Consultations on the Situation between Ethiopia and Somalia under the “Peace and Security in Africa” Agenda Item
Tomorrow afternoon (29 January), Security Council members will convene for closed consultations to consider the situation between Ethiopia and Somalia under the “Peace and security in Africa” agenda item. Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Horn of Africa Hanna Serwaa Tetteh is expected to brief. France, January’s Council President, scheduled the consultations after Somalia requested an urgent meeting in a 23 January letter to the Council. The letter cites Article 35 of the UN Charter, which states that any UN member state “may bring any dispute, or any situation referred to in Article 34 [that is, one that may lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute] to the attention of the Security Council or of the General Assembly”. It appears that before scheduling the meeting, France engaged extensively with the members of the “A3 plus one” grouping (Algeria, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Guyana). At the same time, the “A3 plus one” members apparently engaged bilaterally with Ethiopia and Somalia. At the time of writing, no outcome was expected in connection with the meeting.
Somalia’s request for a Council meeting comes against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Horn of Africa after the signing on 1 January of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Ethiopia and Somaliland, a self-proclaimed republic in the northern region of Somalia. While the exact details of the MoU have not been made public by either side, Somaliland announced that, “[i]n exchange for 20-kilometer sea access for the Ethiopian naval forces, leased for a period of 50 years, Ethiopia will formally recognise the Republic of Somaliland”. On the other hand, Ethiopia said in a 3 January statement that the MoU allows it to “obtain a permanent and reliable naval base and commercial maritime service in the Gulf of Aden through a lease agreement”. Regarding recognition for Somaliland, the statement notes that the MoU only includes “provisions for the Ethiopian government to make an in-depth assessment towards taking a position regarding the efforts of Somaliland to gain recognition”.
In its 23 January letter to the Council, Somalia said that the MoU “constitutes an unlawful transgression” of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia, of which Somaliland “is a constituent part”. Somalia first brought the matter to the Council’s attention in a letter that was circulated to Council members on 4 January, in which Somalia’s Acting Foreign Minister Ali Omar stated that the MoU was “entered into without the consent or endorsement of the Federal Government of Somalia and effectively violates the country’s constitution”. Omar further said that this development significantly endangers regional and international peace and security, and urged the Council to “swiftly condemn Ethiopia’s flagrant violations” and ensure its compliance with international law.
In the preceding weeks, several regional, sub-regional, and inter-governmental organisations have voiced concerns about the situation. On 9 January, Mauritania, in its capacity as Chair of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), sent a letter to the Council, which stressed the need to respect Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to safeguard security, peace, and stability in the region. On 12 January, Bahrain, Chair of the Group of Arab States at the UN, also sent a letter to the Council (S/2024/57) conveying the position of the League of Arab States (LAS) on the matter. The LAS rejected the MoU and stated that such actions “violate international law and jeopardise the overall territorial integrity of the Somali state”.
On 17 January, the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) held a meeting to discuss the situation between Ethiopia and Somalia. In a press statement released following the meeting, the AUPSC expressed deep concern about the situation and reaffirmed its strong commitment and support for preserving the unity, territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of all member states, including Ethiopia and Somalia. The statement called on the parties to exercise restraint, de-escalate the situation, and engage in meaningful dialogue to find a peaceful resolution. Furthermore, it requested the Chairperson of the AU Commission (the organisation’s secretariat) to deploy the AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, to foster dialogue between the parties and to provide regular updates to the AUPSC.
On 17 January, the LAS also convened a ministerial-level emergency session on the matter at Somalia’s request. The decision adopted at the end of the meeting, among other things:
- reaffirmed that Somaliland is an integral part of Somalia and rejected the 1 January MoU, declaring it void, unacceptable, and a violation of international law;
- said that this development threatened the national security of Arab states and navigation in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden; and
- requested Algeria, as the only Arab member of the Security Council, “to mobilise necessary support to issue necessary resolutions affirming the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia”.
On 18 January, the 42nd extraordinary summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Heads of State and Government was held in Entebbe, Uganda. The communiqué adopted following the meeting expressed deep concern about recent developments in the relationship between Ethiopia and Somalia. The communiqué reaffirmed respect for the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Somalia while noting that any agreement entered into should be with the consent of Somalia. It called on both parties to de-escalate tensions and engage in constructive dialogue.
In response to Somalia’s request for an urgent Council meeting, Ethiopia sent a letter to the Council on 26 January (S/2024/102), which outlined Addis Ababa’s position about the 1 January MoU, without delving into the aspects of recognition for Somaliland. The letter said that the MoU “paves the way for Ethiopia to secure access to a sea outlet based on commercial bases and mutually acceptable terms in line with international norms”. It expressed Ethiopia’s readiness to engage with Obasanjo, while arguing that the UN Security Council should not discuss the issue since it is being considered by the AUPSC.
Security Council members have been following the developments closely. On 18 January, after the closed consultations on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière (France) raised the issue under “any other business”. In his remarks, Rivière apparently apprised the members about the letters sent to the Council about the matter and France’s engagement with the relevant stakeholders, including the members of the Arab Troika (Bahrain, Egypt, and Tunisia) and the Permanent Representative of the LAS to the UN, Maged Abdelaziz. (The Arab Summit Troika is a group of three rotating countries that monitors the implementation of resolutions and commitments adopted by the LAS, which consists of the outgoing, current, and incoming Arab Summit chairs.)
Tomorrow’s meeting will provide an opportunity for Council members to exchange views on recent developments and have a frank conversation about the way forward that preserves regional peace, stability, and security. Tetteh may echo the messages contained in a readout of a 10 January telephone call between UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Guterres recalled that the Security Council has repeatedly affirmed its respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity of Somalia. He further expressed hope that all parties will engage in a peaceful and constructive dialogue and refrain from any actions that could further escalate the situation. Members may ask her views on the potential impact of the MoU on the political and security dynamics in the region.
Several Council members—including China, the UK, and the US—as well as the EU have expressed concern about the rising tensions between the two sides, while stressing the importance of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia. In a similar vein, at tomorrow’s meeting, several members are expected to express concern about the deteriorating situation, call on both sides to exercise restraint, and underline the importance of dialogue, cooperation, and de-escalation.
In addition, some Council members may raise concerns about the security implications of this development for Somalia and the region. The signing of the MoU comes at a critical juncture when Somalia is confronting the challenges from its security transition and ongoing offensive operations against Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda. In his remarks at the 18 January IGAD Summit, US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer said that “the MOU threatens to disrupt the fight that Somalis, along with Africans and regional and international partners–including the US–are waging against Al-Shabaab”, while noting reports about Al-Shabaab using the MoU to generate recruits. He urged both sides to “avoid precipitous actions, including related to existing Ethiopian force deployments in Somalia, that could create opportunities for Al-Shabaab to expand its reach within Somalia and into Ethiopia”.
Some members, including the “A3 plus one”, are likely to call for support for the regional and sub-regional initiatives and welcome Obasanjo’s engagement in this regard. In an explanatory note to the 17 January LAS decision, Algeria rejected any foreign interference in the affairs of Somalia, while emphasising the need to respect the sovereignty and independence of all member states. Algeria also stressed the importance of refraining from any act that undermined the integration of, and strategic cooperation between, Arab and African member states. It highlighted the significance of dialogue and negotiations in resolving any dispute, while taking note of the measures undertaken by the AU and the IGAD in this regard.