Ethiopia has struck a “historic” agreement to use the main port in Somalia’s breakaway region of Somaliland, as the landlocked country seeks more access to sea channels for shipping, officials said Monday.

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The deal on Somaliland’s Berbera port comes months after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said his country, Africa’s second most populous, would assert its right to access the Red Sea, sparking concerns among its neighbours.

On the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, Berbera offers an African base at the gateway to the Red Sea and further north to the Suez canal.

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Ethiopia and Hargeisa, the seat of the Somaliland government, was signed by Abiy and Somaliland leader Muse Bihi Abdi in Addis Ababa, Abiy’s office said.

The agreement “shall pave the way to realise the aspiration of Ethiopia to secure access to the sea and diversify its access to seaport,” his office posted on X.

“It also strengthens their security, economic and political partnership,” it said.

Abiy’s national security adviser Redwan Hussein said Ethiopia would have access to a leased military base on the Red Sea as part of the agreement.

“A step ahead in the right direction for the this and generations to come,” Redwan posted on X.

It was not clear when the pact would take effect.

Ethiopia was cut off from the coast after Eritrea seceded from the country and declared independence in 1993 following a three-decade war.

Addis Ababa had maintained access to a port in Eritrea until the two countries went to war in 1998-2000, and since then Ethiopia funnels most of its trade through Djibouti.

Regional tensions

In a televised speech last October, Abiy had said that Ethiopia “is a nation whose existence was tied to the Red Sea” and that it needed access to a port.

The remarks sparked concerns among regional observers, particularly against a backdrop of apparent tensions with Eritrea.

But Abiy sought to alleviate the fears and vowed in November not to invade any neighbouring country, while insisting that his government would not abandon its demand for port access.

Ethiopia’s economy has been constrained by its lack of access to the Red Sea, a narrow strip of water between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula that leads in the north to the Suez Canal and access to Europe.

In 2018, Ethiopia acquired a 19 percent stake in the Berbera port, according to Dubai-based DP World, which manages the port’s operations.

The company itself holds a 51 percent stake, while Somaliland has the remaining 30 percent.

Somaliland, a former British protectorate with 4.5 million people, has a long coastline on the Gulf of Aden.

It prints its own currency, issues its own passports and elects its own government but its quest for statehood has gone unrecognised internationally, leaving it poor and isolated.

(AFP)

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