Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed insisted Thursday that Ethiopia would not invade another country or pursue its interests “through war” after previous remarks he made about seeking access to the Red Sea aroused regional concerns.
“There are fears that Ethiopia may carry out an invasion after our recent strong demand for access to the sea,” Abiy told thousands of troops in Addis Ababa participating in a parade to mark National Army Day.
“I want to assure that Ethiopia will not pursue its interests through war. We are committed to mutual interest through dialogue and negotiation.”
In a televised speech on October 13, Abiy said that landlocked Ethiopia “is a nation whose existence is tied to the Red Sea”, a key waterway for global trade.
He said Ethiopia needed access to a port, adding: “If we plan to live together in peace, we have to find a way to mutually share with each other in a balanced manner.”
Those comments raised concerns among observers, particularly against a backdrop of apparent tensions with neighboring Eritrea, which has a long coastline.
And Eritrea’s information ministry followed Abiy’s remarks with a statement describing “discourses” about access to the sea as “excessive”.
Africa’s second-most populous country, with around 120 million people, Ethiopia’s economy has been constrained by its lack of access to the Red Sea, a narrow strip of water between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Ethiopia lost its coastline after Eritrea broke away from Addis Ababa and formally declared independence in 1993, following a three-decade war.
It enjoyed direct access to a port in Eritrea until the two countries went to war in 1998–2000 and since then has relied largely on Djibouti for imports and exports.
Abiy won a Nobel Prize in 2019 for his rapprochement the previous year with Eritrea, whose troops later fought alongside Ethiopian government forces in the brutal two-year war in the northern region of Tigray.
Eritrean troops were accused of severe rights abuses, including rape and murder, and Asmara was sanctioned by the United States in 2021 over its role in the conflict, which ended with a peace deal in November 2022.
The deal called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Tigray, but Eritrea was not a party to the agreement, and its troops continue to be present in border areas, according to residents.
Relations between the two countries have since appeared strained.
In his speech on Thursday, Abiy said: “Ethiopia has never been defeated and will not be defeated in the future.
“Ethiopia has never invaded any country and will not do so in the future,” he added. “The Ethiopian army does not aim to attack and invade others, but to defend the country.”
A mosaic of more than 80 ethno-linguistic communities, Ethiopia has in recent years been troubled by sometimes deadly violence over identity and territorial claims.
Its most populous region, Oromia, is plagued by armed violence and anti-government insurgencies and has witnessed ethnic massacres in recent years.
Its second-most populous region, Amhara has been under a state of emergency since August after fighting erupted between federal forces and local militia fighters who had supported Ethiopia’s government during the Tigray conflict.
Abiy’s administration is also in talks to restructure debt after its finances took a hit from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and a two-year civil war with the government in the northern Tigray region.
“Further instability in the Horn of Africa is in no-one’s interest,” a US State Department spokesperson said by email. “Disputes must be resolved through dialog, and both Ethiopia and Eritrea must avoid provocation.”
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