Updated on November 6, 2023 , 10:10 A.M. Toronto Time to correct typo error.
Last Month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed publicly spoke about what he had been discussing with his close circles at least since July of this year – a claim on the Red Sea. His public announcement came weeks after Shimeles Abdissa, president of Oromia region, reportedly told a jubilant ethnic Oromo nationalists, in the aftermath of this year’s Irreecha celebration, that they would be celebrated on the Red Sea in the future.
Before Abiy Ahmed, Lemma Megersa, former Abiy Ahmed’s boss and president of Oromia region, has hinted several years ago about the aspiration to access to the sea ownership during one of his speeches as Minister of Defense ; “One Day we will have a sea port.” The move to re-establish a naval force was started during his tenure as Minister of Defense. Help came from the West – in the form of French support. “Abiy Ahmed’s brother,” pledged it when he was visiting Ethiopia.
Abiy Ahmed’s official claim over the Red Sea has triggered a response from state actors in the Horn of Africa including Eritrea. Overall, it is not positive. Despite that, access to the sea has become a regular content of coverage for state-owned media outlets and the ruling party cadre’s are hyping it on social media.
Eritreans are, rightly, expressing anger over Abiy Ahmed. Many Ethiopian activists and the general public are expressing anger over Abiy Ahmed and there is also a concern for a possible conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In fact, there are reports that both Ethiopian and Eritrean governments are deploying troops in the border areas.
Ethiopians’ opposition to Abiy Ahmed’s provocative claim over the Red Sea seem to be grounded on the view that Abiy Ahmed is setting the “access to the sea” agenda” as a strategy to deflect multi-faceted crises his government is facing including the war in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. There are also those who tend to think that “it is not the right time to raise the Red Sea agenda.” What this remark is missing, as far as those who are expressing it outside of the context of bilateral talks with Eritrea on port access, is that there is no such thing as a right time to claim an internationally recognized territory of a sovereign state. That has to be clear.
That said, it is important to understand the political and military circumstances that led to Abiy Ahmed ( or possibly Oromo Nationalists’ ) claim over the Red Sea. The development leading to the Pretoria agreement involved an extensive effort on the part of the U.S. and its allies to rescue the TPLF as a political entity. Seen from the point where we are now, it is possible to speculate that the effort was not just to end the war to save the TPLF but also forge a political and military alliance between the TPLF and the Oromo Nationalist Forces that are in control of power. The political alliance between TPLF and Oromo Nationalists in the post war period is no longer a speculation at this point as it has become evident from the failure of the Ethiopian government to pursue the implementation of the Pretoria agreement – especially on the question of disarming the TPLF. It never happened. This past week, the economist reported that the TPLF still has at least 200,000 armed forces. Reports from local sources are also indicating that the TPLF is recruiting and training more troops.
In the aftermath of Abiy Ahmed’s provocative claim over the Red Sea, media outlets with a sentiment to ethnic Tigray Nationalism were preoccupied with the question of how “Tigray” should respond to it while attempting to demonstrate – even to audience outside of their ethnic base- how “Eritrea is an enemy to Ethiopia.” On the question of how “Tigray should respond” to Abiy Ahmed’s possible war, while manifesting the dilemma that Abiy Ahmed is not trustworthy and might not follow through if war break out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the question asked was : “who is the worst enemy to Tigray.” Invited Tigrean analysts on media outlets like Reyot media, tend to rule out that “Shabiya [Eritrea] is the worst enemy,” and therefore “Tigray should either be neutral” or offer “cautious support to Abiy Ahmed.”
Recent report from Tigray is painting an image that there is a rift between the TPLF and the Interim government (which is essentially drawn from the TPLF). Experience has proved, at least during the two years war, that the TPLF is talented in playing dead and there is a possibility that the alleged political difference could just be political trickery.
One thing that needs to be remembered is that during the two years war, western powers consistently demonstrated interest to exploit the war as a tool to advance a regime change agenda in Eritrea but the TPLF fell short of the military power needed to make that a reality. The fact that Eritrea was drawn to the conflict partly due to the TPLF’s effort to internationalize the war was ignored.
To state the obvious, Eritrea has been targeted by western powers for decades for ideological reasons and governments after the fall of Derg in Ethiopia have been supported by western powers – primarily the United States. Abiy Ahmed’s government, although there has been at times a political trick to paint an image that it is not in good terms with western powers, is not an exception. It seems to be the case that the degree of submissiveness, to western interests, of Abiy Ahmed’s government suggests that his government is surviving partly because of the support ( including intelligence support) it is getting from western powers. The growing ideological influence of Eritrea over Ethiopians has possibly alarmed the western powers to clandestinely push regime change agenda using Abiy Ahmed and TPLF forces.
Perhaps another possible reason why it is happening now is that President Isaias Afeworki made two high profile visits to Russia and China in a matter of about two months earlier this year. Eritrea has signed numerous agreements with both countries. Given power rivalry between the great powers, Eritrea is seen as a potential threat to Western Interest in the region.
Eritrea’s determination for its sovereignty and not to bow to pressure ( economic, political, diplomatic and possibly even military) from the west is one of its greatest achievements – a lesson that is relevant to the rest of Africa – not just to Ethiopians. However, it should be remembered that Eritrea’s resources ( in all its forms) are very limited. Potential powerful allies may not be of immediate assistance as they are dealing with western backed issues in their own backyard. Eritrea’s failure was that it was late to understand how toxic ethnic politics in Ethiopia could be detrimental to its own existence. Essentially, the new political and military alliance was in part informed by the pursuit of ethnic nationalism interest. They both aspire to acquire a portion of the Red Sea.
That is why Eritrean activists need to exercise caution when it comes to responding to Abiy Ahmed/TPLF new project. They need to have clarity that Ethiopia did not betray Eritrea or Eritreans. Clearly, it is a distinct political force that is pushing the Red Sea agenda- to be specific TPLF old guards and Oromo nationalists alliance. And this force is taking advantage of Western Powers’ interest for a regime change in Eritrea. The danger is that a regime change agenda in Eritrea will not remain a regime change. It is the existence of Eritrea that is at stake too. How to foster alliance with Ethiopianist forces should be given the attention it deserves.
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