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Moustafa Ahmad

December 11th, 2023

Ethiopia eying the Red Sea may exacerbate regional extremism

3 comments | 27 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Moustafa Ahmad

December 11th, 2023

Ethiopia eying the Red Sea may exacerbate regional extremism

3 comments | 27 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has said his country needs access to a port in the Red Sea. His words may prove a recruiting message for terrorist groups in the region and foster instability in a region that can little afford it, writes Moustafa Ahmad.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, recently made bold statements about securing Red Sea port access by any means necessary, including military power. The move could have significant implications for the already volatile Horn of Africa. As the region grapples with security and political crises on multiple fronts, Ethiopia’s potential quest for a seaport through military force would add a new layer of complexity to the existing challenges.

A region in turmoil

The Horn is already facing a multitude of security crises. Ethiopia itself is reeling from the effects of the war in Tigray and is currently engaged in conflicts in the Amhara and Oromia regions. In Somalia, the government’s war against Al-Shabaab is stalling, with African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) forces set to exit Somalia by the end of 2024. The conflict in Sudan has entered its 10th month, over 10,000 people have died, and millions have been displaced. Eritrea is facing an acute humanitarian and political crisis taking a huge toll on the tiny nation’s population.

Currently, Ethiopia relies on the port of Djibouti for its imports and exports but is eyeing the ports of Assab in Eritrea and Zeila in Somaliland. Ethiopia’s quest for a seaport on the Red Sea could trigger another cycle of conflict. Although, struck by the fierce reaction to his statement by Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Somaliland, Prime Minister Abiy has softened his language and has stated that Ethiopia will not invade any country for his dream of port access. But even if he now has no intention of using military force, his words have sparked resentment that will increase regional instability, especially in Somalia.

Al-Shabaab and Ethiopia

In the geopolitical analysis of the region, one significant factor is often overlooked: Al-Shabaab. The group, which is based in Somalia, has emerged as East Africa’s most sophisticated and dangerous terror group and attracts international recruits from countries including Ethiopia and Kenya.

Ethiopia and Somalia fought a war in 1977 over the Ogaden territory, and in 2006, Ethiopia intervened militarily in Somalia to support the country’s weak Transitional Federal Government and defeat the Islamic Courts Union. Al-Shabaab emerged because of this intervention and fed off Ethiopia being viewed as Somalia’s long-term enemy. Al-Shabaab propaganda capitalises on the turbulent political history between Somalis and the Ethiopian state to mobilise and recruit fighters. In addition to the two recent conflicts between the countries, Ethiopia was part of the African Union Mission to Somalia AMISOM (now known as the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) with thousands of troops stationed in different parts of Somalia.

Al-Shabaab’s anti-Ethiopia sentiments are rooted in Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia and their perceived role as a “crusader occupying force in Muslim lands.” Al-Shabaab shares videos of Ethiopian troops killing and targeting civilians in Somalia amidst their war with Al-Shabaab.

The group also claims that it safeguards the interests of Muslims in Ethiopia who are increasingly harassed by the Ethiopian state. Multiple statements released by Al-Shabaab call for Muslims in Ethiopia to rise up and fight against the Ethiopian government. A study by International Security Studies (ISS) identified political alienation and collective identity as the major drivers of young people joining Al-Shabab in Somalia. One informant explained how they were repeatedly shown videos showing video recordings ‘’from other jihadists in the world and how AMISOM [the African Union Mission in Somalia] or the Christian crusaders invaded our beloved country’’.

Attacking Ethiopia has always been a strategic objective for Al-Shabaab. In July 2022, the group undertook a significant incursion onto Ethiopian soil with 500-800 fighters crossing the Somali-Ethiopian border. The group has also carried out attacks against Ethiopian forces in Somalia over the years, using the presence of Ethiopian troops to mobilise support and exert influence.

Implications of Aby’s statement on the region

The invasion and occupation of foreign powers in Muslim lands have always been used as justifications for extremist groups to fight and often helped them garner wide support. In the 1990s, extremist groups in Saudi Arabia used the presence of American troops in the kingdom as a rallying call to justify their fight against the Saudi government. Al-Shabaab has justified attacks in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda because of their military presence in Somalia.

Al-Shabaab is now facing a great test for its survival. With the group caught up in a massive campaign by the Somali government, the statement by Abiy presents a dangerous opportunity for the group to recruit more fighters. To begin with, this will boost their propaganda that Ethiopia is a conqueror of Muslim lands. Secondly, this will usher in a wave of radicalisation among young people who don’t necessarily yet share their extremist tendencies but will be susceptible to Al-Shabaab’s propaganda.

For Ethiopia, this means the spread of violent extremism in stable parts of the Horn, mainly Somaliland, whose Berbera port offers a good option for Ethiopia’s maritime needs. The port came as a convergence of interests of Somaliland, Ethiopia, and the UAE, where each side is trying to achieve something out of it. For Ethiopia, it’s a strategic and viable maritime alternative to Djibouti, while Somaliland and the UAE seek economic and political influence through investment. Maintaining forceful expansion will not only jeopardise that but will also be a catalyst for major security and political crises in Somaliland.


Photo credit: UN used with permission CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

About the author

Moustafa Ahmad

Moustafa Ahmad

Moustafa Ahmad is a researcher who specialises in the politics and security of Somaliland and the Horn of Africa. He can be contacted at moustafa.ahmadn@gmail.com or his Twitter account, @Mustafe_Ahmad.

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