On 1 June, Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi officially inaugurated the first 12 km of Berbera Corridor, a trade and transport route that connects landlocked Ethiopia to Somaliland’s Port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden.
The Addis Ababa-Berbera highway is being funded by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development. Together with the US$442 million expansion of the Port of Berbera by another Emirati company, Dubai’s DP World, the highway will turn Berbera into a major regional trading hub.
On one level, Somaliland is merely investing in what is likely to be a lucrative commercial venture, attracting more exports and imports from its much bigger and richer neighbor. But the Berbera highway clearly also has a more strategic purpose – to put an important political fact on the ground.
That is, to make Berbera an integral part of Ethiopia’s economic network – and therefore also Somaliland. To the degree that Berbera becomes indispensable for Ethiopia, to that degree is Somaliland recognized – though only implicitly of course – as an independent state.
Achieving such recognition has been Somaliland’s eternal quest – so far with no apparent success. Neither Ethiopia nor any other country explicitly recognises it as a sovereign nation. All officially still consider it to be a wayward province of Somalia. And there are no signs on the immediate horizon that any country is about to take the plunge and be the first to recognise the independent state of Somaliland.
Yet because of its implicit recognition of Somaliland, the Berbera Port-highway project has annoyed Somalia. Two years ago when Somaliland and DP World ceded 19% of the Berbera Port project to Ethiopia, Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo, without mentioning names, warned foreign countries and companies not to ‘cross the line and put to question the sovereignty of Somalia.’
Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed Ali’s government duly pledged respect for Somalia’s sovereignty a few months later. Yet Abiy, who ascended to Ethiopia’s prime ministership in April 2018, has shown no signs of abandoning the Berbera project. The corridor is important to Ethiopia’s strategic imperative of access to the sea. This is especially because cooling relations with Djibouti since Abiy’s rapprochement with Eritrea have placed something of a question mark over Ethiopia’s main maritime outlet through that country.
However, Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is also exercising diplomatic skills. In February this year, he hosted a meeting between Farmaajo and Bihi in Addis Ababa to try to help them patch up their quarrel.
The encounter seems to have borne some fruit as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, James Swan, told the Security Council earlier this month that ‘in regard to Somalia-“Somaliland” relations, we are encouraged that dialogue is ongoing at senior levels and that both sides have indicated a willingness to maintain communication and pursue further discussions.’
Abiy’s intervention as a mediator is intriguing. One might think it would be Somalia that would consider Ethiopia a biased referee since Addis Ababa has a material interest in the offending Berbera project. Also, Ethiopia is one of only three countries – along with Djibouti and Turkey – to have opened consulates in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s main city.
Conversely, though, Abiy would probably not want to see a peaceful Somaliland weakened by Mogadishu. Ethiopia shares a border with Somaliland that is almost as long as that with Somalia, and a strong Somaliland provides a buffer for Ethiopia against al-Shabaab. So Abiy is walking a delicate tightrope on this issue, it seems.
There is also a wider dimension to the Somali-Somaliland standoff. Middle East powers are pursuing proxy rivalries in the Horn, with the UAE backing Somaliland in part to counter Turkey and Qatar’s courtship of Somalia.