Somalia rejects port deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland

By Abdi Sheikh and Abdiqani Hassan

MOGADISHU (Reuters) -Somalia on Tuesday rejected a pact its breakaway region of Somaliland signed with Ethiopia allowing it to use a major port with access to the Red Sea in return for recognition as an independent state, saying the agreement had no legal force.

Somalia, which views Somaliland as part of its territory, also summoned its ambassador to Ethiopia for deliberations over the agreement signed by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland leader Muse Bihi Abdi on Monday.

The agreement would allow landlocked Ethiopia, which relies on neighbouring Djibouti for most of its maritime trade, to lease 20 km around the port of Berbera, which lies on the Gulf of Aden with access to the Red Sea, for 50 years for its navy and commercial purposes.

In exchange Somaliland’s leader said Ethiopia would recognise Somaliland as an independent nation, becoming the first country to do so.

Abiy’s stated ambition to secure access to the Red Sea is a source of tension between Ethiopia and its neighbours and has raised concerns of a fresh conflict in the Horn of Africa.

In October, Abiy said Ethiopia’s existence was “tied to the Red Sea,” adding that “if we (countries in the Horn of Africa) plan to live together in peace, we have to find a way to mutually share with each other in a balanced manner”.

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said in parliament that “no one has the power give away a piece of Somalia” after an emergency cabinet meeting that said the deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland was “an open interference with Somalia’s sovereignty, freedom and unity” and “null and void”.

Mohamud also said: “Somaliland, you are the northern regions of Somalia and Ethiopia has no recognition for you. If Ethiopia claimed it gave you recognition, then it is not a recognition that exists.”

Abiy’s national security adviser has said Ethiopia will offer Somaliland a stake in state-owned Ethiopian Airlines in return for giving it access to the Red Sea. It is not clear how large a stake.

Billene Seyoum, spokesperson at Abiy’s office, Meles Alem, spokesperson at Ethiopia’s foreign affairs ministry, and Legesse Tulu, the Ethiopian government spokesperson, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Somaliland has not gained widespread international recognition, despite declaring autonomy from Somalia in 1991.

Last week the Somali National News Agency said Somalia and Somaliland had agreed to restart talks to resolve their disputes, following mediation efforts led by Djibouti.

Somaliland’s interior minister Mohamed Kahin told reporters on Tuesday that Somaliland could never accept the position taken by Somalia on the deal with Ethiopia. “We ask Somalia to apologise for its claim that Somaliland is part of Somalia,” Kahin told a news conference.

(Additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini;Writing by George Obulutsa and Bhargav Acharya; Editing by Alexander Winning, Barbara Lewis and David Evans)