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Eritrea’s Ports Preoccupation of Ethiopia

Almost a decade ago two of Africa’s greatest hopes for the future were building societies to reshape the image of the African. Both nations claimed to encourage civility with one another and the rest of the world; an effort to change the relationship of their continent with the outside world. A new philosophy was born in Eritrea and Ethiopia, aside from embracing the quintessentially African (e.g. love for social justice, etc.), a desire for international tranquility.

This desire came about at the close of bout of the realpolitik no longer practiced exclusively in Europe, but by nations all around the world. In 1998 however, Eritrea and Ethiopia returned to war. Sparked by an ill-defined border, but with far more dubious machinations driving the conflict, it continued as one of the largest land-wars since World War II.

Peace efforts abounded, to no avail for two and a half years. The Eritreans withdrew from their positions in a confidence building measure prior to the signing of a ceasefire, in the meantime Ethiopian troops overran the new Eritrean positions. In Eritrean fashion Eritrea withdrew further into the hills and prepared for a counterattack, however ceasefire was finally agreed to. Woven into this conflict are the many pre-existing notions about the historical relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Until the early 1800’s, most of Eritrea was free of Ethiopian control, autonomous, and dealing exclusively with local issues.1 The paltry measure of control that Ethiopia did exert over Eritrea was mostly in the highland regions of Eritrea. It is a great irony that many Ethiopians today claim that Ethiopia has a historical right to the sea.

This is typically expressed as either a claim to Adulis, or to Massawa. Adulis was the premiere port of the Red Sea, until the fall of the Axumite kingdom 1,000 years ago. Today the silted port of Adulis would be better investigated for archaeological treasures than used as a port. This of course returns us to Massawa. During, Eritrea’s struggle for independence from Ethiopian occupation the port of Massawa was a major battleground. This port however, was not even considered by Ethiopia until the late 19th century. By this time it was already under the control of other powers.2

Furthermore, Massawa had never fallen under the authority of Ethiopia until its federation with Eritrea in 1952. It was after the terms of the federation were violated of course that the Eritreans rejected Ethiopian control and started the struggle for independence. Throughout its history, Eritrea has been a point of contention for other powers, however, today Eritrea is the contender.

Eritrea has morally and legally rejected the ideas of realpolitik and held staunchly to its position that might does not make right, but that right makes might. This has continued to the issue of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border; there cannot be any alteration the Hague decision and as virtual demarcation has now been conducted, and Ethiopian troops have not withdrawn, the occupation has begun.

As the holiday season is upon us, consider that Ethiopia, amongst the poorest nations in the world, receiving millions upon millions of dollars in aid is currently conducting very expensive occupations of its neighbors. The world shook for nearly a decade when Nazi Germany occupied its neighbors, if we cannot learn from the past, it may shake again when Ethiopia does the same.


  1.  Killion, Tom (1998). Historical Dictionary of Eritrea. The Scarecrow Press  

  2.  Holcomb, Bonnie K and Ibssa, Sisai (1990). Invention of Ethiopia: The Making of Dependent Colonial State in Northeast Africa. Red Sea Press  

Published inDemarcation