How Abiy’s Red Sea speech aims to reshape the Horn of Africa

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s obsession with access to the Red Sea came to light after the broadcast, on October 13, of a speech to parliamentarians from his Prosperity Party. This “Red Sea speech” confirms a statement he made to businessmen last July that he would get a port either through peace or force.

Abiy Ahmed described Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea as “inalienable rights” based on the historical, geographic, human and economic interconnectedness of the entire region. He also presented different scenarios to get a port for his country to thwart an upcoming Ethiopian population explosion that would threaten peace in the region.

However, neighboring countries, namely Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, reacted to Abiy’s impassioned speech which they considered tactless, bold and threatening to their sovereignty. In response, on October 26, during one of his grandiose military parades, Abiy underlined his commitment to peace in the region. But the genie is out of the bottle.

Abiy’s laments over Ethiopia’s landlocked state

The Ethiopian Prime Minister lamented that despite the fact that Ethiopia is blessed with many rivers, abundant rain and underground water, Ethiopians are “thirsty”. He blamed this thirst for the lack of access to the Red Sea.

He said that although neighboring countries, namely Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, benefit from water flowing from Ethiopia, they refuse to open talks on Ethiopia’s port needs. Abiy wrongly equated here the talk over downstream countries’ rights to rivers, enshrined in international law, with his demand for access to a port on the Red Sea.

Indeed, Abiy suggests that he reserves the right to control the flow of rivers extending to these countries. Something, Ethiopia did when it unilaterally changed the status quo regarding the use of the Blue Nile by constructing the massive Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This mega-project has poisoned Ethiopia’s relations with Egypt and Sudan whose economies and lives depend on this river.

PM Abiy finds Ethiopia’s landlocked situation unacceptable. He said his country that has now a population of 120 millions people will reach 150 millions in 2030. This large population would have difficulty living in a “geographic prison”, according to him.

Therefore, a population explosion will usher in an era of conflict with these neighboring countries bordering the Red Sea if they remain steadfast in their current refusal to allow Ethiopia access to the sea.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister said he wanted to start a conversation with his fellow citizens about this quest for the Red Sea, but some, apparently, are not open to it due to the potential for conflict. Obviously, it is not up to Ethiopian MPs to grant access to the Red Sea, but it seems that the voices of reason within the establishment are holding him back.

Abiy’s stance on achieving his goal peacefully unconvincing

Ethiopia was plunged into civil war with Amhara’s Fano militia just after reaching a peace deal with Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels a year ago. There are also ethnically based mass atrocities in other Ethiopian regions.

Many wonder why the Nobel Peace Prize laureate cannot focus on restoring peace in his country and avoid antagonizing his neighbors. It is precisely thanks to his initiative to end a long and bitter conflict with Eritrea that earned him his Nobel Prize, a year before he turned into a man of war.

A few months ago, Abiy reportedly said that his country would have a seaport peacefully or by force. Although this time he emphasizes peaceful means to achieve his goal, he nevertheless refers to the large Ethiopian army, controversial historical claims to Eritrea and the risk of war in the future if no “breathing gate” is granted to his country.

In fact, he sounded like he was indirectly speaking to the other countries in the Horn of Africa. What we can sense is that they rejected his advances. But he doesn’t seem to accept a no for an answer.

What we understand from Abiy’s speech is that he wanted to force an agreement on a port use deal. However, did not mention having reached win-win agreement with Djibouti Port, Port Sudan and Kenya’s Lamu Port.

Also, if Ethiopia was unable to meet the necessary conditions to hold 19% of the Somali port of Berbera, it cannot compete with Dubai which was up to the 51% of the capital it holds. This nullifies Abiy’s peaceful intentions.

The mistake of underestimating neighboring countries

The response from Eritrea to the Red Sea speech was not long in coming and it was scathing. Eritrea has called the Ethiopian leader’s comments “excessive” and considered it as a provocation. Eritrea fought a bitter liberation war with Ethiopia which illegally annexed the formerly Italian colony in 1952.

When Eritrea gained independence in 1993, Ethiopia became landlocked again. Ethiopians once owned the ports of Assab and Massawa which are still within their reach. The Eritrean leader, by sending additional troops to the Assab region, a few days after Abiy’s speech, wanted to send a strong signal to Ethiopia.

Somalia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Ali Omar ‘Balcad”, declared that his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were “sacrosanct and cannot be the subject of any discussion.” This reaction breaks with Somalia’s silence on Abiy’s previous provocations like the celebration of the Ogaden War on Somali soil or the publication of an Ethiopian map encompassing part of Somalia.

Finally, from the mouth of Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s principal advisor, Alexis Mohamed, stressed that “Djibouti is a sovereign country” and that its “territorial integrity is not called into question, nor today nor tomorrow.”

It should also be remembered that Djibouti, whose main source of income is the port, has a lot to gain from a landlocked Ethiopia where over 95% of its commercial traffic passes.

Any further antics from Abiy would only be exploited by President Guelleh who, despite the tiny size of his country, is a seasoned statesman adept at pulling the strings in the region.

Possible reasons behind Abiy’s Red Sea Speech

The Red Sea speech was primarily seen by Ethiopian commentators as Abiy’s way of diverting the debate over the catastrophic security situation caused by disastrous unilateral decisions and its human and economic impact. Indeed, the civil wars of the last two years have emptied the state coffers.

The war in Tigray has created a monthly export deficit of $20 million. The war destroyed industries in which the TPLF had invested heavily in this region during the three decades it ruled the country. Today, not only is Ethiopia’s external debt approaching a staggering $30 billion, but its government is seeking to borrow an additional $6 billion to keep the country afloat.

As millions of Ethiopians are affected by rebellions, state repression, ethnic violence and other natural disasters, Abiy has found nothing better than to cuddle the imperialist sentiment of Amhara supremacists who once flocked his ranks.

Thus, with his spending spree on mega-projects including a palace he’s building at the cost of a billion dollars, grandiose military parades and historical revisionism, Abiy wants to be the worthy heir of the greatest Abyssinian conquerors.

Moreover, with Abiy’s ascendancy, Ethiopia fell out of favor with the United States and Western Europe when the TPLF, which played the role of policeman in the region, was driven from power. All of Abiy’s subsequent initiatives in the region have only added to their frustration.

The shaping of a new negus

Current sticking points include the annihilation of the TPLF against US wishes, détente with Eritrea and growing ties with China, Russia and Iran. All these points mean that cash-strapped Ethiopia has been barred from further loans from the IMF and access to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which helped the country benefit from preferential access to the US market.

In fact, the United States, UK and EU want Ethiopia back into their fold and its past aggressive stance towards Eritrea. Their ultimate goal is for Ethiopia to remove Isaias Afwerki and regain a foothold on the Red Sea and in Assab, in the Afar region of Eritrea.

Abiy’s bombastic claims about righting historical wrongs by restoring Ethiopia’s rights to the Red Sea are further from the truth. In fact, Ethiopia only had access to the sea for 40 years, during its illegal annexation of Eritrea.

All of Ethiopia’s imperial expansions east and south, since the crossing of the Awash River in 1886, were an effort to gain access to the sea. In a nutshell, by reviving old hostilities, not only would Abiy draw closer to Western powers, but he would also establish himself as the new Negus.

AbdiQani Badar

AbdiQani Badar is a historian, political commentator and avid writer. He has written extensively on Somali issues and historical events.