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The Irreconcilable Ideals: Irredentism and ethnic states in the Horn of Africa

Sunday February 25, 2024


The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Prime Minister Abiy and President Muse Bihi is a significant indicator of the future trajectory of the Horn of Africa. It suggests that if the Abiy government persists in forcefully implementing its agenda, it could potentially usher in a new chapter of conflict with devastating consequences for the region. Such a conflict would not only impact the geopolitical landscape of the region but also render any attempts at reconfiguration and restructuring of this landscape virtually unattainable. What intensifies the gravity of this conflict is the clash between the ideals of irredentism and ethnic states, which are respectively embraced by Somalia and Ethiopia.

Irredentism, though not officially recognized in dictionaries for any purpose other than Somali issues, began early in the post-colonial period, and is a concept coined to articulate Somalia's aspiration of unifying all Somali ethnicity under a single flag. While this idea gained some traction during the early post-colonial period, it remained unrealized after Somalia faltered in maintaining its position during the Ethiopia-Somalia war in 1977, when Soviet alliances joined the conflict. The concept of irredentism currently lacks underlying sentiments, and the Somali government in Mogadishu lacks the capacity to pursue that dream. However, the recent MoU may serve as a crucial tool to reignite it, not necessarily aimed at annexing parts of another state, but rather as a concept in which the remaining Somali independent states defend their territorial integrity. This integrity is now at risk of being annexed by Prime Minister Abiy, who aims to portray himself as a heroic figure leaving a legacy for the Ethiopian people.

The Abiy government may not have thoroughly calculated the potential long-term impact of securing sovereign access to the sea for Ethiopia and Somalia. It's essential to remind them that the Somali people under Ethiopian control view this situation unfavorably but have tentatively accepted it and abide by international rules and the AU's border demarcation charter, recognizing their land as part of Ethiopia. Any attempt to annex sovereign territory in Somalia could spark a resurgence of nationalism rooted in irredentism, which originated in the territories inhabited by Somalis in the Horn of Africa. This situation does not bode well for stability in the Horn of Africa and undoubtedly affects the interstate relations between Somalia and Ethiopia. There might be a question posed by those planning this annexation, including Abiy himself, regarding how Somalis, who lack a strong central government and are greatly divided, could potentially resist my efforts to forcefully seize their coastal land. It's crucial to acknowledge that while Somalis are divided along clan lines, the situation is not as dire as the current political divisions among Ethiopian ethnic groups. Some Ethiopian ethnicities are actively opposing the Abiy government for its inability to govern the country in a manner that ensures equal representation for all Ethiopian citizens. Despite this, major Ethiopian ethnic groups are against the Abiy government: the Amhara have their concerns, the Oromo pursue their respective objectives, and although the Tigray's influence has waned, they closely monitor the situation and await the fulfillment of the Pretoria agreement by the Abiy government.

Somalis are currently rekindling their sense of nationalism intertwined with irredentism primarily to safeguard their territory against any attempted annexation by the Abiy government. This stance serves as a rebuttal to Abiy's assertion over a portion of sovereign Somali territory and counters the ethnic state debates believed to be advocated by certain extreme factions within Ethiopia.

The concept of ethnic states, originally introduced by Ethiopian emperors, finds support among various scholars and politicians. Proponents of this concept argue that not all states in the Horn of Africa are suitable for independent existence. They contend that these states are inhabited predominantly by single nations; for instance, Somalia is predominantly inhabited by the Somali people, Djibouti is home to Somali and Afar populations, Eritrea comprises various small distinct nations, while Ethiopia encompasses all nations of the Horn of Africa and some from the broader region. Accordingly, this concept suggests that Ethiopia should take on a leadership role in integrating all these states, leveraging its perceived demographic superiority and imperialistic expansionist mindset across the entire Horn of Africa.

Prime Minister Abiy has repeatedly advocated for a centralized administrative system shared among the states of the Horn of Africa, proposing the idea before the Ethiopian House of Representatives. The concept of ethnic states criticizes colonial powers for arbitrarily dividing the region into ethnically fragmented entities, which, had it not been for colonial intervention, might have been part of the Ethiopian empire. However, Ethiopia lacks both the power to govern the peoples of the Horn of Africa and the legality to claim to annex the states within the region.

It is crucial to recognize that Ethiopian politicians currently contemplating the annexation of parts of Somali territory must not underestimate the presence and significance of the Somali population in the region. The Somali population in the region is estimated to exceed 30 million, and this issue concerns not only those residing in independent Somali territories such as Somalia, Somaliland, and Djibouti. The anticipated conflict in the region will involve Somalis across the region, with potentially dire consequences for regional stability and future prospects.

Somaliland, formerly a British protectorate that gained independence from Britain on June 26, 1960, opted to join Italian Somalia in Mogadishu primarily to safeguard itself from Haile Selassie's potential annexation ambitions. During this period, the Somali population residing in Somaliland strongly urged Prime Minister Mohamed H. Ibrahim Egal of the elected government to unite with Italian Somalia without any conditions, fearing Ethiopia's territorial aspirations. With Somaliland's population at the time being less than one million, the apprehension regarding Ethiopian annexation was palpable. The aspiration of the people of Somaliland was realized as they successfully resisted Ethiopian occupation, largely due to the unity they forged with Italian Somalia. In 1964, Emperor Haile Selassie launched an attack on Somaliland with the aim of capturing it, resulting in a border skirmish along shared border areas between Ethiopia and Somaliland. Ethiopian forces were unsuccessful in invading Somaliland's territory.

Currently, there has been a significant shift in dynamics. The predominant population of Somaliland, who initially supported the union of the two territories, at that time experienced marginalization of power, leading to a feeling of subjugation. Nevertheless, they resisted the Siyad Barre regime to dissolve the union, resulting in over 300,000 civilian casualties in Hargeisa and Burao. Despite achieving independence, Somaliland has not received international recognition. The Abiy government proposed offering recognition in exchange for coastal territory, a shocking notion that was included in a memorandum of understanding (MoU) without public disclosure. Ethiopia's involvement in the issue of Somaliland remains ambiguous, as the MoU explanation letters released by the Ethiopian government do not explicitly state whether recognition is being offered. Furthermore, even if recognition were offered, the idea of exchanging land for recognition is deemed unacceptable. Ninety-eight percent of the Somaliland population opposes this initiative. They believe that if faced with the choice between accepting Abiy's annexation or pursuing self-determination, they would reluctantly compromise for the latter to avoid Abiy's territorial ambitions.

The conflicting ideologies of irredentism and ethnic states pose a clear threat to the future cohesion and stability of the Horn of Africa. It is imperative that both sides adhere to international rules regarding the sovereignty of states and territorial integrity. Pursuing these goals through military means is unlikely to yield sustainable results. For instance, while the Abiy government may have seized coastal land through military force, sustaining control over Somali territory in the long term is impossible. Similarly, if Somalis were to claim and enter the Somali region in Ethiopia by force, it would constitute a violation of international norms and would not be sustainable. Therefore, it is essential for both sides to seek peaceful and diplomatic resolutions to their issues in order to ensure stability and coexistence in the region.

In conclusion, it is crucial to avoid escalating new conflicts in the region. The attention of the Ethiopian people should not be diverted from the dire challenges they face due to the actions of the Abiy government, particularly its pursuit of coastal land acquisition. This endeavor cannot overshadow the pressing issues within Ethiopia, including conflicts in the Amhara region, the escalating influence of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in Oromia, the humanitarian crisis and famine in Tigray, and the overall economic instability.

Meanwhile, Somalia itself grapples with significant challenges, chiefly stemming from terrorist groups like Al-Shabab, which continue to recruit young militants to combat both Ethiopia and the Somali government in Mogadishu. Al-Shabab has exploited Abiy's annexation declaration to garner support from nationalistic Somalis, both within and outside Somalia. They exploit the perception that the current Somali government is incapable of defending its territory, urging support for their cause. It is imperative for Somalis in Somalia and Somaliland to refrain from taking any actions that may endanger the safety of thousands of Ethiopian refugees and settlers who have sought refuge in our land. These individuals are innocent civilians seeking a better life and job opportunities, and they bear no responsibility for Abiy's annexation ambitions. Therefore, they should not face reprisals.

Mohamed Rage Hassan is an independent researcher based in Hargeisa, Somaliland. He has written numerous research papers and is currently working on research projects on State-building and peace-making in Somaliland/Somalia.


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