Somaliland: Ethiopian Naval Base Could Help Contain Houthis

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Published May 28, 2024 9:45 PM by The Maritime Executive


The leader of the breakaway region of Somaliland believes that a future Ethiopian naval base - the first since Ethiopia lost access to the sea three decades ago - will improve maritime security on the Gulf of Aden, an area challenged by Somali piracy and by the militant attacks of Yemen's Houthi rebels. 

In January, the semiautonomous region of Somaliland signed a long-anticipated port access deal with Ethiopia, angering the national government of Somalia. The agreement is a key piece of Somaliland's plan to gain international acceptance, and trades land for diplomatic recognition. It grants Ethiopian government access to a 12-mile strip of coastline to develop a naval base, and will "pave the way to realize the aspiration of Ethiopia to secure access to the sea," according to the Somaliland government. (Ethiopia and Somaliland have given differing accounts of the details of the deal: Ethiopian officials say that it includes scope for a commercial seaport, while Somaliland says it is for a naval base only.) Three possible base locations have been identified along the Somaliland coast, foreign minister Dr. Essa Kayd told the Horn Observer. 

To the Somali national government, Somaliland is part of Somalia, though the region has been self-governing since 1991 and considers itself independent. Mogadishu objected forcefully to the Ethiopian access deal when it was first announced in January, and has refused to accept the idea of a foreign naval base in Somaliland - though it said last month that it is willing to negotiate terms for the construction of an Ethiopian commercial port. 

Last month, Kayd pointed to the possible Ethiopian naval base as a positive development for maritime security in a region that has long been challenged by criminal activity on the water. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Somaliland leader Muse Bihi Abdi suggested that an Ethiopian presence could even help push back against Yemen's Houthi rebels and "support international efforts to secure freedom of navigation." 

The Ethiopian government lost its navy when Eritrea broke away in 1993, and the government of President Abiy Ahmed has long pledged to bring it back. Abiy announced plans to rebuild a navy in 2018 and began negotiating an agreement with Somaliland for port access. As a sign of the seriousness of his intent, his administration signed an agreement with France on training and support for a future naval force. Its primary mission would be to secure Ethiopia's small merchant fleet and its seaborne trade in a region of intense geopolitical competition and frequent security incidents. 

"Ethiopia's right to use international waters demands it has a naval base," Ethiopian ex-diplomat Birhanemeskel Abebe told BBC in 2018.