Melesī Assab Policy Threatens
Ethiopias National Security
By Belai Abbai * and Zeru Kehishen *
[July 15, 2000]
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
Ethiopias paramount interests? These are the issues that we address in this paper.
1. Ethiopias legitimate access to the sea and
Given Ethiopias 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 Ethiopias 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, Ethiopias 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
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
Ethiopias long history has proven repeatedly. Thus Djibouti, Berbera, Mombasa and
Port Said must not be the alternatives, when Ethiopia can and must have its
c) Ethiopias 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
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.
Ethiopias potential enemies know where to get the information from and how to use it
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 Ethiopias 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 Ethiopias 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 Ethiopias legitimate right to Assab. On the
contrary the pre-existing conditions at the time of Eritreas 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
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 Ethiopias resources by whatever means (including force),
and is likely allied to Ethiopias 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
Ismaelīs 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
Egypts perennial interest in Ethiopias 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 Ethiopias very survival.
4. The Policies of the present regime are in conflict with Ethiopias
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 Ethiopias victory into a defeat, and
sacrifices Ethiopias 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 Ethiopias 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 Ethiopias 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 Ethiopias vital interests at heart. His instinctive and instant response to
questions on reflects Eritreas 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.
Ethiopias 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 countrys security and economic interests and vital to Ethiopias 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 countrys 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
· Belai Abbai, former Ethiopiaīs Minister of Land Reform and Senior staff member of the
· Zeru Kehishen , Free University of Amsterdam. Contact address: email@example.com