Abiy Ahmed
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Inside Abiy’s ‘empire of the mind’ as Ethiopia seeks access to the sea

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. 

Photo credit: File | AFP

Tragically, the Horn of Africa welcomed the new year 2024 with the drums of a regional War beating. The new lightning rod is a controversial territorial deal between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and the President of Somalia’s breakaway territory of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi.

On January 1, the two signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that potentially allows Addis Ababa to lease a 20-kilometer stretch of Somalia’s coastal land for a period of at least 50 years, potentially giving Ethiopia a crucial access to the Red Sea through the Somali port of Berbera and enabling the landlocked nation to restore its lost glory as a naval power.

In return, Ethiopia will reportedly give Somaliland shares in Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopia’s flag carrier, and possibly formal recognition of its sovereignty.

This has sparked the worst diplomatic fallout since the Ethio-Somalia Ogaden War in the 1970s. Somalia has condemned the agreement as an act of aggression and violation of its sovereignty. Mogadishu has recalled its ambassador from Ethiopia and called on the world to act fast to halt Ethiopia’s aggression. The deal risks pushing the region to the brink of another regional war.

It is Karl Marx who once wrote that: “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” This is true of Abiy’s Ethiopia. In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 ‘for his rapprochement with Eritrea’ to Abiy, the Norwegian Nobel Committee assumed that he was hewing a democratic multi-cultural society. It was dead wrong.

Just as Abiy appeared to be engaged in ‘Ethiopia’s democratic revolution’, in reality he was conjuring up the spirits of the Abyssinian Empire. “Mom told me I'll be Ethiopia's 7th King”, Abiy said during his inaugural address to parliament in 2018. “Look at me, I'm now your Prime Minister," he added. Ever since the Abyssinian empire ended in 1974, Ethiopia’s ‘empire of the mind’ has been snuggly lodged in the minds of its rulers.

The Ethio-Somaliland territorial deal threatens to trigger Abiy’s fourth war in five years. The first against the Oromo Liberation Army; second against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF); and the third against the Amhara militia known as Fano.

After these wars, Abiy has become convinced that military success depends on acquiring a port as a military base and a commercial maritime zone. For centuries, the Red sea ports of Addulis, Masawa and Assab were Ethiopia’s gateways to the world. After Eritrea gained independence in 1991, Ethiopia became landlocked. In the 1998 Ethiopian-Eritrean war, Abiy’s predecessor, Meles Zenawi, lost the Port of Assab and Ethiopia’s naval power.

Under Meles and Haile Mariam, Ethiopia used regional diplomacy to gain access to the oceans. It built a network of roads and a 752km Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway to access the Port of Djibouti as its main trade conduit. Addis Ababa also signed an agreement with Kenya to develop the Lamu Port - South Sudan - Ethiopia (Lapsset) transport corridor as the gateway to the Indian Ocean.

In 2017, Ethiopia acquired shares in Berbera port as part of a deal involving Emirati logistics management company DP World to expand the port and turn it into a lucrative trade gateway. At the time, Somalia denounced the deal as illegal, forcing Ethiopia to halt implementing the shift from Djibouti to Berbera. Ethiopia eventually lost its stake by 2022.

Abiy has abandoned this diplomatic path. Heightened pressure on the prime minister from economic woes — including failure to make payments on Ethiopia’s eurobonds at the end of 2023 — the burden of billions Djibouti is believed to charge Ethiopia annually in port fees has loomed even larger.

The logistics and economics of Djibouti are perfectly workable, but it is not Ethiopian territory. Abiy needs a port to import weapons, mobilize his army and rebuild Ethiopia’s navy prowess.

The quest for a sea port also signifies Ethiopia’s long-standing hegemonic ambition. Under Meles, Ethiopia’s foreign policy was predictable, guided by the vision of transforming the Horn of Africa into a single economic bloc.

Addis Ababa contributed to UN and African Union peacekeeping missions, invested in ambitious cross-border infrastructure projects, including transport corridors and power lines. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile was designed to export power to its neighbours.

Under Abiy, Ethiopia has become less predictable in both domestic and foreign affairs. Acquiring a port by all means is his contribution to Ethiopia’s greatness. “We want to get a port by peaceful means. But if that fails we will use force”, he told a meeting of businessmen.

The new push for the port might be a gambit to shore up political support at home. It is an ideal way to win back the influential elite from the Amhara ethnic group who advocate for a greater Ethiopia.

The Eritrean Red Sea port of Assab is the natural target. But Abiy’s previous three wars have decimated Ethiopia’s capacity to wage a fourth war with Eritrea.

The Ethio-Somaliland port deal has rekindled Somali nationalism. Speaking to Parliament on January 2, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared that: “Not an inch of Somalia can or will be signed away by anybody.” adding that ‘no-one has the power to give away a piece of Somalia’. The world has to act to pull the Horn from the brink of war.

Professor Peter Kagwanja former Government Adviser (2007-2013), and currently Chief Executive at the Africa Institute (API), Adjunct Professor at the University of Nairobi and visiting scholar at the National Defence University—Kenya (NDU)