counterweight to Ethiopia…A unified Somalia that might one day reassert its claims to Somali-inhabited areas of Ethiopia and that has close links to Egypt would add to this leverage”.[33]

The contestation over the agreement on Berbera port opens the door for a closer alliance between Egypt and Somalia and risks escalating the level of inter-state tensions in the Horn of Africa.

The UAE’s disregard for the sovereignty of Somalia in the form of the Berbera port agreement is dangerous and may plunge the Horn of Africa region into chaos. IGAD, the AU, the Arab League and the UN should pay close attention to the issue as it unfolds and act pre-emptively to contain and de-escalate the dispute. Somalia and the Horn of Africa cannot afford another source of inter-state tensions.

Current leaders of the region should abandon the zero sum game mentality and awaken to the reality that the people in the region will rise or fall together. Until they come to such realization, others who are driven by greed and conceit will divide and exploit them.

Mr. Mohamed Amin has a BA in International Development from Dalhousie in Nova Scotia, Canada and a MA in Education from Mount Saint Vincent University, Nova Scotia, Canada. He has worked as a Senior Policy Analyst for Canadian Federal Government in the spheres of chronic and communicable diseases prevention and welfare reform. Mr. Ahmed has also worked for private and non-governmental agencies in various capacities. Mr. Ahmed is also a published poet and has authored several papers and articles. He can be reached at [email protected]

[1] Arabian Business. “DP World says Ethiopia takes stake in Somaliland port.” 1 March, 2018.http://www.arabianbusiness.com/transport/391322-dp-world-says-ethiopia-takes-stake-in-somaliland-port.

[2] Kantack, Jacqulyn Meyer. “The New Scramble for Africa.” Critical Threats Project. https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/the-new-scramble-for-africa. (26 February, 2018)…

[3]British Broadcasting Corporation. “Somaliland Profile.”. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14115069 (14 December, 2017).

[4] https://www.ft.com/content/16878348-c5fb-11e7-a1d2-6786f39ef675.

[5] United States Agency for International Development. “Somaliland: A Democracy in the Making.” https://www.usaid.gov/results-data/success-stories/democracy-making-somaliland. (February 2018).

[6] Mesfin, Berouk. ‘‘The Political Development of Somaliland and its conflict with Puntland.’’ Paper, Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/111689/P200.pdf.

[7] http://www.bbc.com/news. “Somaliland agrees to UAE military base in Berbera.” http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38956093. (13 February 2017)..

[8] www.xinhua.net. “Somaliland forces take control of town from Puntland in northern region.” http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/08/c_136880568.htm. (8 January, 2018)..

[9] www.middleeastmonitor.com. “Somalia rejects UAE’s port deal with Ethiopia, Somaliland.” https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180305-somalia-rejects-uaes-port-deal-with-ethiopia-somaliland/. (5 March, 2018)..

[10]/. “Arab League releases statement on disagreement between FGS and DP World .” /news4/2018/Mar/157111/arab_league_releases_statement_on_disagreement_between_fgs_and_dp_world.aspx. (9 March 2018)..

[11] Agreement establishing the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. http://www.chr.up.ac.za/undp/subregional/docs/ig.pdf.

[12] https://www.cia.gov/index.html. 2018. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/et.html.

[13] Wikipedia. ‘‘Languages of Ethiopia.’’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Ethiopia. (10 April, 2018).

[14] https://www.cia.gov/index.html. 2018. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/et.html .

[15]https://www.news24.com/. “Ethiopian lawmakers approve emergency law.”. https://www.news24.com/Africa/News/ethiopian-lawmakers-approve-emergency-law-20180302. (2 March, 2018).

[16] Maasho, Aaron. “Ethiopia’s PM seeks end to violence that displaced nearly a million.” Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-politics/ethiopias-pm-seeks-end-to-violence-that-displaced-nearly-a-million-idUSKBN1HE0FN. (7 April, 2018).

[17] http://www.bbc.com/news.“Dozens die in clash between Ethiopian Somalis and Oromos.” http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-42394108.. (18 December, 2017).

[18] http://www.bbc.com/news .“What is behind clashes in Ethiopia’s Oromia and Somali regions?” http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-41278618.. (18 September, 2017)..

[19]Oluoch, Fred. “Somalia’s President Farmajo remains popular .” The East African, 4 February, 2018, http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/Somalia-President-Farmajo-remains-popular–/2558-4290588-vmxcduz/index.html.

[20] Africa Intelligence. “The challenges facing president Hassan Sheikh.” . https://www.africaintelligence.com/ion/report/somalia_jubaland_al_islah_hassan_sheikh_mohamud.( 2 July , 2013).

[21] http://www.bbc.com/news. “Somalia’s Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo chosen as president.”. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38904663. (8 February, 2017).

[22]http://www.sahistory.org.za/. “The History of Al-Shabaab.”.. http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/history-al-shabaab (13 October, 2016).

[23] Sheikh, Abdi. ‘’Al-Shabaab leader urges Somalis to battle old enemy Ethiopia’’. Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-somalia-alshabaab-leader/al-shabaab-leader-urges-somalis-to-battle-old-enemy-ethiopia-idUSBREA291OL20140310 (11, March, 2014).

[24] http://www.africareview.com/news/Eritrea-terms-as-unfortunate-Kenya-Al-Shabaab-comments/979180-1267740-9w6rge/index.html

[25] /. “Puntland accuses Somaliland of supporting Al-Shabaab .” . /news4/2018/jan/146275/puntland_accuses_somaliland_of_supporting_al_shabaab.aspx,(17, January, 2018). .

[26]The Telegraph.“Somali pirates hijack Indian commercial ship in second attack in weeks .”. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/03/somali-pirates-hijack-indian-commercial-ship-second-attack-weeks/, (3, April, 2017).

[27]“Djibouti ends Dubai’s DP World contract to run container terminal.” Reuters. 22 February, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-djibouti-ports-dp-world/djibouti-ends-dubais-dp-world-contract-to-run-container-terminal-idUSKCN1G62HE.

[28]http://www.bbc.com/news. “How the crisis in the Gulf could spread to East Africa.”. 8 April 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43585814.

[29] Macaes, Bruno. “The Coming Wars: The most valuable military real estate in the world.” POLITICO. https://www.politico.eu/blogs/the-coming-wars/2018/01/the-most-valuable-military-real-estate-in-the-world/. (15 January, 2018)

[30] Shinn, David H. “Somaliland: The Little Country That Could.” Global Policy Forum. 29 November 2002. https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/171/29770.html.

[31] Magdy, Samy. “Egypt Warns Ethiopia Nile Dam Dispute ‘Life or Death’.” https://www.usnews.com18 November, 2017. https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2017-11-18/egypt-warns-ethiopia-nile-dam-dispute-life-or-death.

[32] Ahram Online. “Somali president praises Cairo’s support for Mogadishu in phone call with Egypt’s Sisi.”. 18 April, 2018, http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/297871.aspx.

[33] Shinn, David H. “Somaliland: The Little Country That Could.” Global Policy Forum, 29, November 2002, https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/171/29770.html.

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