On Ethiopia’s Legitimate Claim To Its Natural Seashores 

                                      Professor Negussay Ayele


Cartographic Images of Border Regimes—1936-1991

       In an earlier (June 17,2000) article entitled Reflections on Border Regimes and Colonial Treaties (originally posted on www.ethiopians.com) and also appeared in RAIJ, an Ethiopian periodical published in Germany, I generated a discourse on the status of Ethiopia-Eritrea borders and the obsolescence of "colonial treaties." In the present article, we shall take the discussion to its next logical step by raising some fundamental questions about Ethiopia’s natural, legitimate rights related to its northern borders. We embark on that task with a cartographic recapitulation of the relevant border regimes outlined in the aforementioned article. 

What I have tried to do heretofore is to forewarn all concerned--especially the rulers of Ethiopia--of certain false premises (at times deliberately espoused) and concomitant fatal flaws in decision-making with regard to Ethiopia-Eritrea borders and territorial issues leading in part to the recent spate of armed conflicts in the region.

     Fascist Italy made the first Ethiopia-Eritrea border regime spanning the period of 1896-1936 obsolete when it invalidated the treaties it had signed and invaded Ethiopia. It then completely changed the boundaries and instituted a new cartographic make-up of the Horn region, albeit for five years. With its deliberate unprovoked aggression, Fascist Italy violated the treaties and obliterated previous Ethiopia-Eritrea borders, which were operational between colonial Italy and Ethiopia. Therefore, those colonial treaties pertaining to the Ethiopia-Eritrea borders were rendered null and void as of 1936. 

      It should be stated that the same could not be said, for instance, with respect to other boundary agreements signed between Ethiopia and the erstwhile colonial powers in the region in 1897 and thereafter. To date, these have been considered valid international instruments, and the borders of successor states on the Horn including French (Jibouti), Anglo-Egyptian (Sudan) and British East African territories in the region such as (Kenya) and (Somaliland), have been generally mutually respected. In the event of disputes on delimitation and/or demarcation of boundaries between Ethiopia and the said polities, those colonial treaties can be invoked for clarification. Likewise, to the extent needed, the 1964 OAU declaration on African borders can be cited as a guideline for resolution of disputes, with respect to the borders between Ethiopia and the said countries. EPLF Eritrea is not in this mould. Neither is the Eritrean situation analogous to East Timor.

     When Italian invading forces entered Addis Ababa in May of 1936 they altered the geopolitical landscape of the Horn. They merged Ethiopia with their colonial possessions of Eritrea and Somalia to create Italian East Africa. The boundaries between Ethiopia on the one hand and the Italian colonial entities of Eritrea and Somalia were no more. So, when the Fascists were booted out of Ethiopia-Eritrea in 1941-42, the borders of the region were no longer what they were in the pre-war period. Had the British not decided unilaterally to keep the Eritrean coastal region under their control as ‘Occupied Enemy Territory', the whole of Ethiopia-Eritrea would have re-emerged as one entity. The pretext for this unilateral action by the British was the expanding war by the Allies against the Axis powers and hence the need for Allied presence in the Horn. Needless to say, the ready image of Eritrea for the British (as the premier colonial power in Africa) was the ante bellum Italian colonial cartography they were familiar with, despite its nullification by Fascist Italy. 

     Here then is the cartographic representation of that 1936-1941 Ethiopia-Eritrea border regime.

Map 1. Ethiopia During Fascist Italy's Occupation (1936-41).


     The next Ethiopia-Eritrea border regime begins with the eviction of the Italians from the Horn in 1941, Ethiopian resumption of independence and international deliberations on the future of Italian colonies in Africa. No international body near or far raised any question or objection about borders between 1941 and 1952 and no one invoked colonial "treaties" on borders. The British had used what they perceived to be (even if they were not involved directly when these borders were determined in the first place) the pre-war borders for their temporary wartime caretaker presence in the region. As noted in my earlier article, after a decade of lobbying and jockeying by all concerned, it was decided by the United Nations in 1950 that Eritrea be federated with Ethiopia "Under the Sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown". It took the Four Power Commission (Britain, United States, France, USSR) and the United Nations nearly four painstaking years to determine the future of Eritrea. It is useful to recall here the guiding principles of UN General Assembly Resolution 390 A (V) of December 2, 1950.The sense of care with which the matter was handled can be gleaned from the following passage in the Preamble which details the grounds of the resolution:

Taking into consideration

(a) The wishes and welfare of the inhabitants of Eritrea, including the views of the various racial religious and political groups of the provinces of the territory and the capacity of the people for self government,

(b) The interests of peace and security in East Africa,

(c) The rights and claims of Ethiopia based on geographical, historical, ethnic, or economic reasons, including in particular Ethiopia’s legitimate need for adequate access to the sea,…..

Recommends that: Eritrea shall constitute an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown."              

Article two of the resolution asserts that "the Eritrean government shall possess legislative, executive and judicial powers in the field of domestic affairs."

Article three says, inter alia, that "The jurisdiction of the Federal government shall extend to defense, foreign affairs, currency and finance, foreign and interstate commerce and external and interstate communications, including ports. The Federal Government shall have the power to maintain the integrity of the Federation…"

      The United Nations also deemed that it was appropriate for Emperor Haile Sellassie to exercise the ultimate sovereign authority of ratification of both the UN-sponsored Federal Act and the Eritrean constitution. In point of fact then, the colonial question as it pertained to Eritrea was over and done with as of December, 1950 by the deliberate and legitimate decision by the United Nations (although not entirely pleasing to all the parties concerned). For purposes of the federal administration, Article two of the Eritrean Constitution also stipulated that "the territory of Eritrea, including the islands, is that of the former Italian colony of Eritrea." Hence, the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation border was not an international boundary separating two sovereignties or two discrete entities. It was an internal administrative line--no matter where it was drawn or what resemblance it had to the pre-1936 era--within one sovereign Ethiopian State. It was recognized as such—for nearly forty years--from 1952 on by the UN, (and a decade or so later by the OAU) and all along by the global community of nations, including the United States. 


   Subsequently, all international agreements with respect to land, air, coastal space, ports in the Eritrean region as well as naval concerns on the Red Sea and bases, like the U.S Kagnew communications base in Asmara, were duly concluded and maintained between the Ethiopian government and international actors. Meanwhile, the region (not just the port) of Asseb was governed as part of Wello province for manifest cultural, economic, political, historical and logistical reasons, even though the government of the day opted not to have this political reality reflected in physical cartographic form.

     The bottom line here is that as of 1952, Ethiopia’s de jure international boundary in the North recognized by the whole world, was the thousand kilometers long shores of the Red Sea, not Eritrea. Of course, internal ELF/EPLF secessionist struggles a la Biafra, Shabia, Anya Nya in Africa were joined in the region. A federated country is one country under a single sovereignty regardless of ongoing secessionist movements or civil wars in it. Aside from opinions alluding to the subject, the UN Resolution did not enunciate what to do in the event of a critical constitutional issue in the federal system, such as what happened in 1962, when the Eritrean assembly voted to abolish the federation and opt for outright union. What is known is the fact that the United Nations did not react one way or another on the change of status from federal to union at the time or thereafter. Curiously, under the zealous guidance of then Secretary General Boutros-Ghali, the UN, along with the TPLF in Addis Ababa, facilitated and expedited the process of EPLF-Eritrean secession from 1991 through 1993.

That 1952-1987 cartographic rendition of the administrative border regime of Ethiopia- Eritrea was as follows.


Map 2. Ethiopia between 1952-1987.


       After some thirty-five years of the border regime depicted above we come to another border regime which features cartographic change in Ethiopia’s internal geopolitical landscape. In 1987, the Derg government of the day opted to make extensive internal border changes to reflect its cultural, economic, political and strategic dictates. Subsequently, the whole country was reorganized into thirty units. In the north, the new map of Ethiopia comprising about a third of the Afar inhabited parts of the administrative region of Eritrea as well as Afar areas of Wello and adjacent administrative regions, as one unit designated "Asseb Autonomous Region." The other two-thirds of the Eritrean administrative region became "Autonomous Region of Eritrea.


      This cartographic modification or change of Ethiopia’s internal territorial shape was the border regime that EPLF and TPLF found in place when they took over in Asmara and Addis Ababa in 1991. Predictably, EPLF and its allies did not like that internal adjustment. Nevertheless, unless one denies the verity of Ethiopian sovereignty in 1987, and hence its legal competence to make cartographic changes within its sovereign territory, these internal border adjustments represent the legitimate exercise of the government in power at the time. Note the fact that the TPLF government has redrawn the internal borders of what is left of Ethiopia regardless of objections to it in some quarters. Hence, there was no legal basis or dictate for an incoming government in Addis Ababa to hark back to an obsolescent colonial border regime and carve out forty six thousand square miles of territory including all of Ethiopia’s natural seashores to EPLF.

     Nowadays, the TPLF regime expends a great deal of psychic and other energies arguing in "parliament" and other forums that Asseb belongs to EPLF-Eritrea. Incredible as it may sound, the Addis Ababa regime argues more on behalf of Eritrean rights to Ethiopia’s seashores than Mr. Isaiass Afeworqi himself. In fact, under the circumstances, he does not have to say anything about what he has obtained in 1991-93 beyond his expectations by a skillful combination of force, deceit, internal treachery and international intervention. The de facto situation is that he still holds on to his unconscionably acquired bounty. In 1998, he lunged for more territory in the rest of Ethiopia. The problem many Ethiopians have been facing from 1991 to 1998, with regard to the problems of Ethiopia-Eritrea, is that they have had a two-pronged struggle. Even before alternative Ethiopian viewpoints get to confront the Eritrean side, such views have to get past its TPLF defenders. In effect, one has to do battle (of words or swords) with both EPLF and TPLF alternately or simultaneously, instead of working on a consensus for Ethiopia’s national interest. The TPLF acted as the chief of staff of the EPLF during this period --especially prior to 1998—to the detriment of all. The Reporter, a monthly periodical in Addis Ababa, put the problem thusly in its May, 1998, issue:


The problems pertaining to relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea ought to be reexamined in their entirety. The policy (vis--vis Eritrea) which until now has remained murky and nebulous should be crystal clear and categorical. We should be able to enunciate confidently the nature of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea. And, this is our right as citizens. We should not just plod on complaining like the man who, when asked to beat his in-law, said, "but how can I go past my wife?" (Personal translation).

     The cartographic rendition of that 1987 border regime apropos to northern Ethiopia is represented in the map below.


Map 3. The 1987 Border Regime of Ethiopia  (1987-91).


     When the current rulers in Addis and Asmara took over in 1991, Eritrea was not a colony of Ethiopia or a UN Trust territory or a sovereign state, and there was NO international (colonial or otherwise) boundary separating Ethiopia-Eritrea. Since 1952, the borderline denoting Eritrea was an internal administrative one. And, ELF/EPLF elements were not fighting against colonialism as colonial Italy was not ruling Ethiopia-Eritrea at the time, and the Ethiopian governments of the period were not viceroys of colonial Italy. The colonial question with regard to Eritrea was over and done with as of 1952. The "autonomous unit" of Eritrea "federated under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown" had no de jure international boundaries affirmed by international law, confirmed by valid treaties and recognized by the global community of nations individually or collectively for at least four decades. The desideratum of a separate Eritrean entity in its present cartograhic form is the product of ELF/EPLF secessionist elements. The EPLF-PFDJ strongman, Mr Issaiass, was quoted by Time Magazine in Addis Ababa in 1991, to have said, "Forget history; man makes history, and we have made an independent Eritrea." EPLF’s force cum propaganda scheme has thrived by obfuscating or obliterating historical facts and realities. EPLF’s objectives and its myth of the "colonial question" were swallowed whole and facilitated materially and morally by TPLF, culminating in EPLF Eritrean secession. In a 331-page policy document, Struggle of Eritrean People: From Where To Where, issued in 1987 (1979 Eth.Cal.) by the current TPLF leadership, one finds, for example, the following passage on Ethiopia-Eritrea:

The notion that Eritrea was or is part of Ethiopia is without historical merit, and one that remains a fairy tale. The fact is that at the very moment Ethiopia emerged as a state, Eritrea, which was not part of Ethiopia, was also created as a state by Italian colonialism. Therefore, Eritrea is a self-contained state, quite distinct from Ethiopia. (Translation is personal and unofficial).

     How does this rendition of Eritrean identity square up with the prevailing view in Ethiopia at large or in Tigray, in Eritrea, or even in the rest of the world at the time that Eritrea was being "created as a state by Italian colonialism?" Despite his nationalist zeal as Ethiopia’s ruler, Eritrea was lost to the Italians during the suzerainty of Tigrayan Emperor Yohannes. Still, it was he who protested a century ago saying: "I did not give them (the Italians) Massawa; the British gave it to them…Massawa is Ethiopian and I have neither the intention nor the power to alienate any territory which properly belongs to Ethiopia." The question here is, "What gives?" How is it that an older generation of Tigrayan leadership of Ethiopia that was there says Massawa (i.e, Eritrea) is Ethiopian, and then another generation of Tigrayan leadership a century later, which was not there, says Massawa (Eritrea) was not Ethiopian? Which generation of rulers is in a better position to know? (For details on aspects of the contemporary history of the region, see my "Ras Alula and Ethiopia’s Struggles against Expansionism and Colonialism: 1872-1897" in The Centenary of Dogali, edited by Tadesse Beyene, et al, Addis Ababa, 1988).

     Outside elements near and far, with varying political agendas with regard to the integrity, viability and esteem of Ethiopia, and overall control of the Horn region, have also contributed to the secessionist cause. The net result was the de facto forced severing of 3.5 million Ethiopians in Eritrea and 121,000 or so square kilometers of Ethiopian land, including all of its natural seashores, in 1991. The Ethiopian people had no say whatsoever in this process and the TPLF had no authority to "alienate territory which properly belongs to Ethiopia"-- to borrow the words Emperor Yohannes. It is one thing for EPLF to do the break-up by force of arms, declare its de facto secession and then do its own chores to get international acceptance much as Puntland has been trying to do on the Horn since 1991. It is quite another thing for a government in Ethiopia to take gratuitous measures to actively support such secession or dismemberment of its people and sovereign territory by pleading with the UN and the rest of the outside world to recognize the act. 


     It is to be recalled that the EPLF/TPLF orchestrated the breakaway of the Eritrean region in 1991, when the rulers in Addis Ababa were still transitional. Yet, they nurtured and protected EPLF-Eritrea from any opposition through the next two honeymoon years (or chagula, as it is called in Ethiopia). The process climaxed in 1993 when the EPLF stabilized its own position in Asmara and comfortably ran its "referendum." Speaking of that "referendum", one recalls here the observation by Dr Tekeste Negash, the noted historian of Eritrean birth, who said in his 1998 article, ‘Eritrea and Ethiopia: From Cooperation to Competition,’ that "compared to what took place in terms of assessing the wishes of the Eritrean people during the two commissions of inquiry (1947 and 1950), the 1993 referendum—‘if you vote red you will be dead’--was a serious setback."

     Some members of the international community that had supported and recognized the single sovereignty of Ethiopia-Eritrea, at least since 1950, facilitated this forcible illegitimate act of politicide of Ethiopia in 1991 while others acquiesced to it as a fait accompli. Under the circumstances, any formal agreement or treaty concluded between the two colluding parties (EPLF and TPLF) to seal the border based on such illegitimate acts, at the expense of the legitimate and abiding interests of the peoples of Ethiopia-Eritrea, is bound to remain illegal and unacceptable.


Comment on Modalities of Palaver on Ethiopia-Eritrea Issues


         As we move to the next segment of our discussion on Ethiopia’s legitimate claim to its natural seashores, I would like to make the following point. Especially in the realm of political discourse, any argument, discussion or political proposition emanates from a certain assumption or premise. A premise may be based on actual fact or on contrived political fiat, and it may be true or it may be false. Premises may be declared or muted, but they are there and they serve as the organizing and legitimizing principles for ensuing propositions, decisions, declarations and policies of protagonists and antagonists. If a given premise is false, the proposition and policy decision based on it will, ipso facto, be flawed. But once the conclusion based on the false premise is made and policy or political decision is issued, the tendency is to be defensive to save face rather than admit one’s error. And, of course, today’s proposition or conclusion can be tomorrow’s assumption or premises, and the chain gets longer and longer. Consequently, part of the reason why it has been difficult for us Ethiopians to reach consensus on certain political matters is that we often argue issues from variant and often mutually exclusive premises thereby being unable to reach congruent propositions or conclusions. Needless to say, the process becomes even more complicated when one imagines possible discourse between EPLF elements and Ethiopians who disagree with them on the contents of the present article.

     Let me illustrate what I am trying to say. I have jotted down a number of true/false litmus test questions revolving around the topic of this article for exercise. Let us take, for example, the statement: "Eritrea is a colony of Ethiopia." To some this statement serves as a premise from which emerge a whole set of propositions. To others, it may represent a proposition based on other underlying fact(s) or fiat(s). For our purposes here, let us assume the above statement as a premise. Is the statement "Eritrea is a colony of Ethiopia" true or false? Conclusions and policy decisions that emanate from a belief or conviction that the statement is "true" are diametrically opposed to propositions and conclusions that emerge from a belief that the statement is "false." Consequently, conclusions and policies based on false premises have dire, at times bloody, outcomes even if, sooner or later, reality and superior analytic power will expose the sham. 


     With the exception of very few Eritrean commentators who are not sycophants of EPLF, has anyone found other Eritrean elites who do not subscribe to the premises of "Eritrea is a colony of Ethiopia"? I have not. So, we can safely stipulate that EPLF Eritreans take their political fiat, "Eritrea is a colony of Ethiopia," to be the bedrock premises from which they drew certain axiomatic propositions, and rationalized their "anti colonial" struggles against "colonial" Ethiopia and their "colonial borders" as legitimate and just. To them, this makes their cause a zero-sum, all or nothing, ‘green or red’ proposition vis--vis Ethiopia.’ They are not concerned with facts, fairness, civility, logic, morality, history or international law—especially when these do not serve their purposes. It is a ‘take it or leave it premise which is not open to question or debate. Hence, one has to accept everything that emanates from their premises and move on to the next stage.


     By a fiat declaration that "Eritrea is a colony of Ethiopia," the EPLF and its cronies claim a case of uninterrupted Eritrean colonial history--and anti colonial struggle, to boot—all the way from the nineteenth century to 1991 irrespective of what transpired in between. The logical conclusion of that train of thought is the assertion of legitimacy of its "colonial borders" (and, of course, the validity of colonial treaties)--no matter what has transpired in the historical past. That is why they would claim that the 1964 OAU Declaration with respect to borders at time of independence is applicable to Eritrea because it was a "colony of Ethiopia." In fact, EPLF considered this "Eritrea is or was colony of Ethiopia" ploy to be such a premium copyrighted trademark that it discouraged other ethnic organizations from having the first class honor to call themselves colonies of Ethiopia eligible for independence. All the "liberation" movements in Ethiopia were set to Grade II "national question" categories worthy of national autonomy, at best; that is, until Eritrea's secession was complete.


     Civil wars and secessionist struggles within independent states do not have to end with the state dismemberment or politicice. Struggles for self-determination in such cases can and do find alternative political formulas for dealing with the root causes of secessionist or civil wars in question. Although most struggles for secession have not succeeded in Africa and elsewhere, in recent years we have seen externally aided forcible breakups in Cyprus and Pakistan. There is also precedence for a voluntary, civil and peaceable split as happened with the Czech and Slovak republics. And then there is the mushrooming of new states from political implosions in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. One takes note of the drawn out peaceful, democratic and constitutional struggle in Canada with regard to the partition of Quebec. To that end, several referenda have been held democratically in which all views were openly ventilated and freely balloted. In the event that the Quebecois elect to form a separate state by a preponderant majority, the Canadian Federal Court will have to decide the constitutional modality of enacting the separation. It will also have to determine how to protect the rights of indigenous Inuit and Cree peoples in the area who have repeatedly voted to remain as Canadians as well as on the delimitation of ultimate regional boundaries of Quebec. For decades now the world has witnessed painfully the violent struggles to decide the future of Northern Ireland. We should also note that history is replete not only with examples of forcible or peaceable splits but also of forcible or civil reunifications. Relatively recent examples of the latter include Viet Nam, Germany and Yemen. Likewise, the Korean people are also proceeding, albeit turtle-like, towards reunification after more than half a century of Cold War induced dismemberment.

     In 1991, the EPLF and TPLF, the two victorious bosom allies, could have forged--in a transparent manner--at least a framework for a fair and amicable agreement on territorial, economic, security, regional and related matters, to obviate the kind of bloody and ugly display of recent years. For the record, both Mr. Meles and Mr Isaiass, and many others, were sitting and listening at the 1991 (July 1-5), "Charter" conference in Addis when the martyred Professor Asrat Weldeyes had said:


I submit that this conference has no authority to decide, to desist or to delete anything in the name of the Ethiopian people. However, one recognizes the prevailing de facto situation in the country, including the cessation of bloody hostilities among brothers as well as the current momentum for peace and democracy. EPRDF and EPLF can use their special close relations to see to it that the spirit of Ethiopianity and forgiveness be brought to bear to work urgently for a lasting peace between the brotherly and sisterly (Ethiopian-Eritrean) people. I respectfully submit that this is the primary mission for a transitional government. 


     What I have tried to do heretofore is to forewarn all concerned--especially the rulers of Ethiopia--of certain false premises (at times deliberately espoused) and concomitant fatal flaws in decision-making with regard to Ethiopia-Eritrea borders and territorial issues leading in part to the recent spate of armed conflicts in the region. The eruption of these conflicts is an index of deep-seated festering territorial problems. The conflicts, triggered by EPLF-Eritrea, also represent opportunities to correct past errors and redress imbalances and injustices that befell the Ethiopian people since 1991. The net result is expected to serve the mutual benefit of Ethiopia-Eritrea peoples. It should establish conditions for genuine lasting peace and viable regional development for all. In the next segment of my discourse, I will take a major and crucial issue that has been increasingly gaining literary visibility among Ethiopians. The issue is Ethiopia’s legitimate claim to its natural seashores on the Red Sea. Ethiopia was divested of three and a half million of its inhabitants and 121,000 square kilometers of its land with its natural seacoasts when EPLF-Eritrea seceded by force in 1991. Enough has been said of TPLF’s betrayal and of international complicity in this illegitimate but now de facto act.

         At this point, the reader is entitled to ask, "Why revisit or rehash all this past since a new 'reality' is in place on the ground with respect to the territorial divide of Ethiopia-Eritrea?" The short answer to the query is: 

(1) because EPLF-Eritrea saw fit to violently question the yet undefined and undeclared border regime of the region in 1998; 

(2) the whole process by which the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia was rammed by force and fraud on Ethiopia by EPLF and TPLF in 1991, was full of holes in the first place; 

(3) the bloody comedy of errors instigated by the colluding parties has resulted in untold and unnecessary death and destruction in the region, and this cannot be allowed to continue or recur in the future. 

     It is hoped that what follows will contribute towards a resolution of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border problem by moving the modality of discussion from its current ‘zero-sum’ status towards a more equitable ‘win-win’ game. To attain such outcomes, requires in the minimum deliberate open-minded attention to the issues concerned and to varying and competing views--other than one’s own—by the powers that be. It requires also a sense of strategic (not tactical) vision of a future for generations to come in the Horn by all concerned. It requires courage to admit mistakes rather than defend them and a firm commitment to do the right thing no matter what the repercussions on one’s person, party or power.

Foot Note:

The maps in the text are culled from Ambassador Teferra Haile Selassie's book: "The Ethiopian Revolution, 1974-91", Published in 1997 and from Mahlet Periodical (Amharic) issue of 1993.

September 26, 2000

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Copyright 2000 Negussay Ayele /MediaETHIOPIA. Readers may redistribute this article for noncommercial use as long as the text and this notice remain intact. This article may not be resold, reprinted, translated or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author and EOW.