The Horn of Africa: Between the devil and the deep blue sea?

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent shockwaves through the region when he asserted his government’s determination to have direct access to the Red Sea either by force or consent. Ethiopia has always been landlocked except when it was linked by a thin sliver of Eritrea (1952-91) under a federal arrangement, and following Eritrean independence that country, Djibouti and Somalia now separate it from the global waters on its Eastern border. In a 45-minute address to parliament, Abiy stated that the future security of Ethiopia depends on having ownership of “Red Sea water”, and that as a result “it is crucial for the present leaders of Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia to engage in discussions, not just for the present, but to ensure lasting peace.”

The way Abiy linked access to the Red Sea to peace, immediately raised concerns in neighboring countries that Ethiopia planned to use force to end its landlocked status. Leaders from Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti were quick to respond, asserting their sovereign rights. In the words of Djiboutian President Ismail Omar, “Our two countries have always maintained strong, friendly relations. But you should know that Djibouti is a sovereign country, and therefore our territorial integrity is not questionable, neither today nor tomorrow.”

Abiy has since clarified his remarks, promising that Ethiopia will “never assert its interests through war”, and that he had “no wish to interfere in the affairs” of his neighbors. This has not fully assuaged regional concerns, considering Ethiopian imperial ambitions and Abiy’s track record of deception. Abiy fought a brutal war against Tigray, and civil conflict continues to rage in the Amhara and Oromia regions – in part because leaders and communities in those regions believe he has not delivered on early promises made to secure their loyalty – and so his status as an honest peacemaker has been fatally undermined. Moreover, some of Abiy’s prior statements to parliament indicate a desire to transform the regional landscape. In addition to describing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as a Shifta/bandit for consenting to Eritrean independence, his presentation referenced a 19th century Tigrean Military commander Ras Allula, who according to Abiy claimed the Red Sea as Ethiopia’s “natural boundary”, completely disregarding the borders created by colonialism.

Ethiopia is within its rights to negotiate a win-win arrangement that will allow it greater access to the Red Sea without the need for force, but it is also important to place Abiy’s words in the context of growing tensions between the Ethiopian leader and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Having won the Nobel Peace Prize for accepting the Hague verdict on the border dispute with Eritrea, and relying on Eritrean troops to support his own forces during the civil war in the Tigray region, it now appears that relations between the two men have significantly deteriorated.

There may be two main reasons for this. First, both leaders aspire towards regional leadership and dominance, which places them on something of a collision course once their mutual rivals – such as the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), have been subdued. Second, Abiy was unhappy when he was excluded from a regional council involving eight countries in the Red Sea corridor launched at the initiative of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in 2020. These broader developments help to explain why Abiy’s rash statement inspired so much concern – and why despite his subsequent efforts to put out the fire he started, leaders in Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia will not be relaxing anytime soon.

Yohannes Woldemariam is a Horn of Africa analyst and academic.

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