Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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The Historical Search for A Sea Outlet and Leadership Legacy

By Faisal A Roble


Access to the sea for Ethiopia offers mixed results. Prior to the advent of imperialism in the region, ancient Axumite kingdoms or even Abyssinian rulers in later days did not have any problems accessing the sea. This was achieved not because ancient Ethiopia had ruled these ports, but because mercantile trade rules of the day for importing and exporting goods were observed and so allowed Ethiopia to use ports of coastal communities in the Horn of Africa. However, with the introduction of the concept of nation state in the 16th century, African resources, the waterways of the Horn of Africa in particular, have fallen prey to big powers.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, at the Ethiopian parliament

Abyssinia took part in the scramble for dominating and robbing indigenous groups in the region thus sacrificing its hitherto good relations with the coastal nations. In the last 200 years, the search to access the sea has not been easy. Exception to this is between 1952 and 1994 a block of time both Massawa and Assab were under Addis Ababa’s uncontested jurisdiction. However, owing to a bloody 30-year war for independence which resulted in the creation of the sovereign state of Eritrea, Ethiopia lost Masawa and Assab for good.

Political History of the Sea

Written by Greek seafarers between 40 and 70 AD, the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea is the first historical document that describes the ports in the Horn of Africa. Trade used to pass in and out of Massawa (in today’s Eritrea), Berbera and Ras Hafun (Somalia), and what is now Djibouti (French Somaliland in colonial times). It also mentions Axum as an important market that traded across the Red Sea as far as India, China and Persia. These ports, which today sit on some of the most strategic waterways, are under the jurisdictions of Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1994, Djibouti, and Somalia.

By the 14th and 15th century, the Horn of Africa region became a battlefield for the religious wars of the Crusade instigated by the Iberian-peninsula kings. Whereas John Lock’s concept of nation state was sweeping the Western world, the Horn of Africa was flooded with Christian armies searching for the mythical character of Prester John.  Both Abyssinian and Somali civilizations were dragged into these religious wars. Prior to the Crusade wars, Ethiopian rulers had no difficulty using the Red Sea ports, mainly Somali ports (see The History of Somaliland). 

By the mid-16th century, conflict became rife between Abyssinian and Somali civilizations. Ultimately by the mid-16th century, Ahmed Al-Ghazi (Ahmed Gurey), who organized the most sophisticated Somali army, denied Abyssinia any chance to access the sea. To the contrary, he captured as far as Gonder thus making Abyssinia’s ambition of accessing the sea a distant mirage (Pankhurst 2012).

However, that did not kill said ambition. Emerging from internal power struggle, King Yohanes of Tigray and Tewodros of Gonder resurfaced the dream.  In 1862, Towodros, often referred to as a more charismatic and hot-tempered leader, offered Britain’s Queen Victoria an “alliance to destroy Islam,” and in return get access to the region’s multiple ports. It was Emperor Menelik who doubled down on the search for a port. Emperor Menelik, famous for securing the Adwa victory, which put Ethiopia in the center of world diplomacy, also appealed to European imperialists to help him secure sea access (Keller 1988). In a letter written in 1878 to Great Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, the emperor appealed to all European powers, again using Christianity as the point of appeal:

“My country is far distant from your country. My road to the coast, to Zeila, Tajura and Aden is at present closed by the Muslims. They prevent my receiving into my country provisions, arms, agricultural implements, artisans or even messengers of the Gospel. Will you kindly raise your powerful voice in order that I may have this way opened to me, for I desire to inaugurate in my country European civilization, intelligence and arts.

Published in 1978, (Horn of Africa Journal, October/December 1978 Volume 1, Number 4, pages 31-36), “Which Way to the Sea, please?” Nuruddin Farah writes the following: Menelik said “the Muslims who had closed the way to him were not the Somalis of Zeila and Tajura, but the Khedive of Egypt whose power controlled the entire stretches of the Somali coast, and who held the key to Bab Al Mandab, Hafun, Zeyla, Berbera and the Ogaden including the city of Harar.” Farah goes in depth to describe how Menelik uses Christianity as the hook to earn the sympathy of European colonizers. Yet, Menelik never secured the ports he wanted, but settled for the agreement on the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway construction, which became functional in 1913. The French company, “La Compagnie Impériale des Chemins de Fer Ethiopians,” got the contract and constructed it.

Emperor Haile Selassie throned in 1931 as the king of Ethiopia, once again resurrecting the imperial ambition towards the warm waters of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Despite the devastation WWII brought to Ethiopia and Somalis, it still offered unparalleled opportunities to the emperor. With the victory by the allied forces, Great Britain, who stood with Ethiopia all along, this time decided to reward the emperor for his support in the war against Italy. At the same time, England was busy averting pan-Somali nationalism, despite Benvin’s suggestion to unite all Somalilands, which was raging in the Horn of Africa (John Drysdale 1964; John Spencer 1972).

Basking partially in the victory of Great Britain’s victory in World War II, emperor Haile Selassie sought to annex as much Somali territory as he could. He demanded that Great Britain, which by 1945 controlled both modern-day Eritrea and former British Somaliland including Berbera, Zeya and Haud and the Reserved Area in the Ogaden region, be guaranteed to Ethiopia. He also wanted the entire Ogaden treaty of 1887 be renegotiated in order to legitimize Ethiopia’s ownership. Writing in “Ethiopia at Bay: A Personal Account of Haile Selassie Years,” John Spencer, a longtime advisor and friend of the King, wrote that “ the king wanted both Eritrean ports and Zeilla of Somaliland.” Great Britain was the most favorable power to Ethiopia which suggests the following: 

“[1] Ethiopia should be appointed to be the administering authority in Eritrea for a period of ten years. “[2) At the end of ten years the General Assembly of the United Nations would decide whether, and if so under what conditions Ethiopian administration should continue indefinitely.” “[3) An advisory Council would be appointed to assist the Ethiopian Administration.” 

Great Britain did not go as far as the King demanded but he instead walked away with gaining jurisdiction over Eritrea in 1954 through a federation scheme, which he later on abolished and forcefully annexed and subjected Eritrea to the rule of his empire. A 30-year war for liberation started in 1960 and came to end with the independence of Eritrea.

The Curse of Ethiopia: Size and History

The most unsettling geopolitical issue about Ethiopia in the affairs of the Horn of Africa region is its size, history of conflicts, and its status as the only country that starves for a sea outlet. It is a country characterized by a disparate 120 million population, about 80 linguistic groups that have known only a tortuous history that is bereft of democratic culture and equitable political participation.  (for an excellent assessment and literature review on the Red Sea, see Alex de Waal’s Horn of Africa and Red Sea Synthesis Paper). Owing to a political collaboration between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), Eritrea was let to secede from Ethiopia in 1994, thus rendering it the second most populous African and largest landlocked country in the world.

IGAD member states

To that end, Prime Minister Abiy told his parliament on October 13, 2023, that “[You] Ethiopia were 50 million then; by 2030 you will be 150 million. A population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison.” With its 3,333 km coastal line, extending from the edge of the Red Sea on the border of Djibouti to the Indian Ocean, Somalia is well-endowed with rich yet underutilized oceanic resources. Political instability in Somalia is the problem, which in turn becoming appetizingly more attractive to this starving beast of the region- Ethiopia. Both Eritrea with its 2,234 km and Djibouti’s over-utilized 314 km coastal lines stand in the way of Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea waters. It is however possible that in peacetime all these ports represent opportunities for Ethiopia.

Prime Minister Abiy shocked his neighbors and world leaders alike when he expressed his desire to not remain landlocked in a region with multiple ports. As such, he told the House of Representative that Ethiopia, with its 120 million population, must own a port. “If we don’t get a port, we will turn into a country of 120 million cannibals” (my translation). Ethiopia is determined to access some of these warm waters. Earlier, he said on state TV this: “ We built one of the strongest ground and air forces in Africa… we should build our naval force capacity in the future.” And that is why Ethiopia has purchased about eight military and commercial fleets from France, and soon these arsenals will be ready for delivery (Faisal Roble 2019).

Some observers are afraid that Prime Minister Ethiopia may favor a militaristic solution to the Red Sea issue by mimicking what Russia and China did. His “rhetoric echoes ambitious geopolitical powers like China and Russia, both of which have shown a willingness to use military force to dominate strategic waters – as evidenced by Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and China’s military posturing in the South China Sea.”

Despite the initial shock waves PM Abiy’s speech sent to Ethiopia’s neighbors, who quickly dismissed his bravado, we have seen snippets of the PM moderating his rhetoric.  On October 26, 2023, addressing his troops on National Army Day, Abiy emphasized dialogue over access and added that  “there are fears that Ethiopia may carry out an invasion after our recent strong demand for access to the sea. I want to assure that Ethiopia will not pursue its interests through war. We are committed to mutual interest through dialogue and negotiation.” Reconciling his earlier bombastic rhetoric with later day moderate utterance would require trust-building and constructive diplomatic engagement with his neighbors.

 Legacy of Ethiopian Leaders

Politicians like to leave behind their own legacy. Whereas society is the judge neither money nor arm twisting helps in earning undeserved national credits. Like his predecessor, Prime Minister Abiy would like to let his compatriots hold him with regard after he no longer occupies the Premiership. Neither would he want to be a historical footnote to his predecessors’ achievements.

Emperor Haile Selassie, one of the most consequential 20th-century African leaders, created modern Ethiopia and its first-ever constitution (1931) Also, he succeeded to incorporate Eritrea and annexed the Somali region into Ethiopia. With all his imperfections, he could be called the father of modern Ethiopia. Equally, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam’s most enduring legacy is that he abolished feudalism and gave over 10 billion hectares of land to the farmers to till and keep what they produce (Keller 1982). Despite the Red Terror, which killed thousands of students and a sizable number of the elite, Mengistu has succeeded to change the course of history in Ethiopia. Feudalism was Ethiopia’s social curse for centuries.

Meles Zenawi would be remembered as the one who introduced a new constitution in 1994. This document, despite all the debates clouding some of its articles, is here to say and the federal structure, albeit with potential reviews and revisions, could remain the system of governance in the foreseeable future. Remotely, Meles will also be remembered for the Renaissance Dam, access to healthcare, expanded economic growth, and speedy urbanization. Haile Mariam Desaleign remains only a footnote to Ethiopian history as much as Aman Amdom and Teferi Benti. Both Amdom and Benti were assassinated by Colonel Mengistu.

Most Ethiopians expected and supported PM Abiy Ahmed to transition the country to a democratic system of governance. He took power in 2018. By 2019, he was [prematurely] awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He tried to rebrand the Renaissance Dam as his signature project. However, most Ethiopians denied him that undeserved credit. He also tried to use the war in Tigray as his legacy, but earned the country the death of more than one million citizens in a period of two years, the large crime of weaponization of sexual abuse against women and girls in Tigray, and the destruction of the hitherto well-performing economy in the country.  The war he called “a law and order” operation turned out to be the largest criminal enterprise in the African continent since Apartheid in South Africa.

With these facts on the ground, PM Abiy would need a life-altering legacy for his country to erase these crimes. So, what can PM Abiy do as a legacy project? Now that a democratic transition is not in the air, what would be Prime Minister Abiy’s major legacy? Is bringing the Port of Assab to the fold of Ethiopia what the PM sees as his bottom-line legacy? Despite how much tantalizing it could be to recapture the Port of Assab, this option may prove costly and disastrous. In the end, this may not even achieve the intended goal.

However, in the last 200 years, whether Ethiopia’s population was 100 thousand or 120 million as it is in 2023, the quest for a sea outlet has been an elusive and equally challenging dream. Blame this challenge on none other than Abyssinia’s later days imperial ambitions which eroded laissez faire mercantilism conducted between the Horn of Africa’s hinterland (Abyssinia) and the coastal nations to the north and the east.

The Way Forward

Given past and present day history of the Horn of Africa region, what is the best way for Ethiopia to attain access to the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Gulf is of much interest in the 21st Century. Are Ethiopia’s renewed imperial ambitions towards neighboring ports a viable approach especially when strong push back is coming from its neighbors, particularly Somalia attesting its sovereignty to be “sacrosanct?” Such a clear message did not quell the narrative coming from Addis Ababa as reflected in multiple pro-Addis opinions, which seem to draw narratives from the post-World War II colonial treaties to which colonies were party. This position of wishing away the rights of the Eritrean people is not new to Ethiopia’s ruling elite. (Faisal Roble 1993). It is in fact what created and ceded Assab from Ethiopia. Had Emperor Haile Selassie not abolished the federation with post World War II Eritrea, conversations around Assab would have been different.

The fear of a potential war over PM Abiy’s search for a port prompted Tafi Mhaka that Ethiopia’s imperial pronouncement of accessing the sea by any means necessary should worry all African countries. Addis Ababa has created a narrative of a potential security threat to the region and the continent, Mhaka argues. In that case, how does proposing to return the Port of Assab, which is in Eritrea, could gain traction and legitimacy from bilateral countries and international organizations such as the UN, EU, IGAD, and Arab League? At least on legal opinion hankers such a claim to the 1940s Ethio-European treaties? On the flip side, these treaties represent in some corners of the political spectrum colonial treaties, hence painting Ethiopia a Africa’s lone ‘black colonial’ state. Unless Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia wants to drag the Horn of Africa region, war is not an option. The practical question is whether Ethiopia will seek access to the sea through diplomacy or the art of destructive wars.

Certainly, Assab cannot be gotten through sheer military power. Eritrea will fight back. Also, International convention regulating the rights and usages of the sea which stipulates inter alia the following articles will always be on Eritrea’s side:

a. Coastal States exercise sovereignty over their territorial sea which they have the right to establish its breadth up to a limit not to exceed 12 nautical miles;” and where “foreign vessels are allowed “innocent passage” through those waters; and where

b. Ships and aircraft of all countries are allowed “transit passage” through straits used for international navigation;”

c. States bordering the straits can regulate navigational and other aspects of passage;”

d. “Coastal States have sovereign rights in a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with respect to natural resources and certain economic activities, and exercise jurisdiction over marine science research and environmental protection;”

e. All other States have freedom of navigation and overflight in the EEZ, as well as freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines;”

f. Land-locked and geographically disadvantaged States have the right to participate on an equitable basis in exploitation of an appropriate part of the surplus of the living resources of the EEZ’s of coastal States of the same region or sub-region; highly migratory species of fish and marine mammals are accorded special protection.”

Moreover, on November 30, 2023, Special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Ambassador Mike Hammer, who just returned from the region told US Congressional Hearing of the Foreign Affairs Sub-committee that he advised Prime Minister Abiy to check the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICJ) which rendered a decision on the Chile Bolivia maritime dispute. The court judged in favor of Chile, a decision that does not bode well for Ethiopia in the event that it takes its case to the ICJ.

Unless Ethiopia wants to become a pariah state, there is no other way except the diplomatic option to access the ports of Asab at the Red Sea as well as those in Djibouti and Somalia. One attractive option which I forward as a start is for Ethiopia to join the East African Commission. If she is accepted, it would abide by the Commission’s bylaws and may get favorable terms of use of both Somalia’s and Kenya’s port for commercial purposes. The burden is on Ethiopia (a) to respect international law, and (b) find ways to foster a political and economic environment that is beneficial to both hinterland and coastal nations in the region.

Faisal A. Roble
Email: [email protected]
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division.

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