The most important point is that Somalia and Eritrea violated the tripartite pact—either as the only or first ones to do so—by rejecting Ethiopia’s peaceful naval plans, which debunks the claim that the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU was responsible for rubbishing this agreement.

By Andrew Korybko

One of the criticisms of the Ethiopia-Somaliland Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which will see Ethiopia obtain commercial-military port rights in exchange for recognizing the latter’s 1991 redeclaration of independence and giving it stakes in national companies, is that it violated a 2018 pact. The “Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Cooperation Between Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea” was signed by those three leaders at that time and vowed respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.

It was expected to lay the basis for a new regional future of mutually beneficial cooperation but regrettably failed to lead to anything for a variety of reasons, not least of which was Eritrea reverting to its paranoid fear of Ethiopia after Addis agreed to cease hostilities with the TPLF in November 2022. The return of the regional security dilemma was briefly explained here, which interested readers should review if they’d like to learn more about how ties between those two deteriorated since then.


That insight is relevant in this context since it accounts for why Eritrea rejected Ethiopia’s proposal for hosting a naval base, which is required in order to secure the maritime logistics upon which its economic and therefore political stability depends (particularly fertilizer and fuel). Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed elaborated on the reasons why his country needs this in a 45-minute-long speech that he gave to parliament last fall, which can be watched with English subtitles here.

Debunking The Claim That The Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU Violates The 2018 Tripartite AgreementWith Eritrea ruling this out due to their deteriorating ties brought about by its leader reverting to his paranoid fear of Ethiopia after November 2022’s ceasefire agreement, Ethiopia then sought to obtain such rights from Djibouti and Somalia instead, but they also declined. Their decisions were influenced by Eritrea’s infowar over the past year fearmongering about Ethiopia’s allegedly annexationist plans, Djibouti’s reluctance to upset its Western partners, and Somalia showing solidarity with its coastal allies.

The regional security dilemma that overshadowed everything, which the Eritrean leader is solely responsible for reviving as explained, toxified any talk on this subject and worsened Ethiopia’s geostrategic dilemma. If it remained landlocked within its geographic prison, as Prime Minister Abiy accurately described its present predicament in his previously cited speech, then latent domestic crises could explode into political and security ones with time that would risk plunging the region into war.

Readers can learn more about the strategic dynamics of its dilemma here, which comprehensively describes all associated dimensions, especially those relating to Ethiopia’s need to reconstruct its navy in order to secure the maritime logistics upon which its stability depends. It’s enough for most folks to simply know that perpetuating the present state of affairs could lead to a regional conflict with time due to the confluence of Ethiopia’s demographic explosion and geographic economic limitations.

The earlier mentioned 2018 tripartite agreement between Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea also called for the building of close security ties and coordinating to promote regional security, which should have in theory led to the latter two agreeing to allow Ethiopia to base its rebuilt navy in one of their ports. That wouldn’t be for free, of course, since Prime Minister Abiy proposed last year that it would be in exchange for stakes in national companies of the kind contained in Ethiopia’s later MoU with Somaliland.

Ethiopia-Somaliland Agreement, A Slap In A Face For Somalia
Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attend the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding agreement in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 1, 2024. X photo

It was therefore Somalia and Eritrea that violated the terms of the 2018 tripartite agreement by rejecting any talks whatsoever on this subject, despite having previously pledged to build close security ties and coordinate to promote regional security. They didn’t take Prime Minister Abiy’s words about his country’s impending crises and their possible consequences for the region seriously due to Eritrea’s leader reverting to his paranoid fear of Ethiopia in late 2022 and influencing his Somalian counterpart.

This in turn worsened Ethiopia’s geostrategic dilemma and placed Prime Minister Abiy in the position whereby he was forced to either risk those dark scenarios by perpetuating the state of affairs or make a bold move to liberate his country from its geographic prison in order to responsibly avert the aforesaid. He understandably chose the second option after dwelling deeply on the trade-offs, particularly with respect to the pressure that his country would experience by being the first to recognize Somaliland.

These political costs and the risk of exacerbating the regional security dilemma, which predictably happened as explained here in this analysis that also lists over half a dozen related ones, were deemed acceptable when compared to the physical security costs for Ethiopia and the region of doing nothing. Moreover, the political costs could be mitigated by emphasizing these five reasons for recognizing Somaliland, while the regional security dilemma could be managed through diplomatic means.

Debunking The Claim That The Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU Violates The 2018 Tripartite AgreementTwo of the reasons touched upon in the preceding hyperlinked piece concern historical justice and shared democratic values, which should appeal to most of the international community, while security, stability, and development imperatives could earn the support of responsible stakeholders. Additionally, readers shouldn’t forget that Somaliland was briefly independent in 1960 and officially recognized as such, so it’s a unique case that has the diplomatic precedent for being recognized again.

Even so, some Somalians and Eritreans still insist that Ethiopia’s promise to recognize Somaliland’s redeclaration of independence violates their 2018 tripartite deal, though observers should remember that those two violated it last year by refusing to discuss Ethiopia’s reasonable naval base plans. That gave Prime Minister Abiy no choice but to recognize Somaliland (alongside granting it shares it national companies) in exchange for peacefully obtaining this and averting an impending crisis.

Had he not made this bold move, then his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would have remained at risk of being neutralized with time as the interconnected domestic and international dimensions of its geostrategic dilemma continued converging into a catastrophe. He responsibly averted that through these means but likely wouldn’t have considered them if Somalia and/or Eritrea agreed to give Ethiopia naval rights, which they didn’t due to Eritrea’s leader reverting to his paranoia as explained.

Somalia and Eritrea obviously didn’t intend to, but their obstruction of Ethiopia’s peaceful naval plans pushed Addis to recognize Somaliland and therefore bring about long-overdue historical justice that wouldn’t have happened by this point had they respected the tripartite pact’s terms. By violating them, and not only first but being the only ones to do so since Somaliland is a unique case that shouldn’t concern the aforesaid’s sovereignty and territorial terms vis-à-vis Somalia, they ended up making history.

Accordingly, it’s factually false to claim that Ethiopia violated that pact’s terms first, though it can be debated whether they were violated at all depending on one’s opinion about the legitimacy of Somaliland’s independence struggle. In any case, the most important point is that Somalia and Eritrea violated the tripartite pact—either as the only or first ones to do so—by rejecting Ethiopia’s peaceful naval plans, which debunks the claim that the MoU was responsible for rubbishing this agreement.

Andrew Korybko 

Andrew Korybko

A Moscow-based American political analyst specializing in the global systemic transition to multipolarity.

Follow him @AKorybko