The fate of Assab port has been closely watched since the beginning of the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict in May 1998, as access to the Red Sea is vital to landlocked Ethiopia. Assab is at the southern-most tip of Eritrean territory, and road links to the rest of the country are poor. When Eritrea first seceded it granted Ethiopia duty-free access to the port, but subsequent issues of management, commissions and local currency exchange rates effectively terminated the relationship in 1997, with serious political and economic consequences for both countries. Eritrea has often asserted the present conflict is about Ethiopia securing access to the Red Sea, claiming the border issue is a pretext for a wider agenda. Ethiopia has always denied any interest in territory beyond the disputed border areas, but claims Eritrea was deliberately obstructive in arrangements of agreed access to the Red Sea.
Before 1997, Assab port handled the lion's share of imports and exports for Ethiopia, with the smaller Massawa port in the north being used mainly for Eritrea itself and the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. Both ports handled large quantities of food aid cargo. Ethiopia also made use of the free port of Djibouti, with which it is linked by road and rail. Since the conflict began, it has also used the port of Berbera in Somaliland and called for better road links to Kenya, to take advantage of Mombasa's potential. Despite "special access", free of duty and taxes, Ethiopia paid significant commissions, amounting to several hundred million US dollars per year, and became increasingly unhappy with what was seen as Eritrean economic opportunism. The port issue "came to a head", one regional expert told IRIN, when Eritrea asked Ethiopia to refurbish Assab's Russian-built oil refinery, which supplied Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government had started, by 1997, to import fuel bought on the world market through the port rather than buying from the refinery, complaining Eritrea was inflating prices. Eritrea was importing most of its fuel through Massawa. Ethiopia also complained that despite the fees it paid, Eritrea was not reinvesting in the port, and facilities were becoming decrepit. The issue of the oil refinery has since been considered an important trigger for present hostilities, one diplomat told IRIN - "certainly there were rumblings and with the benefit of hindsight it was clear that all was not right".
The introduction in 1997 of the Eritrean currency, the Nakfa, was "the last straw" for Ethiopia, said the regional source. There was already controversy over Eritrean businessmen taking advantage of the absence of tariffs in Ethiopia to benefit from Ethiopian exports - to the extent coffee, for example, became a major export in a non-coffee producing nation. Eritrea, on its part - which relied heavily on remittances, port revenues and exports before the conflict - says Ethiopia was looking for a reason to economically sabotage Eritrea. Eritrean officials claim Ethiopia - at twenty times the size of the tiny 3.5 million Eritrean population - was envious of the success of its former province and was under domestic political pressure to re-establish a gateway to the Red Sea. A regional expert described Eritrea's stance as that of "a new kid on the block". Its foreign policy was initially robust, if not aggressive, towards all its neighbours, and it showed a determination to assert economic and psychological independence from Ethiopia.
In 1997 the Ethiopian government sent a written warning to the authorities in Assab that it would stop using the port as conditions for Ethiopian businessmen were unfavourable. Eritrean port managers told international journalists in 1998 this was a "political decision" by the Ethiopian government to destroy the port economically. Ethiopia began to make more use of Djibouti port - initially a more costly alternative, although the Ethiopian government claims special arrangements with Djibouti have since proved the switch cost-effective. The Djibouti government attempted to mediate between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but in November 1999 declared itself "almost in a state of war" with Eritrea, accusing Eritrea of backing Djiboutian Afar rebels. (See DJIBOUTI: IRIN Focus 12 November 1999).
An estimated 70 percent of the Assab port population was Ethiopian at the time Eritrea formalised its independence in 1993 - comprising skilled port workers, managers and port equipment operators, as well as petty traders, workers from the Assab power plant, and salt production workers. Official Eritrean policy was to use these workers and refrain from any overt "Eritreanisation" of the port. During the independence referendum in 1993, Ethiopian workers interviewed by international journalists said they wanted to remain, but from 1991 to 1997 there was a slow but steady exodus of Ethiopians from Assab.
After Ethiopia turned to Djibouti port, and hostilities broke out, Assab was economically doomed. By March 1999 Assab port had almost come to a standstill with only the occasional small ship docking from the Middle East. Many Ethiopian workers had left, but Ethiopians remained a significant proportion of the population, running retail and service businesses. Despite mass deportations of Eritreans in Ethiopia by the Ethiopian government - many of whom passed through the Assab-Bure border post in 1998-99 - the Eritrean government had no comparable policy of forced removal. But once the conflict was underway, some Ethiopians in Assab reported arrests and harassment by the Eritrean military. Now, the port has stopped functioning, the offices of the port manager have closed, and a reduced population of about 50,000 people remain in the area. UNHCR has confirmed a few hundred Eritreans, Somalis (from a refugee camp outside Assab port) and Ethiopian evacuees had arrived in Yemen by small boat.
From 1991, the "loss" of Assab not only provoked major political resentment among highly vocal Ethiopian opposition groups, but was also an emotive issue on a popular level. The irony of the present war is that Meles Zenawi, heading the newly established government in 1991, was forced to repeatedly defend his acceptance of Eritrean independence by asserting that "the military option" was not a realistic solution after a thirty year struggle. In the early years of the new government, headed by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), Meles Zenawi addressed a number of press conferences asserting that a new war with Eritrea would carry too high a political and economic cost. The former Red Sea province of Eritrea had fought a thirty year war for independence against one of Africa's largest Soviet-backed armies - estimated to be some 450,000 strong - and fatally undermined the regime of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, creating political opposition, famine, poverty and international isolation.
Most vocal in nationalistic anti-Eritrea sentiment were the Amhara opposition parties who, in the early 1990s, used Eritrean independence and the loss of the Red Sea ports as a highly effective populist platform to castigate the new government. Opposition parties accused Meles of having a "special relationship" with fellow former guerrilla leader Isayas Afewerki, of the victorious Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) - whose units marched into Addis Ababa along with Meles' forces when Mengistu's regime was over-thrown. The new Ethiopian government did not flinch when Eritrea expelled hundreds of thousands of former government soldiers and related civilians from Eritrea in 1991-1992, some of whom remain in destitute conditions in displaced camps around Addis Ababa. The opposition press frequently portrayed the two leaders as cousins (a claim denied by officials on both sides), alongside claims that the TPLF was consolidating itself in Tigray by gerrymandering Tigray's borders at the expense of the Amhara and Afar regions and diverting national resources to develop war-devastated Tigray. So close was the relationship perceived to be between Meles and Isayas, that the opposition speculated that the TPLF would ultimately throw its lot in with Eritrea - politically and geographically. Between 1991 and 1993, Eritrean military units were used by the Ethiopian government to assist with security, particularly where there was armed opposition in the east from the Oromo Liberation Front, and in the Ogaden, where the Ethiopian army was battling Somali opposition groups and Islamic fundamentalism. Eritreans living in Ethiopia were perceived to be pro-government "cadres" for the TPLF.
Anti-government, anti-Eritrea politics came to a bloody climax in 1993 when UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali visited Addis Ababa, before going on to Asmara to endorse the first formal post-colonial secession of an African province. Ethiopian university students demonstrated during his visit and were put down ruthlessly by government soldiers. Government soldiers admitted shooting seven dead; the university - seen as a hotbed of Amhara and nationalist opposition - was closed down temporarily and some forty teachers and lecturers sacked.
Although some signals for conflict were there, they were overlooked by an international community which considered the two young leaders crucial examples of the so-called "African renaissance". The US, in particular, invested a great deal of political support in the new Ethiopia, a strategically important country that had cold shouldered the west for decades. A western diplomat in Addis Ababa told IRIN that signals were ignored in the hope that the "special relationship" would carry events - "everyone was willing to turn a blind eye... hoping that it would be fine in the long run".
When the Eritrean government announced in May that it would withdraw from the Bure front, it flew diplomats and international journalists to Assab to witness the re-deployment of troops from the front line because, because, as one Eritrean official told IRIN at the time, "we expect trouble". Observers went as far as a new defensive line 42 km from Assab port, but were told by an accompanying official that air activity by the Ethiopian forces, and some shelling, made access to the new front line at Debasima (57 km from Assab) "dangerous". The Eritrean army had been ordered to abandon some 41 km of fortified stone trenches which had taken months to construct - and move to an exposed area in the desert plateau. Major General "China" Haile Samuel expressed discontent that he had been ordered to move back from a front line he said he had held "without problems" for two years. Assab appears still to be a flashpoint in the bloody war between the two neighbours, even as the OAU attempts to make progress with peace talks in Algiers.
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