Why is Ethiopia's Abiy threatening its Red Sea neighbors

Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed A New Threat to Regional Peace

News Politics

The last thing the region needs is another conflict that diverts attention and resources from social and economic development.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently revealed his ambition to secure a seaport for his landlocked country through diplomatic negotiations or military force. This is yet another alarming threat to the security of the troubled Horn of Africa. It is also a reflection of the regrettable decay of international and regional order.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner revealed his vision for a seaport in a special televised address. Quoting a 19th-century Ethiopian general, Abiy said the Red Sea is the “country’s natural boundary”, hinting at a territorial claim against neighbours, particularly Eritrea. It is clear the Eritrean ports of Assab or Massawa are on Abiy’s crosshairs, but Djibouti and Somalia/Somaliland are equally threatened.

Despite Abiy’s attempts to walk back his incendiary statements or reassure a jittery region, the damage is already done. There are no illusions he is pushing the region to another catastrophic conflict, even as Ethiopia reels from recent or ongoing devastating internal conflicts in Tigray, Amhara and Oromia regions.

An arms race is reportedly underway in the region as countries shore up offensive and defensive capacities. Unusual troop movements along the Ethiopia-Eritrea border are also rumoured, signalling a military buildup in preparation for a potential war. On social media, influential Ethiopian personalities are actively making the case for the Eritrean ports, probably with the financial and moral backing of Abiy’s government.

The last thing the region needs is another conflict that diverts attention and resources from social and economic development. The tragic deaths and displacements in Sudan, South Sudan the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia are more than Africa can bear. In addition, a military conflagration next to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in the Red Sea would also have far-reaching impacts on the global economy.

What’s alarming about Ethiopia’s threats to its neighbours is the muted response from African and global leaders or institutions. Apart from the angry rebuttals by countries directly threatened by Abiy’s jingoism, the Ethiopian leader appears to have gotten away without the global condemnation he deserves. This will certainly embolden him and others with latent ideas of seizing territory by force.

Such brazen threats to change recognised international borders by force have not been heard in Africa in recent memory. It is not lost to many that Ethiopia is undermining the founding ethos of the African Union despite hosting the continental agency.

Abiy seems to have taken a cue from Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory in 2014 and 2022. This partly reflects the gradual decline of international norms and institutions established after the Second World War. Some argue that Abiy’s threats seek to reinvigorate his waning political fortunes in Ethiopia and divert attention from the devastating ethnic and political conflicts he has triggered, putting the country in an existential crisis.

African leaders and the international community need to stand strongly against Abiy’s recklessness which may open a territorial Pandora’s box across the continent and other parts of the world. We need to see robust condemnations of his rhetoric and concrete moves to dissuade him from his ill-advised adventure.

In the face of his consistent pattern of warmongering, the Nobel Peace Prize committee should also consider withdrawing the award which sustains the illusion that he’s a peacemaker. He has undone his past achievement of thawing the Ethiopia-Eritrea relations, which formed the basis of the Nobel award.

Instead of entertaining the false hope of seizing territory by force, Abiy should negotiate favourable port deals with neighbouring countries. Ethiopia’s huge exports and imports give it strong leverage for this. No nation would transfer its territory to Ethiopia at any cost, and certainly not in exchange for shares in Ethiopia’s national airline or the Grand Renaissance dam.

In conclusion, Africa and the rest of the world should send an unambiguous message to Abiy that targeting sovereign territory would attract a high economic, political and diplomatic price to him and Ethiopia. [BY ADAM AHMED | THE STAR]

* The writer is a Nairobi-based researcher and analyst of peace, security and governance issues. He can be reached at adamahmed100 @ gmail.com