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Meles´ Assab Policy Threatens Ethiopia’s National Security

By Belai Abbai * and Zeru Kehishen *

[July 15, 2000]


The issue:  

A border treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia is now under discussion. The Meles administration has made two key announcements in this regard: Assab will be ceded to Eritrea, and colonial boundary treaties will provide the basis for demarcating the new boundary. The parameters of the new treaty being thus sufficiently defined, we, as concerned Ethiopians are duty-bound now to take a stand on this crucial national issue.

The central question is this: Can a treaty that cedes Assab a priori and invokes irrelevant colonial treaties be justified? Further more: Does this treaty serve Ethiopia’s paramount interests? These are the issues that we address in this paper.

1.    Ethiopia’s legitimate access to the sea and international waters.

Given Ethiopia’s history of constant external attacks and encirclement, resulting in frequent wars, which have slowed, interrupted and even retarded our nations development, security (i.e. freedom from perils and the deprivations caused by outside forces that control, or threaten to control the sea inlets and outlets) is our most pressing concern. Thus, Ethiopia has a non-negotiable right to free and unfettered access to the sea, to defend and safeguard her territorial integrity against other powers, near and far, and to pursue her economic and commercial interests with friendly nations everywhere.

What makes Ethiopia’s access to the sea of critical importance at this juncture in her history is that inspite of her victory over her neighbor, Eritrea, in the recent border conflict, Ethiopia is facing the distinct possibility of permanently surrendering to Eritrea the port of Assab, Ethiopia’s natural, historic, and sole outlet to the sea. This possibility is all the more real, thanks to the open connivance –paradoxically – of the Meles administration in Addis Abeba and the open support shown for Eritrea by external powers (EC, US,) etc.

The adverse consequences of ceding Assab to Eritrea should be made clear since this is a question that affects the welfare of every Ethiopian. These consequences are the following:

a)    Ethiopia will stand to lose the revenue it might have collected from trade levies and port services. Ethiopia will also lose the employment and income opportunities from port-related economic activities that might have accrued to its own citizens. For a poor country suffering growing unemployment this could result in rising popular unrest. This is wholly unacceptable, since there is no natural or moral law that compels Ethiopian citizens to pay taxes and rents to a citizen of another country, for the use of an asset that is rightfully theirs.

b)    Ethiopia will be constantly vulnerable to blackmail if it becomes dependent on the good will of Eritrea for the import and export of its commodities. In any case the vital national security and economic concerns of a country cannot be entrusted to the good will of another country, however friendly that other country may be – as Ethiopia’s long history has proven repeatedly. Thus Djibouti, Berbera, Mombasa and Port Said must not be the alternatives, when Ethiopia can – and – must have its own port.

c)    Ethiopia’s historic enemies will attempt to strangle her from the sea, if she is denied its own outlet to the international waters. As in the past, Egypt, because of her strategic interests on the Nile will attempt to destabilize Ethiopia to prevent her from focusing her development efforts on the Blue Nile basin. With Eritrea and Somalia controlling the waters, the potential for destabilization will always be there to be activated at the most critical moments maximum effect by any of her historic and strategic adversaries.

d)    Those who control the ports used by Ethiopia for importing and exporting its goods and services will also be in a position to collect all intelligence data for hostile purposes. They will be able to monitor and collect information on the type, quantity and source of military imports and other vital economic data. Ethiopia’s potential enemies know where to get the information from and how to use it effectively.

These are issues to which Meles gives scant consideration.

2. Ethiopia has a historical right to the Afar Coast.

There are no standing or binding treaties that could be invoked to determine the boundaries between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The various historic and legal developments that have characterized the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia over the last 50 years (Federation, Integration, and Internal Administrative Reorganizations) have nullified all other earlier treaties. Eritrea was an integral part and a province of Ethiopia until its de facto independence in 1991. Thus the border between the two countries must be negotiated and agreed upon now, in the year 2000. This is the only basis for defining the future international boundary between the two countries.

Need less to say, such a boundary demarcation should be just and fair to both countries. It should also be seen to be just and fair – and sustainable over time by the people of the two countries. Otherwise a people that feels injured and betrayed by the deal must eventually destabilize both countries. The agreement should thus respect the vital security and economic interests and concerns of both countries as well the historical rights of the nationalities inhabiting the contiguous region.

In this regard it should be understood that Ethiopia’s right to Assab and her access to international waters are not negotiable. These are questions of paramount importance. The survival of a nation can not be subordinated to any international agreements and Ethiopia cannot simply sign a suicide note prepared for her by her adversaries.

Ethiopia has a historic right to the Afar Coast, which constitutes the historic access to the sea for the front line provinces: Tigray , Wollo, Gondar and Showa and through them for all Central and Western provinces – the origin of Ethiopia’s exports of gold, ivory, coffee etc. since ancient times. From time immemorial, these frontier provinces and the Afar region have coexisted as an interdependent and interconnected entity due to their common economic and security interests. It should also be noted that the Afar region, including the Red Sea Afar area, constituted the Autonomous Afar region within Ethiopia, just as Eritrea (without the Red sea Afar region) was an autonomous region within Ethiopia, until 1991, when it seceded and became de facto independent.

Once again it must be asserted that there are no binding agreements – colonial or otherwise – that could rightfully deny Ethiopia’s legitimate right to Assab. On the contrary the pre-existing conditions at the time of Eritrea’s independence can be invoked as an a piori condition for retaining the entire Afar inhabited region as an autonomous region within Ethiopia. Indeed ceding Afar Coast to Eritrea lacks any plausible legal, economic or historical basis. In short Ethiopia has a legitimate right to Assab, just as Eritrea has a legitimate right to Massawa.
Furthermore, the Ethiopian government is duty-bound to defend the economic interest and national aspirations of its Afar national minority who wish to remain as a united people, as they were until 1991 when the Afar coastal regions were illegally ceded to Eritrea.

3. Dangers Ethiopia will face if denied access to the sea and international waters.

Any internationally sanctioned arrangement or treaty that leaves Ethiopia land locked, and that surrenders her security to Eritrea, a country whose mere existence as a state depends on its gaining access to Ethiopia’s resources by whatever means (including force), and is likely allied to Ethiopia’s traditional adversaries, would be a treaty that creates the pre-conditions for the destabilization of the Ethiopia State from outside. There can be no permanent peace in the region if such a treaty is imposed on Ethiopia. No Ethiopian should forget the geopolitical reality of his country. If Ethiopia is forced once again to be land locked by Eritrea and Somalia, the very same staging posts used by Ismael´s Egypt to destabilize the country during the later part of the 19th century, the entire horn region would be fraught with danger. Although the Egyptians were defeated by Ras Alula at the battle of Gura (1876), they were able to occupy Harar. And given Egypt’s perennial interest in Ethiopia’s use of the Nile waters for development, the two countries will be used as pressure points against her. Therefore the border treaty currently under negotiation has grave implications for Ethiopia’s very survival.

4. The Policies of the present regime are in conflict with Ethiopia’s national interests.

Despite the fact that Ethiopian armed forces had defeated the Eritrea armed force decisively, the Meles administration capitulated hastily, under the pretext that Ethiopia had achieved its goals. By taking such a step, Meles effectively bailed out the belligerent Issaias, and his government. More importantly, Meles then proposed to negotiate on the basis of irrelevant colonial boarder agreements, a position that may effectively deprive Ethiopia of Assab as well as any independent access to the international waters. Such a move clearly turns Ethiopia’s victory into a defeat, and sacrifices Ethiopia’s vital long-term security and economic interests.

Meles has repeatedly stated a number of interviews that Assab belongs to Eritrea, even before the negotiations on boundary demarcation had begun. The purpose of such statements is to pre-empt any further discussion of Ethiopia’s claim to Assab and her right to a sea outlet. They are designed to kill any debate on the issue and to set the tone and parameters for the negotiations in a manner that pre-determines its outcome in advance. This constitutes an unambiguous message to the Eritrean government, the UN, the OAU, the EU and the US that Ethiopia’s demands concerning the boundary demarcation will not include Assab. This echoes only too clearly the occasion when Meles and his group single-handedly requested that the UN recognize Eritrean independence in the name of the Ethiopian government, without any public debate in Ethiopia. In effect Meles is once again ensuring that Ethiopia remain a landlocked country, legitimizing a goal that the colonialists and the historical enemies of the country had failed to achieve Assab by war.

The question of Assab and outlet to the sea is certainly awkward for Meles who does not have Ethiopia’s vital interests at heart. His instinctive and instant response to questions on reflects Eritrea’s interest. He said that Eritrea would not gain any thing if Ethiopia does not make use of Assab. Whether Eritrea benefits or not is the primary concern of the President of Eritrea. It should not be the concern of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Unfortunately Meles’ previous policy decisions leave no room for doubt that he has all along protected of Eritrean interest while simultaneously sacrificing vital Ethiopian security and economic concerns at the same time.

Ethiopia’s primary concern is to determine what may be the consequences, should Ethiopia lose the port of Assab and what may be the security, economic etc. costs that Ethiopia may have to pay if Eritrea should own it. As noted above, Assab is invaluable to our country’s security and economic interests and vital to Ethiopia’s long term survival as a nation.


We hold no malice or ill will against the Eritrea people, but as Ethiopians we have a legitimate right to defend our country’s true interests, without causing any harm to our neighbors. Any treaty or any internationally sanctioned border arrangement that makes the security of one country dependent on the whims of its neighbor can only bring conflict and instability in the region. The people on both sides of the border will wish to avoid such consequences.

· Belai Abbai, former Ethiopia´s Minister of Land Reform and Senior staff member of the World Bank
· Zeru Kehishen , Free University of Amsterdam. Contact address: zeru_kehishen@yahoo.com

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