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Shabaab says it rejects Red Sea access deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland

Tuesday January 2, 2024


Banner of Rage’s statement rejecting the deal on behalf of Shabaab.

Shabaab, through its official spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage, vehemently rejected a recent agreement signed between Ethiopia and the breakaway region of Somaliland. The landmark deal gives Ethiopia access to Somaliland’s Red Sea port in Berbera. In releasing a statement, Shabaab is playing up Somali nationalism to garner support. 

According to Rage, the al-Qaeda branch opposes the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Ethiopia and Somaliland, saying that the deal “violates Somali sovereignty.” Moreover, Rage called the deal “illegal” and that it was backed by “apostates and traitors.” 

The spokesman goes on to imply that the group will target the implementation of this agreement by saying that “blood will be spilled over it [the MoU].” Rage also called on all Somalis to “stand up in defense of your country” and to “fight against those conquering your country, similar to how the Jews conquered in Palestine.” 

The recent MoU signed by Ethiopia and Somaliland grants Ethiopia 
direct access to the Red Sea, via Somaliland’s port city of Berbera. Ethiopia has used Djibouti to transport goods to and from the Red Sea since 1993. The MoU also reportedly allows Ethiopia to develop its own military base at Berbera’s port compound. 

The deal thus allows Ethiopia to expand commercially and militarily in East Africa, marking a major political milestone for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Ahmed has inflamed tensions, both regionally and domestically, since making direct access to the Red Sea a top priority for his government in Oct. 2023. 

And to note, Shabaab at the time called Abiy’s rhetoric on regaining access to the Red Sea “Ethiopian Crusader expansionism” and promised to fight back against any Ethiopian moves within Somali territory. Yesterday’s speech from Rage is thus in line with the group’s previous messaging. 

The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) in Mogadishu has also rejected the MoU, citing that only it can grant this access. Though it is indeed the Somaliland government that has direct de facto administration over Berbera’s port. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has also rejected the MoU on the grounds it does not respect Somali territorial integrity.

Somaliland, which broke away from Somalia in 1991, maintains significant autonomy despite being unrecognized as an independent state. The FGS in Mogadishu firmly rejects Somaliland’s independence claims. Indeed, Somalia’s Prime Minister Hamza Barre said that the FGS will defend “every inch” of Somalia from Ethiopia’s “naked aggression,” implying the FGS’s authority over Somaliland. 

According to the Somaliland government, the MoU will thus see Ethiopia, a major ally of the FGS, formally recognize Somaliland’s independence. If true, this severely undercuts the FGS’ claims of authority and will likely strain relations with Ethiopia. In fact, Somalia has already recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia in the wake of the news. 

The official recognition of Somaliland would also have wider implications beyond just the Horn of Africa, as Ethiopia would be the first United Nations member state to formally recognize its independence. 

The MoU also comes just days after Somaliland and Somalia reached an agreement, brokered by Djibouti, to resume talks to solve some of their issues and find ways to cooperate, particularly with regard to security issues. It remains unclear if the MoU now stalls this planned dialogue. However, its future appears bleak for now as Somalia’s special envoy for Somaliland forcefully responded to the MoU on X, rejecting its terms.  

Despite being al-Qaeda’s official branch in East Africa, and therefore a Salafi-jihadi group by definition, Shabaab often plays up Somali nationalism opportunistically to garner support and new recruits when it deems necessary. For instance, Ethiopian military and political presence inside Somalia has been contentious for several decades and especially since Ethiopia first invaded against Shabaab in 2006. 

In releasing this new statement, Shabaab is attempting to throw itself into the regional political scene and ultimately receive further brownie points among Somalis who may also oppose Somaliland’s deal with Ethiopia. In doing so, it is hoping to also acquire new recruits within its ranks.

It also acts to undermine the FGS by issuing a competing claim against the deal in citing the preservation of Somali territorial integrity. And perhaps more worryingly, it is also meant to foment security concerns – however real or perceived – around the deal by threatening violence and popular mobilization against the MoU.


Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.


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