As if Somalia didn’t have enough problems already, on March 1 state-owned Emirati company DP World announced that Ethiopia’s government had purchased a 19 percent stake in the Port of Berbera in Somaliland, a breakaway territory without international recognition. The deal is advantageous to landlocked Ethiopia, which is in serious need of port access. But the government of Somalia, which views Somaliland as its sovereign territory, has already publicly spoken out against the deal, claiming it violates international law.
Somalia’s leadership is in a difficult position as it attempts to oppose the port deal. The country’s clan society and long-running civil war already present huge challenges to Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, popularly known as Farmajo. Now about a year into office, Farmajo has become so bogged down by clan dynamics that there have been serious assaults against his government and attempts to remove his prime minister from power. Farmajo’s clan ties to the Ogaden, a tribal group currently waging an insurgency in Ethiopia, put him at odds with Ethiopia, and it doesn’t help that he has championed Somali nationalism. In this context, the challenges Ethiopia’s latest port deal pose to the Somali leadership are more than minor annoyances. On top of that, the United Arab Emirates has been looking for ways to oppose Farmajo.
Farmajo has been pressured to take a side in the ongoing conflict within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). And the financial backing he received during his election from Qatar, which the rest of the GCC has severed ties with, has led the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to downgrade or cut aid to Farmajo’s government. The United Arab Emirates in particular has worked directly with Somali sub-states such as Somaliland to undermine Somalia’s central government and has reportedly even offered money to legislators to vote out Farmajo’s prime minister.
Farmajo’s political challenges may benefit Ethiopia in its goal to mitigate the country’s landlocked status and provide port access to the country’s more than 100 million citizens. However, it’s a less positive development for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the peacekeeping mission designed by the African Union with approval from the United Nations. Farmajo has made it a major goal to create enough stability in his country to allow AMISOM troops to depart, but that possibility seems to be slipping further and further away.