Somalia nullifies Ethiopia’s bold gambit to gain access to the Gulf of Aden

Somalian President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud announced on Sunday he had nullified a memorandum of understanding signed on 1 January between landlocked Ethiopia and the breakaway Somaliland region of Somalia.

The deal purports to grant Ethiopia 50 years of access to the port of Berbera and a leased military base in exchange for international recognition of Somaliland as an independent country and an unspecified share of Ethiopian Airlines.

The Somalian President warned, “[Ethiopia] will not be able to grab a portion of the independent Somali territory, and we will take all necessary measures to defend it.” Somalia has also recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia in protest.

Here’s what each side is after:

  • Ethiopia succinctly laid out its interests in a press release: “The MOU gives Ethiopia the chance to obtain a permanent and reliable naval base […] in the Gulf of Aden.” The country has been landlocked since Eritrea declared independence in 1993 and has been trying to regain sea access ever since.
  • Somaliland is desperate for international recognition of its independence in the hope of increasing foreign trade and aid. Despite being relatively peaceful and stable, it is extremely poor.
  • And finally, Somalia is determined to defend its territorial integrity and prevent an independent Somaliland. But just as importantly, it wants to prevent Ethiopia from gaining a naval base on the Red Sea.

Unfortunately for Somaliland, no country recognises its independence, which is why the international reaction has firmly supported Somalia’s position.

The US said it “recognizes the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia [over Somaliland].” The African Union, the EU, Turkey, and Egypt also released statements of support for Somalia.


Prime Minister Abiy clearly sees ocean access as a critical national interest. Or, as he put it, “a population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison.”

But this deal is diplomatically outrageous. Imagine if Mexico, without consulting Washington D.C., cut a deal with Texas and Louisiana to access a military base on the Mississippi River.

At this point, it’s unlikely this deal will ever happen, but the damage to Ethiopia-Somalia relations is already done.

Also worth noting:

  • In a 45-minute speech last year, Ethiopian PM Abiy stated that the issue of access to the Gulf of Aden “will either bring in Ethiopia’s development or bring about its demise.”
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