Territorial Leasing and What Somalia Can Learn from Bolivia, Cuba and Ukraine

Published on 13th February 2024

What is territorial leasing?

State-level territorial leasing has never been a clearly defined activity in international law or relations, but defining it is necessary to understand it. As defined by experts, a 'territorial lease is an agreement—usually a treaty—that creates sovereign-like rights for one state on the territory of another through an arrangement that generally emulates a lease in private law.' In this case, the rights established by a territorial lease comprise a servitude that limits how the lessor state displays its sovereignty in the area involved while extending the geographic area where the lessee state can exercise aspects of sovereignty.

Why is discussing territorial leasing relevant in this article? Those who follow news and politics from the Horn of Africa have been distressed by recent events between Ethiopia and Somalia. Tensions in the Horn of Africa escalated after landlocked Ethiopia reached a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on January 1, 2024, with Somaliland, a secessionist region of Somalia, that would give Ethiopia a naval base and access to the Somali Sea. In return, Ethiopia will recognize Somaliland as an independent nation separate from Somalia, in apparent infringement of Somalia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This region of Somalia faces the Gulf of Aden, which Ethiopia dreams of tapping into. Somalia has characterized the move as an act of aggression and vowed to defend its country at any cost. The African Union and United States have backed the territorial integrity of Somalia and urged all parties to cool tensions.

Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who has been engaging in endless diplomatic shuttling to garner support for Somalia, warned Ethiopia against implement the MOU. 'This is a piece of land that belongs to Somalia, and [we] will never yield to whatever pressure comes on it,' Mohamud said. When asked if his nation was prepared to go to war against Ethiopia, Mohamud said, 'So far, Ethiopians haven't made moves to implement the illegal MOU. If they will, then that will be a problem at a different level.'

With this new tension in the region, this article discusses the history of territorial leasing to neighboring states, particularly ones with a more substantial military coupled with a troubled bilateral history. We will revisit the historical treaty between Bolivia and Chile to mirror Ethiopia's current plans and Somalia's potential predicament.

How Bolivia Lost Its Sea

Bolivia will resentfully begin its 145th year as a landlocked country this year. Its Pacific coastline was lost in the war fought alongside Peru against Chile from 1879 to 1884. The primary cause of the war was territory leased for business purposes, and the two nations established a tax agreement. Chile entered a deal with Bolivia in 1874 to allow Chilean businesses to mine in the Bolivian mineral-rich Atacama Desert for 25 years without a tax increase. However, the Bolivian government later declared the 1874 treaty void because the Bolivian Congress never approved it.

The Bolivian government expected Chile to agree to more generous concessions as it did in the past border dispute with Argentina. Instead of renegotiating, as Bolivia expected, Chile sent a warship to Antofagasta, a port city on its northern border with Bolivia, where it landed 500 troops and occupied the town without resistance. Chile defeated Bolivia and redrew the map of South America by taking almost 50,000 square miles of Bolivian territory, including its 250-mile coastline on the southern Pacific Ocean. Bolivia signed a peace treaty with Chile in 1904 in return for a promise of the 'fullest and freest' commercial access to the ports they lost. A critical factor in the war was the fact that under this treaty, the region became predominantly populated by Chileans who came to work for Chilean businesses, enabling Chile to occupy it without much resistance—a dire warning for Somalia if it allowed a 120 million plus Ethiopian population to inundate into Somalia.

Bolivia took Chile to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which, in 2018, ruled against forcing Chile to negotiate ceding a slice of its territory to provide neighboring Bolivia with a route to the sea. Bolivia never accepted the loss. In fact, every year on March 23, Bolivians celebrate a national Day of the Sea. Bolivia's navy (La Armada Boliviana) still exists without a coastline, and Bolivians sing the 'Anthem of the Sea,' which lists the names of coastal cities they hope will be Bolivian again: 'Antofagasta, beautiful land, Tocopilla, Mejillones, by the sea / With Cobija and Calama, they will return to the homeland again.'

What can Somalia learn from this?

Boundaries are normally fixed when states are created, but states, along with their populations and economies, continue evolving after that—and so do their perceived territorial needs. Territorial leasing is a mechanism by which states sometimes address these evolving interests without resorting to formal boundary changes. A lease essentially reallocates sovereign-like rights in a way that can be less dramatic or definitive than ceding territory from one state to another.

Problems arising from territorial leases usually result from the specific terms of the lease. Cuba's lease of Guantanamo Bay, for example, gave the United States 'complete jurisdiction and control' over the territory, prompting Cuba's Supreme Court to rule that Cuba must consider the area as foreign for legal purposes, despite Cuba retaining 'ultimate sovereignty.' That left Cuba with no active authority on this piece of its sovereign territory.

Another danger comes when the lessee state does not leave, and if it's a strong state, the lessor may be unable to evict it. Again, Guantanamo Bay is an example of this. Cuba has enjoined the United States to go home ever since the Cuban revolution in 1959, but the United States has argued that the lease is a valid agreement allowing it to remain there.

Similarly, Ukraine agreed to lease its bases in Sevastopol to the Russian Black Sea Fleet until 2017, right after their Partition Treaty 1997. However, in 2010, Ukraine declared its intent not to extend the lease to Russia past 2017. After lengthy negotiations, Russian and Ukrainian signed an agreement in which Russia agreed to a 30% price drop for the natural gas sold to Ukraine in exchange for extending Russia's lease of the naval base in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol for an additional 25 years with an option for a further 5-year renewal extending the lease to 2047. This naval base and the presence of Russian forces created the environment in which Russia eventually annexed the entire Crimea region and the current Russia-Ukraine war. Again, a dominant factor in favor of Russia was the predominantly pro-Russian population in the region.

Somalia must learn from these historical contexts and understand that the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy's threatening posture displayed a contemptuous disregard for Somalia. The fragility of Somalia and the absence of the equal military power it once commanded over its neighbors, including Ethiopia, encouraged the belligerent attitude that Ethiopia engages in. Prime Minister Abiy evidently feels he has the advantage over Somalia and is adopting a more impractical foreign policy, projecting himself as an emerging regional power—seeking economic and territorial expansion at its neighbor's expense without fear of serious repercussions.

However, Prime Minister Abiy doesn't seem to realize his limited internal and external influence and lack of military might to project himself as a regional leader. The West abandoned him during the Tigray war, and his neighbors are all antagonized and shady by his erratic and unpredictable behaviors. Sudan, Egypt, and Eretria are all eager to outmuscle him. Djibouti cannot consent to an Ethiopia–Somaliland deal as it stands to lose roughly two billion dollars annually with an imminent national security threat.

Somalia must learn from these historical circumstances and understand the eventual reality that will follow leasing a naval base to Ethiopia. Bolivia, Guantanamo Bay, and Crimea should be a lesson for Somalia and a clear warning not to allow Prime Minister Abiy's dream to come to fruition.

By Isaac Muhammad,

A writer and political analyst with expertise in international relations, is currently based in the United States. For further insights or inquiries, he can be contacted at [email protected]

Courtesy: Hiiraan

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