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Engagement not Appeasement: Why the Somaliland – Ethiopian MoU Deserves US Support

The Horn of Africa stands at a crossroads, hope and uncertainty swirling amidst longstanding tensions. Yet, a glimmer shines through the dust in the form of the Ethiopian-Somaliland Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). This agreement, promising economic benefits and enhanced Red Sea access for Ethiopia, represents a potential leap forward for both nations. Yet, it has also cast a long shadow, igniting concerns about its impact on regional stability and the direction of US policy in the face of Somalia’s objections.

Ethiopia, a landlocked for centuries, sees the MoU as a bridge to the sea that will unleash its potential as a regional political and economic powerhouse in Africa, while Somaliland, a de facto independent state for over three decades, sees in it a pathway to international recognition. And although the roads to the shared crossroads may differ, both countries see the benefits they stand to gain converge remarkably well.

For Ethiopia, the MoU unlocks a maritime gateway, granting access to Somaliland’s strategic Red Sea coastline. This vital access fuels long-held aspirations for trade, tourism, and economic development, propelling Ethiopia beyond its landlocked limitations. For Somaliland, the agreement offers not just economic opportunities through Ethiopian investment and development projects, but also the possibility of international recognition, a long-denied validation of its independence and democratic journey.

These aspirations, intertwined like the circles of a Venn diagram, find synergy in the MoU. Ethiopia’s strength and stability, coupled with Somaliland’s proven track record in combating piracy, can forge a formidable joint force, safeguarding the vital Red Sea shipping lanes and ensuring a secure and prosperous maritime environment for both nations.

Ambassador Hammer’s presence at the IGAD session, and his apparent adherence to the outdated “one-Somalia” narrative, has raised concerns about potential undermining of the MoU’s potential advantages. Somaliland, a de facto independent state for over three decades, has demonstrably carved its own path, boasting a stable democracy, success in combating piracy and Al-Shabaab, all without significant US assistance. Ignoring this progress is not only a shortsighted political opportunism but it also fuels resentment and questions about the true motivations behind the US Administration’s stance.

One possibility lies in the inertia of outdated US policy, clinging to a unified Somalia despite its internal complexities. Another lies in the influence of certain narratives seeking to downplay Somaliland’s achievements and exaggerate the perceived threat of the MoU. These narratives, amplified by President Mohamoud’s inflammatory pronouncements and threats of war, paint a concerning picture of a region teetering on the brink.

Furthermore, Somalia’s persistent struggles against Al-Shabaab, despite substantial US support, raise troubling questions about its true commitment to eradicating the terrorist group. The possibility of Al-Shabaab being used as a proxy force, mirroring historical missteps like the “Cobra Effect,” adds another layer of complexity and underscores the need for a cautious and nuanced approach. But these narratives are nothing more than using the MoU as a cover for obstructing African solutions for African problems.

Beyond potential missteps within US policy, a broader landscape emerges. China, with its increasing economic and diplomatic footprint in Africa, offers an alternative approach. Their model of pragmatism and non-interference aligns well with the MoU’s focus on mutual benefit and regional development. While caution is always warranted with any external actor, considering alternative partners may be crucial in navigating the intricate realities of the Horn.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time Somalia has reacted negatively to Somaliland’s international agreements. The 2016 deal between Somaliland and DP World to develop the Berbera port, and Somaliland’s subsequent bilateral ties with Taiwan, both triggered similar waves of objection from Mogadishu. Yet, both agreements have proceeded, demonstrating Somaliland’s agency in pursuing its own development trajectory. This history underscores the importance of avoiding knee-jerk reactions and instead engaging in dialogue that respects the aspirations of both sides.

Ambassador Hammer’s statements and apparent appeasement of skepticism risk undermining the genuine progress achieved by both Somaliland and Ethiopia. Prioritizing temporary appeasement over a long-term vision for regional stability would be a dangerous misstep. Both Ethiopia and Somaliland stand to benefit immensely from the MoU, and focusing on their shared goals is paramount. The path forward lies not in clinging to outdated narratives or succumbing to empty threats.

A sustainable solution requires a deep understanding of the region’s intricate realities, a genuine respect for the aspirations of both Somaliland and Ethiopia, and a commitment to constructive dialogue that prioritizes regional peace and prosperity. Only by embracing the MoU as a beacon of progress, recognizing the convergence of interests it embodies, and navigating the currents of skepticism with nuance and foresight, can we navigate the brewing storm in the Horn and pave the way for a shared future built on mutual respect and shared gain.

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