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Which Way to the Sea, Please? Horn of Africa Journal [Oct/Dec 1978)

We take pleasure in sharing Nuruddin Farah’s article, which we believe is relevant to the current debate about the rightness or wrongness of leasing the port of Berbera to the Emirate-owned DP World, with Ethiopia taking 19% stake in the share. The article appeared in the now defunct Horn of Africa Journal forty years ago in a slightly modified form.

Ethiopia has signed an agreement with Dubai-based port operator DP World and the Somaliland Port Authority to acquire a 19% stake in the Port of Berbera.

 by Nuruddin Farah

Wars have been fought for centuries over the control of the Somali Peninsula and its long coastline. For centuries, foreign powers have alternately come, conquered, and colonised the peoples of the area, turning the place into scenes of big-power showdowns, conquests and re-conquests. The Ottoman
Empire; the Khedive of Egypt whose viceroys would control the entire stretches of the Somali and Eritrean coastlines. Italy. France. Britain. Portugal (even if briefly). Name one
colonialist and you see they are all there. But why all these diplomatic manipulations, these wars for the Horn? Ensconced in the darker shades are the ghostly figures of
Yohannis, Menelik and Haile Selassie. Soft
are their voices; hesitant, too. Quiet their
movements. Now you meet Menelik in the corridors of diplomacy, communicating with the Kings and Emperors of Europe. Now you bear witness to meet them amass firearms. But let us take a break while we can, let us ask a question: Is today’s war in the Horn significantly different from the previous wars in which superpowers compete for influence.

I suggest we let Ethiopia’s Kings and Emperors come out of their hiding places and speak for themselves and that we watch and listen to her kings; hear them contradict themselves. But before we are in position to clear a jungle of present-day contradictions. For example: Has Somalia any reason to fear that Ethiopia (supported by a foreign entity, give it whatever name you please) might invade Somalia with the intention of occupying the cost of the Somali peninsula? In other words, has Ethiopia ever made a claim of ownership of the Somali sea and is there any suspicion that leads one to think that Ethiopia might stretch its long arms solely to occupy Somalia’s ports? I shall dismiss the Soviets and the Cubans if you don’t mind, as a latter-day invention of history ‘of ideology if you will, or better still, of twentieth century technology. But has Ethiopia in a recent or distant past ever connived or interested other powers in occupying ports, which belong to other countries directly or indirectly? Has she ever planned to diplomatically manoeuvre the conditions in order to acquire an outlet to the sea? To answer these questions, I shall let Ethiopia speak for itself through its Chieftains, Kings, Kings of Kings, and Emperors.

Showa had been an inland kingdom, as small in size as her king was in stature, a king who, although small, had grand ambitions, large and uncontainable like the waters of the sea. A small kingdom, Showa was isolated for centuries, sandwiched between the highland mountains like saxifrage. Encircling it were rival kingdoms Gondar, Gojam and Tigre. There were constant seismic wars between these kingdoms, seismic wars that shook the foundation of these feudal eggshell state-structures. History had taught these rulers a few things: that whoever had arms and European backing had the upper hand in the event of conflict. Yohannis, the King of Tigre, had proven this. His kingdom had been for a time the strongest because he had received the benevolence of the British Government’s gift of arms in return for his services and he had been promised free access of a port.

But the coastline had always remained the possession of other peoples or foreign powers that had conquered or local peoples, the Somalis and the Afar. We note these Abyssinian Kings, or their Emperors change strategies, tone of voice, and requests, assume different positions and on occasion even go down on their knees and beg. We listen to them appeal to the Christian solidarity of Europe when it is the Turks and the Egyptians – Muslims - who have control of the Red Sea coast. Then we listen to them as they make gross and unfounded territorial claims later when a European power does not allow them the free use of the coast. Menelik, the King of Showa and later Emperor of conquered territories, for example, makes declarations defining the boundaries of his empire, as though he were on a bed of high fever and anger. Menelik Yohannis know that whoever has access to the coast has access to arms and as a result has the possibility of conquering the coast.

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Yohannis and Menelik do everything they can and they their trump cards. Ranking high amongst these aces are favours the European powers bestow on their preferred king, given that the European powers play one against the other, arming one and not the other without ever consulting the subject peoples who are kept unarmed, and unprotected from Abyssinian raids. Be he a prince of Tigre, of Showa or a self-proclaimed Emperor: they are all eager to have outlets to the sea. And as if the European powers would otherwise lose sight of the issue, these kings hold the Cross of Christ in full view, never failing to paint the Crosses on the foreheads of their mountains like a lighthouse.

To begin, let us quote Menelik: “My country is far distant from your country. My road to the coast, to Zeila, Tajura and Aden is at present closed by the Muslims. They prevent my receiving into my country provisions, arms, agricultural implements, artisans or even messengers of the Gospel. Will you kindly raise your powerful voice in order that I may have this way opened to me, for I desire to inaugurate in my country European civilisation, intelligence and arts?” [1]

In 1878, Menelik, then the King of Showa addressed a letter to the heads of the governments of Italy, France, Germany, and England complaining about the fact that the Muslims who control the entire stretches of the coast, and who held the key to Babel Mandab, Hafun, and Zeila had closed the way to the access of the ocean and therefore the trade. [2]. During this period, however, he does not make any territorial claim of any city-state on any coast – like Mogadiscio, Merka or Brava, three city states on the Somali coast, which had known the splendour of world fame as grand centres of commerce [3].  Maybe he had not by then heard of them in the way he had heard of Zeila and Tajura, the ports through which his kingdom imported “provisions, arms, agricultural implements, artisans or even messengers of the Gospel” and which he used for his country’s exports. [4] Menelik, then a mere pawn on the chessboard of international politics, a small man with grand ambitions, writes to the European kings to raise their “powerful voice” so that “I may have the way opened to me,” the way to the coast with the aim of taking possession of it.  And here is the text of his letter.

He continues, “Although my country is very distant from yours, I, too, am a Christian like you are.” [5] The tone is still mild; the request very simple and the point is very clear: Menelik would like the European powers would like them to show their Christian solidarity by raising their powerful voices and to give these ports to him, because his country is landlocked.

And before Menelik, in fact, during the first quarter of the year 1827, a prominent political figure of Tigre Dajazmach Sebagadis Weldu writes a letter to King George III that his country “needed fire arms, which could only be obtained with European assistance through Massawa.” [6]

Firearms again? We’ll let this pass for now. Although I must remind you that Massawa is now in the hands of the Turks. But what Dajazmach Weldu suggest? The nobleman writes, “We want you to take Massawa from the Turks and either hold it (yourself) or hand it over to us as our country is lost by it ... and the Muslim on the Red Sea coast.” [7]

This is the same predicament as Menelik’s, more or less the same need, only a different prescription; the Dajazmach makes no territorial claim on the coast. Menelik, of Abyssinia, wishes only access to the coast. Unlike him, however, the Dajazmach wants King George’s government to take the coast and then “either hold it or hand it over to us.” It is worthwhile noting that the Tigrean chiefs and kings do not mention the ports of Berbera and Tajura by name – presumably because they had never used them. Although years later, another Tigrean voice, that of Yohannis, corresponding with a British envoy (General) Gordon, says that “in the event the taking of any of the ports is rendered impossible, the King of Tigre would be satisfied if he is at least granted “territorial, and not only functional, access to the sea.” [8]

Although Menelik had sown the seeds of his dreams when asleep, yet he reaped no benefit when he awakened: because the city-states on the Somali coast had fallen into the hands of Italy; the ports of Tajura and Obok had been taken over by the French; and the Somali-speaking Berbera and Zeila to the British; and those of Massawa and Assab to the Italians. And this caused him much pain. [9]

Desperate as ever and needing firearms, canons, we see Menelik groping in the dark for access to the seas of Somalia and the lakes of East Africa. Then it dawned on him that perhaps there lay a way to the sea: and he took the idea to the French: that he was prepared to give the city of Harar (which had just conquered it) in exchange for a port. [11] The French weren’t ready to accept the exchange. However, the French would sell to him all the firearms he needed. He writes,

“I am about to die from anger because I have remained without bringing one (new) skill, imprisoned (as I am) .... I am a man who has been sentenced to imprisonment for life and prevented from bringing into this country rifles, cannon and workers.[10].

The French arms trade was a great boom for the economy of France in the colonies. Arthur Rimbaud in one of his letters talks of “24,000 guns of various kinds” sold to Menelik. [12] Italy complained to Britain about this great influx of arms, which the French had sold to this “barbarous nation.” [13] Menelik had begun riding the real horse of the expansionist and there was no stopping him. However, he hadn’t as yet developed the articulateness to verbalise his dreamy thought of a grandiose Showa King who had vast territories annexed, a man who had proclaimed himself King, then King of Kings, then Emperor. The guns and firearms, which he had imported from France gave him supremacy over all the other minor entities in the region. The Italians and the British forbade the Somalis and the Eritreans under their protectorate to procure arms; neither would they do much to protect their protectorates from being raided by Menelik. [14] Whereas the Abyssinians were heavily armed with the most modern of weapons [15], the Somalis, wherever they were found, were specifically kept unarmed and helplessly defenceless; they would have risen against their oppressors. Gordon’s plan to “procure an outlet to the sea for Abyssinia” failed again, and Menelik had had to continue using Djibouti’s port for the country’s foreign trade and importations of arms. A few more wars, a few more promises. The wars were won on the battlefield, Showa had grown bigger; Menelik had now conquered and annexed other kingdoms. The small man gave himself grand titles; he had christened the territories he had annexed “Ethiopia,” and crowned himself “Emperor.”

On the other hand, Yohannis, of Tigre, himself an emperor, was determined to take a coastal city, come what may. He would say to the Italians, “I do not wish (to open) a counsel in Massawa – I wish Massawa itself.” [16]

However, when writing a letter to Queen Victoria, Yohannis [17] is decidedly less aggressive. For after the usual flattery and we-are-Christian-brethren-bit, he says that he doesn’t very much mind sharing the pagan districts around the coast with the British, but with no one else. [18] Yohannis was unfortunate in that he had fallen out of favour, the European powers having found him persistent in his asking for an outlet to the coast – cost what it might.

There were unsettled accounts between him and Menelik. The Italians wanted him punished. At one point, the Italians offered Menelik 5,000 rifles on condition that he attack Emperor Yohannis. After which, the two agreed: they would divide the territorial conquests between themselves.

Let us, however, close this section with a Menelik who is a great deal stronger and who writes to the European powers,  “If I cannot take Tajura by sea, it is not difficult for me to seize the port from this side (overland). However, without coming to blows, I hope that civilised Europe will render me justice and give satisfaction ....!”

A little later in the same letter, he goes on, “we hope that our crown which honours Jesus Christ will never be trampled to the ground by the children of Mohammed.” And yet a little more later: “If truly you are the protectors of Christians, it is today that you must give us proof.” [19]

Came the scrabble for Africa, the slicing of Somalia into unequal portions among the European powers, with Ethiopia given her share in the shape of the Ogaden. But there still was no outlet to the sea for Menelik’s Kingdom. And it is then that he began to make territorial claims over any of Africa’s watery expanses: Khartoum; Lake Nyanza; Lake Sambura; the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea Coast. For Menelik, the waters are the limit.

In 1891, Menelik writes another famous letter to the Governments of Britain, Italy, France, Germany and the Czar of Russia. We note the change of the tone of his voice, because he is a changed man, and he makes his request to fit the man that he became.  In this letter, he mentions in the grandest detail the boundaries of his (dreamed) Ethiopia. He writes, “Ethiopia has been for four centuries a Christian island in a sea of pagans.” [20] He continues, “Formerly, the boundary of Ethiopia was the sea ... our frontiers on the sea coast fell into the power of the Muslims.” [21]

The boundary of Ethiopia was the sea. When? What sea? And when did the frontiers of Ethiopia fell into the power of the Muslims? I am afraid we shall have no answer from him. He goes on, “At present, we do not intend to regain our sea frontiers by force but we trust that the Christian powers guided by our Saviour, will restore to us our sea coast-line, at any rate, certain parts of it. “If God gives me strength, I shall re-establish the ancient frontiers (tributaries) of Ethiopia up to Khartoum and as far as Lake Nyanza with all the Gallas included. [22]

And things remained more or less the same from the death of Menelik until the coming of Emperor Haile Selassie on the political scene.

Haile Selassie would prove himself a more able manipulator of political events, a manipulator of the Ouija board of international diplomacy. And when we encounter him in 1948, we listen to him present a Memorandum to the United Nations in which he says:

“Prior to the race of European powers to divide up the continent of Africa, Ethiopia included an extensive coastline along the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. It was only the last 15 years of the 19th century that Ethiopia had been deprived of access to the sea by the loss of the Somali Peninsula and Eritrea. The first step in this direction was the Italian conquest of Massawa in 1885, followed by their seizure of the Benaadir and the rest of southern Somalia. [23]

Sudan and the countries surrounding Lake Victoria must have noted much of this with sufficient relief: that Emperor Haile Selassie had dropped Ethiopia’s claim over Khartoum and Lake Nyanza and Lake Sambura but the Somalis, no. He put his finger squarely on the Somali-speaking territories on the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea as well as Eritrea.

Was it during the 14th /15th centuries that Ethiopia was deprived access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean (according to the latter Menelik, the Menelik of 1891)? Or was it during the last 15 years of the 19th century that Ethiopia had been deprived of access to the sea (according to Haile Selassie)? And since it was before the “secular” body of the United Nations that he was appealing to, Emperor Haile Selassie sensibly drops the Christian/Saviour motif much used by Menelik and Yohannis. What stands out is Ethiopian leaders’ obsession with access to the sea, coast water-as-element, the obtaining of which tempers the rise and fall of one’s temperament. I suggest we list them thus:

Having failed in dislodging the European colonialists, Emperor Haile Selassie would say in an interview to the UN Mandate Trusteeship territory that “Eritrea, should be given to Ethiopia.” [24]

Like Mengistu Haile Merriam would say at a press conference during his reign in the mid-1970s, that “(Ethiopia) difenderà la sua via di accesso al Mar Rosso anche se questo mare dovesse diventare ancor più rosso per il sangue versato dagli etiopici.” [25]

And the war for the coast goes on. Nowadays, the players on the political scene in the Somali peninsula may be different. Yet, the wish on the part of Ethiopia to make a claim one way or another to the coast or to have easy access to it continues.

Nuruddin Farah, the author, most recently, of HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT, divides his time between Cape Town, where he resides, and Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York, where he is a distinguished Professor Literature


[1] F.0. 407/11 Menelik, December 1878. Cited in Richard Pankhurst. Economic History of Ethiopia, (Addis Ababa: Haile Sellassie University, 1968), pp. 101-2.

[2] Foreign Office Handbook (British Somaliland 1920) p. 20.

[3] Cfr Robert L. Hess, Italian Colonialism in Somalia, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 6—12

[4] Cfr Thompson & Adolf, Djibouti & the Horn of Africa, Stanford: Stan· ford University Press (1968) pp. 3-11.

[5] F.O. 407/11 Menelik. See Pankhurst, op.cit. p. 101. Text given here is re-phrased by author in order to avoid verbosity and monotony.

[6] Sven Rubenson, Survival of Ethiopia’s Independence (Heinemann 1976).

[7] Ibid Also text given p. 314 reads: “We hope you will take the port Massowen and give it up to us or keep it in Your Majesty’s possession. See below, No. J9.

[8] Ibid., passim pp. 335-39.

[9] The European powers’ interests in holding onto the coast-line each had conquered intersected and, at times, encountered like the hus routes of a grand metropolis. A. Menelik or a Yohannis or a Tewodros would be given a bus ride from a given terminus and would be dropped mid-way. The services of ports and sale of fire-arms would be offered. But before they got to getting a strip of territory on and of the coast, the bus would stop and drop.

[10] Rubenson, ap.cit. pp. 345-46.

[11] Enid Starkie, Arthur Rimbaud in Abyssinia (1937), p. 48 (cited in Somali Peninsula, Mogadiscio 1962, p. 23).

 [12] Ibid., p. 91, vide Somali Peninsula.

[13] Ibid., pp. 108-9, vide Somali Peninsula p. 26

[14] Silberman, L., Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines Vol. II (1961), p. 55, concerning Italy’s forbidding the Somalis to arm themselves against the Abyssinian raids. Also see Red Sea Papers: Indian Office to Foreign Office No. 16, of 1893 regarding Britain’s forbidding the Somalis against the same. The Abyssinians came, robbed and raped and returned. The Somalis remained unarmed until the Somali warrior Sayyid Mohamed comes on the scene a decade Or so later. Is it not a historical irony that Somalia today is again unarmed while Ethiopia is armed to its wisdom teeth?

[15] “Fire-arms were the one European invention most eagerly seized on” by Menlik and other Abyssinian kingdoms, according to Christopher Clapham, Haile Sellassie’s Government, London: Longman, 1969. Aware of the importance of firearms, he imported them in huge numbers both from the French in the Gulf of Tajura and from the Italians who, for a while, regarded him as an ally against Yohannis (See Clapham, op. cit. p. 13). Worth studying also is Richard Pankhurst in particular his chapter on the importation of arms etcetra, ap.cit., note no. 2.

[16] W. Winstantly, A visit to Abyssinia: An Account of Travel in Modern Abyssinia (London 1888) quoted in Rubenson op.cit., p. 341.

[17] F.O. 95/379 No. 297, Yohannis to Victoria, May 2, 1879. During this time when negotiations through Gordon were underway, we learn that Ras Alula, Yohannis’ most outstanding general, appears to have decided “to take Massawa.” He was reported to have said that he wouldn’t return to Tigre until he had “watered his horse in the Red Sea.” (Vide Rubenson op.cit., p, 342.) And on another occasion Yohannis to Gordon: “You want peace,” he declared. “Well, I want retrocession of Metemma, Changallas and Bogos, cession of the ports of Zeyla and Amphilla, and Abuna and a sum of money from one to million pounds.” G. Birkbeck Hill, Colonel Gordon in Central Africa 1874-1879. p. 411-cited in David Mathew, Ethiopia, Greenwood Press, 1947, p. 213. Whereas, in an interview in 1849 with Tewodros, the King of Abyssinia, Consul Plowden “ventured to hint that the seacoast and Massawa might possibly be given up to him” ... “that the two countries (i.e. Abyssinia and Britain) should endeavour to keep open and secure avenues of approach between the sea-coast and Abyssinia.”

[18] Charles Beke, The British Captives in Abyssinia (Longman” 1867), p. 276.

[19] Rosetti, Storia Diplomatica dell’Etiopia (Torino, 1910). p. 18.

[20] F.O. 1/32 Abyssinia Diplomatic Correspondence. cited in Somali Peninsula op.cit.

 [21] F.O. 1/32 op.cit.

 [22] Ibid.

[23] I.W.B. of October 20, 1948, para 15.

[24] Ibid., p. 124. Emperor Haile Sellassie’s lobbying to acquire an outlet to the sea, in fact, went Out of proportion on occasion. While the General Assembly of the United Nations were in session, discussing the issue of Eriterea’s and Somalia’s independence, “Roman Catholic churches in the Negro quarter were also picketed with an appeal to their Negro congregations to use their influence to force the Pope to demand seaports for Ethiopia.” Sylvia and Richard Pankhurst op. cit. p. 218.

[25] the Corriere della Sera (Edizione Romana), February 20, 1978.

LETTER sent by Emperor Menelek to the Heads of European States in 1891*

10th April, 1891

Being desirous to make known to our friends the Powers Sovereigns)of Europe the boundaries of Ethiopia, we have addressed also to you (your Majesty) the present letter.

These are the boundaries of Ethiopia:-

Starting from the Italian boundary of Arafale, which is situated on the sea, the line goes westward over the plain (Meda) of Gegra towards Mahio, Halai, Digsa, and Gura up to Adibaro. From Adibaro to the junction of the Rivers Mareb and Arated.

From this point the line runs southward to the junction of the Atbara and Setit Rivers, where is situated the town known as Tomat.

From Tomat the frontier embraces the Province of Gederef up to Karkoj on the Blue Nile. From Karkoj the line passes to the junction of the Sobat River with the White Nile. From thence the frontier follows the River Sobat including the country of Arbore, Gallas and reaches Samburu.

Towards the east are included within the frontier the country of the Borana Gallas and Arussi country up to the limits of the Somalis, including also the Province of Ogaden .

To the northward the line of the frontier includes the Habar Awal, the Gadabursi, and Essa Somalis , and reaches Ambos.

Leaving Ambos the line includes Lake Assal, the province of our ancient vassal Mohamed Anfari, skirts the coast of the sea, and rejoins Arafale.

While tracing today the actual boundaries of my Empire, I shall endeavour, if God gives me life and strength, to re-establish the ancient frontiers (tributaries) of Ethiopia up to Khartoum, and as Lake Nyanza with all the Gallas.

Ethiopia has been for fourteen centuries a Christian island in a sea of pagans. If powers at a distance come forward to partition Africa between them, I do not intend to be an indifferent spectator.

As the Almighty has protected Ethiopia up to this day, I have confidence He will continue to protect her, and increase her borders in the future . I am certain He will not suffer her to be divided among other Powers.

Formerly the boundary of Ethiopia was the sea. Having lacked strength sufficient, and having received no help from Christian Powers, our frontier on the sea coast fell into the power of the Muslim-man.

At present we do not intend to regain our sea frontier by force, but we trust that the Christian Power, guided by our Saviour, will restore to us our sea-coast line, at any rate, certain points on the coast .

Written at Addis Ababa, the 14th Mazir, 1883 (10th April, 1891).

(Translated direct from the Amharic.)

Addis Ababa, 4th May, 1897.

This letter was addressed to Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia

* Public Records Office (London), Foreign Office 1/32 Rodd to Sallisbury, No. 15, 4 th May. Also see The Somali Peninsula, p. 86.

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