When political and security tension escalates in a particular region of the world, attention is quickly drawn to it and some analyzes begin to give assumptions that the region in question will, in the next phase, be a focus of intensifying conflict and competition among global and regional powers, and that it will gain importance to international powers at the expense of other regions. Indeed, this has been the case for the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti, for several years; as the increasing interest in it and the large quantity of news about it through the media suggest that it will be full of intersections of interests in the coming period.
Although such anticipation is reasonable, it should not be exaggerated or there should not be much focus on the Middle East being downgraded compared to the Horn of Africa or even to the Far East. International attention from Washington, Brussels, Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow and other major capitals is not limited to regions affected by military fever, nor do we live in the eighteenth century for one region to exceed another in the global priorities scale on the basis of military war. Economic globalization has put aside this primitive pattern of economic and political competition, and made the competition between the great powers at the present time revolve around other patterns and fields such as the search for raw resources, goods markets, strategic locations, including ports and trade corridors, in addition to technological competition and others. All this has been taking place for decades (since the end of World War II) over the entire global geography, which includes high, medium and low-escalation areas, within the framework of a continuous repositioning of military, diplomatic and even ideological powers practiced by the traditional and new global poles.
Returning to the Horn of Africa, it is a strategic region overlooking the Gulf of Aden, Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea. Daily, about 3.8 million barrels of oil pass through the ports of this region, and more than 50 million tons of agricultural products. Moreover, this region in its broader geographical sense (which includes Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan and Sudan) is considered close to the Great Lakes region, which is the richest region in Africa with fresh water and it is the source of the Nile River and is also rich in raw materials and natural resources.
Ethiopia and the challenges of regional influence
Ethiopia has borders with six countries: Eritrea to the north, Djibouti and Somalia to the east, and Sudan, South Sudan and Kenya to the west and southwest. However, it does not have any sea port — that is, Addis Ababa does not benefit from being part of the Horn of Africa and its strategic depth, due to the natural barriers and political borders surrounding it. This is what makes it compelled to find a way with its neighbors from the east to discuss the possibility of reaching the maritime borders economically through participation in the management of ports, or militarily through the establishment of military bases.
The last five years show that Ethiopia has been going through a relative state of internal political and social tension, which has affected its regional influence, or - more precisely – has pushed the new political elite in Addis Ababa to seek to show the existence of an Ethiopian regional project mainly based on ending the internal dissonance imposed by sectarian and ethnic reality and political history.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed power in March 2018 following a violent protest wave that led to the resignation of the ex-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Abiy belongs to the Oromo ethnicity, which has been marginalized for decades even though it constitutes about 34.5% of the Ethiopian society. International pressure hastened the selection of a prime minister due to the entanglement of interests in the Horn of Africa and the fears of a threat to these interests.
The arrival of a figure from this ethnicity had qualitative political consequences for the influence of officials in the Tigray region who controlled the joints of the Ethiopian political scene for decades, which was manifested - in its extreme form - in the military operations that began at the end of last year between the Ethiopian army and the "Tigray People's Liberation Front" After Abiy Ahmed tried to merge the ruling coalition, the "Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front" into the "Prosperity Party" that he established in 2019. Abiy also rejected the results of the elections in the aforementioned region, which were held in September 2020 and indicated a landslide victory for the Liberation Front at the time.
These events discredited Abiy Ahmed as a man who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2019 against the backdrop of granting the rights to public freedoms in the country, the release of journalists and political detainees, and most importantly, the announcement of the end of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war in July 2018, after 20 years under TPLF’s control due to a dispute over border areas, and accordingly, the two sides share animosity towards the Front. In March 2021, Abiy admitted the participation of Eritrean forces in the fighting in the region, before the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced withdrawal on April 4 2021, in the wake of increasing reports of the involvement of these forces in human rights violations, as documents – said to be governmental – which were published On April 23, 2021, stated that the Eritrean forces seized the humanitarian aids that had reached the territory.
Despite this, Addis Ababa's need for Eritrea remains even with the announcement of the end of military operations. This is because the crisis in the Tigray region has not been resolved until now, with the insistence of the TPLF militants not to lay down their arms. The Ethiopian government is also forced to deal - at least in front of the international community - with the humanitarian crisis left by the war, as tens of thousands of Tigray residents have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
The dilemma of sea ports
Besides that the Ethiopia and Eritrea share animosity towards the TPLF, as we said earlier, the two countries have recently established commercial and diplomatic relations. As for Addis Ababa, it seeks to take advantage of the distinct site of Eritrea on the Red Sea, which includes both the port of "Asab" and the port of "Massawa", which are close to the Bab al-Mandab Strait. This would contribute to Ethiopia's presenting itself as a regional power that enjoys an important position in shipping and maritime transport routes, in addition to enhancing its capabilities to defend its security outside its borders. However, it remains too early to talk about the availability of a developed Ethiopian navy, given its need for large resources and huge investments.
The option of military benefit from Eritrean ports depends on the decrease in the pace of military tension between the two countries; yet, there are other options for Addis Ababa, as it depends for its imports and exports on the port of Djibouti by 95%, and the first electric railway was opened in 2016 and connects this port and Addis Ababa, extending over an estimated distance of 750 km, with 70% Chinese funding. In the same context, the Capital Ethiopia Newspaper revealed in December 2019 initial understandings to establish an Ethiopian military base in Djibouti, which is teeming with US, French, Chinese and Italian military bases.
After Eritrea's final independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the Ethiopian Navy was dissolved in mid-1996, but the dream of rebuilding and reconfiguring this weapon did not leave the minds of Ethiopian politicians. This was evident in Abiy Ahmed’s pledge in the first speech after assumption of power in 2018, and was confirmed by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Dina Mufti, on June 2, 2010, when he announced his country’s intention to establish a military base in the Red Sea to confront the security situation in the area, which he described as "disturbing."
In short, Addis Ababa's interest in the region's ports has two aspects; the first is purely economic, manifested in its interest in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, located on the Indian Ocean, and the second is economic and security, represented in the Eritrean, Somali, Djibouti and Sudanese ports. However, it did reach an agreement with Sudan in 2018 to have a stake in Port Sudan, after meetings between Abiy Ahmed and former President Omar al-Bashir. Nevertheless, the fate of this agreement is still unknown after the removal of al-Bashir from office and the consistency in the positions of Egypt and Sudan on the issue of the Renaissance Dam, which reached the point of conducting joint military maneuvers. The last of which was the one that was concluded at the end of last May under the name "Guardians of the Nile", which was an indirect message to Ethiopia that there is a deterrent force in the event that their water shares are affected in the context of the failure of several rounds of negotiations, not to mention the border dispute over the "Fashqa" region, which has fertile agricultural land, about which the two sides have reached an agreement in 2008 as Addis Ababa recognized it as Sudanese land while Khartoum allowed the remaining Ethiopian farmers working on the land for decades. However, military clashes have begun to erupt since November 2020 between the Sudanese army and Ethiopian armed groups backed by the army, in light of the Ethiopian official denial of having fabricated such clashes.
In the context of the search for a foothold on the Red Sea, Ethiopia sought to host and participate in negotiations that took place between the government of Mogadishu and its counterpart in Somaliland - the self-declared state for 30 years - to agree on the form of the relationship between these two entities after years of infighting and the suffering of the population there from terrorist acts carried out by the Mujahideen Youth Movement. The Ethiopian participation came before Abiy Ahmed assumed his powers, but he contributed to intensifying his country's role in this file, benefiting from his image as the godfather of peace in the region. However, the faltering of negotiations, especially after the outbreak of the Gulf crisis in 2017, given that the Gulf countries, along with Turkey, were co-sponsors of these negotiations, prompted Addis Ababa to adopt an urgent pragmatic policy, which resulted in the acquisition of a 19% stake in the port of Berbera in Somaliland compared to 51% for DP World and 30% for the Somaliland government.
It should be noted that the Ethiopian ambitions to reach the water ports through Djibouti or Somalia in military or economic forms is facing an active diplomatic movement led by Egypt at the international and African levels. For example, the latter has concluded military agreements to exchange information and security cooperation with Uganda and Burundi, which are considered among the eleven Nile Basin countries. Even the Ethiopian interests - mentioned previously - in Djibouti, in addition to the news that spoke in 2018 about Addis Ababa's intention to invest in the port of Djibouti, is unlikely to grow without Cairo granting some flexibility. This is evidenced by the visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to Djibouti on May 27 to have the privilege for the Egyptian and Sudanese rights to the Nile waters, a visit that was preceded by large amounts of food and medical aid being sent to the country.
Egypt is sending the quiet and escalatory diplomatic message to Addis Ababa that its influence must take into account the interests of other and historical players in the region. However, the Ethiopian side seems not to want to respond to these messages, the matter which was indicated by Abiy Ahmed's statement on May 31, 2021, in which he expressed his country's intention to build more than 100 dams in the coming period. It is noteworthy that this statement came while attending the launching ceremony of the first phase of the Adama-Awash expressway, which aims to strengthen economic connectivity with Djibouti. The Egyptian side responded with strong condemnation and accused Ethiopia of violating the international law.
Based on all of the above, we can say that Ethiopia suffers from a geopolitical challenge that prevents it from achieving its ambitions to expand in the Horn of Africa with the aim of reaching the coasts of the Red Sea. However, politicians in Addis Ababa are not convinced by this idea, and what they believe is that the strategic depth of their country, which ended in 1991 after the start of the Eritrean War of Independence, must be restored. Hence, the issue of insisting on completing construction work and filling the Renaissance Dam can be understood, regardless of the interests of the downstream countries, as a pressure tool to allow the Ethiopian expansion in the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia is benefiting from the Chinese investment interest in it within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, in which the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway is one of its most important achievements so far, not only in terms of employing Chinese capital in solving intractable economic problems, but also in showing the Ethiopian foreign policy options to the West, particularly the United States, and thus pushing it to a form of strategic trade-off between its allies in the Horn of Africa and the East African region in general, or - this is at least - what Ethiopian decision-makers believe is possible.