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Stability in the Horn of Africa: Strategic Security for the World

An Address by HIH Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie to Florida International University, April 8, 2004

It is possible to measure, in large part, the rise of global wealth — and fluctuations in it — by the viability and efficiency of the trade in goods. This has been the history of civilization, beginning with the trade in food commodities, metals, animals and luxury goods around the littorals of the Red Sea and Mediterranean, dating from ancient times. It is now clear that many of the implements vital to early Egyptian society came from the Horn of Africa and possibly even from Australia. Discoveries have revealed that commodities from the British Isles found their way to the Eastern Mediterranean long before the Roman invasion, and a mainstay of Mediterranean and European wealth was, for several thousand years, the arduous, complex trade across the Silk Road to China.

And yet it was with the development of efficient, large ships that trade — and global wealth — began to multiply. This was compounded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as two great manmade canals — the Suez and Panama — took advantage of the mechanization of ships to create a stable, rapid and increasingly reliable heavy freight capability.

Several great maritime arteries today are the definitive choke-points for international trade, and therefore international stability and wealth: the Suez-Red Sea sea-lane; the Panama Canal; and two natural waterways, the Danube River system and the Strait of Malacca.

It could be argued that the global economies were damaged significantly and measurably when, in 1967, the Suez Canal was closed during the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Equally, there was another great economic hiatus when, in 1984, Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi ordered the laying of floating ocean mines in the Red Sea from the minelayer Ghat, a move which caused insurance companies to refuse to allow merchant vessels, including oil tankers, from transiting that sea lane leading to and from the Suez Canal, forcing traffic around the long and arduous Cape of Good Hope sea route.

Today, we take the great arterial sea and waterway trade for granted and focus more on the impact of air transportation. Indeed, the rôle of aviation to the development of trade and strategic power is unquestionable, but the movement of large numbers of people and large volumes of commodities and finished goods depends, even today, overwhelmingly on sea transport.

It is necessary to understand this global matrix to provide a context for understanding the paramount significance of the Horn of Africa to the stability of the global trading system and therefore its significance to the wealth of nations and peoples.

Indeed, it is an obvious geopolitical link to see how the fortunes of the Red Sea/Suez sea lane are tied to the Horn of Africa; they are inseparable from each other. And it is easy to see why a variety of states — from Egypt and Israel, and from the United States to Australia — are so sensitive to the wellbeing of this sea lane; their lives depend on it, as do the welfares of much of Western Europe and Japan.

Arguably, at some point, perhaps 20 to 50 years into the future, Japan will see a unified Korean Peninsula adjacent to it, allowing the completion of a rail link which will provide extremely rapid, “just-in-time” shipping of Japanese manufactured goods to Western Europe. Right now, at least 40 percent of Japan’s high-value exports are sitting on ships at any given time, tying up enormous investments — literally 40 percent of the cost of those exports — for all the time those goods are at sea. Reducing tied-up capital enables greater investment turnover, dramatically accelerating economic growth.

But it should be assumed that even a major arterial railroad linking the foot of the Korean Peninsula with Western Europe would not diminish in any way the vital ocean traffic moving through the Red Sea/Suez link nor the South China Sea and Malacca choke-points along the way to and from Japan.

The question, then, is how the vital element — the Red Sea/Suez link — can be safeguarded.

The existing approach, as I noted, has been to focus on the sea lane itself, and on the littorals: the coastlines of Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti, Eritrea, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But history has taught us that the health of the littorals is merely the symptomatic reflection of the health of the hinterlands behind them, just as the health of a person’s skin is a reflection of inner health.

The great 19th Century British strategist and geopolitician, Sir Halford J. Mackinder, who is far too overlooked today in this world of quick-fixes and instant technologies, talked about the critical relationship between heartlands and rimlands. He who controls the heartland controls the rimland. Perhaps I should add here the caveat that he who controls and utilizes or develops the wealth and strength of the heartland controls the rimland.

In the context of the security of the Red Sea/Suez sea littoral, on the African side, the heartland focuses around the wealth and power created by the benefits deriving from source of the Blue Nile: the highland Plateau of Ethiopia. Significantly, it is this natural wealth — today largely unexploited following years of destruction by the Stalinist Dergue which took power away from the Ethiopian people in 1974 — and the inherent power over the source of most of the Nile waters, which places Ethiopia at a strategic crossroad. Perhaps I should say it places Ethiopia in “the strategic cross-hairs”, for this natural asset of which Ethiopia is the custodian, the Nile, makes Egypt nervous and defensive.

The Government of Egypt — which has roughly the same size population as Ethiopia — has said that the only natural cassus belli, or cause of war, for it would be an interference with the flow of Nile waters. And yet despite the fact that the flow of Nile waters has never been materially affected by any actions in Ethiopia, such is the strategic and iconographic importance of the Nile to Egyptian survival that governments in Cairo seek and demand assurances and rights from Ethiopia over the flow of Nile waters. It could be argued that the Nile is one of the great strategic waterways of the world which is not as important for the goods carried on it as for the water itself, which Egypt regards as its own.

As a result, Egypt’s strategic actions with regard to the Red Sea are governed by its innate fears — which have never been even close to reality — of Ethiopian intentions with regard to the Nile. Egypt today, for example, favors the former Ethiopian territory of Eritrea, now an independent state, and encourages its hostility toward Ethiopia. Equally, it works to ensure that the Arab League and African Union do not recognize the sovereignty of Somaliland, which in 1991 reverted to its independent status with the collapse of the Somalia union. By keeping Somaliland unrecognized, Egypt attempts to deny Ethiopia access to the sea, but in reality — as with the fueling of Eritrean-Ethiopian hostility — succeeds only in sustaining instability in the Horn of Africa.

Eritrea, in fact, is a classic example of the dependence of rimlands on heartlands. Almost its entire wealth has been dependent on its historic rôle as an entrepot; a transition from the shipping lines, which have linked it from the times of ancient Greece with European, Arabian and South Asian traders, to the heartlands of Ethiopia. Specifically, Eritrea was the area through which the great coffee exports of the Abyssinian highlands — from the area of Kaffe, from whence coffee takes its name — were bought and sold to foreign buyers.

Even when Eritrea sought and obtained its independence in 1993, with the blessing of the new Ethiopian leadership which followed the ruthless suppression of Ethiopia and its then-province, Eritrea, by the Dergue, the coffee trade continued to provide wealth to the Ethiopian farmers and to Eritrean traders. It was only when Eritrean leader Isayas Afewerke decided to create a new national currency, the nakfa, did the great schism begin between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and it was a schism in which Egypt, Libya and others supported Eritrea in the belief that Eritrea, not the now-landlocked Ethiopia, held the key to Red Sea security. Significantly, the nakfa was not backed by an innately strong economy in Eritrea, and was not an internationally tradable currency, and yet Eritrea insisted that Ethiopian farmers take this currency in exchange for the coffee. Ethiopia would, however, only accept its own currency, birr, which could be used locally, or a foreign hard currency.

Ethiopia, faced with a refusal by Eritrea to pay for the coffee other than with nakfa, indicated that it would export its coffee through other ports, and Djibouti immediately began to prosper as the ancient trade route linking Ethiopia and Djibouti was given a new lease of life. The antagonism which arose between Ethiopia and Eritrea was compounded by the fact that the new Eritrean currency was named after the Nakfa mountain range, which had been the symbol of rebel armed resistance to Ethiopia.

And it was this impasse over currency which actually led Eritrea to economic ruin and the necessity for its leadership to seek some form of distraction from the decline which beset the country. It sought, and very nearly succeeded, in destroying the Ethiopian Government, by claiming that Ethiopia was occupying Eritrean territory and using this as a pretext for war. Ethiopia, after years of civil war, was unprepared; It only united in time to expel the Eritreans and, essentially, win the war.

And yet the war still hangs over the region. Eritrea remains without a resource to sell; it had once been the world’s fourth-largest coffee exporter, and yet it grew little coffee, dealing only in the supplies brought down to the coast by Ethiopian farmers. Eritrean ports languish today, empty of ships. And so Eritrea subsists on foreign favors, to a large extent, encouraged by Egypt, Libya and others, to persist with its hostility toward Ethiopia, rather than rebuilding the ties which would benefit both states.

Ethiopia has begun to recover; it has innate strengths, traditional natural wealth and a large — 60-million-plus — population. It has developed the renewed trading route through Djibouti, and is now rebuilding and expanding its overland links through Somaliland to the port city of Berbera, on the Gulf of Aden. And yet Eritrea, Egypt and Libya, which have essentially led the Arab League to support their initiative, have also attempted to starve Somaliland of trade and recognition. The extensive Saudi imports of Somaliland lamb have ceased, impoverishing this stable and moderate country.

Eritrea and Libya support insurgent groups operating in and through Somalia to act against both Somaliland and Ethiopia. We should remember that Ethiopia developed over the past few thousand years as a classic empire, comprised of a great number of ethnic or communal groups, with some 60 languages and dialects spoken under an umbrella of the Amharic language. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, the Ethiopian language, Amharic, or Amarigne, is derived from a root language, Ge’ez, which is itself derived from Aramaic. Ge’ez is, by way of comparison, the “latin” or base of a number of the regional languages of the Ethiopian empire, including Tigrigne, the language spoken by Eritreans and the people of the neighboring Ethiopian province, Tigré (Tigray).

The other two countries of the Horn on which we have not yet touched, Somalia and Sudan, are themselves severely challenged at present, particularly Somalia, which is, in a real sense, not a nation-state at all, its only productive constituent member, Somaliland, having withdrawn in 1991 from the union into which it had voluntarily entered as an independent and sovereign state on July 1, 1960, with the former Italian Somaliland. So it is ironic today that lawless Somalia — essentially what was Italian Somaliland — today is recognized as a state, even though it does not have a functioning government, while democratic, stable Somaliland — what had originally been British Somaliland — is denied recognition although it is a true sovereign state.

To be sure, the fears of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and possibly Libya, are only partially about Ethiopia’s control of the Nile. They also fear that Ethiopia, which was at one time a Jewish state but which has historically, since the Fifth Century, been a Christian-led state, would give Israel a base in the region and would give Israel a strong capability to control trade through the Red Sea. For the same reason, they oppose Somaliland, which, unlike Ethiopia, has virtually a totally-Muslim population, fearing that Somaliland’s strong embrace of secular, democratic government would also lead it to enter into deals with Israel so that Israel could base military units and warships there to dominate the mouth of the Red Sea.

It is true that Ethiopia has an Orthodox Christian majority population, but the Christian section of Ethiopian society is only marginally larger than the Ethiopian Muslim society. Significantly, Ethiopian Muslims tend to be strongly nationalist Ethiopians, but now face an attempt by Wahabbists from across the Red Sea to politicize them and separate them from their Orthodox Christian brethren. This is unfortunate, because it was an Ethiopian King who saved the disciples of the Prophet Mohammed when they were pursued by the rulers of Arabia at that time. As a result of this, the Prophet issued an instruction that no attempts should be made to proselytize or attack the Ethiopian people.

Today, this stricture of the Prophet is forgotten, and that Ethiopia, the great friend of the Muslim peoples, is treated shabbily by Mulsim-ruled Egypt and by the Arab League.

Indeed, Egypt’s, Eritrea’s and the world trading communities’ interests are best served by a healthy and strong Ethiopia. A weak and unstable Ethiopia contributes to ongoing weakness and instability in Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia, Egypt and Sudan. This, it goes without saying, not only causes hardship at all levels throughout the region, but also into the Mediterranean, onto which Egypt looks. An economically weak Egypt, and one which is troubled, has profound implications for the spread of radicalism and for the continuation of the Arab-Israeli difficulties. A weak Egypt is bad for all of the Middle East, which looks to Cairo for strength and leadership.

So in this regard, while it is understandable that the international community should indeed be concerned about the stability of Eritrea, it should also look to the core of regional stability, Ethiopia, as the heart in the Horn of Africa heartland. Fortunately, Ethiopia has begun the slow path back to economic and social reconstruction, despite being deprived of its native access to the sea. However, the ongoing weakness of Eritrea places its ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice in the position where it will almost certainly again, and very soon, seek another war with Ethiopia as a way of gaining international support and aid, and as a way of suppressing internal frustrations which stem from the economic decline in this formerly vibrant area.

This is not speculation. We know that the Eritrean Government continues to fund, train and arm insurgents aimed at damaging the Somaliland Government so that Ethiopia would be deprived of a viable sea outlet to supplement Djibouti. We know that Eritrea is funding, arming and supporting other groups which aim to destabalize Ethiopia. And we know, even in the past few weeks, that Eritrea has begun, once again, recruiting Russian mercenaries to fly its combat aircraft and run specialized military units. This can only be in anticipation of a new war with Ethiopia.

The last war cost all of the peoples of the region most dreadfully in human terms as well as crippling the regional economies. But it also hampered the movement back toward the kind of democratically-representative government whose idea was in its infancy.

It is unfortunate that Ethiopia, the only part of Africa never to have been formed as a result of colonization and which has its thousands of years of history as a sovereign state with its own language and literature — unique in Africa — is today less than understood in Western policy circles. Ethiopia is a country of unrivalled beauty, history, complexity and strategic importance. It is the font of all societal evolution; it was from Ethiopia than communities formed, and spread to the rest of the world. As such, it is a pillar in all civilizational development. I urge you to explore for yourself its wonders, mysteries and beauties. You will then start to see its strategic and geopolitical importance to the world.

Africa needs Ethiopia to be strong and Addis Ababa, its continental capital. It is home today to the African Union. Ethiopia was the inspiration of the African independence movements and of the phenomenon of pan-Africanism. But Ethiopia is also an asset, and a vital component, of the global trading and security structure.

We cannot afford to allow another war to occur against it.

It is only then that the real war against the unholy trinity of poverty, disease and illiteracy can continue and unleash the potential of the region and the continent in a spirit of unity and tolerance.

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