Unpacking hostility: Abiy Ahmed, Ismail Guelleh and Red Sea Access

  • Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seeks to secure fair Red Sea access for landlocked Ethiopia, driven by trade expansion, and his vision for the country.
  • Djibouti President Guelleh aims to safeguard Djibouti’s economy by strengthening ties with China and the Middle East.
  • Abiy’s Red Sea deal with Somaliland has wider geopolitical implications, potentially impacting Middle Eastern nations who closely monitor developments in the Red Sea region.

Why is Abiy Hostile towards Guelleh?

Answer: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s new maritime agreement with Somaliland has strained relations with Djibouti’s Omar Guelleh over high sea fees in the Horn of Africa.

Until 1993, Ethiopia had direct access to the Red Sea through its neighbour Eritrea. Since Eritrea’s independence, Ethiopia became a landlocked country needing to explore alternative avenues to maintain sea access.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has initiated a significant shift in Ethiopia’s sea access strategy from Djibouti to Somaliland, primarily driven by his aim of securing access to the Red Sea. The economic constraints of high port fees charged by Djibouti’s President Omar Guelleh has increased Abiy’s hostility towards him. 

Abiy Ahmed’s interests are in gaining sea access and encouraging economic relations  with Somaliland’s President Bihi Abdi, hence the Memorandum of Understanding  between Abiy and Somalia’s President Sheikh Mohamud for Red Sea access. This transition has sparked controversy in the Horn of Africa region where Mohamud and Omar Guelleh both express their concern and discontent on Abiy’s maritime interests.

One of the critical concerns stems from the political dimensions of the matter. Guelleh and Mohamud find themselves in a situation reminiscent of the historical Eritrea-Ethiopia border dispute from 1998 to 2000. This conflict was driven by Ethiopia’s aspirations for sea access. Evidently, Mohamud’s dissatisfaction towards Ethiopia from using Somalia’s territory – Somaliland – in trade agreements,  potentially threatening the stability in the Horn of Africa.

The consequences of the sea access dilemma extend beyond economic concerns. Djibouti’s economy, heavily reliant on its strategic location for maritime trade, faces an unsteady future if a mutually agreeable solution is not reached. The potential collapse of Djibouti’s economy could have broader implications for regional stability, making it imperative for all involved parties to engage in meaningful dialogue and negotiation.

What does Abiy want?

Answer: To assert fair Red Sea access based on Ethiopia’s rightful entitlement as a landlocked country under International Maritime Law.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s pursuit of sea access for Ethiopia is majorly driven by his vision of economic diversification and trade expansion. Sea access has been a gateway to international markets. 

Abiy has proposed a diplomatic and economic strategy which aims at envisioning a strengthened relationship between Ethiopia and its neighbouring counties Eritrea and particularly Somaliland. Here, neighbouring countries can offer Ethiopia permanent low-cost access to their ports in exchange for shares in Ethiopian projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopian Airlines or Ethiotelecom. 

The GERD is an important component of Ethiopia’s Development Vision, aiming at utilising the Nile River and its potential for hydroelectric power. In context, sea access becomes indispensable for Ethiopia, facilitating the efficient transportation of crucial construction materials, machinery, and energy resources necessary for the successful use of the GERD project for diplomatic relations and national development.

Abiy has used the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCOLOS) to assert Ethiopia’s right to access international waters. Abiy knows the pivotal role that sea access plays in overcoming the challenges of being a landlocked country in the participation of global trade. In response to concerns raised by Somalia, Abiy assures that there is no declaration of war but rather expressing the country’s legitimate need for a seaport. 

Tensions between President Guelleh and Abiy are notable by Djibouti’s collaboration with China in establishing naval facilities. These facilities help serve China’s interests in securing vital maritime trade routes, particularly those linked to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. 

Ethiopia may perceive the increased Chinese military presence as a potential threat, prompting tensions as both nations navigate the delicate balance between economic interests, regional security, and geopolitical alliances. The strategic significance of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa underscores the complexities of managing alliances and competing interests, contributing to the nuanced tensions between Guelleh and Abiy.

What does Guelleh want?

Answer: Guelleh aims to safeguard Djibouti’s economy by extending port-related advantages with a particular emphasis on strengthening ties with China and the Middle East

President Omar Guelleh of Djibouti recognizes the significant impact Foreign Direct Investment played on the country’s 6% annual GDP growth from 2013 to 2019, specifically highlighting the importance of sea access and port infrastructure. 

Given Djibouti’s annual $1.5 billion USD revenue from Ethiopia’s port usage, the prospect of an alternate route through Somaliland raises concerns. President Guelleh expressed disappointment in the Ethiopian ambassador in Djibouti for concealing negotiation details in their Memorandum of Understanding. 

To continue port development, Guelleh wants to focus on China and Saudi Arabia- countries already involved in Djibouti’s sea arrangements. Saudi Arabia having saved  Djibouti from receiving a very large number of Yemeni refugees strengthened their relations. 

Thus, President Guelleh’s lasting perception of Saudi Arabia being a significant player in fostering peace and stability in the region has started a potential redirection of Djibouti’s economic focus from Ethiopia to Arab states and possibly China for economic expansion and port utilisation. Importantly, in 2021 Saudi Arabia and Djibouti made an agreement on a direct shipping route in the East Africa market.

While Djibouti’s relations with Ethiopia have historically been strong, changing geopolitical scenarios and economic interests have prompted Guelleh to explore alternative alliances. Djibouti, with its strategic location along the Red Sea, is caught in the middle of this geopolitical shift from Abiy’s new port arrangement with Bihi Abdi.

What is Abiy doing?

Answer: In response to Djibouti’s high port fees, President Abiy Ahmed has taken a strategic step by entering into an agreement with Somaliland to secure access to the sea

Djibouti’s high port fees prompted Abiy Ahmed to forge an agreement with Somaliland to secure access to the sea. This move unveils a strategic initiative aimed at mitigating the challenges posed by Djibouti’s financial barriers to the Red Sea while creating potential benefits for both Ethiopia and Somaliland.

The agreement between Somaliland and Ethiopia holds several key implications for both countries. 

On one hand, it offers Abiy an alternative and potentially more cost-effective route to the sea, bypassing the financial hurdles imposed by Guelleh. The benefits of this agreement extend beyond only economic considerations. By diversifying its sea access points, Ethiopia enhances its overall resilience in the face of unforeseen challenges, such as port closures or political tensions that may limit their involvement in another country’s port. This strategic move aligns with Abiy Ahmed’s vision for a more self-reliant and economically robust Ethiopia that will help maintain peace in the Horn of Africa region.

It is also important to acknowledge the potential challenges that may arise from different national interests. Since Djibouti has been a crucial historical ally for Ethiopia from past agreements in trade and port logistics, Guelleh may perceive this move as a shift in diplomatic allegiances. Managing diplomatic relations with Djibouti while pursuing this new sea access route will require careful negotiation.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Due to the Somaliland-Somalia dispute, Abiy’s access to key maritime routes may be restricted, giving Guelleh an advantage in exploring options with China and the Middle East.

Lasting tensions  between Somaliland and Somalia has created a complex situation in the Horn of Africa region where deals between Somaliland and other countries concern Sheikh Mohamud, President of Somalia, given his claim for the Somaliland territory.  Somaliland has been a part of Somalia’s territory since 1960, however, it is now an internationally unrecognised state. Through the MoU, Abiy recognizes Somaliland as a state, angering Mohamud. 

Abiy on one hand has found a partner through which he can finally access the Red Sea. On the other, Djibouti’s President Guelleh, in response to Abiy’s move, has shifted his focus towards alternative partnerships, particularly with China and countries in the Middle East.

Furthermore, the involvement of the Middle East contributes to the existing complex dynamic of the Horn of Africa region politics. Djibouti being strategically located with access to the Red Sea is important for Middle Eastern countries seeking to expand their influence in Africa. 

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, for instance, engage in economic and military partnerships with Djibouti, and their interests intertwine with the existing collaboration between Djibouti and China.  Ethiopia also has relationships with Middle Eastern countries, seeking economic and security partnerships. Guelleh must carefully consider its alliances to avoid extending tensions in the Horn of Africa, particularly between himself and Abiy.