Book Review: “Assab YeManat: Ye-Ethiopia Ye-Bahr Ber Tiyake,” in Amharic by Abebe Haile
Book Review: “Assab YeManat: Ye-Ethiopia Ye-Bahr Ber Tiyake,” in Amharic. Author: Dr. Yacob Haile-Mariam, Fundscraft Publishing 2011, pp. 245. Reviewed
There have been a continuous flow of articles, commentaries, symposiums, and book chapters on the question of Ethiopia’s right for access to the sea, particularly since the secession of Eritrea in 1993 and the Ethio-Eritrea border war of 1998-2000. However, this is the first book I am aware of that is entirely devoted to the topic. Probably it is the one book that provides irrefutable answers to most of the nagging questions about access to the sea, the so-called Algiers agreement and its aftermath that Ethiopians and their friends have been asking for nearly two decades.
There is no question that the Algiers Agreement that accepted as valid the defunct Italian colonial treaties played a crucial role in deciding the fate of Ethiopia’s access to the sea. And many of us can recall the outcry in Ethiopia, and among Ethiopians throughout the world, during and following the Algiers negotiations. Ethiopians across the world expressed their outrage with protest marches, Internet blogging, diplomatic lobbying; and appeals to the UN, the Ethiopian prime minister, the Ethiopian parliament, international leaders, and anyone who would listen. Of course, all of this public appeal came to naught because the Ethiopian government had already made its decision to give up the entire Red Sea Coast and other territories to Eritrea. This is why the fundamental rights of the citizens of these territories and the question of access to the sea, particularly access to Assab, still remain a burning issue for Ethiopians today.
Many Ethiopians, especially those engaged in business and investment, realize the seriousness of Ethiopia’s landlocked status. According to “Assab YeManat: Ye-Ethiopia YeBahr Ber Tiyake,” it is hard to imagine that Ethiopia is the only major country in the entire world that is so close to the sea, only about 60 kilometers, yet has no access to it. Consequently, ever since the loss of Assab, Ethiopia has fallen at the mercy of tiny Djibouti and has been scrambling for additional outlets through Sudan, Somalia and Kenya, all at great costs to the nation. Quoting a wealth of expert data and using facts and figures the book analyzes the detrimental impact of the loss of access to the sea on the economic, political, diplomatic and security well-being of the country.
I wish the author included more background coverage on the history of the Medri Bahri province and the role the great Ethiopian patriot and hero, Alula Aba Nega, played in defense of Ethiopia’s northern borders. Lest we forget, Ras Alula was a fierce defender of his country’s borders, the founder of Asmara, and the last Bahr Negash until Italian colonialists sneaked in and took over the province in 1890 when he and Emperor Yohannes were away battling the Dervish invaders at Metema. Nevertheless, reading this book it is clear that the author is no stranger to the historical and legal issues involved. Not only has he written and spoken about Ethiopia’s right for access to the sea and the citizenship rights of the people of the Afar Coast over the years but also he draws upon a considerable body of United Nations resolutions, Ethiopian history, and his own international legal experience to write the book.
Thus the author rightly questions the Ethiopian provisional government’s legal standing for rushing to recognize the Eritrean secession and later for accepting the defunct Italian colonial treaties as a basis for settling border disputes. A casualty of the border demarcation commission, he explores the legitimate rights of the citizens of the Afar Red Sea Coast, Badme, Adi Erob, etc… vis-à-vis the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The book also scans Ethiopia’s historic quest for the return of her province of “Eritrea,” critiques the legal ground for the Algiers Agreement, shows the under-handed role the mediators in Algiers played, identifies the composition of the Border Demarcation Commission and argues its illegitimacy, and most importantly details the role the multi-million dollar but weak Ethiopian legal team played at The Hague. Where did the historic Ethiopian borders begin on the Red Sea Coast – from the sea shore or from the islands on the Red Sea? Where did the Italian map makers, in the so-called colonial treaties, place Fort Cardona and Tsorona? Why were the judges perplexed by the responses of the Ethiopian legal team? These are just a few examples from the book where the legal team again and again couldn’t shoot straight. Anyone who read the legal and political competence of the incomparable Aklilu Habte Wold who single-handedly checkmated an army of Italian, Latin and Arab lawyers and diplomats at the UN negotiations in Zewde Reta’s book “Ye-Eritrea Gudai” would understand why Ethiopia this time came limping out of the Algiers and later The Hague negotiations. What is more the author rejects the legal ground on which the Border Demarcation Commission is established and therefore argues that Ethiopia has the right to reject it along with its anti-Ethiopia rulings.
The book quotes public pronouncements across a wide spectrum of the Ethiopian society including youngsters, students, political leaders, journalists, scholars and foreign experts on the subject of Ethiopia’s landlocked status. Commenting on the Algiers agreement and the 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea, the well-known British historian and scholar Christopher Clapham is quoted as saying, “Ethiopia pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Dr.Yacob Haile-Mariam is probably one of the few Ethiopians who can provide a competent historical, legal and political analysis of why Ethiopia became landlocked and what may be done to resolve the stalemate. Fortunately, he doesn’t leave the matter hanging in stalemate, but gives alternative suggestions for Ethiopia and Eritrea to accommodate each other by coming up with a win-win solution.
Apparently, Dr. Yacob considers Ethiopians and Eritreans as kin and therefore are bound together by history, language, culture and geography. This may be a wishful thinking especially as long as Isaias Afewerki and Meles Zenawi are in power. However, one can’t unequivocally say that the two parties would never come together again.
If history is any guide, unity invariably trumps division. East and West Germany, North and South Vietnam were separated by outside interference but finally came together. Others that made it include China and Hong Kong, North and South Yemen, and one may even contemplate where the European Union, or the African Union for that matter, are headed to. For one reason or another it seems that the world is increasingly coming together than going apart. Can we say the same for Ethiopia and Eritrea? The answer is anyone’s guess.
“Assab YeManat: YeEthiopia YeBahr Ber Tiyake” is an excellent history document. What is more it is a book about a critical time and circumstance in our history that not only students of history but everyday Ethiopians will appreciate. Enjoy the reading!