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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Is Another War Brewing at the Horn of Africa?

Article by: Abshir Adam

This article was written by a 2024 Rohatyn Global Fellow as part of a collaboration with the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs at Middlebury College

The Strategic Red Sea Harbor

Tensions have been high across The Horn of Africa, particularly around the Eritrean Red Sea Port of Assab. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reportedly expressed his willingness to “use force” to secure a Red Sea port in a state-sponsored documentary in October 2023. Emphasizing the economic imperatives at stake, Ahmed identified the lack of port ownership as a matter of national security. Ethiopia’s bid for sea access is nothing new. The country has been landlocked since Eritrea gained independence in 1993, which led to the transfer of the port of Assab. Ethiopia currently relies on the Port of Djibouti to transit some 90 per cent of its foreign trade in goods, costing Addis Ababa approximately $1.5bn in annual fees.

“Geographic Prison”

Ahmed is known to view this dependence on Djibouti as incommensurate, with Ethiopia’s relatively rapid economic and population growth. Ethiopia has one of the fastest-growing economies in its region, with an estimated 6.4% growth in the financial year 2021/22. However, it also remains one of the poorest, with a per capita gross national income of $1,020. With the end of the country’s recent civil war in 2022, Ahmed’s government directed newfound attention to diversifying Ethiopia’s port access along the Red Sea. In the October documentary, Ahmed framed this pursuit in terms of Ethiopia’s geographical and historical claims as well as its economic needs. “A population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison,” he said, making port ownership “a matter of Ethiopia’s very existence.” Days later, this sequence was followed by a military parade through the Ethiopian capital, leaving regional onlookers wondering how to distinguish a genuine plan of action from rhetoric.

Substantive Threats or Political Posturing?

Analysts sensing aggression in Ahmed’s speeches may cite the prime minister’s history of unilateral decision-making. This includes his peace deal with the TPLF which excluded Eritrea in 2022 and his decision to resume filling the Renaissance Dam in September 2023 without the full consent of downstream Egypt and Sudan. Notwithstanding this record, some analysts have interpreted Ahmed’s calls as a diversion from Ethiopia’s ongoing domestic crisis, including resurging violence after the recent civil war. Indeed, brining up Ethiopia’s historical claims to sea access might have been intended to shore up support among Amhara nationalists, with whom Addis currently sustains tense relations. Ultimately, the repercussions of Ahmed’s rhetoric might contribute to producing a conflict, however bellicose its intended effect.

A New Low for Relations

The prime minister’s commentary comes at a time when Addis-Asmara relations reach a new low point. After Ahmed resolved the decades-long border conflict with Eritrea in 2018 and enlisted tacit Eritrean military cooperation against the Tigrayan TPLF, bilateral relations enjoyed four years of relative stability. The path to full rapprochement was derailed, however, when Eritrea was omitted from the peace agreement that put an end to the Tigray war in 2022. In response to the deal, which failed to accomplish Eritrea’s goal of dismantling the TPLF, Eritrean forces remain stationed along the Ethiopia-Eritrean border. The situation has been worsened by a surge of anti-TPLF militants known as ‘Fano,’ some of whom received training and reportedly maintain connections with Eritrea. Taken together with strained relations between Addis and Asmara, any perceived movements towards conflict could potentially lead to a dangerous escalation of rising regional tensions.

A Costly War

Ethiopia would face considerable challenges in the event of a war with Eritrea. The country has just emerged from a devastating civil war with resurging violence prolonging an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Ahmed has already declared a six-months state of emergency in response to Fano fighters in the Amhara region, which the government has failed to integrate into the National Defense Forces as planned. Ahmed also sustains fraught relations with the Oromo population, whose long-standing grievances with the government resulted in the Oromo Liberation Army becoming a significant belligerent in the recent conflict. With the failure of the latest attempt at negotiations with the group in late November, Addis must brace itself for a potential new wave of instability in the south as well as the north. In this context, even if seizing an Eritrean port could produce a decisive outcome for Addis, it could simultaneously trigger precarious domestic fault lines. If this is not enough to dissuade Addis from an act of aggression, the international response might serve as a compelling deterrent.

Ahmed’s government navigates a delicate situation with international donors. Owing partly to its growing economic significance, as well as its relations with China, Turkey, and the UAE, Ethiopia has avoided the worst effects of Western sanctions activated in response to wartime atrocities. But initiating a war with Eritrea could deliver a lasting blow to the Nobel laureate’s international standing that may counteract Ethiopia’s economic vitality. It could derail ongoing negotiations with the IMF in addition to inviting another round of international sanctions. By impeding Addis’ postwar reconstruction initiative, the blowback from seizing a port might hinder the financial benefits of owning one.

Peaceful Solutions

A diplomatic solution with one of Ethiopia’s coastal neighbours may prove more fruitful. Despite tense relations with Eritrea, Ahmed seems to remain open to utilizing diplomatic channels. Speaking on the prospect of a new deal with Eritrea or Somalia, the Prime Minister voiced the possibility of offering 20-30 per cent shares in lucrative Ethiopian assets. These included the Renaissance Dam, Ethiopian Airlines, and Ethio Telecom, in exchange for port access. Beyond this, some of Ahmed’s more recent comments have dismissed concerns over an impending conflict. Responding to lawmakers’ questions about the October documentary, he stressed his desire that Horn of Africa leaders understand the “good faith” underlying Ethiopia’s port quest as part of an effort to promote regional peace. “We can’t say, ‘let’s not fight today, let our kids fight tomorrow,’” he said. “Let’s talk today, so our kids don’t fight tomorrow.” For now, the prime minister’s actions seem to reflect that wish.

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