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Ethiopia's Prime Minister wants Red Sea access: are we close to war in East Africa?

Three decades have passed since Ethiopia found itself severed from its own coastline, transforming into a landlocked nation heavily dependent on its neighbour, Djibouti, for crucial imports and exports through seaports. This was a consequence of the Eritrean War of Independence (1961-1991), a protracted conflict that concluded with the 1993 independence referendum. The referendum saw 99.83% of the electorate vote for the establishment of Eritrea as an independent state, solidifying its separation from Ethiopia.

While the landlocked status was initially manageable in the 1990s, thanks to trade routes established through both Eritrea and Djibouti, the current Ethiopian government perceives this reliance as unsustainable and financially burdensome. Now, as Ethiopia commemorates three decades since losing direct access to a port on the Red Sea within its own borders, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is determined to rectify what he views as a massive geopolitical mistake and reclaim Ethiopia's natural border on the Red Sea.

Prime Minister Ahmed declared, "we want to get a port by peaceful means. But if that fails, we will use force."

The notion of creating a super state in the Horn of Africa – encompassing Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia – has been tossed around as a potential regional solution. However, the feasibility of such a venture appears exceedingly slim, given the disparate interests and geopolitical realities at play. In fact, it seems counterintuitive for any of these nations to willingly engage in the formation of such a collective entity. Each of these countries already enjoys access to seaports independently, rendering the idea of a super state less of a strategic necessity and more of a potential entanglement. Furthermore, the looming spectre of Ethiopian dominance, being the largest and most influential player in this hypothetical coalition, raises concerns about the venture devolving into an overt manifestation of Ethiopian annexation and hegemony across East Africa. Rather than being a harmonious emergence of a new country, the super state concept risks exacerbating existing power imbalances and geopolitical tensions within the region.

Perhaps then, Abiy Ahmed will be pushed into a corner on this issue and will be required to use the "force" he has threatened. One would assume this means military or physical force, but it could also take the form of economic pressure. As the wealthiest country in the Horn of Africa, it is more than feasible that Ethiopia could exert economic pressure on its neighbours until they grant permanent access to a seaport or relinquish some territory. The prospect of utilising economic coercion — imposing financial constraints or leveraging trade advantages — could become a pragmatic strategy. With Ethiopia's economic standing, the application of economic pressure seems not only plausible but potentially potent. In a best-case scenario, Ethiopia could encourage territorial concessions through economic negotiations.

However, it is equally likely that the hinted-at "force" may indeed involve a military dimension. Under Prime Minister Ahmed's leadership, Ethiopia has embarked on a journey to resurrect its formerly esteemed navy. Historically, naval bases in what is now Eritrean territory, established with the assistance of Great Britain, added maritime power to Ethiopia's military. After the Eritrean independence referendum, however, Ethiopia's navy was disbanded.

Since 2018, a resurgent Ethiopian navy has been operational, finding its base in Djibouti. This revival has been fortified through a strategic alliance with France, with the signing of defence accords. These accords outline a French commitment to support the development of a robust naval component within Ethiopia's military framework. The navy's revitalisation signals a strategic shift and a proactive measure aligning with Ethiopia's aspirations to secure seaports through diplomatic or military means.

The signing of these defence accords by France with Ethiopia carries implications that may not be entirely altruistic. Due to a shift towards closer relations with Russia and other BRICS nations, France's historical ties with its former colonies in West Africa are rapidly unravelling. By aiding Ethiopia in its quest for East African dominance and a seaport, France may try to regain its foothold in African affairs. 

Ethiopia can also be seen to be flirting with Russian attitudes towards other sovereign nations' borders. Prime Minister Ahmed's rhetoric echoes sentiments reminiscent of Vladimir Putin before the invasion of Ukraine. Although Ethiopia's neighbouring nations have expressed no desire for an all-out war in the Horn of Africa, it remains highly improbable that they would willingly cede territory without resistance.

Putin miscalculated the ease and speed at which he could take control of Ukraine; it is looking increasingly likely that Abiy Ahmed will make the same mistake. 

Image: FBC/via X

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