Oduu Haaraya

Assab: Old Port Up Against Old Thoughts

By T. Tolera | Nov 5, 2013

Ethiopia is officially the most populous land locked country on the planet. It is paying some 1 billion dollars in port rent fees to Djibouti every year which has made the already widening foreign trade deficit even bigger-now estimated at -40%. This has left the Ethiopian government to scramble for replacement access to the sea- from the port of Tadjoura in Djibouti to Lamu in Kenya. Whichever way, the cost of getting to the coast has proved to be very high.

Isn’t cheaper to just invade Eritrea and occupy Assab port for that 1 billion dollars? That is probably one way of solving the problem, isn’t it? In fact, Ethiopia has refused to abide by the Algier’s arbitration and it is still in possession of Badme, a disputed town on the border; and it would not be a surprise move if it resorts to forcefully claim port Assab, just expanding the occupation. It is said the indigenous Afar people inhabiting Assab area are also much closer and in fond of Ethiopia than Eritrea. In addition to that, Eritrea has alienated itself due to its involvement in Somalia and the West [UN] would not be much of sympathetic to its outcry against Ethiopia. However, the heavily militarized [both in hardware and mentally] population of Eritrean would not be easy to ignore. So occupying and using the port is definitely hard to impossible. Diplomacy then is the only plausible way to tackle this issue.

The diplomatic grounds to acquiring or getting access to Assab port according to international maritime law and Ethio-Eritrean history has been discussed extensively in political and academiccommunity. But even diplomacy has a challenge as some still are in illusion as far as saying the country Eritrea itself is part of Ethiopia and Assab belongs to Ethiopia, with no precondition. That is an insult to Eritrean sovereignty which would hurt pending progress in dialog towards a win-win scenario on the issue [of port Assab], even assuming there is a peace between the two neighbouring arch-foes.

Recently, a group of hard-liner old think-thank Ethiopians under the shadow of Shango [Ethiopian People Congress United Struggle], have sounded to declaring that Eritrea is part of Ethiopia. At the same time, they believe Eritrea [EPLF] is on an evil cause of dismantling Ethiopia. So they reckon ‘true Ethiopians’ have to run like cheetah to claim back Eritrea quickly before it does any harm to Ethiopia. They categorically disapprove any military solution to Ethiopian problem based in Eritrea which has put them on collision course mainly with another allegedly multi-ethnic party, Ginbot-7.

I appreciate the effort of Shango to foreseeing and focusing final results than the processes. They should be credited for their stand that appears to demonstrate Ginbot-7 is Amhara based party that works with the likes of other ethnic based guerrillas such as TPDM and to less extent with OLF-Jijjiramaa. They have recognized that any political movement in the name of Ethiopia, weather peaceful or armed, is pretty much Amhara. But Shango is very much old in a lot of ways.

First, they don’t want ethnic politics or identity politics continue to determine Ethiopian political landscape. I think they don’t quite get that it is not what we want-it is what we ought to want because of our differed history, wills and aspirations. And they are responsible for not creating a common will, history and aspiration as most of them are from the repressive era of Haile Selassie and Derg that shaped these factors.

Second, I think they are confusing patriotism with nationalism. They appear as if they are Ethiopian nationalists but they are just chauvinist-patriotic deep down. From a number of interviews, it appears they put more emphasis on abstract values and beliefs with little interest on concrete culture, language and heritage. This is probably their tactic of avoiding the complex polity that is as diverse as our languages and cultures are by merely focusing what is now Ethiopian culture and language [Amhara culture and Amharic language].

Third, it feels a bit naïve that Shango contemplates Eritrea is part of Ethiopia and at the same time denies any military aid from EPLF to the opposition while supports any force that aims at toppling TPLF. From the ranges of prominent armed opposition in the bushes, not even single group claims port Assab belongs to Ethiopia pretty much because most of them operate from Eritrea. But in case of OLF for example, it fully recognizes the sovereignty of Eritrea and its rights to Assab port, weather it operates from Borena, Bale or Eritrea. There are parties such as UDJ, Arena and Blue party in Ethiopia which share Shango’s stand on Assab. So this clearly puts Shango in limbo because peaceful struggle might last decades to get rid of TPLF and reclaiming Eritrea and Assab ‘quickly’ is not going to be easy.

Even the party Shango blames working with Eritrea, Ginbot-7′s stand on Assab is not really clear, from what they often say and write; among other things which are only vivid about G7. Does G7 claim Assab should belong to Ethiopia? If yes how they envision to reclaim it? The easy diplomatic or the hard way? We don’t really know except that Dr. Birhanu and Ato Andargachew telling us these two close people, the Eritreans and Ethiopians, will sort out their differences peacefully after G7 marches to 4 kilo palace. But how much is that realistic? Is it that easy peasy? What if the two people that are claimed to be so close happen to hate each other? Will Dr.Birhanu order an aggression against Eritrea to seize port Assab then? I leave the answers to the readers.

To make my writing a bit adventurous, let me suggest one solution to this monumental problem. Well, my solution should not cost more than a 10 year port rent to Djibouti. And it is not as crazy as waiting for new sea to develop over Danakil depression. Simple areal observation reveals the distance between Ethiopian border and Eritrean coast is about 50 km at its narrowest location. So I suggest the Ethiopian government develop secrete ship passage tunnels from the coast to Ethiopian border. I think they can send their Special Forces [probably Agazi] and Engineers to Palestine for training and experience. Or probably from Norwegians. And good luck digging!

Hooraa Bulaa!

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