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DW.com: Is a new war looming in the Horn of Africa?

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Tuesday, 14 November 2023

14 November 2023

Ethiopia and Eritrea made peace in 2018, formally ending their border conflict. But control of the Assab port which serves both countries is sparking new tensions with fears it could lead to a fresh dispute.

 
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Eritrea industrial area with Eritrea flag at sunset
Ethiopia is eyeing sea access through Eritrea's port of Assab to cut costs and secure trade routesImage: Birgit Korber/PantherMedia/imago images

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came into office in April 2018, he worked to secure a peace deal with former foe and neighbour, Eritrea.

Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a historic peace deal later the same year to end decades of fighting.

This won Abiy the Noble Peace Prize and the admiration of the world — but now there are emerging fears that all the gains made five years ago could soon be in jeopardy.

At the center of these concerns is Ethiopia's quest to have access to a port on the Red Sea — specifically the port of Assab, located in Eritrea which was part of Ethiopia until it gained independence more than 30 years ago.

Access to the port of Assab by Ethiopia since 1998 has been truncated due to a 20-year border war between the neighboring nations that killed tens of thousands of people.

The conflict forced Ethiopia to channel its goods and other port-related trades through neighbouring country of Djibouti, which borders both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

   "When they [Eritreans] declared their independence, they were boasting about their ports, that they [will] use them [for developments], they were singing for their ports. [A lot has] been said about the significance of the ports," Ato Yesuf Yasin, a former Ethiopian diplomat told DW.

Yasin however said that since then, Eritrea's ports haven't benefitted any country in the Horn of Africa.

   "But now the main issue is that neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea nor the people of Afar who live in and around the coastal areas benefit from the ports," he added, refering to the Ethopian region that borders Tigray and neighboring Eritrea.

Abiy makes case for access to port

Prime Minister Abiy said that Ethiopia deserves a port of its own which shouldn't come at a huge cost. He has signaled his country's preparedness to regain access to the Assab port. 

"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," Abiy Ahmed said last month during a televised speech 

to Ethiopian lawmakers.

Drawing lessons from the controversy surrounding construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, Abiy suggested that conversations around the port on the Red Sea shouldn't be off-limits.

   "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 told lawmakers.

Earlier in July, Abiy was also reported to have spoken on the same topic of the ports, telling a meeting of business executives that Ethiopia wanted to "get a port by peaceful means." But, he added, "if that fails, we will use force."

The prime minister subsequently appeared to change his mind about his willingness to use force to secure access to the port.

   "Ethiopia has never invaded any country and will not do so in the future," Abiy said publicly when talking to soldiers recently.

But in his October 13 speech, Abiy also said he wanted the issue of access to the port resolved peacefully.

   "Because we have a legitimate question, we are 100 million, have an army … we should not become one that jumps and chokes a country of others; this is not correct. We don't have that interest. Is this thing possible peacefully? Yes, it is possible; because everyone who wants joint benefit, joint prosperity, joint development, joint peace will do it," the Ethiopian PM said.

Diversionary tactic by Abiy?

Ato Abdurehman Seid, a political analyst on the Horn of Africa told DW that Abiy's recent pronouncements are diversionary, a year after ending an internal Ethiopian conflict with the country's Tigray region.  

   "For Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed, to raise the issue of port [at this time] might help him to divert the [public] attentions from internal economic and military crises," Seid said.

Seid believes that Abiy may only realize some political gains but nothing more.

Conflict resolution and international relations expert, Fidel Amakye Owusu, also agrees.

Owusu told DW Abiy is only trying to solidify his political position ahead of a general election.

   "Abiy now, having legitimacy issues and issues with elections and how to be domestically strong, now wants to pursue his own survival and that of his government," he said.

Owusu added that Abiy can only succeed with his attempt to secure access to Eritrean ports if he rides on the agenda of nationalism, a sentiment he is already whipping, according to the expert.

   "Currently what Abiy is trying to say is that the early '90s unilateral declaration of independence [by Eritrea] may not be technically valid to the Ethiopians and therefore they would need a port," he explained. "So even if they would not need the whole of Eritrea, they would need a port that is legitimately theirs."

But Seid said that Abiy would not be successful this time around.

   "In this case, it may have some political benefits besides this, I don't think he would dare to invade Eritrea, even if he wants, he doesn't have the capacity execute," he added.

Owusu however said Abiy has his goal well set out which is to ride on the economic situation in Ethiopia to remain relevant politically.

   "Currently the goal is economic at the same time political. Because when he is able to make economic gains for Ethiopia it gives him more legitimacy, it gives him more support to stay on," Owusu explained.

   "However, when the economic situation is worsening, what he is actually doing is blaming the economic challenges on the fact that Ethiopia lacks a port and again while doing that he is gathering political support in order to pursue things like that."

Any fallouts from Tigray conflict?

Abiy enjoyed some significant amount of backing among Ethiopians for the war in Tigray between 2020 and 2022, which displaced millions of people. Eritrea supported his government during that particular conflict, becoming an ally.

Seid said that the Eritrean government leadership wasn't happy with how the conflict with Tigray ended. He suggested that the friendship struck in 2018 between Ethiopia and Eritrea may not be a lasting one.

"The Eritrean president Isaias [Afeworki] thinks that the civil war that took place in Ethiopia, in Tigray region did not produce an important result. Because [the war] did not destroy TPLF from the political game," he told DW.

Seid said the terms of the peace agreement signed between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) don't excite Eritrea.

  "The agreement [signed not only] confirmed the existence of TPLF but also guaranteed the TPLFs to control all the territories they used to administer," he said.

For these reasons, the prime ministers [Abyi Ahmed] actions are unilateral that excluded the Amharas and Eritrea [who fought the TPLF alongside the Ethiopian government]. This created disappointment."

Reactions to Abiy's posture

Eritrea has already condemned Abiy's comments and posturing, expressing worry. 

A government statement said "discourses — both actual and presumed — on water, access to the sea, and related topics floated in the recent times are numerous and excessive indeed. The affair has perplexed all concerned observers."

Estifanos Afeworki, an Eritrean diplomat and the country's ambassador to Japan, was even more explicit saying his country would always defend its territory.

"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 wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on October 12 — even before Abiy addressed parliament.

Owusu said that Ethiopia would have to reassess its push for a port using force since doing so could plunge the region into another conflict.

   "This is very controversial; it is not going to just happen because countries in the region are all concerned," he said, adding that "Ethiopia is now sounding more aggressive. The kind of hope and anticipation they had of Abiy is going the other way."

Owusu said Abiy should rather approach the entire quest for a port diplomatically in order not to spark another conflict.

   "Your attitude towards your neighbours must change, become more pacific as he started earlier when he took over," he said.

Edited by: Keith Walker


Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion at the XXIX International Rosa Luxemburg Conference in Berlin on January

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