The rulers and people of Ethiopia Access to the sea have always been preoccupied with access to the sea for as long as their country has been in existence. This topic was the subject of an animated discussion during the first annual consultative forum held in Addis Ababa on September 21 on the security dynamics of the Red Sea region. Ethiopia enjoyed an unfettered outlet to the Red Sea for most of its history until it became landlocked in 1993 following the secession of Eritrea. It’s all too clear that the loss of direct access to the sea hindered not only the country’s ability to utilize its vast potential for growth to the fullest for the benefit of its large population force, but also the geopolitical influence it could exert in the Horn of Africa and beyond. The continued lack of sovereign right over a territory that ensures Ethiopia’s right of access to the sea constitutes a grave handicap which impacts its maritime trade, connectivity to the rest of the world, overall growth trajectory, and political clout in the continental and global arenas. Access to the sea is not a luxury for Ethiopia; it is a matter of vital economic and geostrategic importance for the nation.
In the past few months various news outlets and publications have dwelled at length on Ethiopia’s desire to gain direct access to a port in the wake of quotes attributed to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) in which he decried the high costs of its dependence on Djibouti for access to ports and international shipping routes as unsustainable and reportedly vowed that Ethiopia will secure direct access to a port – peacefully or, if necessary, by force. While the government of Ethiopia has never issued any official statement saying all options are on the table to restore the country’s right to have direct access to the sea, there can be no arguing that attempting to accomplish this objective through force is a non-starter and bound to cause unimaginable horror and destruction. The only feasible means for Ethiopia to exercise its legitimate right of access to the coast is therefore through peaceful diplomatic endeavors underpinned by the principle of give-and-take.
Ethiopia can avail itself of a host of options that guarantee a peaceful access to the sea. All of them could have positive economic dividends for Ethiopia and across the region. One of the options is finalizing the engagements already underway with Eritrea, Djibouti and Somaliland to arrive at agreements on mutually beneficial terms for the use of their ports. Although the much-vaunted Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor with Kenya is still to see the light of day, it could prove to be a game-changer if the considerable funds required for its completion can be secured. In addition to diplomatic efforts with neighboring countries, Ethiopia has also been engaged in discussions with other nations across the region to explore alternative options for sea access. For instance, it has been seeking partnerships with Sudan and South Sudan to utilize their ports on the Red Sea and the Nile River, respectively. Furthermore, Ethiopia has been an active participant in regional organizations such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU). These platforms provide opportunities for dialogue and cooperation with other member states on issues related to trade, infrastructure, and regional integration, which indirectly support Ethiopia’s aspirations to gain sea access.
Coastal access would help Ethiopia fulfill its aspiration to wield greater geopolitical influence in terms of becoming a dominant player in the Horn of Africa. Naturally, gaining access to the coast would depend on the nature of its relationships with its neighbors. This calls for improving ties which have been cool and strengthening the bond with those it has excellent relations. The fact that Ethiopia hosts the African Union (AU) and has been an active and dominant member of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) since its inception further enables it to make the case for its legitimate right enshrined under international agreements like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to access and utilize the closest seaports. History is replete with examples demonstrating that placing undue restrictions on landlocked countries’ sea access engenders political tensions and deadly conflicts. If Ethiopia were to regain its rightful access to the sea, it is certain to become a force for stability and shared prosperity.
Ethiopia’s endeavors to enjoy access to the sea once again after an undeserved long hiatus have shown promising developments, albeit testing challenges. The country must navigate complex geopolitical dynamics, manage regional rivalries, and invest significantly in infrastructure and logistics to effectively utilize sea access. But above all its people and government need to act with urgency to address the fault lines that threaten to fracture the nation and stand in solidarity with each other. It’s only then that Ethiopia’s sustained diplomatic engagement and strategic partnerships can make progress in its pursuit of ensuring access to the sea and expanding its economic opportunities.