In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 19 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
(First Published on Asmarino.com on July 2, 2002)
Ethiopia’s Access to the Red Sea
Of all the comments and proposals I have presented in this series of articles and essays, I admit this one might be the most controversial.
Here goes: in 1985, a strange but what I believed then was a phenomenal idea popped into my head and refused to leave me. Hence, after mulling over the idea for a few days, at that time, I became convinced that if the leadership of Eritrea could present that idea as a gesture of peace to Ethiopia, it might change the world opinion, including those of African, European, American, and maybe even that of the U.S.S.R., Ethiopia’s main ally at that time, in favor of the Eritrean revolution.
I don’t know if all Eritreans deny this, but I believed then, and I still do, that many good-intentioned nations, organizations, heads of state, individuals, and statesmen opposed the very idea of an independent Eritrea, mainly:
- They did not believe Ethiopia would accept the reality of remaining landlocked.
- They did not think there would be peace in the region once Eritrea became independent and Ethiopia became landlocked.
- They did not believe that Italian colonialism did justice to the ancient nation by denying it access to the sea.
Therefore, I became convinced that if Eritrea could address the valid concerns of the good-intentioned nations, organizations, individuals, and leaders, it could win their support and sympathy for its fight for self-determination. I also thought the gesture might even, to some degree, succeed in dividing the opinions of the general public in Ethiopia. Anyway, after I kept the idea to myself and slept on it for about four years, then in 1989, I prepared myself to present it directly to Issayas when he came to the U.S. and invited all Eritreans to Washington, D.C.
Nevertheless, for unexpected reasons, I failed to attend the gathering. In retrospect, I do not know whether or not I could have dared to utter my idea in the face of many angry Eritreans; I also would not know how Issayas would have reacted to the suggestion. In any case, while I kept mulling over the idea and waited for an opportune time to come, Eritrea became independent. After that, I did not see a reason to put the idea forward to the leaders of Eritrea anymore. Since then, I casually mentioned this idea to a few Eritreans, but their response was either outright rejection, mute, or indifferent.
I am not aware of anyone who had such an idea, nor do I know if there ever was such a plan of action by Eritrea or Ethiopia. I never heard about it from anyone, but ideas are in the air, as the greatest inventor, Thomas Edison, once said. True, ideas are in the air, readily available to be accessed and retrieved by anyone who tunes in on and seeks them earnestly. Therefore, if you readers have heard of it from someone with whom I had never conversed, it could only mean a coincidence, or it could mean that there was such a plan of action that I was not aware of, or it could mean that there was such a plan that authorities did not make public.
I know every one of you readers is now waiting anxiously to read what I am about to present. I know at the hint of any plan of gesture, the first thought that pops into every Eritrean’s mind is Assab, and the first reaction is, no way, we are not going to give Assab away to Ethiopia.
Over the years, Eritreans have grown sentimental over Assab, but more so during their 30-year-long struggle. Therefore, it is prudent for Eritreans to recognize that Assab holds sentimental values for Ethiopians, too, owing to their 40-year rule of it. Hence, my proposal seeks a middle ground to address both peoples’ needs and emotional feelings.
I have never been to Assab, but reading the map, I recognize approximately 40 kilometers long of coastal land, and sometimes even longer, depending on the map, between Assab and Djibouti. My proposal calls on Eritrea’s democratically elected future government to consider leasing a piece of that coastal land to Ethiopia. Also, it advises the post-Issayas government of Eritrea to invite all peace-loving communities of the world to serve as witnesses during the signing of the deal.
- Eritrea shall lease 10-15 kilometers of coastal land between Assab and Djibouti to Ethiopia for one dollar a year for 50 years.
- The lease shall be signed before the following witnesses:
- The U.N. (United Nations);
- The O.A.U. (Organization of African Unity);
- The E.U. (European Union);
- All neighbors and present and future regional and international major powers, democracies, such as the USA, Italy, UK, Germany, France, Russia, China, Japan, Israel, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Norway, Sweden, Sudan, Australia, South Africa, and Iran.
- The lease shall be reviewed in the year 2052 before all the witnesses, and a decision will be made on whether to renew the lease for some more years or to hand that coastal land over to Ethiopia permanently.
- Ethiopia shall build a port on the leased coastal territory.
- The World Bank, IMF, and all well-meaning and peace-loving nations and organizations be appealed to help Ethiopia with any technical difficulties of building a port in that part of the coastal land.
- If constructing a port in the said coastal land proves technically impossible, then other alternative ways, which I will unveil in the future, have to be explored to resolve Ethiopia’s necessities.
- Ethiopia may name the newly constructed port Assab if it wishes.
- Ethiopia’s military presence in the leased land will be limited to the police force.
- Naval security will be maintained by Eritrea.
- The coastal land shall be entrusted to all Ethiopians as a nation and not to a particular Ethiopian nationality or tribe.
One of the major thoughts that tormented me when mulling over this idea was how to deal with the fate of the native Eritreans who live in that particular pocket of land. I could not find proper compensation for the natives because I knew no compensation would redress the change they had to experience. I only wished that they would try to understand the bigger picture, that is, the contribution they would make to the harmony of the regions. But also, the natives need to realize that when peace does not prevail in that part of the region, they could become the first victims.
Regarding the native Eritreans who live in the said seashore:
- The local inhabitants will be compensated fully by Ethiopia financially.
- The local inhabitants will hold full (dual) citizenship of both nations.
I will present some detailed guidelines, including the decisions to make if and when natural resources are discovered on the leased land. Moreover, the post-Issayas government of Eritrea must solicit advice and consult with international lawyers with expertise in writing treaties before signing an agreement.
Again, I cannot stress enough that the deal has to be put forward and signed by a democratically elected government from the Eritrean side and not by Issayas and his rubber-stamp “legislators.”
Why this Arrangement?
I came up with this compromise because I believe the two countries cannot achieve true and lasting peace if Ethiopia’s needs are not fully addressed.
As long as Ethiopia remains landlocked, emotionally charged tensions and animosity will remain between the peoples of the two nations, even if and when Ethiopia and Eritrea were to become democratic nations governed by democratically elected leaders.
I believe it takes real Eritreans to call Ethiopians our brothers and sisters; hence, I call upon all open-minded real Eritreans to discuss this issue freely. Also, I believe it would be selfish and even silly for Eritreans to deny a corridor of sea outlet from their longer than a 1000-kilometer stretch of coastal land to their Ethiopian brothers and sisters.
Over the years, we Africans blamed Europeans for all our problems, but we also found ourselves fighting one another over the rules set by Europeans. Recently, Eritreans and Ethiopians lost tens of thousands of lives over a piece of poorly marked and created borderlines by Europeans for a piece of land that is not even worth paying for one life.
Moreover, if Eritreans can have a sentimental attachment to Assab and thus fight for 30 years for a land they have known through colonialism, one should not dismiss that Ethiopians could also grow sentimental over Assab.
Even as I devise this plan, I understand that no law in this world, with or without this deal, can prevent both nations from going to war in the future. True and lasting peace can only be reached when the groundwork for peace is laid. But for this to happen, all kinds of gestures need to be made by both sides, and each one needs to understand the alternative will be astronomically costly in terms of human and material resources for both nations. Without a doubt, Eritrea has the timing and the resources to make the first gesture, whether or not Ethiopia will reciprocate its gesture.
I believe this gesture for peace will potentially bring lasting peace to the region. Furthermore, economically prosperous Ethiopia can be politically stable and a top trade partner for Eritrea. But that said, those Eritreans who are opposed to any gesture need to realize that the alternative will be costly; furthermore, they need to pledge to bear the full responsibility, including by committing to join the regular Eritrean Army with their children, and that their support should not be limited to a one-dollar-a-day, or to wailing empty slogans such as “we will not give an inch,” as it was during the Badme War.
During the recent War with Ethiopia, the Eritreans living in foreign countries, while living in free nations in comfort and sending their children to prestigious universities, bragged about a military solution and victory over the “border conflict.” However, their most significant contribution during the War was adding fuel to the fire, causing Issayas to become even more stubborn during the negotiation for peace, eventually costing tens of thousands of precious lives of poor Eritrean families living in Eritrea. But it was ironic that during the War, those Eritreans who favored a military solution did not show the guts to visit their country even as tourists for fear of being stranded in the country they loved and to see the president they adored.
Having mentioned the gestures in the above statement, Ethiopians must be forewarned that they should not get the wrong idea from this gesture. There is a good chance that both nations can live in harmony. The more the Ethiopians show their desire to live peacefully alongside Eritrea, the better a deal they will get.