Potential “Red Sea” War Between Ethiopia and Eritrea: a Three-Level Analysis

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Former allies Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea are locking horns over access to the Red Sea. Their war planners are reportedly amassing troops, and the two leaders are busy conducting foreign trips looking for arms and allies. Ethiopian officials and the media are turning the dial on Ethiopia’s access to the sea, while their Eritrean counterparts silently deliberate. The underlying issue lies in the clash of interests and norms between a bigger, powerful landlocked state Ethiopia (the sixth largest landlocked country by territorial size, the largest by population size), and a smaller transit state, Eritrea, that fears being bullied for its strategic ports. Meanwhile, diplomats in the region fear miscalculation could spark a war.

The strategic problem of being landlocked

Ethiopia became the sixth largest landlocked developing country in the world following Eritrea’s independence in 1993. As a result, it faces economic and security vulnerabilities. Economically, particularly in logistics and transportation, it takes Ethiopia a longer time and higher costs to conduct international trade compared to its coastal neighbours. On the security front, Ethiopia is faced with the strategic problem of securing guaranteed direct access to the sea. With no functional naval military capability, it is not able to defend and protect its maritime interests.

Despite international law providing landlocked states the right to have access and the freedom of transit, sovereignty, legitimate interest, and consent of transit states take primacy. Ethiopia’s neighbours (singly or in concert with others in the region and beyond) may, in pursuit of their own economic and military interests, easily block access. Following the Ethiopia-Eritrea war in 1998, Eritrea blocked access to Assab port and confiscated Ethiopia’s shipments and oil refinery. Ethiopia was forced to switch to Djibouti’s port and seek other outlets including Berber, Port Sudan, and Lamu since then. Given complex and volatile regional dynamics, this cannot be ruled out. Moreover, its immediate and regional neighbours could conduct military strikes from water bodies. For instance, Egypt is ranked sixth in the world for the number of helicopter carriers.

Regional security challenges of piracy, illegal human trafficking, terrorism, and scramble for strategic ports exacerbate Ethiopia’s security and economic constraints. China and the US have military bases in Djibouti; and the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia compete to secure ports on the Red Sea coast.

Seen from a realist perspective, pushing for direct access to the Red Sea carries some merit. It would end Ethiopia’s dependence on its neighbours, contribute to its economic development, and ultimately reinforce its security and power standing in the region.

With all its problems, Ethiopia under Prime Ministers Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn has proven that it can do without Eritrea’s ports through active diplomacy. Moreover, although it faltered, in close cooperation with the UAE, Ethiopia managed to gain a 19% stake in Somaliland’s Berbera Port in 2017.

As it stands, war is ill-advised. War will only exacerbate the humanitarian devastation and state fragmentation of both countries. Ethiopia should rather focus its limited resources and capabilities on better alternatives such as renegotiating a deal with Somaliland to regain a stake in Berbera.

So then, why are the drums of war being beaten?  Renowned international security scholar, Kenneth Waltz, in his book Man, the State, and War (1959) argues that understanding the causes of war helps to achieve peace. To explain why states go to war, Waltz provides and advocates for an interrelated approach of three images/levels, namely, the nature and behaviour of man (first level), the internal structure of states (second level), and the structure of the anarchical international system (third level).

Using Waltz’s approach, the interrelated effects of the current anarchic and divided international environment, the fragile Ethiopian state, and Abiy’s populist tendencies offer a possible explanation for a potential war between Ethiopia and Eritrea over the Red Sea. Understanding them might help avert it.

First level: Human behaviour – Abiy’s populist tendencies

According to Waltz, wars could result from selfishness and misdirected aggressive impulses. History is full of such incidents. Abiy’s erratic idiosyncrasies and populist tendencies may lead to miscalculation. This is owed to his preference for a more transactional, and personalized approach to conducting politics and diplomacy. Abiy’s policy choices have proven to be costly to Ethiopia’s domestic, regional, and international standing. The lack of strategic and institutional approach followed in the rapprochement with Eritrea, the fallout with Tigray, grievances in the Oromia and Amhara regions, the Nile dam negotiations, and the relation with the transitional government in Sudan demonstrate Abiy’s risky policy choices. Amidst Ethiopia’s current crisis, Abiy is constructing a new palace in the capital Addis Ababa costing USD 10 billion. A true “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (“let them eat cake”) moment for Ethiopia.

Abiy also projects an image of a nationalistic leader determined to leave a legacy of bringing Ethiopia’s long-lost access to the sea. One cannot rule out his desire to be a leader who dared to do what his predecessors ceded or failed to restore. A devout adherent of the prosperity gospel, Abiy runs the state like a pastor runs a mega church. Weeks earlier, Abiy, gathering members of the Parliament in his office, preached why direct access to the Red Sea is in Ethiopia’s interest, and that the issue should be a subject of public discourse. This is a clear coup against Ethiopia’s Constitution. Abiy does what he pleases, including waging war. The parliament rubber stamps with an Orwellian infatuation for the dictator. Most recently, he backtracked and told the same members (this time in the parliament) that there is no intention to invade any country. But the rhetoric and propaganda continue.

Second level: Internal situation in Ethiopia

Waltz argues that states plagued by internal strife seek war that brings internal peace and also use the attainment of their “natural” frontier to justify going to war. Ethiopia’s current state of affairs seems to be on script in both respects.

Ethiopia is currently marred with internal strife. Following Abiy’s premiership, Ethiopia became weaker, divided, war-torn, and diplomatically shunned. Before Abiy, Ethiopia was registering consecutive double-digit economic growth. Currently, the country is in a war economy with inflation through the roof. Once a regional peacekeeper, Ethiopia is currently considered a destabilizer. Tigray has not healed from war trauma. After a shaky post-cessation of hostilities’ lull, its people are struggling to recover. The embattled Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) are overstretched fighting a two-front protracted low-intensity war with the Amhara Fano and the Oromo Liberation Front.

Abiy is framing a narrative of the Red Sea as Ethiopia’s “natural” frontier that needs to be restored. He invokes Ethiopia’s glorious past and quotes Ras alula Aba-Nega (a Tigrayan war hero who prevented Egyptian and Italian incursion in the 1870s) to that effect. His war agenda over the Red Sea seems to be a diversionary tactic that is aimed at ensuring his regime’s survival and regaining regional and international legitimacy.

Third level: Anarchic international system

Waltz argues that the anarchy in the international system, particularly the lack of institutionalized restraints that prevent war and the self-help approach states take, causes war. The current state of international affairs is anarchic. Great power competition, global frustration with a rule-based international order, and erosion of multilateralism define the anarchy. Survival, national security, and geo-strategic interests dictate foreign policy considerations. The Russia-Ukraine war, the war in Yemen, and the international responses thereof stand as clear testaments. The UN General Assembly has become a moral battleground where nations attempt to dominate narratives and settle foreign policy scores. International humanitarian and human rights law have taken the back seat. Israel’s military response to Hamas’ attacks divided the nations of the world into polarised camps and scholars suggest that it is destabilizing the Horn of Africa.

The self-help approach is most visible and drastic in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. The last decade witnessed transnational armed conflicts in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Sudan which resulted in unsurmountable humanitarian devastation, and state collapse/fragmentation.

Weak institutional capacity, political instability, rivalry, and mutual suspicion between countries in the Horn are aggravated by the drive to secure ports for the strategic interests of the Gulf. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are competing to assert their dominance in the Red Sea. For example, Saudi Arabia led the establishment of a Council of Arab and African littoral states of the Red Sea in 2020 that excluded Ethiopia and the UAE.

Abiy, a peace laureate who thrives in war, is trying to exploit the anarchic international and regional environment. The international community’s response to the Tigray war failed to ensure accountability. The impunity has contributed to the current situation in Ethiopia, particularly the conflict in the Amhara and the silent war in the Oromia region. It seems Abiy and Isaias understood that strategic security interests growingly dictate the actions of great and middle powers, and they are trying to exploit it. The lesson taken from the Tigray war seems to be that they can get away with anything – including war. And both are relying on allies. While the UAE and the West remain a priority in Abiy’s calculus, Isaias is betting on an alliance with Saudi Arabia, Russia and China to tread these dangerous times.

War is not the answer!

A war between Ethiopia and Eritrea will lead to unnecessary human suffering, devastation, and state collapse. It should be avoided. For Ethiopia resorting to war is ill-advised. Victory is not guaranteed, and the risks associated with war outweigh its benefits. With the Sudan civil war raging and the country nearing state collapse, a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea would upend the Horn of Africa and destabilize the Red Sea.

Abiy’s statements and the rhetoric of war have already caused strategic complications for Ethiopia. Somalia and Djibouti put out statements rejecting Ethiopia’s move. On the occasion of the 10th Joint Defense Experts Committee meeting, Ethiopia and Djibouti signed a defence and security cooperation MoU. However, the details of the MoU and a shift in Djibouti’s position remain unclear.

Moreover, threats that are not credible will only result in a security dilemma and the consequences will be dire. It will inevitably increase the regional arms race and might end up jeopardising Ethiopia’s current access to the sea.

The escalation of tensions proved Isaias’s depiction of Ethiopia as an existential threat which remains the raison d’être of an independent Eritrean state. It is also the very reason he justifies maintaining and running a militarized despotic state. This could also hamper any potential popular movements aimed at bringing about democratic reform in Eritrea.

Even if Ethiopia wins a war, it will be left to deal with winning the peace. Post-war uncertainties may include a lack of international recognition and consequent legal difficulties utilizing the ports, a protracted insurgency, a renewed liberation struggle, and a failed Eritrean state to be utilized as a haven for terrorist organizations. The spillover effects of such an outcome would be a major regional and global security concern rendering unfeasible the very access Ethiopia fought to regain.

What then?

Regional and continental organizations such as the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU) as well as countries with leverage – the US, UAE, and Saudi Arabia – should in concert exert maximum pressure to de-escalate tensions. Ethiopian authorities should tone down their subtle war rhetoric and look for less costly alternatives. All energy and resources should be directed to the pacific attempt towards port diversification. Notwithstanding the complexities, working towards regaining access/stake at Berbera port involving Somaliland, Somalia, and other regional actors, particularly the UAE, could be the most feasible option.

Source : African Arguments

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