By Samuel Estefanous
La Mer…this isn’t a reference to the famous song by the French crooner nor is it about the soundtrack to Mr. Bean’s Holiday, a movie particularly favored by the 90s generation here in Addis.
The ‘la mer’ that echoes in my ears is the one narrated by the one and only Fitewerari Teklehawariyat Teklemariam. In an inimitable style that is peculiar to the Fitewerari, he had the habit of registering every itinerary and relating his interaction with the locals in minute details.
In one of his journeys, he was travelling to Djibouti accompanying the Heir to the Throne Abeto Eyasu. All along their way to Djibouti, the impatient and inquisitive Prince was troubled by the Somali boys running along the track and as if on cue shouting -la mer, la mer, la mer…
‘What do they want and why do all of them scream like that?’ He wanted to know and the Fitewerari explained that for some reason the kids were screaming “the Sea, the Sea, the Sea” in French.
I would have added as if they were choking for lack of an opening to breath.
1-This Goes Way beyond Abiy and the PP leadership
I have never subscribed to the age old narrative that as a country we have been hemmed in by our “historical enemies”. Something generations of Ethiopians have reluctantly entertained, sometimes brutally goaded by the State propaganda machine as in the case of the Dergue.
I mean think about it, as a Nation of Nationalities we have the whole Nationalities of Djibouti and Somalia; and that of Eritrea even in larger numbers except perhaps for the Rashadas. In the West and South West we share border settlement nationalities with Kenya, the RoSS and the Sudan. The logic is simple- a Nation cannot make an historical enemy out of its own people.
However, we did have historical enemies in the colonial powers of the Ottoman Empire, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. For Centuries the Ottoman Empire controlled the Red Sea coast and cut us off from the rest of the World hence the often quoted observation by the historian Edward Gibbs. Indeed, we had lived for hundreds of years forgetful of the World by which we were forgotten. Our isolation was so much extended that we were subjected to and we subjected ourselves to countless myths and legends.
Just the same there was something a generation of Ethiopian rulers have been lamenting about indiscriminately and incessantly-la mer!
The Europeans did kick the Turks out on the pretexts of all sorts of noble sounding causes from the Holy Lands, the South Mediterranean Sea and the Red sea Coast only to savagely scramble the lands like a pack of hungry hyenas among themselves. They installed themselves on the whole circumference of Ethiopia’s Sovereign territory and squeezed us in-literally!
Methodically they denied us a narrow vista to the wide open sea, not that they couldn’t afford it but they kinda reasoned that unless the country is held in perpetual poverty it would be a menace to colonialism in Africa. Those Colonial Powers were our historical enemies.
2- The enduring desire to hold Ethiopia in Perpetual Poverty
Whether we like it or not African Nations are heirs to the colonial legacy with all its border demarcations, languages, the art of governance and the unfortunate so called ‘house slave’ prejudices.
With a population of close to 126 million we are the second most populous Nation in Africa; with a surface area of 1,104,300 square kilometers, we are the tenth largest country in Africa yet thanks to Colonial legacy we are denied a window on to the Sea. I don’t doubt the wisdom of the founding fathers of African Nations when they agreed to maintain colonial borders in 1964. But it remains a sad choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Just for mental gymnastics and to appeal to the good sense of natural justice consider these stats: Somalia collectively commands a coastal line of 3,330 kilometers; Eritrea narrowly stretches to the tip of the border with Djibouti for 1000 kilometers; Kenya has 1,420 kilometers coastline; Djibouti is almost a coastal territory of 314 kilometers width.
Amidst all these abundance, our contractual attempt to lease a narrow strip of 20 kilometers length is being heralded as a monumental threat to the security of the entire region. We aren’t even claiming it. We have no reason or proximity of territory to claim it; we are leasing it for crying out loud; yet the Federal Republic of Somalia is acting like we are invading a portion of its Sovereign territory.
I wish our neighbors were to do a little bit of sincere soul searching. Do they drive a little bit of diabolical pleasure seeing Ethiopia’s predicament amidst the abundance even if they stand to gain nothing by it. Nah, would they prefer to mutually benefit by entering into some kind of joint venture with us allowing Ethiopia to have a vista into the open sea? Or would they rather suffer impoverishment than see Ethiopia having any semblance of access to the Sea? Makes me wonder, I know how naïve my query might sound but trust me the sentimental attraction to zero sum game prevalent in the wider Horn warrants it.
3-Half Djibouti is leased out and the venture goes legit
Just like any other ruler of Ethiopia before him Menelik II did everything in his capacity to have a foothold on the shores of the Red Sea coast. His local and ferenji counselors advised him to enter into a lease agreement with the French and he did. I mean leasing a shoreline isn’t such an unprecedented novel idea.
The French, the United States, the People’s Republic of China and the UAE all have entered long term lease agreements with Djibouti for military purposes. Some statistics suggest that the combined fee the four countries pay doesn’t come anywhere near the two million dollar Djibouti daily collects from Ethiopia. If that isn’t a king’s ransom, I wonder what could be characterized as such.
By conservative estimate Ethiopia is paying two million us dollar PER DAY for port services. That adds up to 20% of the income it earns from foreign trade and it is being paid directly into the coffers of the Republic of Djibouti. Given that, by all accounts, the latter would stop at nothing to maintain the status quo and keep milking us dry.
4- The costs of Recognizing Somaliland
Up until 1979 the United States didn’t recognize the People’s Republic of China nor did Ethiopia until 1970. Though the number kept dramatically dwindling following the rise of the Chinese dragon, there were sizable countries that recognized the RoC (the Republic of China aka Taiwan) at the expense of the People’s Republic of China.
I don’t know how tightly it was cornered but I wish the Ethiopian government were to simply maintain the de facto Sovereignty of Somaliland without getting into the complexities of extending formal recognition. It would have fared better had it left International Customary law to take care of the consequences.
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