Is landlocked Ethiopia starting another war over ports in Horn of Africa?

Ethiopia’s tone on access to a seaport is seen as either a distraction from domestic policy failures or the start of another regional war.

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki (L), Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (R) and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed pose together
Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki (L), Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (R) and Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed pose during the inauguration of the Tibebe Ghion Specialized Hospital in Bahir Dar, northern Ethiopia, on November 10, 2018 [File: Eduardo Soteras/AFP]

Source: By Zecharias Zelalem

Published On 7 Nov 20237 Nov 2023

Since 1991 when Eritrea gained independence from neighbouring Ethiopia, one of the world’s oldest countries and Africa’s second most populous country, has been landlocked.

With Eritrea in control of the Assab port that had serviced Ethiopia for decades, access to ports became a major talking point in Ethiopia, and just a year after the end of a war fought together as allies, the topic has dragged both countries into a fresh dispute.

On October 26, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denied reports that his government was planning to wage war to gain access to a seaport. It was his second attempt in as many weeks at reassuring neighbouring states in the Horn of Africa that his pursuit of a new import gateway for Ethiopia would stay peaceful.

“Our army has never taken the initiative to invade another country in its history, and we won’t start now,” Abiy said during festivities marking the 116th anniversary of the Ethiopian army’s establishment, in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

“On certain issues that Ethiopia seeks dialogue over, it is being said that a military invasion is a possibility. I’d like to make it clear that there is nothing that we seek to accomplish using force or an invasion.”

But it is unclear if his latest remarks will cool months of uneasiness felt across the region. During another televised speech earlier this month, the prime minister cited demographic ties and maps dating back to the third-century kingdom of Aksum to invoke Ethiopian territorial claims to Red Sea ports in Eritrean territory, and said the question of Red Sea access was “an existential issue”.