On 1 January, Ethiopia and Somaliland signed a memorandum of understanding granting Addis Ababa direct access to the Gulf of Aden. This strategic agreement paves the way for Ethiopia to establish commercial and military bases along the coast.
Under the agreement, Somaliland will lease 20km of coastal land to Ethiopia for 50 years. Ethiopia commits to offering Somaliland a stake in one of its lucrative state-owned enterprises, Ethiopian Airlines. It is also contemplating recognition of Somaliland as an independent state.
Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed has been keen on securing direct sea access for Ethiopia’s “survival”. Neighbouring coastal states, including Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea, have rebuffed these overtures.
The Gulf of Aden deal has evoked mixed reaction in the region. On the one hand, it lessens the likelihood of conflict with Eritrea. Ethiopia’s aggressive pitch for access to the Red Sea had raised concerns about potential territorial disputes. But the agreement with Somaliland, a self-declared state lacking international recognition, has heightened tensions with Somalia. Mogadishu has declared the deal null and a clear act of aggression. Despite Somaliland declaring independence in 1991, Somalia still considers it one of its provinces.
We are scholars who have conducted over a decade’s worth of research on maritime security, international law and Ethiopian politics.
It is our view that Ethiopia’s quest for sea access might not be guaranteed solely through the recently signed deal with Somaliland. While international law does provide pathways for a landlocked state to gain access to a coastline, that access depends almost entirely on striking deals with neighbours. While the agreement with Somaliland marks Ethiopia’s initial legal move, the contested claim of Somaliland by Somalia poses a potential hurdle for Ethiopia in attaining sea access. We suggest that sustainable solutions require agreement among all concerned states.
Ethiopia has been landlocked since Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Since then, it has tried various means to secure access to the ocean. In 2002, it signed an agreement with Djibouti. This has resulted in around 95% of its import-export trade (by volume) passing through the port of Djibouti via the Addis-Djibouti corridor.
In 2018, Ethiopia purchased a 19% stake in Berbera Port in Somaliland as a potential way to diversify its maritime access points.
Since the signing of the 2024 memorandum, military chiefs of Ethiopia and Somaliland have met to discuss cooperation. This has further inflamed tensions, resulting in street protests in Mogadishu and calls from Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud asking people to “prepare for the defence of the country”. The heightened tension undermines the sustainability of Ethiopia’s push for direct access to the sea. However, Ethiopia also appears determined, as the deal is seen as a mechanism to address the country’s decades-long problem. Additionally, the deal is considered a turning point for Somaliland in its pursuit of international recognition.
International maritime law grants landlocked states certain rights to access the ocean through bilateral agreements with coastal states. This can take the shape of a corridor agreement: rules that regulate the transit of goods via an approved route.
For example, following negotiations with Bangladesh in 1997, Nepal was able to secure transit rights through Bangladeshi territory to access the ports of Chittagong and Mongla. These arrangements hinge on maintaining positive and cooperative relations between the landlocked country and its coastal counterparts.
This dependency on good diplomatic ties underscores the inherent fragility of such agreements. It also appears to be Ethiopia’s main concern in looking for direct sea access.
The key international law that governs the rights of all coastal and landlocked states is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Under the law, landlocked states enjoy freedom of transit to the sea through the territory of adjacent states by all means of transport. This is contingent on good relations with coastal neighbouring states and the ability to negotiate bilateral, sub-regional or regional agreements. This might extend to the construction or improvement of port installations and equipment.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states:
Means of transport in transit and other facilities provided for and used by land-locked States shall not be subject to taxes or charges higher than those levied for the use of means of transport of the transit State.
The law further suggests that landlocked states are “disadvantaged” and therefore require “special consideration”.
Despite this, the rights and jurisdiction of coastal states over the most valuable areas of the ocean means that international law limits the rights of landlocked states to maritime uses and resources. For example, under the law, priority is given to the fishing communities or fishing industries of the coastal state.
In addition, while any state can operate a naval vessel on the high seas with immunity, a landlocked state can only establish a naval base with the explicit agreement of a coastal state.
Challenges of relying on transit countries
Globally, there are 44 landlocked states. Sixteen are in Africa.
Transit arrangements for the import and export of goods inherently carry disadvantages in terms of costs, delays, and the risk of goods being lost or damaged.
When relations break down, as was evident during the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the late 1990s, landlocked states may lose access to ports. They depend on the political will and commitment of transit states.
Furthermore, transit agreements are limited by the infrastructural, administrative and customs policies of the coastal state. Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea all struggle with structural and economic deficiencies.
This perpetually places landlocked nations in a vulnerable position in comparison to coastal states. It helps explain Ethiopia’s recent agreement with Somaliland.
Collaboration or conflict?
Exploring alternative legal options is crucial for landlocked countries like Ethiopia to ensure diverse and reliable access to the sea. The negotiation of transit bilateral treaties, as demonstrated with Djibouti in 2002, is too expensive for Ethiopia.
The coastal states could designate certain ports as free ports to provide access without the huge tax and customs burden on a specific country. There is a benefit for coastal states. Take the case of Ethiopia. Given its large population, economic potential and growing regional influence, neighbouring states could benefit if they worked with Addis Ababa to develop and use ports in their territories.
Given Somalia’s concerns about sovereignty and its opposition to the memorandum of understanding, a collaborative approach is essential. Somalia, Ethiopia and Somaliland should now engage in diplomatic discussions to find a sustainable solution that addresses the interests and concerns of all parties involved. This may involve considering what benefits and guarantees Somalia can secure from Ethiopia and Somaliland in exchange for cooperation on sea access.
Written by Bizuneh Yimenu, Teaching Fellow, University of Birmingham, and Robert McCabe, Assistant Professor, Coventry University.