Ethiopia's Desire to Own Sea Outlet - a Timely Question but Requires Diligence


Until the last quarter of the 19th century, Ethiopia had no neighboring countries bordering its sea coastal territories across Read Sea, Gulf of Aden and Atlantic Ocean. The advent of European colonialism in the 1880s created new countries bordering Ethiopia such as Somalia, Djibouti and lately Eritrea.

However, though Ethiopia unlawfully barred from sea access, the leaders including emperors Yohannes IV, Menilik II, and Hailesilassie I strived their diplomatic efforts to obtain sea access for its import and export trade and to have connection with the foreign world.

Following the end of the World War II after the hard diplomatic efforts in 1953, Ethiopia's plea got response from the United Nations and Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia and its dream to get access to sea was realized. However, eight years later, the abolishment of the federal status of Eritrea through unification with Ethiopia incited some nationalist groups such as Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) to engage in armed struggle. After 30 years bloodshed fight, Eritrea became independent country in 1993 and Ethiopia became land locked country again.

Cognizant of the valid demand of Ethiopia's access to sea in a peaceful and give and take principle, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) recently forwarded Ethiopia's legitimate demand to the neighboring countries and the international community and his appeal has obtained support from the large segment of the society locally and in the diaspora.

To communicate the issue with concerned bodies, public discourses have been underway and recently, Addis Ababa University organized a half day seminar. On the occasion, papers were presented by intellectuals and question and answer session was held.

Belete Belachew (PhD), a researcher on the foreign policy and international relation on the Horn of Africa who wrote various books on international relation said that access to sea is a key to meet Ethiopia's strategic economic interests. As the country has become an emerging economy with more than 120 million people in the horn Africa, it is essential to secure its economic interest in the region. Truly, it is illogical for Ethiopia to lose sea outlet situated only 60 kilo meters away from the water body.

He further said that, sea outlet is a concern raised by generations to date. However, the Red Sea had been a place of diplomatic and military confrontation among the colonial powers and east African countries. Ethiopian kings, since the era of princes in the 18th century up to emperor Menelik, had exerted various efforts to secure access to sea. In addition, military expeditions had been underway.

Before crowned as a king of kings by the name Hailesilassie in 1931, Teferi Mekonnen asserted Ethiopia's claim to get access to sea outlet. In 1924, he visited various European countries including Italy, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. One of the objectives of his visit was to obtain diplomatic support for his endeavor to get access to Red Sea and to own Ports such as Asseb, Tajura and Obock.

As to Belete, the change of balance of power and ideology following the end of World War II brought good opportunity to Ethiopia and the federating of Eritrea with Ethiopia in 1953 was the outcome of the reality on the ground. However, as to him, the armed struggle for liberation lasted for 30 years deprived Ethiopia that opportunity and made it land locked again in 1993.

Various countries, from near and far, which regarded Ethiopia as foe, gave relentless military and diplomatic support to the rebel group to ban Ethiopia from access to the sea. As to Belete, the internal political instability which was apparent during the Derg era opened door for foreign plotters to exploit it and interfere in the internal affairs of Ethiopia.

After Eritrea's independence in 1993, Ethiopia utilized port of Asseb with fair price for 8 years but later when the war broke out between the two countries; it gave up utilization of the port and since then Ethiopia is utilizing port of Djibouti for its more than 90% of import export trade.

According to Belete, currently, Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf have become the place where super powers and Middle Eastern countries confront both diplomatically and militarily. The presence of foreign naval forces in the international territories has been common. Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Emirates have also been striving to control the Red Sea.

Iran, Turkey and Israel also play decisive role in the region. They established strong relations with some African countries. Emirates have been engaged in port constructions starting from Eritrea up to Tanzania to put its influence in the region.

In order to put Ethiopia and Israel at bay from red sea, as to Belete, Saudi Arabia established a coalition comprised Egypt, Sudan and Somalia. Ethiopia's ambition to get access to sea must overcome such obstacles. In the region, apart from the western countries such as the USA, France and Britain, China and Russia have geopolitical interest and established their respective military bases in the suburbs of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

In order to materialize its ambition to get sea outlet, Ethiopia, in the first place, has to improve its relations with the neighboring countries which have sea access, Belete said. Its ambition should be based on give and take principle. Providing economic opportunities to the neighboring countries by itself might not be a guarantee to secure port. As the ambition also touches the super powers' interest, Ethiopia should do diplomatic homework to ease the challenges it may face in this regard.

Matheos Ensermu (PhD), an economist specialized in logistics who works as a researcher and instructor, also presented a paper on the forum. As to him, owning port makes a country to be competent in the world market. Exporting goods through other countries' ports by paying port fee makes incompetent because other countries which use their own ports supply their goods and services to the world market through lower price to win the market.

He further said that, owning port is one of the criteria which determine the nation's economic potential and attaining development. It is also an indicator of the country's macro- economic stability. Countries which are dependent on other countries' ports for their import and export trade face various challenges and the fluctuation of port service prices makes their economy unpredictable.

In addition, it poses inflation and delays the journey to prosperity. The logistics development of one country also has its own impact on import and export trade.

He further said that custom sufficiency, loading capacity of goods, transportation cost, timeliness, development of dry and sea ports are indicators of a country's competitiveness in the world market.

According to the maritime authority, in 2021, Ethiopia became 126th in the world with regard to economic competitiveness and the absence of its own port made the country lag behind many countries.

To upgrade its status in this regard, improving its road transport infrastructure, rail way terminal, and parking places is essential. In addition, constructing new infrastructure and investing money on the sector is vital. As to him, the construction of express ways play pivotal role in transporting import and export goods rapidly.

The Addis Ababa - Djibouti electrified rail way enabled Ethiopia to reduce its transportation cost of import and export goods. 45% of Ethiopia's exported goods transportation is between Addis Ababa and Djibouti. Hence, creating conducive logistics system is essential.

Through cooperating with the neighboring countries, Ethiopia can develop new ports and upgrade the standard of ports such as Berbera, Zeyla, Mogadishu, Lamu and Tajura and through long discussion and dialogue with the neighboring countries; it can possess its own port.

To utilize ports effectively, constructing rail ways and roads is vital and among the various ports located in the neighboring countries Assab, Djibouti and Berbera are preferable because of their adjacency.

As to him, the Council of Ministers introduced laws in 2020 which changed Ethiopia's aspire from port user to port owner. But developing ports needs huge investment and establishing institutions led by committed and dedicated professionals and port enterprises. He also said that as Ethiopia is a member of the African Free Trade Agreement, it has to use its membership as diplomatic leverage to access sea outlet and own port.

Ambassador Ibrahim Idris is a veteran diplomat and currently is working as an advisor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As to him, to ensure port ownership, discussing the matter among intellectuals and stakeholders is essential. International relations and diplomacy should go hand in hand since Ethiopia has a chance to possess port through its diplomatic channel. In this regard, the African Union can play pivotal role.

As to him, the demand for access to sea was tabled for negotiation since the 17th century. There is a universal consensus that poor and rich countries should get access to sea. This is applied in the case of Congo Democratic Republic when it got access to Atlantic Ocean during the colonial era based on the agreement between Portugal and Belgium and currently the country has its own port to date.

Jordan also could possess port on Ackaba in the suburb of Red Sea with the cooperation of Israel. Niger got access to port through getting land corridor from Nigeria by the exchange of land. Ukraine provided Moldova access to Danube River and now it enabled to export and import goods through that corridor. Belgium also possessed port through exchanging of land with Netherlands. Bolivia also possessed port from Peru through leasing for 99 years.

These global experiences all testify that owning port is common, logical and applicable. Accessing to sea serves not only for conducting trade but it has abundant advantages which help countries alleviate poverty. Thus, Ethiopia can obtain its own port by various means through using its diplomatic channel.

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