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Ethiopian Confused – Part 2

Throughout the reign of Emperor Menelik, the immediate successor of Yohannes the IV (discussed previously, in part 1), the treaty boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia was further clarified. Although these treaties essentially recognized the balance of power on the ground they also provided grounds for recognizing that Ethiopia did not have sovereignty over the Red Sea nor ports on it. Additionally they also connect the pre-colonial independent regions of Mereb Mellash together into a singular territorial entity. As we will see in the discussion regarding Emperor Haile Selassie (part 3), the only way for Ethiopia to have access to the sea would be through the intervention of European powers.

The boundaries between Eritrea and Ethiopia were fixed four times:

  • 1889 (Treaty of Wuchale) abrogated and replaced in 1896 (Treaty of Addis Ababa),
  • 1900 (identified the boundary western and central portion of the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia),
  • 1902 (a modification of the 1900 treaty dealing primarily with central part of the boundary), and
  • 1908 (identified the boundary in the east).

Although his reign was relatively brief, Emperor Menelik was partially responsible for deconstructing the myth of Ethiopian boundaries. As a result of the above mentioned treaties, it became clear that Emperor Menelik did not consider the land north of the Mereb to be a part of Ethiopia. This is in some measure to be expected as he was not in fact a typical Emperor, in fact he is one of the few who were in fact Oromo (specifically Shoan).1) The lack of interest in Eritrea by a Shoan is likely caused by proximity, or in this case lack thereof, considering that the regions of Tigray and even Gonder are far closer than Shoa to Eritrea.

Of course not all developments related to the boundary with Eritrea and more relavant to this series, to the ports, were a product of his Imperial power. During the 1870s he had made agreements as the King of Shoa to trade through the Italian port of Asseb.2 Further, he in 1887 signed a secret agreement with Italy, essentially recognizing that Abyssinia had no sovereignty over Eritrea.3 These two agreements together identify an understanding that the Eritrean ports are not territorially important to Ethiopia, or at the very least Shoa, as they can be accessed through agreements. Of course this possibility has always existed, a topic which will be discussed more in the final (part 4) of this series but it is important to note that Menelik recognized this option.

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  1. Reid, Richard; “The Challenge of the past: The Quest for Historical Legitimacy in Independent Eritrea”; History of Africa; Vol. 28 (2001 

  2. Yohannes, Oakbazghi; Eritrea: A Pawn in World Politics; 1991 

  3. Yohannes, Oakbazghi; Eritrea: A Pawn in World Politics; 1991 

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