Is landlocked Ethiopia starting another war over ports in Horn of Africa?

Ethiopia’s tone on access to a seaport is seen as either a distraction from domestic policy failures or the start of another regional war.

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki (L), Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (R) and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed pose together
Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki (L), Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (R) and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed pose during the inauguration of the Tibebe Ghion Specialized Hospital in Bahir Dar, northern Ethiopia, on November 10, 2018 [File: Eduardo Soteras/AFP]

Since 1991 when Eritrea gained independence from neighbouring Ethiopia, one of the world’s oldest countries and Africa’s second most populous country, has been landlocked.

With Eritrea in control of the Assab port that had serviced Ethiopia for decades, access to ports became a major talking point in Ethiopia, and just a year after the end of a war fought together as allies, the topic has dragged both countries into a fresh dispute.

On October 26, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denied reports that his government was planning to wage war to gain access to a seaport. It was his second attempt in as many weeks at reassuring neighbouring states in the Horn of Africa that his pursuit of a new import gateway for Ethiopia would stay peaceful.

“Our army has never taken the initiative to invade another country in its history, and we won’t start now,” Abiy said during festivities marking the 116th anniversary of the Ethiopian army’s establishment, in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

“On certain issues that Ethiopia seeks dialogue over, it is being said that a military invasion is a possibility. I’d like to make it clear that there is nothing that we seek to accomplish using force or an invasion.”

But it is unclear if his latest remarks will cool months of uneasiness felt across the region. During another televised speech earlier this month, the prime minister cited demographic ties and maps dating back to the third-century kingdom of Aksum to invoke Ethiopian territorial claims to Red Sea ports in Eritrean territory, and said the question of Red Sea access was “an existential issue”.

Seeking port access

Since Eritrea’s independence, Ethiopia’s primary trade conduit has been the Red Sea port of Djibouti, but that hasn’t come cheap. Djibouti charges Ethiopia over a billion dollars annually in port fees, a huge sum for a country where nearly a fifth of the population of 119 million is still dependent on food aid.

For years, the government has been contemplating diversification in Kenya, Somalia and Sudan; Ethiopian officials visited Kenya’s Lamu port for discussions in August.

But Addis Ababa’s tone has become increasingly assertive, similar to that used by Ethiopian officials when discussing the construction of the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River.

“150 million people cannot reside in a geographical prison,” Abiy said in his October 13 address on the port issue, citing Ethiopia’s projected population figure by 2030. “Whether you’d like it or not, [the prison] will blast somewhere.”

Economies woes are influencing the uptick in port interest. Years of civil war and strife have left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced from their homes. War crimes carried out by the federal army and its allies in the northern Tigray region resulted in the country being slapped with economic sanctions by the United States.

Any potential forceful approach to secure port access in a neighbouring country could derail Ethiopia’s ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to secure billions in loans to help rebuild the country after the war.

Despite this, local media reports from July asserted that Abiy told a private gathering of local businessmen that the option of military force remained on the table, in the event of the failure of negotiations to secure port access with neighbouring countries. Abiy didn’t refute the reports for months, even after they were featured in an Al Jazeera Inside Story episode weeks later.

Months of speculation across the Horn of Africa rankled officials in neighbouring countries. Representatives of Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea have since issued statements confirming their refusals to discuss a port deal that bargains with territorial sovereignty.

A UN-chartered ship loaded with 23,000 tonnes of Ukrainian wheat destined for millions of hungry people in Ethiopia arrived in neighbouring Djibouti
A UN-chartered ship loaded with 23,000 tonnes of Ukrainian wheat destined for millions of hungry people in Ethiopia arrived in neighbouring Djibouti on August 30, 2022 [Hugh Rutherford/WFP via AFP]

Smokescreen or nationalism?

Abiy enjoyed considerable backing among Ethiopians for the war in Tigray between 2020 and 2022, which displaced as many as 1.5 million Tigrayans. Support rallies were organised in Ethiopia and abroad even as reports of war crimes by Ethiopian troops made the rounds.

However, that support is being depleted. His government disbanded a regional paramilitary force in the Amhara region in April, costing him significant support among Ethiopian nationalists, a critical support base for him. Abiy’s deployment of troops to Amhara to fight the rebel militia led to even more former supporters becoming critics.

Addisu Lashitew, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute, says Ethiopia’s port rhetoric is little more than posturing amid rising frustration over those domestic policy failures.

“The prime minister’s reckless remarks are completely out of touch with the deep political and economic troubles that are worsening by the day,” he told Al Jazeera. “It can only be a smokescreen to distract a populace reeling from the combined effects of simmering conflicts, displacement, and hunger.”

The prime minister’s comments are also seen as a likely strategy to win back some of the support lost in recent months. Fringe hardliner nationalists, who 30 years on still reject Eritrean independence, could be lured back towards the Abiy base, by the prospect of gaining seaports and capturing the Eritrean ports of Massawa or Assab, long considered in those circles to be legitimate Ethiopian territory.

“The perennial quest for access to the Red Sea has been a significant tool of political mobilisation in Ethiopia’s nationalist camp over the past three decades,” says Etana Habte, assistant professor of history at the University of Miami. “[Sea access] played a considerable role in nationalist parties’ ability to mobilize politically conscious Ethiopians in the run-up to the 2005 national elections.”

Etana also suggests that the seaport rhetoric could be a warning to Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki to cease playing a spoiler role in the country’s fledgling peace process.

Eritrean soldiers, who fought alongside Abiy’s army and the Amhara militia during the Tigray war, are yet to pull out of the country as per the terms of the Pretoria peace treaty. Experts have previously warned that Eritrea, keen on a military solution and unhappy with the treaty, could seek to undermine it.

Abiy’s track record suggests he isn’t ideologically inclined to pursue outdated territorial claims abroad.

His 2019 Nobel Peace Prize win came a year after a treaty signed with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and a willingness to relinquish Ethiopian control of the contested Badme territory, in accordance with a 2002 international boundary commission ruling that adjudged the territory to be Eritrean.

That ruling was largely based on three treaty maps agreed to by Ethiopia and colonial Italian authorities in Eritrea, during the early 20th century. Those maps firmly place the ports of Assab and Massawa in modern-day Eritrea.

Abiy never disputed this.

As such, any military manoeuvre to act against that agreement would likely result in more sanctions and global condemnation, as it would amount to attempting to illegally annex foreign land.

But even if he were to brazenly defy international norms and spend dwindling resources on an invasion, analysts say the odds of surviving the political, economic and military fallout would be slim to none.

“The Ethiopian army lost its experienced military commanders and its reliable chain of command in the Tigray war and hasn’t rebuilt it,” Etana told Al Jazeera. “Engaged in endless wars in the Amhara region and Oromia, going to war with Eritrea wouldn’t yield any quick military victory as Abiy Ahmed and his colleagues may have apparently imagined.”

Source: Al Jazeera