As Somalis Protest, Ethiopia Defends Sea Access Deal With Somaliland

Ethiopia's government is defending a maritime access deal signed with the self-declared republic of Somaliland, a day after Somalia declared the deal "null and void."

In a statement issued on Wednesday, landlocked Ethiopia said it has a "longstanding cooperation agreement" with Somaliland, and that "consultations on mutual benefits have been going on for months."

"No party or country will be affected by this MOU [Memorandum of Understanding]," the statement read. "There is no broken trust ... [nor] any laws that have been transgressed."

Under the deal signed on Monday by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi, Somaliland will grant naval and commercial sea access on lease to Ethiopia for 50 years.

Somaliland also said that Ethiopia will officially recognize the Republic of Somaliland as an independent country once the agreement is officially signed. Ethiopia did not explicitly confirm or deny that part of the agreement.

"The document gives Ethiopia the opportunity to obtain a permanent and reliable naval base and commercial maritime service in the Gulf of Aden through a lease arrangement, and according to the government's announced position, it allows Somaliland to acquire an equivalent share of the lease from Ethiopian Airlines," a statement by Ethiopia said.

"Beyond that, it also includes provisions for the Ethiopian government to make an in-depth assessment towards taking a position regarding the efforts of Somaliland to gain recognition."

Somaliland has operated independently since 1991 but has not gained recognition as a sovereign country from any nation. The Somali government insists the territory remains part of Somalia.

Monday's deal was strongly rejected by the federal government of Somalia, which recalled its ambassador from Addis Ababa in protest.

"The Somali government recognizes Ethiopia's actions as a blatant violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia," read a statement issued by the Somali government on Tuesday.

"The Somali government, with the support of its people, is ready to defend, protect and preserve the sovereignty, dignity, territorial integrity, and social unity."

Ethiopia said it is not seeking confrontation.

"The position announced by the government is strongly rooted in a desire to not engage in a war with anyone; to ensure that the options pursued are mutually beneficial to all stakeholders," it said. "We have made great effort to explain our position to all who are able and willing to listen."

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Washington is concerned by the reports.

"We join other partners in expressing our serious concern ... about the resulting spike in tensions in the Horn of Africa. We urge all stakeholders to engage in diplomatic dialogue," he said during a Wednesday press briefing.

"The United States recognizes the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the federal republic of Somalia within its 1960 borders."

Residents protest deal

In Somalia's capital, residents rallied at a soccer stadium Wednesday to condemn the deal.

"Somaliland cannot hand over the Somali land," said one protester. "What Muse Bihi did is wrong."

Somalia's Minister of Interior, Federal and Reconciliation Ahmed Moallim Fiqi, who spoke at the demonstration, said the Somali government will not accept the move by the Ethiopian prime minister.

"By entering this so-called agreement is like [Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed] saying there is no Somali government. Are we going to accept that from Abiy?" he said, as the crowd chanted "No."

In Hargeisa, there have been rival demonstrations, with one supporting the deal and another opposing it, according to VOA reporter Hamse Ali Jesto.

The Somaliland cabinet backed the deal at a meeting on Wednesday.

"The cabinet of the Somaliland republic expresses to the international community that Somaliland republic is an independent country, and is also in control of its land, sea and air," Information Minister Ali Hassan Mohamed said.

He alleged the statement from the Somali government in Mogadishu on the deal violates past agreements between Somalia and Somaliland.

Somalia calls for 'appropriate action'

Meanwhile, Somalia urged the head of the East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to withdraw a statement made earlier on the diplomatic tension between the two sides.

In the statement, Workneh Gebeyehu had expressed "deep concern regarding recent developments in relations between the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Federal Government of Somalia."

"Given the circumstances, the Executive Secretary ... appeals to the two sisterly countries to collaborate towards a peaceful and amicable resolution of the situation, upholding the shared values that unite the IGAD family," statement said.

Somalia expressed dissatisfaction with the statement, saying it "falls short of condemning the Ethiopian Government of violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia."

"The federal government of Somalia disagrees with the content of the statement issued by the Executive Secretary and considers it to be in favour of the Ethiopian Government," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in statement.

"The federal government of Somalia calls upon Executive Secretary to immediately apologize, withdraw the statement and take the appropriate action."

A statement issued by the European Union emphasized the "importance of respecting the unity, the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia pursuant of its constitution, the Charters of the African Union and the United Nations."

"This is key for the peace and stability of the entire Horn of Africa region," the brief statement read.