Red Sea squabbles

Haitham Nouri , Thursday 4 Jan 2024

Ethiopia’s agreement with Somaliland is the first step of the landlocked country to gain access to the Red Sea.

Red Sea squabbles


Ethiopia signed on Monday a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the self-declared republic of Somaliland to use one of its ports — Berbera.

This is Ethiopia’s first legal step, however it is reported that it will seek more access to the sea front by hook or by crook

On 13 October, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed proclaimed his country’s “existential” right to “direct access to the Red Sea,” in a televised address to Ethiopian lawmakers. This right to access Red Sea ports “is rooted in geographical, historical, ethnic, or economic reasons,” he was quoted as saying in the English-language Addis Standard and in international media outlets. He added that Ethiopia’s legitimate need for adequate access to the sea was internationally recognised in an agreement incorporated into the UN Charter.

Abiy Ahmed’s speech comes months after rumours began to circulate in Ethiopia that he told businessmen and investors in a meeting that his government had begun negotiations with Eritrea over the use of Assab and Massawa ports in exchange for a significant portion of shares in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The rumours gained traction when Aljazeera English reported on a leak in which the prime minister told participants in the meeting that Ethiopia would gain direct access to the sea by peaceful means or by force if necessary.

The media mouthpieces of the ruling Prosperity Party, headed by the prime minister, quickly moved to refute the Aljazeera report and dispel the rumours. An agreement already existed, they said, referring to a 2018 agreement between Addis and Asmara that provided the former with access to Eritrean ports on the economically and strategically vital Red Sea. Indeed, the Ethiopian merchant ship Mekelle docked in Eritrea’s northern port, Massawa, in September 2018, for the first time in two decades. In 2019, the Eritrean Ports Authority had begun a $57 million project to develop the Assab Port to accommodate Ethiopian maritime cargo. That was the year in which Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his peace-making initiative to resolve the 20-year border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Before the war broke out in 1998, Ethiopia had been using Eritrean ports for decades, since at least the 1950s, when Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia. Around 75 per cent of Ethiopia’s foreign trade passed through the Eritrean ports until that war, which killed more than 100,000 people. Since then, Ethiopia had to reroute its trade through Djibouti ports, which now handle 95 per cent of Ethiopia’s foreign trade. The rest is shipped through Port Sudan and Somalia’s Berbera Port.

Rumours of Ethiopia’s search for alternative ports surged in Ethiopia and its neighbours upon the visit Ethiopia’s Minister of Transport and Logistics Alemu Sime to neighbouring Kenya and the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland to explore the potential for using these two countries’ ports. While in Kenya, Sime promised that his country would “fulfil its responsibility” by constructing the necessary infrastructure, not least the highway linking Ethiopia to Kenyan ports on the Indian Ocean.

In his 45-minute-long televised speech on his country’s existential right to direct and peaceful access to the Red Sea, Ahmed reportedly pointed to a map and said, “the Red Sea is Ethiopia’s natural boundary.” He was apparently citing the 19th-century Abyssinian commander Ras Alula Abanega who served during the imperial era (1855-1913) when the country evolved into the modern Ethiopian state.

Ahmed warned that if Ethiopia’s landlocked situation is not addressed in an equitable manner, it will “lead to conflict,” a theme to which he reiterated several times during his speech. Once again pointing to the map, he said, “it isn’t right to say ‘this water [the Nile] concerns you [Ethiopia], and this water [the Red Sea] doesn’t. Nature doesn’t say that… The thing that saddens me the most and pains me, is that discussing the Red Sea agenda even at the level of parliamentarians is considered a taboo.”

He explained that the Nile, which originates in Ethiopia, is an existential matter for the Egyptians and the Sudanese and discussing it openly isn’t taboo. By the same token, discussing the Red Sea shouldn’t be taboo for Ethiopians.

“The Red Sea and the Nile will determine Ethiopia. They are interlinked with Ethiopia and will be the fundamentals that will either bring in Ethiopia’s development or bring about its demise.” All of Ethiopia’s neighbours – Djibouti, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan – take fresh water from Ethiopia. “Not one country provides Ethiopia with a litre of fresh water; they are all takers,” he complained, adding, “they deserve it. We will keep giving them more.” Yet again he cautions, “the saying, ‘We’ll share what’s yours, but don’t ask to share what’s ours,’ is not correct. If we want to live together in peace, we can only do so by keeping a balance.” Inequity in the utilisation of resources is not just, and “if it is not just, it will be only a matter of time until it leads to conflict.”

As for which port Ethiopia gains access to, that is not the main issue. What matters is that Ethiopia’s right to a port on the Red Sea has been internationally recognised, Ahmed said, referring to a resolution the UN General Assembly adopted in 1951 annexing Eritrea to Ethiopia as an autonomous federal entity.

“You [Ethiopians] were 50 million then,” he continued. “By 2030 you will be 150 million. A population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison.”

Citing a UN study that found that access to seas accounts for 25-30 per cent of a given country’s GDP, he said, “if for example Ethiopia’s GDP is 100 billion, it is forfeiting 20-30 billion of it. The minute it gains access to the port, that amount will be added… if it invests 30 billion in the Red Sea to get access, it is profitable.”

Ethiopia’s neighbours were not pleased by the prime minister’s speech. The Eritrean Foreign Ministry described Ahmed’s remarks as “unacceptable” and “provocative.” Somalia denounced his remarks, saying that its “territorial sovereignty was out of bounds of discussion.” In like manner, Djibouti said that its “territory is sacred and it will never negotiate over it today or tomorrow.”

More ominously, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces undertook movements near their shared border at the Eritrean town of Buri, according to reports in Western media citing diplomats and aid workers.

To allay concerns regionally and internationally, Ahmed seized the opportunity of celebrations marking the 116th anniversary of the establishment of the Ethiopian army to stress that the nation’s army had never invaded and will never invade any country. “Ethiopia will never pull the trigger against our brothers,” he said.

But is this reassurance enough?

When Abiy Ahmed came to power, he was portrayed in the Western media as a man of peace. Before long, however, he engaged in a brief clash with the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group (34 per cent of the population). This was followed by a full-scale Civil War against the Tigray (seven per cent of the population). It was a brutal confrontation in which Addis Ababa used not only government forces but also blockade, starvation, murder and rape, killing between 260,000 and 600,000 people in the northern Tigray region. Eritrea took part in this war alongside the Ethiopian army and the Amharic Fano militia (the Amharic people account for 27 per cent of the population). After nearly a year of fighting, Abiy Ahmed entered into African Union and South African sponsored negotiations with Tigray rebel leaders, resulting in the Pretoria Agreement of November 2022. Eritrea, which had entered the war for fear of a potential threat from a break-away Tigray state, was compelled to withdraw most of its forces from Ethiopia.

Soon afterwards, Ahmed called on the Fano to turn in their arms and integrate into the central government’s army. The Amhara, who saw this as a scheme to curtail their political power and influence, resisted, triggering a conflict that continues to the present. Apart from the civil warfare, there were the border skirmishes with Sudan, when forces affiliated with Addis Ababa attempted to seize Al-Fashaga. Khartoum eventually succeeded in driving out the Ethiopian forces.

This brings us to the question of whether Ethiopia, under Abiy Ahmed, is heading for a new war.

On the external front, Somalia, which united after winning independence in 1960, posed a persistent challenge to Addis Ababa. In the first half of the 1960s, the two countries clashed over border claims, then full-scale hostilities erupted in 1978. The Ogaden war, as it was called, unfolded against the larger backdrop of the Cold War. Ethiopia was backed by the Soviet Union. However, Eritrea would remain Addis Ababa’s foremost problem. Following the above-mentioned UN resolution in 1951, incorporating Eritrea into Ethiopia as an autonomous federated entity, Addis Ababa was able to control Asmara and its vital ports. About a decade later, emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, abolished the federal system, reducing Eritrea to the status of a region. This precipitated the 30 year-long Eritrean war of independence in which the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) joined forces with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to overthrow Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in Addis Ababa. The Mengistu government collapsed in 1991, and Eritrea won its independence. Nevertheless, Ethiopia was still able to use Eritrean ports until the two countries went to war over a border dispute in 1998. At that point, Asmara closed its ports to Ethiopia, transforming it into a landlocked country.

Ethiopia survived the setback and underwent a remarkable transformation into one of Africa’s most rapidly growing economies. It borrowed billions from Beijing to this end, which simultaneously made it one of the continent’s most indebted countries to Beijing.

It now appears that, to the mind of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the federal arrangements that were introduced following Mengistu’s fall have exhausted their purpose. Instead of a unifying factor, he sees the arrangements as an avenue to disintegration. For their part, the national regions, which have been torn by war, have come to the conclusion that independence is better than trying to fight for a new era of equitable distribution of power and wealth in the framework of the Ethiopian state.

Addis Ababa is clearly aware of the risks of a slide into war with Eritrea for the sake of access to the sea. For one factor, it would provoke broken and beleaguered Somalia which would readily up the volume of the call for “Unity of Greater Somalia,” which resonate among Somali nationalist groups in Somalia and in Somalia’s neighbours. It is well-known that the five-pointed white star on the Somali flag is called the “Star of Unity” and stands for the five regions where the Somali ethnic group forms a majority:  Djibouti, Somaliland, the Somali region in Ethiopia, the North Eastern Province in Kenya also known as Kenyan Somalia, and Somalia itself.

Ethiopia’s relations with Sudan are already tense in view of the above-mentioned dispute over Fashaga and the GERD project on the Blue Nile. Khartoum would not welcome an Ethiopian expansion into Red Sea ports, which would make Ethiopia stronger and weaken Khartoum’s hand in any negotiations over GERD or other bilateral issues.

South Sudan claims the Jumbella region, home to an extension of the Dinka Anwak ethnic group. Juba is also wary of how Addis might wield its control over the Ethiopian dams on the tributaries of the Nasser River and the White Nile.

Kenya has a longstanding grievance over Ethiopian behaviour towards international river courses. It has been forced to appeal to the UN over the impacts of the three Gebe I dams on the Oma River, which flows into Lake Turkana. One of the world’s largest desert lakes, the water level of Lake Turkana has fallen by over a metre since 2016, threatening the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of pastoralists and fishermen who rely on the lake and its ecosystem. Already this has added to the displacement caused by the droughts affecting East Africa and the Horn of Africa, which has heightened concerns over potential social unrest in Nairobi and other cities in Kenya and elsewhere.

The entire region is far from calm or stable. Another war could easily spiral and spread in many directions, wreaking untold horrors on peoples who already suffer from poverty, hunger and instability.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: