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The Horn of Africa needs more trade—but not at the cost of more war
By Muktar Ismail
Wednesday November 29, 2023

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.



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.


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.

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.


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



 





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