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Analysis: Ethiopia’s campaign for sovereign access to port: A start off on the wrong foot?

Shortly after making his stances clear on Ethiopia’s need for access to the sea, PM Abiy Ahmed during his visit to China in October, visited the Yangshan Port in Shanghai (Photo:FBC/X)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa

Addis Abeba – Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s remarks about Ethiopia’s quest for access to the Red Sea has gripped the Horn of Africa region since it was publicly aired on 13 October 2023, with many spectators expressing concerns that another war might be on the horizon in the volatile Horn region.

Reports started to emerge months before his speech was made public that the PM is considering all options, from negotiation to the use of force, in order to secure a crucial port for the landlocked country of over a hundred million people. In a 45 minute long speech the PM reasoned out why access to the sea, the Red Sea in particular is a matter of existential concern for Ethiopia. 

The PM underscored “a population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison” noting that by 2030 Ethiopia will be a country of 150 million people. “If we don’t talk about the Red Sea issues, we will as much not talk about wheat export, green legacy, tax collection. If we have accomplished all these and lose it due to [not discussing] the Red Sea, it’s meaningless,” he emphasized.

Even though he insisted that his government will not go to war to achieve this strategic objective, he hinted that war is eventually inevitable when he said, “we can’t say ‘let’s not fight today, let our kids fight tomorrow.’ Let’s talk today, so [our kids] don’t fight [tomorrow]”. The leaders of Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia should discuss not only about current peace but also about sustainable peace, he asserted.

Neighboring states like Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia who felt that Abiy’s remarks pose an immediate threat to their sovereignty have all released statements rejecting the PM’s consequential speech. However, on 14 November 2023, following widespread talks of imminent war, the prime minister said, addressing lawmakers, that “Ethiopia has no interest to fire a single bullet towards Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya or any other country in its neighborhood; nor do we have any question on the sovereignty of any country”.

“What I want countries in the Horn of Africa, the world in the east and west alike and all others to understand in good faith is our genuine interest and our problems,” the PM pleaded. Completely dismissing comments that Ethiopia might be forcing its way to the Red Sea, the Abiy said that what Ethiopia is saying is “let’s discuss it under the rules of business”.

Can Ethiopia Peacefully Secure a Port?

Kjetil Tronvoll, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Oslo New University College, with a specialization in Eritrea and Ethiopia, said PM Abiy Ahmed is utilizing what is called “constructive ambiguity” in his statements which involves the use of language with layers of meanings.

His statements go beyond access to a port, and have implicit references to the historical claim for territorial sea waters (to be harvested for resources) and as a security zone (for navy). “Packed into it [the PM’s speech] was Ethiopia’s historical claim to parts of current-day Eritrea, and a rhetorical construction of an “Afar polity” (uniting Eritrean Afars with the Ethiopian Afars and Djibouti), and through such a construction Ethiopia would be given access to the Red Sea,” the professor said.

Negera Gudeta, a researcher on peace and conflict and a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Peace and Security at Addis Ababa University said the PM’s initial remarks which has sentiments of securing direct access to the Red Sea through carrot and stick approach  wasn’t received with open arms by the three countries compelling them to react aggressively, with issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity dominating their reactions.

He argues that PM Abiy’s speech was presumed as a de-facto declaration of war and an attempt of territorial expansion against the neighboring countries which was underpinned by historical factors, most arguably during Ethiopia’s imperial past, the effect of which makes the prospect of peaceful settlement of Ethiopia’s quest impractical.

Had Ethiopia’s neighboring countries been stable democracies, with accountable and transparent political procedures guaranteeing long-term fulfillment agreements, port access could have been easily negotiated…”

Kjetil Tronvoll, expert on peace and conflict

According to Negera, PM Abiy’s remarks on the occasion of the 116th Ethiopian National Defense Forces Day on 26 October 2023, where he said ‘Ethiopia is not going to invade any country for a port’ is an attempt to moderate his provocative remarks, and neutralize the resentment it sparked in neighboring countries. Given the economy, sizable population, and subsequent military prowess that primed Ethiopia as the Anchor State of US’s Pax Americana in the Horn of Africa, any extra-legal claims arising from Ethiopia are naturally bad news for neighboring small states, Negera asserted.

Another factor impeding Ethiopia from securing a reliable deal through peaceful means is the internal situation of its neighbors, according to Tronvoll. He saidhad Ethiopia’s neighboring countries been stable democracies, with accountable and transparent political procedures guaranteeing long-term fulfillment agreements, port access could have been easily negotiated and agreed upon giving Ethiopia long-term policy predictability. Neither Eritrea nor Somalia can provide this” he noted, adding that this does not necessitate the use of violence to “conquer a port”, but it surely rests upon Ethiopia to find means and ways to secure stable import/export routes. 

Ethiopia tried to institutionalize the 2018/19 “friendship agreement” with Eritrea through drafting three bilateral agreements; a port agreement, a trade agreement and a cross-border movement/petty trade agreement, which Eritrea/Isaias Afwerki did not want to follow up and ratify, Tronvoll said.

Nevertheless, a diplomat at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who spoke to Addis Standard on conditions of anonymity, suggests a potential resolution that grants Ethiopia a sovereign port through a legal argument, fait accompli, is within reach. They pointed to the Chile-Bolivia 2018 case, a long-standing conflict between Chile and Bolivia called the Chile-Bolivia maritime dispute. The case was brought forward by Bolivia to reclaim coastal territory it lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific. Following five years of deliberations after Bolivia filed the case at the International Court of Justice, judges determined in 2018 that Chile was not obliged to engage in negotiations with Bolivia regarding sovereign access to the sea. The diplomat believes similar arguments can be made, and a different outcome compelling neighboring states to negotiate over sovereign access to port can be achieved.

Furthermore, the establishment of a free trade zone in one of the ports, where Ethiopia would be granted access, and a joint venture between a neighboring country and Ethiopia to operate a port facility could also be the alternatives, they said.

How existential is a port for Ethiopia?

PM Abiy Ahmed said Ethiopia can offer, in return for access to the port, shares of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopian Airlines, Ethio-telecom and etc. “What we are saying is we have the best Airline in Africa, lets share that and you share the water with us; we have built the number one dam in Africa, let’s share that and you share [the water] with us; your economy has problems, as our economy, so let us come together and grow together,” he said during his latest appearance before lawmakers.

He questioned how saying ‘let’s share the Airline’ be taken as equivalent to war. “The name GERD itself is a pride; it is a dam we built after many ups and downs, but we are saying even that is okay to share” for mutual benefits. “So it is good to discuss this matter calmly and peacefully.”

Negera said from the contemporary perspective PM Abiy’s claim for direct access to the Red Sea is part of the constant geopolitical dynamism in the Horn of Africa and the de/reconfiguration of alliances of Ethiopia and Eritrea relations. He however, noted from economic, political, and security perspectives, direct access to the port is an existential necessity for Ethiopia irrespective of domestic irregularities and the timing. 

“From a geopolitical point of view, the Horn of Africa (HOA) is the most conflicted region where mutual trust is lacking in the inter-state relations of the countries in the region. Depending on other countries for access to sea outlets is risky for the national interest of Ethiopia since the political behavior of littoral states in the region is unpredictable and unfathomable. The political elite of the littoral states in the region could use the port as a bargaining chip to pressure the Ethiopian regime at any time,” he explained.

Moreover, from the security perspective, the HOA and Red Sea have been ravaged by non-traditional security threats, most arguably, terrorism and piracy for many years which compromised freedom of navigation in the region. Securing direct access to the Red Sea (port ownership) enables Ethiopia to re-establish its naval forces (undergoing since 2019) and contribute to the peace and stability of the region and project its own influence in the region, Negera stated.

Ethiopia has many challenges. Peace in Tigray is still fragile. There is conflict in Oromia and Amhara. The economy is under tremendous strain. The priority must be peace, post-conflict reconciliation, and reconstruction.”

Rashid Abdi, a geopolitical analyst

He added, from an economic point of view, being dependent on other countries for sea outlets and paying billions of dollars (approximately 2 billion dollars) for port service is a burden for the Ethiopian economy. It discourages foreign direct investment and creates setbacks to the economic progress of the nation. Considering the demographic pressures, promising economy, and the looming security risks in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region, Ethiopia’s claim to direct access to the Red Sea is justifiable to accommodate the current and future needs of Ethiopia.

Concurring with Negera, professor Tronvoll said that stable, predictable, and transparent port access is an existential necessity for Ethiopia, to cater for its huge population’s needs and to accommodate long-term policy planning for demographic and economic growth.

Rashid Abdi (PhD), a geopolitical analyst on the Horn of Africa and the Middle East said, as the Horn’s most populous and largest economy, Ethiopia needs access to ports and Djibouti alone is not enough in the long-term. “It makes sense for Ethiopia to seek other ports apart from Djibouti,” said Rashid, albeit questioning the timing.  “Ethiopia has many challenges. Peace in Tigray is still fragile. There is conflict in Oromia and Amhara. The economy is under tremendous strain. The priority must be peace, post-conflict reconciliation, and reconstruction,” Rashid conveyed.

Agreeing with Rashid, and notwithstanding the reasoning behind Ethiopia’s push for access to the Red Sea, Negera concludes that the PM’s speech was also destined to achieve certain political goals at the domestic level. “First, to divert attention from the domestic crisis, second to revive the national sentiment, and third, to unveil the resilience and confidence of the Ethiopian government to contain multiple security crises raging in the country and create a regional agenda,” he said.

For the diplomat at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs however, the Prime Minister’s speech was neither limited to access to the port, nor domestic politics, “it also asserted [the need] for a new political arrangement in the Horn region such as a federation or confederation. AS

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