After several months of rumors about the Ethiopian PM Dr Abiy Ahmed may or may not have said about his country’s renewed claims of having its own seaport on the Red Sea, the PM has over the past month made several public statements which turned out to be a big blow to the fragile peace among the countries of the Horn of Africa and in particular between Eritrea and Ethiopia. While the right to access a port or ports of its choice has never been an issue, what is worrying is the PM’s unfounded claim to own a seaport by any means which is a veiled threat of using force if necessary. Worse again is the PM’s argument(s) used to substantiate his claims. These arguments are more likely to have made the situation even worse simply because they are either based on distorted history or on a deliberately misinterpreted international law. This is because the Ethiopian PM must have been fully aware that the international law has already sealed the matter leaving Ethiopia with the sole option of seeking access in accordance with international law that obliged Ethiopia to fully respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country in legal possession of the sea outlet it may seek to access. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian PM’s remarks are far from enabling his country achieve its goals but rather may have only managed to dash the high hopes that following the signing of the peace agreement with Eritrea in mid-2018.
Of course, no one assumes that the PM is not aware of these basic facts, facts on which relations among sovereign countries are based but the question remains: why did he choose confrontation? This is of course if we the leave issue of betrayal aside. For a PM who only recently told his parliament and his countrymen how grateful and indebted he is to Eritrea for its support at the time his country had badly needed support, a support that played a critical role in preventing his country’s disintegration, there could have been no worse betrayal than this.
But before trying to answer the question, it would be useful to remind the PM some basic facts that would make his claims about possessing a seaport unreasonable, unfounded and illegal at best and intentionally provocative at worst:
- The boundaries between Eritrea and as between any other two African countries are colonial boundaries dating back to the colonial era;
- Colonial boundaries are the only legally binding boundaries and are the basis of international law to which any UN member state has the obligation to abide;
- Ethiopia is a founding member of the African Union (AU) and hosts its headquarters. The Ethiopian PM is fully aware of the fact that the AU Charter is based on the sanctity of colonial boundaries which is not respected, not only Eritrea and Ethiopia but the entire continent would descend into chaos;
- Ethiopia is signatory of the Algiers Agreement which led to the establishment of the Eritrean Ethiopian Boundary Commission (EEBC), the verdict of which had reconfirmed the existing boundaries between the two countries;
- In 2018, the Ethiopian PM signed the Asmara and Jeddah peace agreements with Eritrea, an agreement which the state of war between the two countries to an end paved the way to the resumption of diplomatic ties and as part of these agreements, the two countries turned into allies working together on several fields. The agreement signed in Jeddah was witnessed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the UN Secretary General and the head of the African Union. A corner stone of this agreement was the Ethiopian unconditional acceptance of the EEBC verdict;
Now let us go back to the question: why did the Ethiopian PM who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize on grounds of his achieving peace with Eritrea went this far to make such public statements amounting to a declaration of war and bringing the two countries back to square one?
While only the Ethiopian PM would have the answer this questions, nothing would prevent us from looking at some possible reasons behind his sudden change, even they are mainly based on circumstantial evidence and connecting some dots.
One possible reason is the increasingly deteriorating situation in several parts of the country and in particular the ongoing fighting in the Amhara region. The conflict in the Amhara region started almost immediately after the signing of the Pretoria Agreement between the Ethiopian Federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an agreement that brought the two yearlong bloody war in Tigray which had nearly brought the TPLF back to power and/or led to the country’s disintegration. Many observers who closely followed the two-year-old civil war that followed the TPLF’s attack against soldiers of the Northern Command of Ethiopian Federal Army, failed to understand why the DDR that was agreed to in Pretoria was not implemented. This was by the way the main condition of the Ethiopian government for the cessation of hostiles. Not only this was not done within the agreed 30 days but one year later, the TPLF appears to have been allowed to keep it 200, 000 strong armed wing. It is believed that the current fighting in the Amhara Region is among other, linked to the fact that the TPLF was allowed to keep its army. Today, the Amhara combatants appear to be constituting the biggest political and security challenge to the Ethiopian PM.
Another likely reason is the US factor. We know that over the years since the Asmara and Jeddah peace agreements, and especially during the fighting in Tigray, the US government led President Biden never left any stone unturned to create tension between the two countries. While it is not difficult for those of us who are familiar with the US policy towards Eritrea to understand this, it was hoped that the countries of the region may be able to stand together rather than against each other. Unfortunately, the last two or three years have proved that the Ethiopian PM’s public statements about the need to Pusey independent policies were empty words.
Finally, there is the nearly one century old expansionist agenda driven by a deliberate distortion of history and facts by successive Ethiopian political elites who suffer from the Sea Syndrome which has enormously costed both the Eritrea and Ethiopian peoples and has been the root cause of never ending conflicts, instability and wards, making Ethiopia the number one country in serving foreign agenda. Unfortunately, the recent 45 minute of the Ethiopian PM has shown that not much has changed and that we have a long way to go before our impoverished region would finally start living in peace and fight poverty and backwardness which is the common enemy.
In conclusion, some elements may be tempted to repeat historical mistakes but history itself is unlikely to be repeated. The over 80-year-old continued struggle of the Eritreans and others across the Horn of Africa has repeatedly defeated this dual agenda of expansion and hegemony which has changed the local dynamics. Today, neither the foreign hegemonic powers have the same influence, nor do local expansionists who have often served as agents of those foreign powers are as powerful as the used to be. In fact, Eritrea today a country that is more than capable not only of defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity but can also play a major in preventing the region from descending into a prolonged chaos. Hence, those who trying to pop up with the same old rhetoric of the 1940s would be better off if they wake up and come to their senses before it is too late. In the modern world we living in, boundaries are based on international law and international treaties and not in history. Even more so, if some fairy tales are taken for history.
On the other hand, and this more important, it time to realize that the Horn of Africa has had enough conflicts and wars. But avoiding conflicts requires addressing potential causes of conflicts and here comes Ethiopia’s need for adequate access to sea which in itself is not controversial. However, Ethiopia too has to realize that its needs can and should be accommodated by ways that are mutually beneficial. In short, Ethiopia needs to make its intentions clear and avoid sending ambiguous signals. Is it aiming to have a better and more cost effective access to aa seaport or possess a port ports of its own? The first is highly possible while the later makes conflicts to come more inevitable.
S. A. Hussein – London – 18 November 2023
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The views and opinions expressed in " Why PM Abiy Ahmed’s claims of owning a seaport on the Red Sea is impractical, illegal and a recipe for a new conflict? " are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Setit Media.
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