On January 23, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud spoke to Al Jazeera and warned that Ethiopia should not attempt to fulfil a controversial memorandum of understanding (MOU) it signed with the breakaway region of Somaliland on New Year’s Day.
Under the preliminary agreement, Somaliland would lease landlocked Ethiopia 20km (12 miles) of its coastline around the Port of Berbera for commercial and military purposes for 50 years. In return, Ethiopia would give Somaliland an undisclosed ownership stake in state-owned Ethiopian Airlines and, according to Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi, formally recognise the region’s independence from Somalia.
Ethiopia has refuted Abdi’s interpretation of the nonbinding accord and instead said it only agreed to undertake an “in-depth assessment towards taking a position on the efforts of Somaliland to gain recognition”.
Nonetheless, Mohamud made it clear that he views the signing of the “illegal MOU” as a declaration of war, irrespective of the details of the obligations it puts on each party, and has urged his compatriots to “prepare for the defence of our homeland”.
However, he did extend an olive branch to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his interview with Al Jazeera, declaring that Mogadishu stands ready to enter a fair Somali-led negotiation process to enable Ethiopia to lease a Red Sea port in a lawful manner.
After a devastating civil war and the violent overthrow of then-Somali President Siad Barre’s authoritarian government, Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in May 1991 but has so far failed to achieve international recognition.
In the wake of the New Year’s Day deal, a plethora of global actors – including the United Nations, European Union, United States, Arab League, African Union (AU) and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – have reaffirmed their unequivocal support for Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Some have gone a step further and rightly condemned Ethiopia’s underhanded actions.
“The memorandum constitutes a blatant attack against Arab, African and international principles and a clear violation of international law,” said Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit at a ministerial-level emergency meeting on January 17.
However, Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, has dropped the ball on the Somalia-Ethiopia situation.
Sounding fully averse to the truth, Africa’s top diplomat on January 4 called for “calm and mutual respect to de-escalate the simmering tension between Ethiopia and Somalia”.
He acknowledged the need to respect the “unity, territorial integrity and full sovereignty of all African Union member states”, including Somalia and Ethiopia, and urged the “two brotherly countries to engage without delay in a negotiation process to settle their differences”.
Mahamat’s frankly empty statement was a major blunder.
Where he should have adopted a firm position against Ethiopia’s unprovoked hostility towards Somalia, he opted to engage in pointless diplomatic parlance, effectively placating Abiy.
And the Ethiopian leader clearly took note of this official accommodation from the AU.
On January 27, the ruling Prosperity Party of Ethiopia, of which Abiy is the president, passed a resolution pledging to transform the disruptive MOU into a “practical agreement”.
This is classic Abiy.
Since taking office in April 2018, he has come to symbolise the worst excesses of unchecked and unscrupulous leadership in the 21st century.
He has presided over a disastrous civil war in the Tigray region and a dreadful spate of human rights abuses.
During his nearly six years in power, Abiy has proved himself to be a confrontational and reckless leader who has no desire to play by the rules – at home or abroad.
Last year, he caused significant unease in the region when he described Ethiopia’s landlocked status as an “existential crisis” and vowed he would secure access to a port on the Red Sea either through negotiations or force.
We have since learned that he would also be willing to secure a port through a contentious agreement that would exacerbate instability in an already fragile neighbouring state and stoke further conflict in the restive Horn of Africa region.
Although he has walked back on the threat to use military action to obtain a port, he is clearly still determined to go to any length to secure a share of prime real estate on the Gulf of Aden.
Still, Mahamat sought to frame Ethiopia’s flagrant aggression against a fellow AU member state as a routine disagreement between nations and a minor misunderstanding.
There are no differences to settle or matters to negotiate on Somalia’s part, as far as the unlawful MOU is concerned.
Somaliland’s current standing is well known in Africa. Because officially it is still a region of Somalia and not a globally recognised sovereign state, Somaliland does not have the right to make any deals with other nations.
Abiy knew this all too well before January 1 but decided to defy the rules and flex his country’s military prowess anyway.
In this context, Mahamat’s response is deeply underwhelming and can be perceived as a stamp of approval on Ethiopia’s blatant aggression against a fellow African nation.
The AU’s top diplomat undoubtedly knows that the signing of the MOU violates various provisions of the UN Charter and the Constitutive Act of the African Union and that the AU’s Peace and Security Council is obligated to take action “where the national independence and sovereignty of a Member State is threatened by acts of aggression”.
Nonetheless, Mahamat did not point to any of this in his statement on the situation. Instead he called for both Somalia and Ethiopia to “exercise restraint, de-escalate and engage in meaningful dialogue towards finding a peaceful resolution of the matter, in the spirit of African solutions to African problems”.
Let us be clear, turning a blind eye to clear and potentially cataclysmic illegalities by one African nation against another cannot be regarded as an “African solution”.
The AU have at its disposal an array of treaties, conventions, protocols and charters to police errant countries. It does have the capability to stand against countries that violate international laws – especially the obstinate serial offenders like Ethiopia – and it should do so regularly.
In a speech to mark the opening of the 47th ordinary session of the AU Permanent Representative Council, Mahamat said the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s war on Gaza have led to “humanitarian tragedies of an unprecedented magnitude, characterised by flagrant contempt of the international law and international humanitarian law”.
Then, unfortunately, he offered a strange, naive and frightening suggestion of how Africans can resolve similar conflicts within the continent.
“The only recourse that Africa has in the face of the challenges of our time is its unity and solidarity,” he said.
This, according to Mahamat, a former prime minister of Chad, is how we can resolve conflicts in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
That is supposedly how we could regulate leaders whose nefarious ambitions rival Russian President Vladimir Putin’s and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s.
This is plain wrong and unhelpful.
African unity and solidarity – or whatever these concepts represent in Mahamat’s imagination – are clearly not the panacea to unrestrained lawlessness in the Horn of Africa.
An unwavering and indiscriminate dedication to implementing international law is what will safeguard peace across the continent. Hence, Abiy’s countless transgressions should serve as motivation to turn the AU into a highly responsive and efficient organisation.
Africa must change how it regulates extreme impunity and perceives conflict resolution. Let us put a stop to delusions about “sisterhood or brotherhood” and instead focus on the timely application of the rule of law. Abiy is currently testing Africa’s resolve to protect Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The AU must censure Ethiopia and uphold the true spirit of international law.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.