• Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Ethiopia’s controversial quest for access to the Red Sea


Jan 8, 2024


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Many centuries ago, chroniclers conjured what was in antiquity called Ethiopia as a realm at the heart of global trade. The treasures of Rome and India all flowed through its ports along the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Merchants and pilgrims made their way to the Middle East and Mediterranean world via its caravan routes and docks. A 6th-century Byzantine historian described a kingdom with a vast fleet of wooden boats. The ancient Greeks even named the southern part of the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away from the Ethiopian highlands, the Ethiopian Sea.

But modern-day Ethiopia is famously landlocked. Apart from a few decades in the 20th century when Ethiopia had annexed neighboring Eritrea, Africa’s second-most populous nation has never had a coastline. It maintains a meager, mostly riverine navy and pays tiny Djibouti some $1.5 billion a year for the privilege of accessing its ports and coastal infrastructure.

That’s why Abiy Ahmed, the ambitious Ethiopian prime minister, has long harbored visions of reaching the sea. He has groused against his country’s “geographic prison” and summoned the legacy of seafaring medieval empires as one the contemporary Ethiopian state must redeem. Ethiopia’s profound economic woes and constant internecine conflicts have not dented Abiy’s desires for maritime access — indeed, they may fuel them.

And last week, in what was a geopolitical bombshell in the Horn of Africa, Abiy appeared to achieve his goal. Alongside Muse Bihi Abdi, president of the self-declared breakaway Republic of Somaliland, Abiy announced that the two parties had reached a memorandum of understanding that would see Somaliland lease to Ethiopia some 12 miles of its coastline by the port of Berbera. In return, the autonomous entity that exists within the internationally recognized territory of Somalia may win something altogether more valuable: diplomatic recognition from Addis Ababa.

Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia three decades ago, amid the wave of turmoil that turned the country into a perennial failed state. It comprises the northwestern wing of Somalia, and represents the territory once governed under a British protectorate that was separate from the Italian colony that mostly made up the rest of what is now independent Somalia. The breakaway republic prints its own currency, maintains its own political institutions and has earned a reputation for being one of the more stable corners of the Horn of Africa — certainly more so than the areas controlled by the beleaguered government in Mogadishu.

But, apart from solidarity ties with the self-ruling island of Taiwan, Somaliland has not been recognized by any U.N. member state — and certainly any major regional power in Africa. The autonomous region’s officials expect this deal, should it come to fruition, may trigger a meaningful shift.

“Their hope is that where Ethiopia goes, the rest of Africa will follow: the African Union is based in Addis Ababa,” explained the Economist. “Abiy also enjoys strong relations with the United Arab Emirates. Some foreign diplomats suspect the UAE, which is also close to Somalia’s government, may have played a part in brokering the deal.”

Cash-strapped Ethiopia is also paying for the port access by giving Somaliland’s authorities a stake in their national airline, a major continental carrier. But the political dividend is clearly the most significant factor here for Somaliland, while Abiy hopes to succeed where previous efforts have failed.

“For years, Ethiopia’s government has sought to diversify its seaport access, including exploring options in Sudan and Kenya,” noted the New York Times. “In 2018, it signed a deal to acquire a 19 percent stake in the port at Berbera, but the deal fell through.”

Somalia, though, is outraged. The country’s ambassador in Addis Ababa was recalled. Protests and rallies against the developments have been held in Mogadishu. On Saturday, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the country’s president, signed a bill that symbolically nullified the agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland, since the latter exists within Somalia’s internationally-recognized borders. “This law is an illustration of our commitment to safeguard our unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity as per international law,” he said.

It’s also an illustration of Mogadishu’s toothlessness in recent years, and inability to accept or quash Somaliland’s de facto independence. But other major international blocs and powers have sided with Somalia: The European Union, African Union, Arab League and Organization of Islamic Countries all issued statements urging Ethiopia not to proceed.

“The Horn of Africa doesn’t need more tensions,” declared Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s top diplomat, after a phone call with Somalia’s president.

The United States called on the dispute to be settled through dialogue; so too did Britain, which issued a statement offering its “full respect” to Somalia’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Turkey, which has a significant footprint in Somalia and a tacit rivalry with the UAE in various corners of the region, also voiced its support for Somalia’s “unity.”

Abiy’s critics in the region cast him as a would-be East African hegemon. But he argued that his nation has no “desire to forcefully coerce anyone” through this deal and simply wants to diversify (and cheapen) its access to the sea. The move also may boost Abiy at home, buffeted by a tanking economy and ruinous ethnic conflicts.

“It will give Abiy the opportunity to rehabilitate his unpopular image in the country caused by his wars in the Tigray region, the violent insurgencies in Amhara and Oromo regions as well as the economic regression the country faced for the last few years,” Moustafa Ahmad, an analyst and researcher based in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s de facto capital, told Al Jazeera. “Access to the sea has been presented as an existential issue for Ethiopian leaders over the years, and with this new deal, it will give Abiy domestic political gains.”

J. Peter Pham, a former U.S. ambassador and Washington envoy to the region, shrugged off concerns that a potential pact could stoke a wider crisis. “It’s a real win-win, and it respects the reality of what’s on the ground in the Horn of Africa and not notional theories,” he told the BBC.


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