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Ethiopia and the Red Sea

Posted by: Semere Asmelash

Date: Wednesday, 18 October 2023

  • Wednesday, 18 October 2023 

Ethiopia and the Red Sea

Mostafa Ahmady

Ethiopia is bullying neighbouring countries in the Horn of Africa region in order to realise its ambition of having port access to the Red Sea, writes Mostafa Ahmady

From a “project” Ethiopia has repeatedly asserted it “solely” owns and dubs as “sovereign,” there is now the question of putting it up for auction. “Take 30 per cent or 20 per cent of the shares in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD),” said Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in a televised speech he gave before the members of the Ethiopian Parliament. 

In his speech, Ahmed was suggesting that “those who have access to the Red Sea” should take some shares in the GERD” in exchange for a “breathing gate” on the Red Sea, as he put it, in a transcript carried by the Ethiopian Addis Standard

Ahmed knows full well that Asmara does not have any “shares” in the colossal project. So, was he bringing back to life a proposal first launched by late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi? In the early days of launching the GERD in mid-2011, Zenawi suggested that both downstream Sudan and Egypt contribute some 50 per cent of the financing for the GERD, as he claimed that their two peoples would be the beneficiaries of the dam. They should contribute some 50 per cent of the financing in exchange for a “joint operation,” a proposal that Cairo, busy with the implications of the 25 January Revolution, did not take seriously enough. 

Egypt speaks of the Nile as an existential issue for its roughly 110 million people, adding that it has an inalienable right to the Nile waters. Ahmed also uttered words like “existential” and “historical rights on the Red Sea” when he was making remarks about the need of 150 million Ethiopians, the number he projects the landlocked Horn of African nation to have by 2030, for their own “gate” on the strategic Red Sea. 

He considers that Ethiopia has yet to assume the place it deserves as an African “superpower” because Addis Ababa does not have a port of its own on this strategic waterway.

Like other economies in the region, Ethiopia is feeling the heat of the present global economic crisis, caused mainly, but not entirely, by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. Based on data from the Ethiopian Statistics Service, essential food items on a year-on-year basis had soared in price by July 2023 by 48.1 per cent. This may be partially attributed to the surging shipping costs of imports, particularly fertilisers, necessary for Ethiopian farmers. An Ethiopian port on the Red Sea would cut the cost of these drastically, helping the nation to save some 20 to 30 per cent of its revenues.  

While the Ethiopian prime minister spoke of the “carrot” in his address, he did not forget to mention the “stick.” Talking mainly to Ethiopia’s immediate neighbours of Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, Eritrea and South Sudan, and indirectly to others whom it might concern, Ahmed said that while Ethiopia provides them with fresh water, they (Ethiopia’s neighbouring countries with ports on the Red Sea) say that “we will share yours [resources], but do not ask [to share] ours.” 

Ahmed reminded the “takers,” as he described those countries dependent on water resources from the Ethiopian plateau, that no one gives a “single litre of water” to his country, but that if they “want to live together in peace, we both have to maintain a balance.” In other words, it is necessary if “peace” is to continue in the Horn of Africa region that all “resources” are shared “equitably.”

Moreover, he went on to speak of “fighting,” not necessarily now, but maybe in the future. “If you say ‘because we are 120 million people, because we have the power? Because [we have] the army, and [we have] the air force?… If you say these things, that is not what we should do,” Ahmed said, elaborating on a “peaceful” dialogue on how to access the Red Sea. Or perhaps he was warning of the “dire” implications that the inability of Ethiopia to access the Red Sea could have?

It was not clear to whom Ahmed was sending his message. But it looked like an attempt to bully “small” nations in the Horn of Africa region, specifically the self-declared state of Somaliland. In his speech, he referred to “history” when he was speaking about Somaliland. In the 13th century, he said, Ethiopia used to enjoy the services of the Zeila Port under the Ifat Sultanate that flourished in Central Ethiopia for two centuries.   

In 2019, Somaliland reversed an agreement with Ethiopia that would have granted the latter 19 per cent of the shares in the Berbera Port, citing a failure by Addis Ababa to comply with its financial contributions on time. The agreement, which engaged the governments of Somaliland and Ethiopia along with the Emirati DP World Company, would have seen Ethiopia develop a 260-km road from Berbera to the Ethiopian border. However, Addis Ababa fell short of the agreement. 

In March 2023, Somaliland accused Ethiopia of “flaring up” a territorial dispute in Las Anod on the border of the Ethiopian Somali region that engaged troops loyal to the Somaliland authorities and those affiliated to the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. Both countries, in addition to Somalia, claim Las Anod as their own. 

Moreover, Eritrea has not kept the pledge it made when it normalised ties with Addis Ababa in 2018 under the present Ethiopian government. The plan was to allow Ethiopia to access the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab, both of which Ethiopia freely used until 1997 after Eritrea’s separation in 1993. While Ahmed sought help from the Eritreans in his war against the Tigrayans, veteran Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki stepped in for his own benefit and not for that of Ahmed. 

Despite the signing of the Pretoria Agreement in November 2022 to end hostilities between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Eritrea has not pulled out its troops from the areas it occupied during the war. Afwerki has already accomplished his part of the job by creating a buffer zone along the border with Tigray, but when it came to the use of Eritrean ports, he gave the Ethiopians short shrift. Addis Ababa’s repeated calls on Asmara to pull out its troops have fallen on deaf ears. On the contrary, Eritrea is consolidating its positions in the areas it has occupied since the war. 

The inability to push the Eritreans out may be why Ahmed is trying to lure Asmara into joining a “confederation” with Ethiopia. He has gone as far as to suggest a land swap that would allow Ethiopia to access the Red Sea, particularly as he has also spoken of what he called the “common characteristics” that bind the peoples speaking the Tigrinya language, namely the Tigrayans in Ethiopia and the Eritreans themselves. 

Will the Eritreans mull over the Ethiopian proposal and seal a deal that would bury the hatchet between the two peoples? Above all, is Addis Ababa serious about doing whatever it takes to access the Red Sea, something that Ahmed has connected to Ethiopia’s “very existence”?

* The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 19 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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