The events of the “Al-Aqsa Flood” encouraged the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, to issue statements amounting to a declaration of war on the countries of the Horn of Africa overlooking the Red Sea. The most notable of which is the speech he gave to members of Parliament, in which he blamed him Ethiopians for not giving any importance to the Red Sea issue, saying: “Although the source of the Nile is in Ethiopia, it represents an existential issue for the Egyptians and Sudanese and it is not considered taboo to discuss it publicly. In the same way, the issue of discussing the Red Sea should not be taboo for them.” For the Ethiopians.
He added: “The Red Sea and the Nile River represent two essential tributaries on which the fate of Ethiopia and its development efforts depend, and they will advance the country's affairs, either to a great renaissance or push it into oblivion.”
He continued by saying: “Ethiopia’s rights and claims to access to a port are an issue rooted in history and geography, and have economic justifications, including the fact that Ethiopia’s legitimate need for adequate access to the sea is included in the United Nations Charter.”
In order to escalate Ethiopia's historical obsession with water outlets to its maximum limits, Abiy Ahmed noted that Ethiopia is considered an island surrounded by water, but it is nonetheless a thirsty country. That is to say, it is a landlocked country.
He also warned his fellow legislators – and his counterparts in particular in neighboring countries – that with the growing population in Ethiopia, the issue of discussing obtaining a sea port on the Red Sea is no longer a luxury, but rather an existential issue for Ethiopia. How can a country that is rapidly moving to reach a population of about one hundred and fifty million live in the “prison of geography”?
These statements raised a state of concern and questions in the region, especially among some of Ethiopia's neighboring countries that have ports overlooking the Red Sea, such as: Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia.
These statements were taken seriously, especially since they came after the leak of a previous speech by Abiy Ahmed, in which he said: “Ethiopia will work to secure direct access to the port, either peacefully or by force if necessary.”
In this case, how can we understand these statements? What are the implications of its timing? What are the contexts and methods in which the issue of Ethiopia’s direct access to a sea port is raised? Are the statements considered an indicator of the tense situation internally, or in relations with its neighboring surroundings, especially with Eritrea? Does it herald the outbreak of another war in the region?
There is a lot that can be said to answer these questions, but we will suffice with pointing out four things:
First: It seems clear that Abiy Ahmed wanted to present his ideas at this time when the region is witnessing major geo-strategic changes, which provide appropriate international conditions to raise the issue of Ethiopia obtaining a sea port.
In doing so, it confirms a recurring pattern of cases of exploitation of the countries of the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Eritrea in particular) and major events.
It is a striking irony that whoever rereads the contexts of important events – in some countries of the Horn of Africa – finds that the authorities there usually exploit major events in the world to take policies and decisions that may sometimes amount to a declaration of war.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki had previously taken advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the events of September 2001 in the United States, and arrested a large number of state and ruling party officials, as part of the wave that was later known as the events of the arrest of the “Reformists Group” on September 18, 2001. Their fate remains unknown at this moment.
Another, more egregious event, was that the federal government in Ethiopia took advantage of the world’s preoccupation – and the United States in particular with the repercussions of President Trump’s loss in the November 2020 elections – by launching war against the Tigray regional government, on November 4, 2020.
Second: Abiy Ahmed – following the custom of the Ethiopian elites – has become accustomed to carrying out from time to time what historians call “historical review.”
What is meant by it is: the process of reconsidering previous historical facts or phenomena, especially in the event that new sources or evidence are available that help understand those facts and phenomena in a different and new way.
Unfortunately, we do not find in Abiy Ahmed’s statements enough to say that there is new evidence or legal references that would authorize him to reconsider the laws of the existing national states in the region, to the point of allowing access to a sea port.
Strong criticism of the ruling
The issue of population growth or Ethiopia's urgent need for an outlet to the sea for development reasons does not entitle him to make such statements. But we know from experience that he resorted to such a historical revisionism, or more precisely instrumentalism, after coming to power in April 2018.
Shortly after assuming the prime minister's office, Abiy Ahmed began to strongly criticize the experience of federal rule launched by the Tigray Liberation Front in the 1990s, considering it the basis of Ethiopia's problems. He then proceeded to target all members of the Tigray Front in various state departments, either by excluding them from senior jobs in the army and security, or by targeting them on corruption charges.
It was also not surprising that the Amhara elites were the group most closely identified with Abiy Ahmed’s new orientations. Because abolishing the federal system and returning to the previous central system allows it to regain its position and gains in previous eras.
This matter was also welcomed by President Isaias Afwerki, as he had a negative position on the system of ethnic federalism followed in Ethiopia. Afwerki once stated: “The conspiracy against Eritrea emerged from this project – ethnic federalism – and there was no reason for the border dispute. Federalism was just an ill-intentioned philosophy aimed at dividing the people in order to rule them.”
One of the results of this rapprochement between these three parties was the emergence of a new alliance that includes the federal government in Ethiopia led by Abiy Ahmed, the Eritrean government led by Isaias Afwerki, and the Amhara elites through the “Fano” militia.
When the Ethiopian government declared war on the Tigray region on November 4, 2020, under the pretext of restoring the rule of law, the military operation included these same three parties: the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the Eritrean army, and the special forces of the Amhara region and its militia.
Third: Abiy Ahmed’s statement reflects tension in his relations with the same parties he allied with earlier in the Tigray war.
Abiy Ahmed previously worked to exclude the Tigray Liberation Front by signing the peace agreement with Eritrea in 2018, and alone signed the “Pretoria Peace Agreement” in November 2022, with the Tigray Liberation Front, without involving the Amhara or the Eritrean government.
This is what made the Amhara feel that the federal government employed them in its war against the Tigray Front without reaping any gains from it.
What is worse is that, in April 2023, the Ethiopian government issued a decision to dissolve all regional militias – including the Fano militia – and establish a single central force at the federal level, which ultimately produced widespread unrest, which led to the deterioration of the security situation in the Amhara region. Especially after the Amharic Fano militia took control of several cities and regions in the region, which prompted the Ethiopian government to declare a state of emergency there.
Another war in the region
On the other hand, the Eritrean regime – Abiy Ahmed's former ally in the Tigray war – took a similar position on the Pretoria Peace Agreement. There are frequent reports that the Amharic Fano militia has received support and training from Eritrea.
In addition, the Eritrean Ministry of Information’s comment on Abiy Ahmed’s statements also reflects signs of a silent crisis between the two governments, as it published a brief statement saying: There have been many conversations – actual and hypothetical – that have been raised recently about water issues and access to sea ports.
Although these statements baffled observers concerned with this issue – according to the statement – the government of Eritrea reiterated that, as always, it will not be drawn into this type of gossip.
In light of the above, the question arises: whether the statements of the Ethiopian Prime Minister herald the outbreak of another war in the region?
It is clear that Abiy Ahmed's statements did not come by chance, but rather were the culmination of a new alliance whose features began to appear since he signed the Pretoria Peace Agreement with the Tigray Front.
Since the signing of the agreement, the Amhara region, the second largest region in Ethiopia in terms of population, has witnessed widespread unrest, and the Amhara “Fano” militia still controls some of its regions.
In addition, these statements can be seen as a means to mobilize political support for Abiy Ahmed’s government, especially since the issue of Ethiopia obtaining a sea port is of great interest among the Ethiopian people.
The statements can also be considered another indication of the disintegration of the political alliance that linked Isaias Afwerki and Abiy Ahmed during the Tigray war.
It is likely that the relationship between them will end in one of two things: either the relationship will return to the tense atmosphere it was in (2001-2018) before the signing of the peace agreement in 2018, and the two countries will engage in “proxy wars” aimed at destabilizing the internal situation in each of them; Or the two countries entering into a new war, as happened in the period from 1998 to 2001.