Somalia Faces Potential Conflict With Ethiopia in a ‘Pivotal Year’

Somalia Faces Potential Conflict With Ethiopia in a ‘Pivotal Year’

A 10-year defense and economic deal with Turkey to protect its seacoast and bolster its naval force. An agreement with the United States to construct five military bases for over $100 million. An enhanced defense cooperation accord with Uganda to boost the fight against the terrorist group Al Shabab.

The three security pacts signed by Somalia in recent days underscore the increasing perils the Horn of Africa nation faces both internally and externally.

Internally, the nation confronts the persistent threat of Al Shabab, the Qaeda affiliate that has remained resilient even as the departure date for African Union peacekeeping forces — whose offensives helped put the group on the back foot — looms in December.

Equally worrisome, tensions are growing between Somalia and its western neighbor, Ethiopia, over Somalia’s coastline — the longest in mainland Africa — threatening to set off a new conflict in a vital global shipping route in an increasingly volatile region.

Somalia faces “a pivotal year,” said Omar S. Mahmood, the senior Eastern Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. “A number of critical timelines linked to both domestic politics and security are coinciding, and the way these are handled will determine the country’s trajectory.”

The latest challenges for Somalia and how they are resolved will likely shape the presidency — and legacy — of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

Since taking office in May 2022, Mr. Mohamud has continued to improve stability in Somalia, a nation of 18 million people that has been decimated by decades of civil war, hunger and terrorism.

His administration has secured billions of dollars in debt relief, convinced the U.N. Security Council to lift a decades-long arms embargo and formally joined the East African Community trading bloc.

In the Somali capital, Mogadishu, cranes building new apartments tower over the skyline and three-wheeled rickshaws drive bumper to bumper on newly paved roads. Young couples holding hands congregate in parks, restaurants and malls to dine and take selfies, a sign of a gradual progress toward tranquillity in recent years.

But Mr. Mohamud’s term has also been hampered by a severe drought, followed by heavy rains and floods, that left millions facing a dire humanitarian crisis. Increased inflation, rising food prices and decreasing exports have also hurt the country’s economic growth.

Amid the multiplying problems, Mr. Mohamud now faces a major challenge from Ethiopia, one of Africa’s largest nations.

On Jan. 1., landlocked Ethiopia signed a preliminary deal with Somaliland allowing it commercial and naval access to its territory as part of Ethiopia’s goal to gain access to the sea.

In return, Somaliland, a self-declared breakaway republic in northwest Somalia, said Ethiopia would become the first country to formally recognize it as an independent nation.

The agreement angered Somalia, which still considers Somaliland part of its territory, with Mr. Mohamud accusing Ethiopia of trying to “annex” part of his nation.

“Ethiopia cannot take a piece of land from Somalia forcefully,’’ said Mr. Mohamud, banging his hand on his desk, during an interview in his office in Mogadishu last week.

Mr. Mohamud said Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had called him the night before the port deal was announced but told him only that Somaliland’s leader was going to Ethiopia. A spokeswoman for Mr. Abiy did not respond to a request for comment.

“This is madness,” Mr. Mohamud added. “If Ethiopia continues to pursue that, Somalia has the right to defend itself by whatever means it can.”

The ratcheting up of tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia, experts warn, could plunge the region into chaos — not the least because Ethiopian troops operate within Somalia and along the border between the two countries to stave off Al Shabab.

Relations between the two nations were further strained in mid-January after Somalia turned away an Ethiopian Airlines flight that was carrying officials from Ethiopia into Somaliland, which claimed its independence in 1991.

In February, Mr. Mohamud accused Ethiopian security personnel of blocking him from attending the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital — accusations Ethiopians deny.

Western officials have been trying to get the two countries to engage in talks to defuse the animosity, but Somali officials have rebuffed any discussions, believing Ethiopia is not interested in a reconciliation.

Amid the standoff, Somalia last week ratified a decade-long deal with Turkey that will include protecting its more than 2,000-mile coastline from “external threats.”

Somali officials insist the agreement predated the ongoing tensions with Ethiopia. However, observers say the way it was quickly approved by the cabinet, passed by Parliament and signed by Mr. Mohamud points to how eager Somalia is to find a strong ally to help them stand up to Ethiopia, which has one of Africa’s strongest armies.

Turkey has been involved in Somalia for over a decade, training police and army officers, building roads, providing scholarships and funneling millions of dollars through aid.

The latest agreement, observers say, will allow Turkey to expand its military presence in the Horn of Africa and solidify its place in a passageway where global powers, as well as Middle Eastern countries, are seeking to establish their foothold. The corridor has become treacherous for commercial ships during the Israel-Hamas war.

“The challenge, though, is that outside actors tend to come with their own interests and baggage, which can then make untangling regional disputes that much harder,” Mr. Mahmood of the Crisis Group said.

Beyond Ethiopia, the threat of the Shabab, which seeks to establish an Islamic state, also looms large for Somalia.

The group remains a threat, targeting civilians and officials. In January, the Shabab captured a U.N. helicopter and took six passengers, including four Ukrainians, hostage, according to Ukraine’s foreign ministry.

The group also took responsibility for an attack this month that killed four Emirati and Bahraini security officers at a Mogadishu military base.

The Shabab remain potent even in the face of a large-scale, American-backed offensive that Mr. Mohamud’s administration launched when he came to power.

The group lost territory and soldiers in an initial phase of the campaign in central Somalia, experts and Somali officials say. Logistical and weather-related challenges have delayed a second phase aimed at clearing them from southern Somalia, Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur, the country’s defense minister, said in an interview.

While the government has built schools and clinics in some liberated areas, Mr. Nur acknowledged they have been unable to provide basic services and security in others.

Concerns are mounting about the country’s security and the preparedness of the Somali army after the African Union peacekeepers’ mandate to remain in the country expires at the end of this year.

Mr. Nur said officials were still trying to determine how to replace the multinational force, including possibly with other foreign forces, and how to finance such a venture.

This month, the U.S. government stepped up its support to the army by promising to build five bases in five different cities. The bases are for the Danab Brigade, an elite unit mentored by U.S. Special Operations forces, whose name means ‘lightning’ in Somali. It has emerged as an effective fighting force against the Shabab.

But the brigade, with a planned 3,000 members, has been hampered by logistical challenges, including heavy rains and floods, besides having to fight the Shabab, which authorities say command 7,000 to 12,000 fighters, on many fronts, Maj. Aydarus Mohamed Hussein, the unit’s leader, said in an interview.

“But no matter what, we keep going on because defeat is the destiny of Al Shabab,” he said.

For now, many Somalis hope local and regional tensions don’t plunge the country into renewed chaos.

“Our security needs to be protected,” Khadija Abdullahi, a 22-year-old student at Mogadishu University, said. “We are afraid that there will be crises and troubles that will disrupt our lives.”

Hussein Mohamed contributed reporting from Mogadishu.