This article by: Dr. Mohamed Omar Bincof is an Asst. Prof. of Political science and international Relations at Somali National University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article examines Ethiopia's potential motivations for signing the recent illegal Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the self-declared administration of Somaliland, as well as realistic policy options for the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) to respond and defend its territorial integrity. Given Somalia's internal instability and governance challenges, Ethiopia seems to have felt emboldened to pursue its strategic maritime interests through Somaliland, assessing that the FGS is currently limited in its ability to mount an effective response. However, as will be discussed, Somalia has diplomatic, legal, economic, and political options at its disposal, especially by mobilizing international pressure from key allies and organizations. A coordinated multipronged strategy focused on exposing the MoU’s illegality while insulating Somalia from further fragmentation or distraction from state-building priorities provides a constructive path forward to nullify this violation of its sovereignty.
The illegal MoU signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland must be understood in its proper geopolitical context. Somalia has struggled with internal instability and disunified governance for decades, starting with the 1991 civil war that led to the northern regions breaking away to form Somaliland. With the Federal Government still focused on the fundamentals of state-building and consolidating control, especially against Al-Shabaab militants, Ethiopia apparently felt Somalia was too internally weak to block moves against its territorial integrity. Specifically, Ethiopia aims to secure its much-needed access to seaports and the associated economic benefits, with the Somaliland region looking to boost its international legitimacy. While historical tensions and security dilemmas help explain the situation, the result constitutes a violation of international law regarding Somalia's boundaries, further complicating progress. The FGS must therefore balance shoring up its internal governance while firmly confronting external threats.
In responding to this destabilizing illegal agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland, Somalia must mobilize a coordinated strategy utilizing all diplomatic, legal, economic, and political channels available. A key imperative should be launching a focused diplomatic campaign to build international opposition to the MoU’s clear violation of Somalia’s sovereignty as established in international law. Specific efforts should involve engaging the UN, African Union, Arab League, and other bodies while leveraging relations with allies like the US and UK. Additionally, Somalia should pursue legal recourse by engaging international law experts to consider options that include dispute resolution mechanisms within the UN and international justice mechanisms. The overarching objective of such legal efforts is to pursue a binding ruling against the MoU’s legitimacy.
On the economic front, targeted sanctions and trade restrictions against Ethiopian entities could motivate policy changes without fully alienating regional relationships. Finally, on the domestic front, strengthening internal unity and stability in Somalia is vital to withstand external interference efforts. This involves close coordination with federal member states and domestic stakeholders to project territorial integrity. This outline of key policy pillars provides an initial framework for Somalia’s multipronged response while setting up further discussion on coordination strategies and potential barriers to implementation.
Achieving effective implementation of the coordinated response strategy outlined will have several diplomatic and political challenges for the Federal Government of Somalia. Galvanizing unanimous opposition to the MoU within bodies like the African Union and UN may prove difficult given competing strategic interests among member states, while legal cases also tend to involve lengthy timeframes before resolutions. Therefore, Somalia will need to identify and cultivate key allies willing to endorse its position through sponsoring and fast-tracking relevant motions or cases. On the domestic front, a united front between the federal government and member states, as well as clans, should be unified with a common message against the violations of Somalia's sovereignty. To this end, the government should proactively use political capital to convene extensive consultations with internal stakeholders on unified positions regarding external territorial integrity. Regional relationships will also be delicate to balance, as applying economic pressure risks blowback, so targeted approaches would need evaluation. Maintaining focus on mutually beneficial ties counteracts zero-sum thinking. With balanced engagement domestically and internationally, Somalia can work to turn the MoU from a setback into an opportunity for strengthening consensus regarding its nationhood.
Moving forward, Somalia must seize this illegal MoU as a catalyst to accelerate viable governance strategies that strengthen its position against external interference and internal fragmentation. While confronting violations of its sovereignty, progress in key state building areas, including instituting functional federalism, formalizing resource and power sharing frameworks, unified security sector reform, and integrated infrastructure development, will bolster Somalia’s regional leverage and relationships. Sustained diplomatic engagement with partners in the Gulf, Europe, and Africa can also help attract mutually beneficial trade and investment to support these nation-building priorities. Simultaneously, persuasive messaging that exposes the risks that agreements like the MoU pose not only to Somalia’s stability, but also regional economic integration and joint counterterrorism efforts will be influential. Somalia has an opportunity to move towards increased strategic autonomy and national resilience by implementing a coordinated response not in isolation but as part of the holistic advancement of political, economic, and security governance. With a patient but firm defense of its statehood justified under international law, the long-term outcomes of this challenge can be shifted positively by Somalia itself. Finally, in the short term, Somalia desperately needs a powerful and trustworthy ally to help develop its maritime forces and guard over its coastline, which is the longest in Africa.
In conclusion, Ethiopia's illegal memorandum of understanding with Somaliland has predictably raised concerns over regional instability and Somalia's territorial integrity. However, Somalia has viable diplomatic, legal, economic, and political options to respond firmly against violations of its sovereignty. By balancing domestic unity and coordinated foreign policy leverage, Somalia can nullify the MoU's legitimacy and credibility in the near term. More broadly, this challenge highlights Somalia's need to accelerate viable governance strategies that deliver stability and prosperity for its people. Mutually beneficial partnerships can be deepened with allies by confronting interference efforts while proving Somalia's commitment to political reforms and participation in regional development. With patience and wisdom, Somalia can both defend its nationhood and chart a self-determined course towards increased strategic autonomy. What is needed is prudent crisis management coupled with consistent leadership to convert potential threats into opportunities for improved foreign relations and investment in good governance.