Viewpoint

The Horn of Africa needs more trade—but not at the cost of more war

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Ethiopia should address its landlocked status firmly rather than forcefully.

The Horn of Africa and the adjacent Red Sea is a strategically important area that has been ravaged by instability. Sudan is torn apart by a civil war, while Somalia continues to grapple with al-Shabaab, an extremist Salafist group which controls large swathes of territory.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has only recently overcome a devastating war in Tigray that resulted in the loss of countless lives, and remains embroiled in low-level conflicts in Amhara and Oromia.

And now, concerns are mounting that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed may lead Ethiopia towards another war, this time with Eritrea, as he endeavors to secure a port near one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, casting a pall of uncertainty over what the future holds.

Another Ethio-Eritrean war would be disastrous for both countries and the entire region, so must be avoided at all costs. Ethiopia should instead consider peaceful diplomatic routes to secure better access to a port.

Concerning Rhetoric

Abiy has increasingly made the case in public for Ethiopia to acquire a port, citing the nation’s population of around 120 million people being trapped in a “geographic prison”. To buttress his argument, Abiy referenced legendary nineteenth-century Abyssinian emperors and warriors who proclaimed the Red Sea as Ethiopia’s “natural boundary”.

The prime minister warned that ignoring the issue could potentially lead to a regional conflict. Abiy’s preference is ostensibly to attain access to Eritrea’s port in Assab, while he has also mentioned Zeila in Somaliland and Djibouti, Ethiopia’s current primary outlet.

On some occasions, Abiy has warned that using military force is not out of the question. On others, he has denied that he intends to invade Eritrea.

In a recent parliamentary speech, he highlighted the strategic importance of coastal access for Ethiopia, stating that while neighboring nations benefit from shared transboundary rivers, Ethiopia has missed out. In a sign of the attitude that should prevail, he urged regional states to engage in negotiations towards a just and equitable solution for the mutual benefit of all parties involved.

Ethiopia – Eritrea border

 

The prime minister’s allies have even cited the annexation of land by Russia in Ukraine and Israel in Palestine to justify Ethiopia’s intentions to gain access to Assab or Zeila, and as proof that it can get away with doing so.

Abiy’s calls for Ethiopia to acquire a sea port have, understandably, encountered pushback from Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea. A few days after his controversial statement, Abiy displayed Ethiopia’s military strength in a parade featuring new weapons and Russian-made electronic warfare systems.

Most concerning, there has been an increase in troop mobilization towards the Eritrean and Ethiopian borders by both sides, suggesting conflict may be brewing. Cargo flights between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Ethiopia have significantly increased since late October 2023, surpassing previous airlift operations during the Tigray War.

Economic Challenges

Ethiopia has been the world’s most-populous landlocked country ever since Eritreans voted to secede from Ethiopia in a referendum in 1993 following a decades-long liberation struggle against regimes in Addis Ababa.

Being landlocked presents major economic challenges to Ethiopia that hinder its development and trading abilities. Though the country progressed substantially under Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn from 1991 to 2018, its progress has slowed since the arrival of Abiy as prime minister, partly due to factors such as an unsustainable debt burden incurred by the previous governments.

While the country’s economic decline can also be attributed to maladministration and civil unrest, the importance of Ethiopia’s landlocked status cannot be ignored.

Firstly, the lack of a port in Ethiopia increases transportation costs, including fuel, labor, and time, which contributes to soaring prices for consumers. Reliance on Djibouti for external trade has resulted in a yearly payment of around $1.5 billion in port fees, almost half Ethiopia’s annual foreign earnings from goods sales

Secondly, the lack of a port in Ethiopia hinders the country’s ability to access foreign markets, reducing revenue from exports and hampering economic growth.

Thirdly, foreign companies might be wary of investing in a country with expensive trade logistics. Reduced foreign investment shrinks job opportunities and revenue sources.

Fourthly, Ethiopia is vulnerable to political and economic instability in the countries it relies on for trading.

Finally, Ethiopia is at a competitive disadvantage against other countries that have better access to ports.

Historical Claims

The ancient port of Assab in the southern Red Sea area has long been a bone of contention between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The two nations assert historical claims to the port.

Situated along the coast of the Red Sea, this port city has a rich cultural heritage shaped by various ruling powers such as the Egyptians, Ottomans, Italians, and British. Assab was an important hub for trade and commerce between the Arab world and East Africa as early as the sixteenth century.

The boundaries of modern-day Eritrea and Ethiopia were established in the nineteenth century through the Italian colonization of Eritrea. The British supported Italian ambitions to establish a settler colony in Eritrea to prevent France from gaining a foothold in the Red Sea region.

During this period, King Menelik II of Shoa expanded his empire, incorporating vast territories of present-day Ethiopia using weapons provided by France and Italy, including territories of various communities. Despite brief British occupation in the 1940s, Eritrea maintained control of the ports in Assab and Massawa until it was integrated into Ethiopia in 1952.

The port was subsequently included within Eritrea’s territory after it became an independent country in 1993, and so belongs to Eritrea under international law.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, argues that Assab belonged to it for centuries and was only temporarily taken away by colonial powers.

In this view, Assab holds historical and cultural importance to Ethiopia, and is an integral part of the country’s national heritage. Also, though Assab was given to Eritrea during the colonial period, it was taken back in 1952, reasserting Ethiopia’s ownership of the port city.

These disputes have persisted into the modern era, particularly after Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia. Although Ethiopia initially continued to use Assab port, relations between the two nations deteriorated in the late 1990s, leading to a bloody war from 1998 to 2000.

By Skilla1st - Own work using: Eritrea location map.svg by NordNordWest, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25055977

Own work using: Eritrea location map.svg by NordNordWest; Skilla1st

Assab was a major battleground during the conflict, with each side vying for control of the port. Following the war, Assab remained part of Eritrea, forcing Ethiopia to explore other trading routes. Djibouti has been the primary beneficiary of this state of affairs.

Following the devastating war, Ethiopia and Eritrea remained stuck in a no peace-no war stalemate marked by both sides funding each other’s militant opposition groups.

Shifting  Alliance

In 2018, the political landscape shifted dramatically after Abiy’s rise to power. Saudi Arabia and the UAE facilitated Ethiopia’s historic reconciliation with Eritrea, putting an end to almost two decades of hostility.

Initially, Abiy’s reformist agenda was met with hope and optimism for progress towards a liberal democratic order. His historic peace deal with Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki, ending the neighboring countries’ lengthy feud, was met with optimism.

Although the details were never disclosed, it was widely believed that Ethiopia would regain tax-free access to Eritrea’s ports in exchange for relinquishing disputed territories.

Abiy’s accomplishments earned him the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. At the same time, the newfound bond with Isaias threatened the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which became suspicious of the potential implications.

Nevertheless, Ethiopia never utilized the port access supposedly acquired under the agreement partly due to the lack of trust between the two leaders and Abiy’s failure to relinquish the disputed territories to Eritrea.

Two years later, Abiy’s standoff with Tigray’s ruling party escalated into a civil war. Eritrean troops supported Abiy against their common enemy, the TPLF, forging an alliance that added complexity to an already devastating conflict.

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The two years of conflict were marked by horrific violence against civilians, including massacres and sexual violence, leading to the death of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. Reports of indiscriminate killing and looting by Eritrean troops outraged the international community, with rights groups accusing Eritrean forces of war crimes.

Moreover, Eritrean troops are accused of blocking a UN-led humanitarian mission from reaching parts of Tigray region and reportedly impeding critical supply routes, further exacerbating the dire humanitarian situation. This has prompted calls for impartial investigations and the withdrawal of Eritrea’s involvement in Ethiopian affairs.

The cozy relationship between the two leaders during the Tigray war has crumbled since Abiy signed a peace deal with the TPLF in November 2022. Isaias responded by shoring up his alliance with Amhara militias that were once part of the tripartite alliance against the TPLF but are now at war with Addis Ababa.

Peaceful Resolution

The recent push by Abiy’s government regarding Assab has raised concerns about its motivations. Some suggest this could be a deliberate tactic to provoke a crisis with Eritrea, as the Ethiopian government and international community accuse Eritrea of meddling in Ethiopia’s affairs against the Pretoria Agreement.

While a port dispute alone is unlikely to cause armed conflict, tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea have increased following the peace deal. Eritrea’s military presence in Western Tigray and alleged support for Amhara militias have strained diplomatic relations.

Abiy might be deliberately creating a regional crisis to project strength and gain international backing for negotiations with Eritrea. It’s possible his aim is to restore ties with Eritrea and gain access to the Red Sea with support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Given the ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, Abiy’s pursuit of port access is ill-timed. The Red Sea’s strategic location links crucial trade routes and handles over ten percent of global cargo annually, and thus attracts external interference.

Ethiopia’s traditional status as an anchor of regional stability has taken a hit due to the conflicts in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia. Abiy provoking tensions concerning access to a port further damages Ethiopia’s international reputation as a peacekeeper.

The recent statement by the prime minister, suggesting the acquisition of Red Sea access through either peaceful means or force, demonstrates a disregard for international law and principles of peaceful coexistence among neighboring states. Instead, Ethiopia should focus on persuading its neighboring littoral states about the mutual benefits of reducing trade costs.

One potential avenue would be through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which provides landlocked countries like Ethiopia a legal framework to assert their access rights and pursue connectivity to ports and international trade. Ethiopia can build necessary infrastructure and negotiate agreements with coastal states for transit corridors.

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Main Image: Massawa, Eritrea; 12 July 2014; Michael Walsh.

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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About the author

Muktar Ismail

Muktar is a disaster prevention specialist, a former humanitarian and development advisor to Somali region's president, and a former UN staff member.

6 Comments

  • Nice article with some new and interesting information – thank you. As for the laws/ legal framework for access to see: I am no expert in that area. But my landlocked home country, Czechia, has access to sea through the German port of Hamburg, and that is based on the 1929 Treaty of Versailles. Two small port areas were leased for the period of 100 years with 50-year extension option also guaranteed, another area was purchased. The first two are officially German territory, the third one is actually a small Czech territory. Between 1929 and today, a lot history has happened, the countries were enemies during the 2nd World War (the agreement was certainly on hold during that time), then again on two different sides during “cold war” (but in fact, former West Germany and former Czechoslovakia were able to keep the agreement working during cold war), then Czechoslovakia split into Czechia and Slovakia in 1990s. Yet that treaty survived and the port areas are still being used by Czech trade companies. Nowadays negotiations are under way to extend the lease and in fact also switch the leased port area for more suitable ones. But the key always lies in good neighbour relationships and fair negotiations, rather than conflict and instability. I hope that a peaceful, stable, legally based solution for access to sea is eventually found for Ethiopia, and I appreciate the article is advocating this approach. There’s already too much conflict and suffering in the world, as it is, and the Ethiopians and Eritreans have witnessed too much of that over the recent periods in history.

  • The governments and people of both Eritrea and Ethiopia know each other very well. They had been trying to tear each other down through direct wars and also in the diplomatic arena. I can confidently say the people are tired of displacement, destruction, poverty and bloodshed. Though I can’t say the same about the politicians and academics.
    But there is one pressing question that needs to be discussed and addressed: What options can be taken by the state of Eritrea, will it accept the deployment of foreign powers to station in Assab amid the treats by Houthis on the straight of Bab El Mendeb?

  • It is sensible and balanced commentary. No doubt, Ethiopia’s quest for port and sea access is pressing issue but it been caught between rock and hard place over decades. And while its inherent of politico, historical and physical geography or location puts in disadvantaged point, the short-sightedness and consistent of making bad decisions and short-sightedness by its leadership in various times is partly to blame. Abiy Ahmed’s recent undiplomatic and insenstive, if not outright belligirent, comments is the case in point. First and foremost, if he want to do genuine business with the neighboring and sovereign states wether commerce, cooperation or other negotiation related issues at hand he shouldn’t be threatening at any point. He shouldn’t be trying to cohers into submission or issuing blanket ultimatum . Second, I doubt that there is an international legal framework perse that guarantees a given landlocked nation to sea port access and forces another sovereign nation to oblige. This notion equally applies to all sovereign nations regardless of wether the landlocked nation seeking the seat outlet is poor or rich, most populous or desolate, regional power or underdog, located in upstream watershed or not and vice-versa. So the Primer Minister’s main point of citing these factors for justification as casus belli is non sequitur argument and legalistic hallow. Why negotiate to invest and develop in infrastructural wise an advantageous port like the Assab through Eritrean national government ? Or even better the Zeila port of Somalia that fell disrepair over century and through negation of the Federal Government of Somalia and in cooperation with the local communities, who are desperately looking a win-win situation of economic and infrastructural development? This would be less political headache or interference legally and practically speaking than dealing with regional Somali warlords like the renegade Somaliland tribal enclave, which is currently in state of poltical turmoil and on the brink of collapse .

  • In 1951, Eritrea was not fully-integrated into Ethiopia as this article suggests. Eritrea had its own parliament and president and was largely autonomous from 1952-1961. Eritrea was militarily annexed by Ethiopia in 1961, triggering a war for independence which was concluded when Ethiopian forces were defeated in the battlefield and Eritreans legally voted for their independence through a referendum. As the former Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi made clear, Ethiopia has chosen not to use Eritrean ports because it does not want to contribute to Eritrea’s economic development. Ethiopia was using Eritrean ports duty free after Eritrean independence until 1997 when the border war started. Paying 1.5 billion to use ports in Djibouti was a choice. Abiy’s claims are not ill-timed as mentioned in this article, they are illegal and ill-informed. Ethiopia only had access to the sea during the 30 years that it illegally occupied Eritrea. Citing the Aksum empire as a historical right to access to the sea is akin to Italy claiming ports in Spain because they were a part of the Roman Empire. Ethiopia needs to revisit its foreign policy toward Eritrea and Eritrea’s territorial integrity needs to be respected for their to be lasting peace and prosperity in the region.

  • Dear Muktar,
    I concur with every point made in this post. In fact, this Article makes a significant contribution to contesting geopolitics in the Horn of Africa, particularly with regard to security, economic integration, and social integration around the Red Sea. Let me try to add up a few lines that should be considered even though it is covered.
    While the EPRDF was driving the truck, there were many discussions about how important it was for this landlocked nation to be able to access the Red Sea peacefully. However, at that time, the country’s top authorities were unable to come up with any concrete plans.
    Following two years of deadly conflicts, EDF armed conflicts with OLF in the Oromia region, and the new front in Amhara with FANO militia resulted in immense humanitarian, social, and material losses. From an economic standpoint, Ethiopia’s economy is at a crossroads at the beginning of 2023 for a number of reasons. such as the sharp reduction in comparative advantages with other countries, the high cost of transportation to and from port stations, and the general difficulties the nation’s macro and fiscal policies face.
    In summary, given all the significant variables that negatively impact the nation’s security, diplomacy, economy, and social fabric, the country would be better served by entering the Red Sea via diplomatic channels.

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