Category: English

Why Ethiopia and Eritrea May be Heading for Another War

Ayear ago, Tigrayan and Ethiopian officials met in Pretoria to sign a cessation of hostilities agreement. The Pretoria Accords were supposed to end the Tigray War, which had claimed an estimated 600,000 lives. Since then, the Ethiopian, Western, and African governments have used the Pretoria Accords to promote the notion that Ethiopia’s war is over and that the country is progressing toward post-conflict reconstruction. This was the EU’s rationale for normalizing its relations with Abiy Ahmed’s government and providing a grant package of 600 million Euros. However, contrary to the international community’s optimistic narrative, the reality has been that Ethiopia’s regionalized civil war has only transfigured rather than ended. 

The Pretoria agreement’s primary function has been to change the constellation of the Horn of Africa’s strategic alliances and pave the way for a new war. Alliances have played a central enabling role in the Ethiopian Civil War from the outset. One of Abiy Ahmed’s first tasks when he came to power in 2018 was to make peace with Eritrea and many domestic opposition groups. This was widely celebrated as a bold move towards democracy and regional reconciliation, so much so that it led to Abiy winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. However, Abiy Ahmed was, in fact, only establishing a regional alliance to consolidate a particular nationalistic and authoritarian model across the Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia, he allied with Ethiopian and Amhara nationalists. Regionally, Abiy Ahmed allied with Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, culminating in the signing of the Tripartite Agreement in September 2018. A central motivation behind the alliance was their shared opposition to multi-national federalism and ethno-nationalist politics in the region. They saw the growing assertiveness and the institutional recognition that ethno-national groups had attained across the Horn of Africa as a threat to their personal power as well as a recipe for weakening their states.  

The nationalist alliance’s primary purpose was to cooperate in waging war against ethno-nationalist groups across the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia became the main theater for this agenda. Abiy Ahmed first went to war against Oromo nationalists and later waged what was arguably the deadliest war in the twenty-first century against the Tigray region. The Amhara Regional State and Eritrea played a crucial role in the war effort. They provided hundreds of thousands of troops, raised funds, and mobilized their diaspora populations to push back against international pressure. Together, the allies ethnically cleansed a million people, raped tens of thousands of women, and, through tactics like mass starvation, they killed an estimated 600,000 civilians in Tigray alone. The Amhara and Ethiopian nationalists and Eritrea would help Abiy Ahmed consolidate his autocracy, and in return, it was expected that he would legalize Amhara conquest and annexation of Tigrayan territory, eliminate ethno-national groups in Oromia and Tigray, and eventually dismantle Ethiopia’s multi-national-federalism.         

After four years of warfare in Oromia, Benishangul, and Tigray, it, however, had become apparent that Abiy’s effort to eradicate Ethiopia’s ethno-nationalist had failed and brought the Ethiopian economy and security apparatus on the verge of collapse. As a leader, Abiy Ahmed faced a dilemma: either find a modus vivendi with ethno-national forces or oversee the collapse of Ethiopia. He chose to compromise his ideological objectives for the sake of political survival. First, he made a tactical peace with key Oromo opposition groups and released leaders like Jawar Mohamed and Bekele Gerba in January 2022. Later that year, Abiy went on to sign the peace agreement with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.  

 Although the reconciliation between Abiy Ahmed and his Oromo and Tigrayan rivals was merely tactical and has not resulted in a sincere reconciliation. In effect, this involved reneging on all the major promises made to Eritrea and the Amhara and Ethiopian nationalists. Notably, this includes allowing the TPLF to continue as a political party in Ethiopia and conceding a constitutional resolution to the territorial conflict over western Tigray. Given that the disputed territory belongs to Tigray according to the constitution, this led many to believe that West Tigray would be returned to it.     

The Eritrean government and Amhara nationalists had sacrificed tens of thousands of troops, accrued high financial costs, become implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes, and made bitter enemies in different parts of the Horn of Africa—all without attaining any of their political goals.

The Amhara militias rejected the Pretoria agreement, refused to leave Western Tigray, and continued their ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans. The Ethiopian Prime Minister quickly began taking measures to neutralize the new threat to his power. In April, he declared that all the regional special forces had to be disarmed, which sparked a full-scale war between the Ethiopian army and the Amhara militias. The organizational and fighting capacity of the militias have since then improved substantially. They now control large parts of the countryside and several urban centers. The insurgents have assassinated numerous state officials and brought about a general breakdown of law and order.  


Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki did not make his opposition to the Pretoria agreement public. Instead, he continued to undermine the peace agreement and Abiy Ahmed’s government by continuing to occupy much of northern Tigray. There his troops have committed massacres, rape, and other human rights violations on a large scale throughout the year. Afwerki has also trained and armed Amhara militias in the past, and the Ethiopian government believes that he continues to do so.      

Abiy Ahmed had until recently not publicly responded to Eritrea’s internal meddling and violations of Ethiopian sovereignty. However, in the past weeks, the Ethiopian government has been agitating the public to restore what the prime minister calls Ethiopia’s “historic and natural right” to a Red Sea outlet. In addition to documentaries and public statements propagating the message that Ethiopia had been deprived of an inalienable right to a sea outlet, a military parade was held in Addis Ababa recently where soldiers were chanting, “The sea is ours, and the ship is ours.” Although Eritrea has not been mentioned by name in these statements, it is implicitly understood that it—and specifically its Assab Port—is the target of the messaging. 

Abiy Ahmed’s irredentist rhetoric is not simply a response to Eritrean President Afwerki’s recent provocations. Instead, it is part of a long-held nostalgia for Abyssinian imperial history. Abiy sees Ethiopia’s imperial past as a model to be emulated in the present. In particular, his rhetoric indicates that he considers it imperative to restore what he sees as Ethiopia’s lost territory, prestige, and status as a unique civilizational state. 

Making territorial claims on other states based on historical rights violates the Organization for African Unity’s cardinal norm of maintaining colonial-era borders. But this has nevertheless been the chief foreign policy agenda of successive Ethiopian governments and political parties, with the exception of the EPRDF, which supported and oversaw Eritrea’s secession in 1993. Abiy Ahmed may, therefore, find much sympathy for his irredentist agenda in Ethiopian society. 

The Tigray Interim Regional Administration has not supported Abiy Ahmed’s irredentist agenda on the Red Sea. But given that Afwerki’s government committed the worst atrocities during the Tigray war and remains committed to annihilating the TPLF, the Tigrayan leadership would certainly like to see Isaias Afwerki overthrown. The Tigrayan authorities (undoubtedly with the backing of the Ethiopian government) recently made public that they were hosting and mobilizing Eritrean opposition groups. 

Despite the rhetoric, several factors may still deter Ethiopia and Eritrea from escalating their conflict to a full-scale war. The Ethiopian army is bogged down in the Amhara region and is still recovering from the war in Tigray. The Eritrean military also lost many troops in the last war and would unlikely want to confront a well-resourced Ethiopian army under the leadership of experienced Tigrayan commanders. 

On the other hand, a tit-for-tat escalation and a strategic culture characterized by deep suspicion may lead one of the parties to conduct a pre-emptive strike that escalates to a full-blown war. Moreover, beyond rhetoric, there are also indications of practical preparations for war. This includes increased shipments of weapons from the UAE and the export of new drones from Turkey to Ethiopia. Increased mobilization of troops on both sides of the border has also been reported. Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have also been busy trying to appeal for the support of local leaders from the Afar people who reside on both sides of the common border.   

The last time Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war, the conflict lasted two years and cost an estimated 100,000 lives. The current war can potentially plunge the entire region into a crisis that results in both states collapsing. It would also have repercussions beyond the two countries. A war between Ethiopia and Eritrea would incentivize regional actors from both the Horn of Africa and the Middle East to support their allies. Notably, the UAE has emerged as a strong ally of Ethiopia, while Eritrea has been busy trying to mobilize diplomatic support from Saudi Arabia. It could also destabilize the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait on the Red Sea through which some 6 million barrels of oil pass daily. Despite these worrying trends, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the wider Horn of Africa region are receiving scant attention from the international community. 

Category: English

Revisiting Ethiopian quest for reclamation of maritime sovereignty on the Red Sea coast: A blueprint for Ethiopian-Eritrean international legal encounter

Addis Abeba – To redirect the recent Red Sea Agenda that hikes the mood of the Horn into a (more) peaceful international legal argumentation, this op-ed article charts a blueprint for an international law-based resolution of the unsettled maritime disputes between Ethiopia, the predecessor (mother) state, and Eritrea, the successor state constituted through separation from the former. In so doing, the blueprint offers a call for Ethiopian and Eritrean ‘ international law and diplomatic minds’ and the likes to challenge ourselves with; (a) the existence or not of international legal dispute between the two sovereign states regarding an Ethiopian claim for coastline for a direct and free access through the Red Sea (b) the  possibility or not of resolving this historical dispute through international legal dispute settlement (c) the perpetual peace dividends of pushing the two sisterly nations for an international judicial litigation to (objectively) determine Ethiopian  claims and Eritrean counterclaims.  Taking this untrodden legal route, this author strongly believes, could help the two states to dispense their dispute in a peaceful way and to change a course from walking in harm’s way.

This call for an international legal encounter, however, could not be construed as the first of its kind as we had previous international law-based discussions, if not encounters, between the international legal scholars and the likes of the two nations or non-native scholars on this rolling subject matter. This could, therefore, be a continuation of (pre) existing scholarly debates on it.

Having these somehow lofty objectives at its core, this work will (re) examine the use that international law would extend for Ethiopian reclamation of a maritime sovereignty, which obviously brings the State of Eritrea onboard, in the Red Sea Coastal territories. Maritime Sovereignty, for the purpose of this article, shall be understood as an exercise of control and use of coastal territories, of any size, to have a direct and free access to the sea.

Hence, the project of redirecting the Red Sea Agenda to a question or dispute of international law will be presented in the following orders; (i) a cursory critical review on the recently launched Red Sea Agenda; (ii) the international legal basis of Ethiopian quest for reclamation of maritime sovereignty; (iii)  the legal visibility of the Afar Coastal territories (the Assab outlet) for the satisfaction of Ethiopian claim; (iv) the peacefulness and conceivability of pursuing an international legal dispute in the presence of the 2003 Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission Decision; (v) the trustworthiness of the regime to litigate Ethiopian maritime sovereignty reclamation before an international legal dispute settlement forum.

Navigating through Abiy Ahmed Ali’s Red Sea Politics: (Un)Locking Ethiopia?

A call for a peaceful detour into a realm of international legal argumentation should start with accounting the recent Red Sea Agenda as tabled by Abiy Ahemed Ali, Prime Minister of ‘the Federal Democratic Republic’ of Ethiopia. For good or bad, his Red Sea agenda, (re)ignited intellectual and public debates on the longstanding maritime question between Ethiopia and Eritrea.      

The Red Sea agenda was set for discussion a few months before the Prime Minister spoke it out in public. As a result of his ‘from a drop of water to Sea’  parliamentary oratory, the matter has so far received greater attention which involves both acclamation and censure from domestic(see here, here, here, and here) and international (see here, here,  here, and here) spectators and onlookers. Region wide, it has sparked reactions from coastal states such as Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia. Perhaps, attributable to the PM’s diplomatic injudiciousness, the Red Sea agenda is looming large in fueling regional tension.

Ethiopians found themselves in a Catch-22 to continue or halt the Prime Minister’s [Red Sea] agenda. The Prime Minister’s political track records, characterized by deception and betrayal, may have made him distrusted; leading many to criticize or challenge his ‘untimely’ and ‘sinister’ claim that Ethiopia needs an outlet to the Red Sea. There are reasonable doubts on the Prime Minister’s use of the agenda. There are strong beliefs that the Red Sea agenda is nothing, but a means of political diversion from internal political crises and ongoing civil wars in the Amhara and Oromia regions of Ethiopia. It’s also understood as the end of a short-lived friendship between the Prime Minister and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea.  Hence, the PM’s Red Sea politics is not welcomed with fanfare, especially by his critics who found the agenda both untimely and full of diplomatic and legal failings.

Apparently, in the process of these discussions/debates some concerns have been raised about Ethiopian claims in the Red Sea.  The relevance of international law to this vexing matter is one that raises a concern.

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s approach, Ethiopian quest for reclamation of maritime sovereignty could and should center on international legal argumentation. The shift to and use of international legal argumentation neither tantalizes nor belittles the question. It would further save the public from a blind rally behind the Red Sea agenda or total dismissal of the question by the very fact that the Prime Minister has tabled it without a proper account of international law, for reasons that may definitely be known to him only.

For this and other concerns raised below, there is a need to draw the attention of decision makers and the public to international law’s role in the settlement of Ethiopian maritime claims in the Red Sea. Hence, caution must be taken against forming an opinion or taking a position on the question of Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty reclamation based solely on the Prime Minister’s (mis)understandings and (mis)presentations of such crucial inter-generational jigsaw puzzles.

Does International Law Really Support Ethiopian Bid for Reclamation of Maritime Sovereignty on the Red Sea?

A.  Clearing Some Confusion

Following a misguided approach that put Ethiopia and its vital national interests in harm’s way seems a déjà vu for the post-1991 governments of Ethiopia. As it stands now, the Prime Minister’s lawless and inordinate approach is a sequel, not an anomaly, to his predecessors.

As it becomes a reality that cannot be denied even by the wrongdoers, the TPLF-led EPRDF regime of Ethiopia deserves generational vilification for its historical disregard and arrogance towards Ethiopia’s legitimate right to direct access to the Red Sea and control of the Afar Coastal territories. It is, indeed, this historical mystery that resulted in the actual losses of Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty in the East African Coast of the Red Sea. Unless a swift change is taken by the Prime Minister or his regime toward the misguided and fatal approach on the serious question of Ethiopian maritime sovereignty, the possibility of redressing the TPLF mastered actual and temporal loss of maritime sovereignty seems far-fetched. The approach that is being pursued in recent times is misguided, belittling and reductionist of the Ethiopian question.

Offering shares, such as, in Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Telecommunication, or the GERD to Red Sea Coastal states in exchange for a coastal land are unveiling the level of belittling and reductionist approach that the Prime Minister is following. This in turn signposts the lack of efforts invested in by the Primer or his regime to look into any possible help of international law supporting reclamation of maritime sovereignty.  But this belittling and reductionist approach is not limited only to the Prime Minister. There are also individuals (both in the academia and in the public) who reiterated the approach in a way that belittles Ethiopian maritime question by equating the actual loss to a legal loss.

As we shall be reading shortly in the subsequent sections, the bottom line with respect to the Ethiopian question is that its legal status, unlike its actual and temporary loss of control and use of the Red Sea Coastline, has not yet been properly litigated and settled by a court of international law. Hence, actual and temporary loss of control and use of the (Red) Sea outlet does not necessarily result in a permanent loss in the legal right to assert, litigate, and reclaim the maritime sovereignty that is in question. Hence, the argument that Ethiopian actual loss has a direct and a fait accompli effect on its international legal status on the Red Sea Littoral is not legally valid. A conclusive pronouncement on this long standing question of international law can only be given by the International Court of Justice. Neither the actions or inactions of the Ethiopian Governments during and after the separation of Eritrea and its birth as a state in 1993; nor the decision of EEBC be construed as conclusive responses to Ethiopian international legal status on the question. The only status or effect that these and other actions or inactions of Ethiopia and Eritrea could have is to be part of facts in the future international law examination process. They cannot certainly have a conclusive international legal status determining effect.

Let’s further look into the misguided views that belittle the Ethiopian question.  Common to many Ethiopian and Eritrean elites, the Prime Minister confuses the question of maritime sovereignty with  the rights of landlocked states to have access the sea through negotiation and agreements with coastal or transit states, which can easily be negotiated as set forth in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As long as the coastal states agree to provide access through lease agreements, Ethiopia may obtain not just one but multiple sea access points from all coastal states, including from Eritrea. What is the thorniest and toughest question to be faced with and demystified through international legal argumentation is rather the question of Ethiopian sovereign right of access to the Red Sea or maritime sovereignty.

For those of us who confuse these two different questions, historian Hussein Ahmed’s warning, made to Franz Dombrowsks’ Book “Ethiopia’s Access to the Sea“, is still relevant. “The repeated emphasis on what [we refer] to as diversification of access to the sea implies that it compensates for the lack or loss of effective control over the coast. However, for the sovereignty of Ethiopia, the opposite is true.” Let’s not forget this (fore) warning both in the process of reading this article and in our future engagements with the question of Ethiopian maritime sovereignty.

The question of Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty on the Coast of Red Sea must, therefore, be approached in accordance with the relevant norms and practices of international law, other than the UNCLOS  centered and lease-based services that landlocked states could be enjoying.  

Come on dear reader! How could a question of securing port access through a lease agreement with Eritrea or any other coastal state ever be worthwhile for a national and international agenda? Wouldn’t it be enough to be discussed between the executive organs of the government on whose mandate port access diversification is bestowed upon? In fact, the Prime Minister, the benefactor of the recent Red Sea Agenda, has a relative clarity on the question although he adopts a belittling and risky approach toward the recovery process. The question clearly is not, therefore, a lease-based transit access to the Red Sea, via Assab or any other coastal route.

B. An International Legal History of Ethiopian Maritime Sovereignty

History and historiography are indispensable to the study of international legal questions in general, and to the question of Ethiopian maritime sovereignty in particular. Historically, maritime control has long been a defining aspect of Ethiopian engagement with international law. Prior to the advent of European colonial menacing in Africa, Ethiopia held a prominent position on the Red Sea. Its historical interactions with European and Arab powers in the mid-19th century were largely centered on control of the Red Sea outlet. Leaders such as Yohannes IV and Ras Alula Nega fought valiantly, utilizing international law and diplomacy, to preserve Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty. However, the use of treaties by European powers to oust or limit non-European sovereignty and transfer it to colonial powers hoodwinked Ethiopian leaders who viewed treaties as sacred covenants that should be honored. Britain’s transfer of the Massawa Red Sea littoral to Italy, and coupled with the prior occupation of Assab Bay, marked the colonial erosion of Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty and its subsequent confinement to territorial backcloths. The Battle of Adwa, which resulted in the salvation of Ethiopian territorial sovereignty, took place at a time when Ethiopia had lost effective control over its main coastlines in the Red Sea. For a Country, that was hemmed in ‘between the jaws of hyenas’ , kicking European forces out of the coastal territories was not possible.  Their maritime location gave Europeans, including the defeated and fleeing Italians, to have furthered their spheres of influence on Ethiopia and threaten its hard-won territorial sovereignty.

As a result, the reclamation of Ethiopian maritime sovereignty had to wait until the tides in the intra-European relations changed. The post-Italian occupation period that coincided with the culmination of World War II presented an opportune time for Ethiopia to unleash its diplomatic struggle and reclaim its maritime sovereignty through the use of international law. The years between 1940 and 1950, therefore, serve as a prime example of Ethiopia’s utilization of international law to reverse the loss of maritime sovereignty on the Red Sea and decolonize its coastal territories.

The historical records of the Post-World War II peace summits and the United Nations’ efforts in determining the disposal of former Italian colonies (Eritrea, Libya, and Italian Somaliland) exhibit the colossal role of international law in Ethiopia’s pursuit of its natural and historic rights over the Red Sea littorals(See, here, here, and here). Under the headship of the late Tsehafe Tizaz, Foreign Affairs Minister, and Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold, who was the “great doyen of diplomacy and international law of the 20th century,” Ethiopia demonstrated greater efforts in utilizing the United Nations and international law to resist Euro-centric disposal of the ex-Italian colonies including Eritrea. Ethiopia thus played a pioneering role in the diplomatic fight for United Nations decolonization act.   

Its active participation in the Post-World War II international legal order resulted in Ethiopia’s membership to the Paris Peace Treaty of February 10, 1947. Through this treaty, Italy renounced all rights and title to its territorial possessions in Africa, including Eritrea. As laid out in the joint declaration issued by the Governments of the Four Allied Powers, the final disposal of these possessions was finally determined by the United Nations General Assembly. Italy also renounced any claims to special interests or influence in Ethiopia.

As the Four Powers reached a deadlock on the disposal of the territories, the matter was transferred to the UN General Assembly for a decision. The transfer and delegation of the settlement of this ‘most vexing questions’ of the post-war era to the General Assembly was appreciated for its ‘novel and promising precedent’ to enhance the usefulness of the United Nations, and ‘assist the settlement of various other political problems by special agreements, in advance, to accept recommendations of the General Assembly and other organs of the United Nations.” 

As authorized by this special multilateral treaty, the General Assembly passed Resolution 289(IV)/1949, which charted out the future of the three ex-Italian colonies. Italian Somaliland was granted independence as a sovereign state after a ten-year UN Trusteeship administration under Italian authority. Libya, comprising Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan, was immediately granted independence. As for Eritrea, the General Assembly decided to establish a Commission consisting of representatives from five member states (Burma, Guatemala, Norway, Pakistan, and the Union of South Africa) to ascertain the wishes and best means of promoting the welfare of the inhabitants of Eritrea, examine the question of disposal of Eritrea, and prepare a report with appropriate proposals for the solution of the Eritrea problem. In carrying out these responsibilities, the Commission was instructed by the UNGA to consider three key points: the wishes and welfare of the inhabitants of Eritrea, including the views of various racial, religious, and political groups; the interests of peace and security in East Africa; and Ethiopia’s rights and claims, particularly its legitimate need for access to the sea.

The Paris Treaty, which Ethiopia was a party to, and to which the joint declaration of the Four Powers toward their commitment to settle the disposal question of former Italian colonies became part thereof, has laid down Ethiopia’s sovereign right to direct access to the [Red] Sea or maritime sovereignty, under international law. As thoroughly examined in light of the accepted rules of treaty interpretations, the 1947 Paris Treaty and the annexed Joint declaration of the Four Powers, and UNGA Resolutions 289(IV)/1949, and 390 A (V)/1950 have primarily addressed and established Ethiopian maritime sovereignty under international law.    As a result, the UNGA was acclaimed for ‘laying the foundations for a solution of one of the most vexing problems in the post-war era.’

But which outlet would, to the satisfaction of the legally recognised right of direct and free access to the Red Sea, be returned to Ethiopia? The answer, notoriously, is through the Afar Coastland, aka the Assab outlet.

The International Law that Makes Assab a viable Outlet

Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea via the Assab Coastal territories remains a legally visible and geographically suitable route. The international legal legitimacy accorded to Assab further strengthens the visibility and accessibility-driven sea outlet option. The deliberations and actions of world states within the United Nations General Assembly following the Paris Conference in 1947 established the legitimacy and legality of Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty on the African Coast of the Red Sea, mainly through the Assab littoral. The views and positions expressed by the majority of Member States during the First Committee meetings from April to May 1949 demonstrate international laws’ recognition of Ethiopian maritime sovereignty via the Assab sea outlet.  Several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Liberia, the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Byelorussian SSR, Ukrainian SSR, Argentina, Turkey, Belgium, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Union of South Africa, Venezuela, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Cuba, China, and Burma, expressed support for Ethiopia’s claim for maritime access. Their suggestions on the disposal of Eritrea ranged from incorporating Eritrea into Ethiopia, annexing parts of Eritrea to Ethiopia, placing Eritrea under United Nations Trusteeship Administration, and later granting whole or part of Eritrea independence after an interim period. But almost all of these countries had set one major precondition to their respective options;  Ethiopia should be given access to the Red Sea through the Assab Coastal Territories

To recall the position of the Britannic Government, the post-war Military Administrator of Eritrea, and one of the key players of the disposal of the Ex-Italian colonies; it held a firm stand, until it made a subsequent compromise and agreed to the United States’ Federation Formula on the disposition of the colony of Eritrea, that “ without restriction of any kind, the whole Coastal Strip South of Arfali(at the base of the Gulf of Zula) down to the border of French Somaliland” be incorporated to Ethiopia. ‘This would, Britain argued, give to the emperor (Haile Selassie I) a long stretched of the Red Sea Coastline, the whole of the Danakali confederation of tribes (whose paramount chief, the Sultan of Aussa, already lives in Ethiopian territory), and the port of Assab which is connected by a first-class road to Dessie and Addis Abeba. The cession of this territory and port should more than compensate the emperor for his loss of the right of direct administration of the Southern districts’ that were proposed by Britain to be annexed with Sudan. They further were convinced that ‘to give effect [to the financial of needs of Ethiopia and the newly restored government of Haile Selassie I], and to secure the future independence of Ethiopia [they should] annex a territory to include Massawa and Asmara sufficient for a naval, military and air base.’ In its disappointment to the United Nation’s decision on the federating of Eritrea with Ethiopia, the Eritrean Liberation Front had, in 1980, recalled the fact that large members of the UNGA ‘were of the opinion that Ethiopia should be afforded an outlet to the Red Sea’ through Assab.

The collective view of these Member States, which aimed to recognize Ethiopia’s just claim for maritime sovereignty, demonstrates the international community’s conviction and recognition toward the historical claim. Their distinction between incorporating Eritrea into Ethiopia and ensuring Ethiopian access to the Red Sea, particularly via the Assab outlet, highlights the importance of not compromising Ethiopia’s quest for maritime sovereignty. After extensive deliberations, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 390 A (V), on December 2, 1950, recommending that the former Italian colony of Eritrea be an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown. This resolution, upon the ratification of the Federal Act, and the proclamation of Eritrean federation with Ethiopia on 11th September 1952, was implemented. The endorsement resolution (UNGA Resolution 617(VII) of 1952) received an overwhelming support, with a vote of 51 in favor and 5 abstentions, applauding the Ethiopian-Eritrean federation and congratulating the Ethiopian and Eritrean public for their historic reunion. The abstentions were related only to the federation arrangement, indicating a consensus among the United Nations General Assembly members regarding Ethiopia’s sovereign right to direct access to the Red Sea, at least through the Assab outlet. Ethiopian sovereign right for a sea outlet as recognized by the first binding decision of the General Assembly or the United Nations couldn’t be overwhelmed by the subsequent activities or decisions of states including the activities of Ethiopian governments. The decision that remained operative for more than forty years (1952-1993 or 1998) was more than a decision. It made Ethiopian maritime rights an international custom.

Hence, the reclamation of Ethiopian maritime sovereignty through its historically and legally recognized Assab sea outlet remains visible so long as the claimant sticks to the process of settlement of international legal disputes. Given the nature of the international law questions it may be involved, the proper judicial venue that would dispense any future Ethiopian-Eritrean Maritime Dispute should be the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Any international dispute settlement forum other than the ICJ, history taught us a big lesson, cannot serve justice to this very outstanding question. Eritrea, for the purpose of this question, can and should be considered as an occupying power who shall be obligated to give the coastline back to its legitimate sovereign through the principle of reversion sovereignty.

The ‘Peacefulness’ and Conceivability of International Legal Dispute vis-à-vis the EEBC Decision

A. A peaceful International Legal Dispute Settlement Is Possible

Certain perspectives argue that Ethiopia’s assertion of its legally recognized right to reclaim maritime sovereignty could potentially infringe upon Eritrean territorial sovereignty, potentially leading to another destructive conflict between the two nations. However, it is essential to avoid war, as it goes against the principles of humanity. Nevertheless, connecting the historical context of the post-Ethio-Eritrean federation or the conflicts following Eritrean independence to Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty is an oversimplification of history. In Ethiopia’s pursuit to (re)establish its maritime sovereignty, the fear of war should not always hold absolute authority. Instead, friendly nations should engage in peaceful and non-violent means of settling international legal disputes, as it is an erga omnes obligation that binds all sovereign states. If the state of Eritrea receives an official request from Ethiopia for the return of the Assab sea outlet, it should respond in a peaceful manner. If Eritrea believes that Ethiopia lacks the rightful claim, it should be prepared to engage in an international legal dispute and approach the litigation process in good faith. Given the strong international legal foundation supporting Ethiopia’s claim, Eritrea is obligated to negotiate or litigate under the framework of international law. Therefore, the discourse around war should give its way to peaceful and non-violent resolution of the maritime sovereignty dispute through international legal channels.

B.  EEBC’s Decision does not Block Ethiopia from instituting lawsuit on a special Maritime Claim

Although the decision of the Ethiopian-Eritrean boundary commission has faced criticism based on international law and encountered challenges in enforceability, it does not preclude Ethiopia from initiating a fresh lawsuit specifically addressing the reclaiming of maritime sovereignty over the Assab sea outlet. The first justification for the legal validity of this claim lies in the distinction between Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty and Eritrea’s sovereignty over the inland territories leading to the Assab sea outlet. The meetings of the United Nations General Assembly have demonstrated an appreciation for Eritrea’s territorial and maritime divisions. This historical context has shaped the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea following the federation, unification, and Eritrean statehood. Therefore, the general boundary dispute brought before and decided by the Ethiopian-Eritrean boundary commission should not be interpreted as encompassing the maritime dispute between the two states. While the EEBC’s decision assigned the inland territory transiting to the Red Sea via the Assab sea outlet to Eritrean territorial sovereignty, it did not address the specific question of maritime sovereignty. Given its distinct status and treatment within the international community under the United Nations, past and present Ethiopian-Eritrean disputes necessitate a distinctive approach. Consequently, the principle of res judicata cannot be invoked to prevent the initiation of a new international legal dispute on this question.

The next question that arises is, how can Ethiopia (re)claim maritime sovereignty while acknowledging Eritrea’s legally recognized territorial sovereignty over the adjacent inland territories? Two alternative arguments can be made in response. First, Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty should take precedence over Eritrea’s territorial sovereignty on the West Coast of the Red Sea. Second, while Eritrea maintains its territorial sovereignty, it should be obliged to provide Ethiopia with freedom of passage to the Assab seashore through its inland territories, based on the principle of international servitude. Given that Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty has received special recognition from the international community, it should be accorded a higher normative status, akin to customary international law. This elevated normative status cannot be outweighed by Eritrea’s territorial sovereignty over the inland territories in proximity to the seacoast where Ethiopia’s maritime sovereignty is established. Ethiopian ownership (sovereignty) of coastal territories could not override by Eritrean sovereignty which as a matter of fact is happened through a principle of (external) self-determination, which by no means can overturn Ethiopian permanent sovereignty over its natural and historical right to control and use of the Red Sea without hindering Eritrean sovereign rights to own and use the Sea. Alternatively, a legal compromise can still be reached by preserving Eritrea’s loose territorial sovereignty in the Afar Coastal territories and imposing upon it a duty of international servitude.

It could, therefore, be rightly argued that the Ethiopian-Eritrean boundary commission, established under the Algiers Agreement and its decisions do not have a binding effect on Ethiopia’s unique claim of maritime sovereignty. This right shall supersede every other newly established right in the Red Sea region, one of which is Eritrean occupation of the Assab outlet to the Red Sea.

Regime’s Stewardship for an International Legal Battling

The next point that needs addressing is the trustworthiness of the current regime to take care of the international legal battling to litigate and reclaim Ethiopian maritime sovereignty. This point could only be relevant if the government changes its course to litigate and attempt to reclaim the question of maritime sovereignty through international legal dispute.

The regime’s trustworthiness to handle such matters can be evaluated through the recent track records the Prosperity Party led Government have registered concerning matters of sovereignty and national interests.

The credibility of the Prosperity led Regime has shown a greater regression for the last few years. Lofty promises that were told to the public in the early days of Abiy Ahmed’s rule have gone in vain. What’s worse is the regime has put Ethiopia at devastating war with itself (see here, here, and here).  Next to the immense losses and plights that Ethiopians are facing as a result of the senseless civil wars, the legitimacy and international acceptability of the government and the Ethiopian state are deteriorating. Hence, a regime that rules a country by an iron fist and heart wrenching civil wars cannot be a trusted patron to handle international disputes that usually requires a stable political environment at home and in the region. Hence, a regime which itself is seen as a threat to national security and stability cannot be trusted for the questions of sovereign and national interests.

Specific examples that can help us understand the credibility of the regime toward defending sovereignty and national interests are also available. The regime’s unwillingness to respond to Sudan’s incursion into the Ethiopian territory, and its invitation of Eritrea in the Northern Ethiopian war and the continuing presence of Eritrean forces in Ethiopian territories are prima facie evidence that the regime is failing its primary responsibility of defending Ethiopian territorial sovereignty and integrity.

Another recklessness that the regime has unveiled is its (mis)management of the GERD negotiations. A closer reading into the dossiers of the GERD negotiations, from 2018-to-date, underscores that the GERD, a national flagship project, and current and future Ethiopian rights on the Abbay River are in harm’s way. Besides to a number of specific diplomatic and legal risks that the GERD negotiations have posited on Ethiopian sovereign rights, a backfiring effect that the negotiations facilitated and escalated downstream countries’ securitization policy on the (mis)use of the Nile River vilifies the regime’s reckless approach towards national and sovereign matters mostly.

Coupled to the regime’s misguided and belittling approach to the question of reclamation of sovereign maritime access to the Red Sea, the previous track records that the regime has registered on matters that seriously impact Ethiopian sovereignty made the regime an untrustworthy patron to reclaim a direct and free access to Ethiopia either through the international legal litigation that this article proposed or even by its own misguided, belittling, and consequential approach.

In the process of understanding the regime’s intentions in launching the Red Sea agenda in a time when civil wars are raging across Ethiopia, the (geo) political maneuvering of the language, patterns, and narratives of sacredness or greatness of (past) Ethiopia, the sanctity of Ethiopian sovereignty and its continuity by the regime shall be seriously questioned. Given the bad track records that the regime has exhibited over highly sensitive national and sovereign matters, its Red Sea Agenda (the question it framed, the means (the solutions) it proposed, and the time and context it tabled) cannot make the regime any better than its past tricks.

An Epilogue

This article aims to reorient the current Red Sea Agenda that has took many of us to an eyebrow raising reaction into an international legal argumentation between and among the scholarly community of international law and the likes which would ultimately push the concerning states to a peaceful international legal dispute settlement process to litigate and resolve the longstanding maritime dispute on the East African Coast of Red Sea.

The bottom line that this article provides is the existence of an international law-based claim that Ethiopia could ask, litigate and reclaim direct and free sea outlet or maritime sovereignty in the coastal territories of the Red Sea, via the inland territories in the terminus of the Assad Island.

In conveying this central message, the article makes a critical review of the discussions and assertions made, Inter Alia, in political, academic, and media platforms. Despite the differences held on various aspects of Prime Minister Abiy Ahemd’s setting of the Red Sea Agenda, one thing seems to be a commonly accepted understanding for both the supporters and opponents of the agenda. That commonly accepted understanding is the lack of international law that could support Ethiopian reclamation of maritime sovereignty, not a lease-based use of ports of the coastal states. This, the article finds, misunderstanding, mainly occurred due to the perception that equates Ethiopian actual loss of control and use of its legally recognized maritime sovereignty in the Red Sea Coastlines to a loss of legal right to assert, litigate, and possibly reclaim its actual control and use of the coasts line that was temporally lost to the occupation of the neighboring coastal state.

It’s noteworthy noted that the grounds that largely established the mainstream understanding on the (loss of) Ethiopian international legal rights of ownership of a sea outlet are;(I) Ethiopian recognition of the emergence of its formerly province of Eritrea, through a formula of state separation, as state; (II) the non-subjection of Ethiopian rights of coastal territory for legal dispute, litigation, and decision before the 2003 PCA affiliated EEBC (Iii) the inclusion to Eritrea  of the territory through which Ethiopia could and should have been used to use the coastal waters through sovereignty or ownership; and (Iv) the subsequent ( though are inconsistent) Ethiopian practices on territorial matters covered by EEBC decision.

Against these facts, the article holds a firm position that Ethiopia’s legal status on its sea outlet has not yet been specifically brought to, litigated and conclusively determined by a court of international law with an objective process of settlement of international legal disputes.

Hence, Ethiopian right to assert, litigate, and (re)claim its natural, historical, and legal rights of control and access to the sea is (still) a valid and viable subject matter of international law that cannot be denied or rendered as a legally impossible matter due to the factual realties of loss of control and use of the sea outlet. There is no such thing called as a fait accompli that would prevent international legal dispute on this question. Through international legal dispute, regaining or (perpetual) losing of control and use of a sea outlet is possible. This possibility should be considered for states relating to the question.

Given the misguided and belittling approach it is following on the question, and the lack of credibility it has on the matters of sovereignty and national interests, the current regime seems not a well-suited patron to lead Ethiopia into an international legal dispute and litigate its maritime rights. Hence, it should be advised to desist from its belittling approach toward the question. International legal argumentation, however, shall be continued. AS

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are that of the authors only and do not reflect JAKENN’s editorial stand on the topic.

Category: English

In-depth: Between Amity and Enmity: Teetering Ethio-Eritrea relations mount tension in the Horn

Addis Abeba – Tensions rise in the Horn of Africa as signs of a looming conflict emerge, unsettling the region just a year after the devastating Ethiopian civil war that claimed the lives of countless individuals.

Troubling reports of increased troop movements and aircraft activity near the borders of Ethiopia and Eritrea have started to circulate, raising concerns over a potential resurgence of hostilities in the area.

Apart from mere rumors and educated speculations, there are concrete indications that President Isaias Afwerki and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are gradually growing apart. These developments have sparked anxieties among regional players, foreign diplomats, and analysts, who are warning that both countries seem to be gearing up for a possible conflict.

The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia has experienced a significant transformation over the eventful years from 2018 to 2023. What began with animosity has gradually evolved into a cooperative dynamic. Unfortunately, the current situation has taken a troubling turn, with both nations teetering dangerously close to the brink of war.

Negera Gudeta, a researcher in peace and conflict and a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Peace and Security at Addis Ababa University, stated that Ethiopia and Eritrea share a complex and ever-changing relationship. Over time, they have experienced a fluctuation between enmity and amity. “The nature of the Addis-Asmara relationship is influenced by several factors, including historical, geopolitical, and economic aspects.”

The Horn of Africa region is caught in a web of regional security issues where the insecurities of one country spread rapidly to neighboring countries, leading to long-lasting conflicts in the region.”

Negera Gudeta, a researcher in peace and conflict

Negera further explained that the relationship between the two countries is also influenced by external factors like geopolitical dynamics in the Horn of Africa region. He emphasizes that these external influences have had a profound impact on their interstate relations and have been instrumental in shaping the creation, dissolution, and reconstruction of their relationship.

According to the researcher, the Horn of Africa region is caught in a web of regional security issues where the insecurities of one country spread rapidly to neighboring countries, leading to long-lasting conflicts in the region.

“This applies to the strained relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea as well.”

Healing old wounds

The signing of the Declaration of Peace and Friendship Agreement in July 2018 marked a significant milestone in the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as it put an end to their long-standing hostilities and ushered in a new era of peace. One of the key components that facilitated this agreement is Ethiopia’s acceptance of the decision made by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission.

Established in 2002, the commission determined the exact location of the border and concluded that the town of Badme falls within Eritrean territory. Despite initially committing to comply with the terms of the Algiers Agreement, Ethiopia had previously rejected the commission’s ruling and refused to withdraw its forces to the designated border.

This rejection persisted until Prime Minister Abiy assumed power in 2018. During a visit to Asmara, he signed the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship Agreement on 09 July, 2018. The global recognition of this reconciliation came with the signing of the Jeddah Peace Agreement on 16 September, 2018, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which further solidified the agreement. Esteemed dignitaries, among them UN Chief Antonio Guterres, were witnesses to this historic event. 300w, 768w, 1199w" alt="" width="1024" height="392" class="wp-image-39596" style="padding: 0px; margin: 0px; list-style: none; border: 0px none; outline: none; box-sizing: border-box; height: auto; max-width: 100%; vertical-align: bottom;" decoding="async" />
During the Signing of Jeddah Peace Agreement, 2018 (Photo: Ethiopia Embassy UK)

Following the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, diplomatic relations were restored, and borders were reopened. Telephone connections were reinstated, embassies were reopened, and air flights between the two countries resumed. The peace deal not only revived people-to-people relations but also facilitated cross-border trade.

After one year, Ethiopia made efforts to solidify the friendship agreement by drafting three bilateral agreements with Eritrea. These agreements aimed to govern the usage of Eritrean ports, bilateral trade, and cross-border movement, including petty trade. However, Eritrea did not take action to follow up on or ratify these agreements, according Kjetil Tronvoll, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies with a specialization in Eritrea and Ethiopia at Oslo New University College.

Concerns were also raised regarding the peace process’s neglect of the involvement of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the exclusion of the voices of borderland communities.

Negera recalls the lack of enthusiasm and cooperation from the TPLF in implementing the peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea. “The then Tigray regional government backed by the TPLF has been resistant to demilitarization of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, claiming a threat from Eritrea.”

Negera adds that the TPLF backed regional government has also been skeptical about the reconciliation efforts, viewing it as a military pact that aims to besiege and annihilate the Tigray people.

Tensions escalated further due to the postponement of the general election in response to COVID-19, while the Tigray regional government proceeded with regional council elections in September 2020, leading the federal government to deem it invalid. Both sides have engaged in inflammatory rhetoric, exacerbating the situation until the turning point came on 03 November, 2020, when the TPLF launched an attack on the Ethiopian defense forces stationed in Tigray.

Negera highlights that the breakout of this war transformed the peace agreements signed in 2018 between Ethiopia and Eritrea into a military alliance since Eritrea swiftly joined the conflict, justifying its involvement as self-defense.

Eyasu Hailemichael, a researcher on the Horn of Africa and an expert in international affairs, offers a distinct viewpoint on the matter, highlighting how the conflict between the TPLF and the federal government led to Eritrea taking advantage of the situation and interfering in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.

Regardless of the differing intentions attributed to Eritrea, it has undeniably played a significant role in the Tigray war from the very beginning. The strained relationship between Eritrea and the TPLF can be traced back to the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which began in May 1998.

Reliving the old days of animosity

The peaceful relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which lasted for four years, appear to have come to an end following the signing of the Pretoria Peace Agreement in November 2022, which marked the conclusion of the Tigray war.

Despite their alliance in combating the TPLF, the signing of the peace deal has stirred up long-standing animosities and sparked new disagreements, which now pose a renewed risk of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. 300w, 768w, 1200w" alt="" width="1024" height="640" class="wp-image-39581" style="padding: 0px; margin: 0px; list-style: none; border: 0px none; outline: none; box-sizing: border-box; height: auto; max-width: 100%; vertical-align: bottom;" decoding="async" />
The Pretoria Peace Agreement, signed in November 2022 to put an end to the Tigray war, has subsequently ignited fresh tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea (Photo: AU)

Eyasu highlighted that the peace deal was initially seen as a positive step towards peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, doubts and uncertainties have emerged regarding the effectiveness of this agreement as it has faced criticism for its imperfections, particularly the exclusion of important parties involved in the conflict, such as the Amhara and Eritrean forces.

“This omission has caused dissatisfaction and disillusionment among Eritreans, further straining the already delicate relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea,” said Eyasu.

Tronvoll argues the Pretoria agreement was considered highly provocative by Eritrea. He highlighted that President Isaias has always perceived a stable Ethiopia as a threat to his own power base, and his deep-rooted hostility toward the multinational federal system has led him to pursue destabilization policies towards Ethiopia for the past three decades.

Rashid Abdi, a geopolitical analyst and expert on the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, explains that Eritrea would have preferred a complete surrender of the TPLF or the removal of its leadership.

“This is the reason why Eritrea has refused to withdraw its troops from certain parts of Tigray, as they fear that the TPLF may regroup, reorganize, and launch a future war against Eritrea,” argues Rashid.

Despite the Pretoria Peace Agreement’s requirement for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Tigray, Eritrean troops continue to occupy the region. Initially, the Eritrean government assured the international community that their presence in Tigray would be temporary. However, their forces have yet to leave.

The impact of the peace deal on Ethiopia and Eritrea’s bilateral relations remains uncertain. However, experts emphasize that the success of the agreement depends heavily on Eritrea’s involvement. They argue that Eritrea’s substantial presence within Ethiopia needs to be addressed adequately to avoid exacerbating the already fragile situation.

Negera highlights the significant consequences of the Pretoria peace agreement, including the normalization of relations between Ethiopia and the Western world, particularly the United States and the European Union, which had been strained due to the Tigray war.

Negera believes that Eritrea feels betrayed by Ethiopia for violating a previous peace agreement, which has strained relations between Ethiopia and the Western world and prompted the reconfiguration of alliances in the region.

The other consequences of the peace deal, according to Negera, are the reshaping of alliances in the region, with Eritrea feeling betrayed by Ethiopia for violating a previous peace agreement. “This pushed Asmara to form an alliance with the non-state militia Fano to counterbalance the new Addis-Mekelle alliance,” he said. “This has strained relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.”

Ethiopia’s Red Sea access claim exacerbating tension

International affairs experts like Eyasu stress that the statement made by Prime Minister Abiy, expressing the desire for direct access to the Red Sea, has further deteriorated the already strained relationship between the two countries.

On 13 October, 2023, the Ethiopian state media aired a pre-recorded speech delivered by Prime Minister Abiy to the members of parliament. In his address, he emphasized the utmost importance of the Red Sea for Ethiopia’s future, suggesting that it could either lead the nation to great success or push it into oblivion. He also revealed Ethiopia’s aspiration to establish a naval base.

A few days after the broadcast, Ethiopia demonstrated its military prowess by hosting a grand military parade in the capital city of Addis Abeba. During this event, the army proudly showcased their newly acquired arsenal.

The statement made by Prime Minister Abiy, expressing the desire for direct access to the Red Sea, has further deteriorated the already strained relationship between the two countries.”

Eyasu Hailemichael, an expert in international affairs

Rashid highlights Eritrea’s heightened anxiety regarding Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s remarks, perceiving them as a ploy by Ethiopia to take possession of the Assab and Messewa ports.

Eritrea has provided a perplexing response to the speech, releasing an enigmatic statement: “There has been an overwhelming abundance of discussions, both concrete and assumed, about water, sea access, and similar subjects in recent times.

Eritrean diplomat Estifanos Afeworki, who serves as the ambassador to Japan, offered more precise remarks, asserting his country’s unwavering commitment to protecting its territory. In a message posted on X in October 2023, he stated that “no volume of unjustifiable provocation, misleading information, secret plots, or character assassination can alter this undeniable reality.”

The disclosure made by Prime Minister Abiy has not only unsettled Eritrea but also had a profound impact on neighboring countries such as Djibouti and Somalia.

“Our two countries have always maintained strong, friendly relations,” Alexis Mohamed, a senior adviser to Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh, told Bloomberg. “But you should also know that Djibouti is a sovereign country, and therefore, our territorial integrity is not questionable, neither today nor tomorrow.”

Somalia also rejected an appeal from Ethiopia to enter into negotiations with Ethiopia over the issue of access to a Red Sea port. “A fight over ports would further destabilize a region already in turmoil,” an adviser to Somalia’s president told The Economist.

Situated to the west of Ethiopia, Sudan is currently embroiled in what the United Nations describes as “one of the most dire humanitarian crises in recent history.” The enduring conflict between two warlords has led to the displacement of about seven million individuals from their residences. Ethiopia is also dealing with ongoing conflicts in its densely inhabited and largest regions, namely Oromia and Amhara.

While addressing members of parliament last week, Prime Minister Abiy emphasized that Ethiopia’s desire for a sea outlet and the establishment of its own port is not a new objective, nor is it intended to endanger the independence of neighboring nations in the Horn of Africa.

However, Negera underscores that Ethiopia and Eritrea have a history of engaging in proxy warfare in the region to destabilize each other. “They have been supporting and hosting dissidents who aim to overthrow the respective regimes in Addis Abeba and Asmara.”

Eyasu commented that if war were to erupt in the region, it could attract external actors with their own national interests, further destabilizing an already volatile region. He argues that the rivalries between Middle Eastern countries and advanced nations that have a significant presence in the Horn of Africa region could challenge the growing geo-economics of the Red Sea.

Tronvoll highlighted the implications of the strained relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. He argues that historical conflicts, proxy involvement in regional conflicts, refugee crises, and conflicting regional alliances all have the potential to destabilize the Horn of Africa.

“It is crucial for both countries and regional actors to prioritize peaceful means of resolving their differences in order to ensure stability and development in the region,” stressed Tronvoll. AS

Category: English

Eritrea withdrew from 2026 World Cup qualifying ‘over fears players will flee’

Eritrea at the Cecafa Cup in 2019 in Uganda.Eritrea’s football federation withdrew its men’s team from 2026 World Cup qualifying owing to fears that players would attempt to seek political asylum during trips abroad, according to sources close to the squad.A joint statement from Fifa and the Confederation of African Football (Caf) on Friday said that “all of Eritrea’s matches have been cancelled”, a few days before they had been due to travel to face Morocco in their first fixture, but provided no explanation.


The Eritrean National Football Federation (ENFF) has yet to comment but it is understood that domestic‑based players had been preparing for the opening two games of their qualifying campaign for three months before being informed at the end of October that they would not be taking part. Some ENFF members are believed to have attempted to convince the ministry of sport and culture to give the team the go‑ahead to play but it was refused by Zemede Tekle, the commissioner for sports and culture commissioner, who supervises the federation. 

According to several sources close to the squad, the main reason is to prevent players from taking advantage of the national team’s overseas fixtures to escape and request political asylum from the oppressive regime of the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, which imposes lifetime military service on many subjects.

“This is heartbreaking,” one source said. “They are killing Eritrean football. It’s not easy for the players to ask for an explanation. They may send you to jail for protesting. You can just wait and see what they decide.”

The Guardian contacted the ENFF president, Paulos Weldehaymanot, but he did not respond to a request for comment.

Since 2009 it is estimated that more than 60 players have used their status as internationals to seek asylum, with the most recent case involving five female players who fled hours before their game against the hosts Uganda in the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (Cecafa) Women’s Under-20 Championship in November 2021.

Seven male players – Abel Okbay Kilo, Eyoba Girmay, Yosief Mebrahtu, Filmon Serere, Robel Kidane, Abraham and Ismail Jahar – went missing in Uganda after helping Eritrea to reach the Cecafa Cup final for the first time in December 2019 and remain in hiding. Four under‑20 internationals – Hanibal Tekle, Mewael Yosief, Simon Asmelash and Hermon Yohannes – fled after Eritrea’s 5-0 win against Zanzibar in the quarter-finals of the Under-20 Cecafa Cup in Uganda in October 2019.Eritrea – who had been due to face Morocco, Zambia, Congo, Tanzania and Niger in World Cup qualifying – have not played since a friendly against Sudan in January 2020 and their most recent competitive game was a 2022 World Cup qualifier in September 2019. They no longer have a Fifa ranking having not played a match in the past 48 months, with all fixtures having to take place away from home owing to the lack of a stadium in Eritrea that meets Caf requirements to host international matches. 

“The problem for Eritrean government officials is that they have to play 10 games abroad,” said Daniel Solomon, the founder of the Eritrean Football website, who had planned his trip to Morocco. “It’s not a single round-trip match like in the preliminary rounds. It’s too much to handle for them. I booked a ticket for nothing. Eritrean fans have to wait another few years again for competitive football thanks to the mismanagement of Eritrea’s regime.”

Solomon says that Eritrea have some talented players, with Ali Sulieman Salih and Robel Teclemichael Bahta playing in Ethiopia’s first division. It has been unusual to see Eritrean footballers playing abroad, albeit in neighbouring Ethiopia, because the Afwerki regime does not easily grant the possibility of leaving the country.

“Teclemichael had offers from China, but due to Covid-19 nothing happened,” Solomon says. “If Eritrea were playing the 2030 World Cup qualifiers, these players would be 27. They are wasting their golden years, the opportunity to be seen on the international stage and be purchased by other clubs. Our neighbours Yemen and Somalia, which are experiencing conflicts in their countries, managed to have a team and play. Why can’t we do the same?”


Jonathan Wilson