On October 13, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed raised eyebrows in the region and beyond by forcefully asserting that gaining low-cost, permanent access to a Red Sea port is “an existential matter” for his landlocked country.
“By 2030 [the population of Ethiopia] will be 150 million,” he said in a televised address to parliament. “A population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison.”
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Ethiopia lost all its Red Sea ports and became the world’s largest land-locked country in 1993, when Eritrea gained independence following a 30-year war of liberation. Since then, Ethiopia has been fully dependent on its neighbours – especially Djibouti – for access to ports and international shipping routes.
None of Ethiopia’s neighbours – each a sovereign state with its own geopolitical calculations and needs – is under any obligation to provide Ethiopia cheap and easy access to the sea. In fact, they have every right to use their coastline as leverage in their interactions with their much larger, richer and more influential neighbour. Yet Abiy is clear that his country will gain favourable access to the sea and key international trading routes – one way or the other.
In his October 13 speech to parliament, he proposed potential ways forward for “freeing” Ethiopia from its so-called “geopolitical prison”.
First, he suggested Ethiopia’s neighbours could give it permanent, low-cost access to their ports in return for shares in lucrative public company and projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopian Airlines or the Ethio telecom.
Then, rather shockingly, he mused that perhaps Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia could merge to form one, “very big” country with ample access to the sea. In such a scenario, he argued, this new massive African state would be “another Russia, another China, another America” on the world stage.
Of course, given the power and size imbalance between Ethiopia and its seaside neighbours, such a union would not be a coming together of equals, but a textbook colonial annexation by Ethiopia that would only further its own geopolitical and geoeconomic interests while removing all sovereignty from its neighbours.
That Ethiopia’s prime minister is publicly advocating for such an arrangement should be a cause of concern for anyone interested in peace, stability and development in East Africa.
Further, Abiy said in his October 13 speech that Ethiopia has “natural rights” to directly access the Red Sea, and if it is denied these “rights”, “there will be no fairness and justice and if there is no fairness and justice, it’s a matter of time, we will fight”.
Later in the speech, Abiy suggested that he is not threatening violence, yet looking at his past comments, it is clear that he believes the use of force, at least for a last resort, is very much in the cards.
At a meeting with investors in July, for example, Abiy had openly and unambiguously said that while Ethiopia wants to “get a port through peaceful means”, if that plan fails, it would not hesitate to “use force”.
That the prime minister of Ethiopia is openly talking about the possibility of “fighting” over water access, and publicly flaunting the establishment of a single nation within Ethiopia’s imagined sphere of influence – a region that has suffered Ethiopian imperial aggression in the past and is currently awash with civil conflicts – is a cause for immense concern.
Ethiopia’s neighbours have been quick to denounce Abiy’s imperial calculations and reject any suggestion that they would agree to give up their independence to become part of a larger regional power, undoubtedly controlled and led by Ethiopia.
“Djibouti is a sovereign country, and therefore, our territorial integrity is not questionable, neither today nor tomorrow,” said Alexis Mohamed, a senior adviser to Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh.
Estifanos Afeworki, the Eritrean ambassador to Japan, has been equally forthright. “There is no if and but about Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. No amount of illegitimate instigation, propaganda, conspiracy and defamation can change this truth,” he said on X, formerly Twitter.
Somalia, meanwhile, underlined that its territorial integrity is “sacrosanct”.
As Ethiopia appears to get ready, in plain defiance of the United Nations Charter, to fulfil its self-declared “rights” to the Red Sea, the African Union (AU) must keep an eye on Abiy’s apparent ambition to transform Ethiopia into a “great power” in Africa.
Abiy is increasingly sounding and acting like another world leader whose imperial ambitions and aggression have already caused immense pain and suffering: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
Putin and others in his regime have repeatedly tried to legitimise and excuse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war on the Ukrainian people using dubious and discredited historical claims. They tried to suggest that Ukraine is not a sovereign nation but a stolen part of Russia, that its existence and independence are a threat to Russian security and that Russia has a “natural right” to its territories and resources.
Now, sadly, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy, who was given the prize for securing a peace deal with Eritrea, appears to be following Russia’s violent and destructive footsteps.
Abiy’s Ethiopia clearly has ambitions to not only gain access to the sea but become a great power in the world.
The great powers of the world, from Russia to the United States and China, have all accumulated economic, diplomatic and military strength through war, slavery, colonialism and imperialism.
If it is longing to become one such power in Africa, nonetheless through “merging” with its smaller neighbours, Abiy’s Ethiopia will undoubtedly get on a path that will see it inflict much violence and abuse on the nations in its immediate neighbourhood and beyond.
A clear and unbiased assessment of the world’s leading powers demonstrates that since World War II ended in September 1945, they have caused more harm than good – from Gaza to Afghanistan, Myanmar and Algeria. Any attempt to replicate the path Russia, China and the US took to becoming great powers will only foster extreme divisions and endless wars in Africa.
African nations should put an end to Abiy’s imperial ambitions for good, before it is too late.
One of the AU’s founding aims is to “defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of its Member States’’. In the face of Ethiopia’s blatant attempts to disrespect the sovereignty of its neighbours, African nations should take a principled stance and unambiguously communicate to Abiy that they won’t allow him to walk all over the rules-based international order.
African leaders have the collective responsibility to safeguard the independence and territorial integrity of every nation, irrespective of its colonial history, size and military prowess.
Ethiopia has no existential crisis or enforceable claims over foreign territories. It must learn to co-exist with its neighbours and live within its internationally recognised geographical boundaries.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.