Open Letter to former US Ambassador David Shinn
On proposal to give Badme to Eritrea and for Ethiopia to use Assab
By Professor Paulos Milkias
January 25, 2014



Ambassador Shinn’s proposal to solve the Ethiopian –Eritrean conflict that led to a war between the two in 1998-2000 – a war which consumed the lives of over 70,000 people and displaced close to a million people boils down to one thing: Eritrea gets everything; Ethiopia gets nothing.

On the practical side, let us get the facts straight. The decision to boycott the use of the port of Assab was in the first place Ethiopian. Meles at that time said “If Ethiopia does not use the port of Assab, the port of Assab will not be a port; it will be a watering hole for camels!” The bitter truth is that Eritrea has been bankrupted more than it already was by Ethiopia’s refusal to use Assab.

Ethiopia was hurt not because it stopped using the port of Assab. Ethiopia was hurt when the TPLF/EPRDF handed over Assab which was administered as a region of Wollo province during the Haile Selassie period and an autonomous region during the time of the Derg to its EPLF ally. In hindsight, one should not forget that both former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Jay Cohen had testified later that their warning that Ethiopia should keep an outlet to the Sea was rejected out of hand by the TPLF/EPRDF Hence, Ethiopia lost its seacoast and went on the Guinness Book of Records as the “largest land-locked country” on the planet!’

The other side we need to look at is International Law. After all, as Ambassador David Shinn who has been in the foreign service for so long and has taught political science at a well-known American university for years knows, with respect to the legitimate use of a port, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea accords Ethiopia the right of access and the freedom of transit not only through Assab but also through all the ports of Eritrea including Massawa.

Article 125 of the Convention states:

Landlocked states shall have the right of access to and from the sea for the purpose of exercising the rights provided for in this Convention including those relating to the freedom of the high seas and the common heritage of mankind. To this end, landlocked states shall enjoy freedom of transit though the territory of transit states by all means of transport.

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, of 10 December 1982

Ethiopia was hurt a second time when in 1998, Eritrea invaded Ethiopian territory (the U.N. had determined that) and Ethiopia which won the war and was only 10 miles away from Assab failed to take over the port because the late Prime Minister, Mr. Meles Zenawi ordered the Ethiopian army not to advance and occupy it. Had that been done and the Afars empowered to decide by a referendum whether they wanted their territory to be part of Eritrea or part of Ethiopia, as anybody can guess, the outcome would have been clear. The Afars would have chosen their motherland, Ethiopia.

In the absence of a settlement, Ethiopia would have continued the occupation and Eritrea could not have done much. For this, we do not even need to mention the six day war and its aftermath in the Middle East. It is to be remembered that the TPLF/EPRDF, also caved in and accepted the Algiers’ agreement. This treasonous act made Ethiopia which became the victor (thanks to the undaunted valour of its martyrs,) act like a loser, and receive a skewed verdict. But Meles and his group insisted on occupying Badme all the same, pending further negotiations and there wasn’t much Isaias could do other than arming various opposition groups and Al-Shabab to ruffle the feathers of the EPRDF. There should be no surprise about the TPLF/EPRDF decision. Badme, which they hedged on handing over happens to be part of Tigray in contrast to lands in Western Ethiopia that are slated to be ceded to the Sudan as recent reports have indicated.

Isaias, as a survivalist smart cookie knows another adventure would be his ultimate demise. Even the TPLF friends would not have mercy upon him a second time around. So, in brief, I urge Mr. Shinn to be even handed in proposing a solution if he is really interested to see peace between the Habeshas who inhabit both countries and are currently “officially divorced but going through an excruciating experience to separate” as the Eritrean scholar Prof. Dr. Tesfatsion Medhanie of Bremen University puts it in his monograph Towards Confederation in the Horn of Africa, 2007.


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