Addis Ababa University was the setting for a conference panel earlier this month, as experts gathered there under the theme “Equitable Port Use for Sustainable Peace and Development in the Horn of Africa.”
The discussions featured renowned academicians such as Belete Belatchew (PhD), political scientist, Matiwos Ensermu (PhD), a logistics expert and professors of supply chain management at Addis Ababa University, and Ibrahim Idris (Ambassador).
The conference revolved around Ethiopia’s (lack of) access to the sea – a subject that has seen much discussion and debate among the general public over the past couple of months. It is a topic that took center stage after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) repeatedly raised the idea of gaining access to the sea during televised discussions with other senior government officials or even Parliamentary addresses.
Central to his message is Ethiopia’s pressing need for sea access, citing the burgeoning population and its strategic proximity to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Ethiopia’s heavy reliance on Djibouti for trade, with over 95 percent of commercial activities conducted through the country, incurs a substantial cost—approximately 1.6 billion dollars annually in port rent due to the absence of direct sea access.
In proposing potential alternatives, Abiy has spotlighted Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somaliland as viable options for a hypothetical future port. The Prime Minister has suggested exploring avenues such as offering shares in national institutions like the Great Renaissance Dam, Ethiopian Airlines, or Ethio-Telecom in exchange for a port or land to develop a port in one of these neighboring countries.
Moreover, Abiy, during a recent Parliamentary session, expressed concerns about potential geopolitical challenges in the Horn, particularly if conflicts involving major powers emerge near Djibouti and highlighted the risk of disruption to Ethiopia’s fuel and fertilizer supplies. Abiy emphasized the imperative for cooperation among Horn of Africa nations, extending invitations for discussions with neighbors, and underlining Ethiopia’s sincere commitment to peaceful collaboration while refuting sovereignty violation claims.
Although other governments recognize the significance of addressing sea access concerns, the hubbub surrounding the PM’s televised addresses has raised eyebrows, with some emphasizing national security and the well-being of citizens.
Notably, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia have rejected Ethiopia’s pleas for access to the Red Sea, contradicting Abiy’s emphasis on its vital importance for Ethiopia’s survival. Eritrea’s President Issayas Afeworki, in an interview with Saudi’s Ishraq al-Wasat media and EriTV, emphasized the need for regional cooperation in resource exploitation, highlighting the Red Sea’s strategic role in global partnerships.
During his recent interview with EriTV, Issayas stressed that safeguarding the Red Sea is a collective responsibility of nations directly linked to it, calling for the formulation of an allied military force among Red Sea-bordering countries.
Despite his proposal for an allied force, experts cast doubt on its feasibility given the existing relationships with neighboring countries like Yemen and Djibouti. However, they emphasize that the President has consulted with other neighboring nations, pointing out that this request follows Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed’s recent statement.
PM Abiy, on his part, had to clarify that his administration was not considering a violent means of gaining sea access, after earlier comments he made suggested the use of “force” to gain access to the Red Sea.
“Ethiopia’s quest for a sea outlet –our own port– is neither new nor a threat to neighboring countries,” said Abiy.
Nonetheless, his words sparked a long national debate on whether Ethiopia has the right to a port, and how it would go about obtaining one.
It was this debate that spurred academicians to gather at Addis Ababa University on November 7, 2023, to shed light on the situation and discuss what the future could possibly hold. The panel of experts touched on all aspects of the quest for access to the sea.
Belete emphasized that Ethiopia’s pursuit of a sea outlet is a multifaceted matter involving security, development, and foreign policy. He pointed out the regional geopolitics employed by neighboring countries to isolate Ethiopia from the Red Sea, asserting that this conspiracy persists. He underscored the need to build internal strength and enhance regional awareness to address internal conflicts and vulnerabilities, aiming for a peaceful resolution to the sea gate issue.
Belete also believes that using arms to achieve one’s goals cannot bring sustainable peace and is almost impossible in this world. He argues it is crucial to evaluate Ethiopia’s bilateral relationship with countries that might consider sharing sea outlets and to assess the world’s power dynamics.
According to Belete, it is essential to identify the factors that determine Ethiopia’s position on the matter in order to move forward with any plans for sea access. Additionally, identifying the other powers behind Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somaliland is critical.
“Ethiopia’s size and history should not be used as leverage to influence neighboring countries, but rather as a source of confidence that respects their sovereignty. Therefore, the quest for sea outlets requires internal strength and principles that can shape the country’s foreign diplomacy,” said Belete.
On the other hand, Matiwos and Ibrahim emphasized that to secure sea access for Ethiopia, diplomatic finesse and exploration of peaceful avenues are imperative. They urged the government to engage in comprehensive discussions on Ethiopia’s initiatives regarding the port matter. Matiwos also assessed the viability of sea access options for port services in the region, highlighting criteria such as distance, proximity, service efficiency, and pricing.
He suggested collaboration with neighboring countries that possess sea outlets to optimize port alternatives.
In parallel, Ibrahim delved into the intersection of international law and diplomacy, advocating for Ethiopia to leverage profitable and sustainable approaches. He proposed a thorough study of global legal frameworks and encouraged learning from the successful practices observed in port and sea outlet agreements worldwide.
Ethiopia’s dependency on Djibouti for port access, especially since Eritrea’s independence in 1993, has hindered its aspiration to be a regional powerhouse. The recent shift involves leveraging Arab Gulf States’ involvement in the Horn of Africa to reduce reliance on Djibouti’s port, which currently accounts for 95 percent of Ethiopia’s imports and exports.
Tameru Wondmagegnehu is founder and director of Tameru Wondmagegnehu Law Office. A seasoned legal personality and worked at higher levels in the past half a century, under different regimes. He was also involved in the port negotiations between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the post-Derg times.
After closely monitoring the region’s political landscape following the Derg regime’s demise in 1991, Tameru actively voiced concerns during the signing of the charter for Eritrea’s independence in 1993 under the EPRDF’s Transitional Government. Looking back, Tameru recognizes the ongoing debate about potentially revoking that agreement due to concerns about its validity, given the unstable political climate at the time, and emphasizes that the signing occurred primarily due to the willpower of the Transitional Government.
Tameru stated that revoking the agreement based on the international order is subjective, citing the lack of any previous examples worldwide. However, he mentioned the “Assertorial Theory of International Law,” which suggests that powerful countries can assert their own laws to achieve their goals, potentially leading to the agreement being revoked.
He provided an example related to the Ethiopian issue by referencing the cases of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) where the international community created a port access corridor to DRC that links them to the Atlantic Ocean, with the intention of exploiting the countries resources.
According to Tameru, there was a clause in the agreement, mandated by the UN, stating that Ethiopia would retain primary rights to port access even after signing the agreement. However, he criticized the transitional government led by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for disregarding this clause and focusing only on Eritrea’s independence.
“It saddens me to see Ethiopia, among the 17 other landlocked countries, grappling with its landlocked status. It is also unfortunate for Ethiopia to embark on the challenging journey of reclaiming those avenues of opportunity – a task that appears quite formidable and demanding,” Tameru told The Reporter.
In 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was issued, establishing fundamental principles for global use of sea areas and boundaries. Signed by 169 countries, it outlines regulations for international waters, designating the continental shelf as areas more than 370 kilometers from a country’s coast, with equal navigation rights for all nations.
An example illustrating the impact of sea access is the “War of the Pacific” in 1879, where Chile defeated Bolivia and Peru. Following the conflict, Chile blockaded the ports of both countries, rendering Bolivia landlocked. Although Chile granted Bolivia access to ports like Antofagasta and Arica, along with passage rights, diplomatic relations remained strained as Bolivia insisted on regaining its sovereign sea gate.
In addition, studies highlight the agreement between the two Congos’. Historically, both the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) resolved their port access dispute through mutual agreement, stemming from the colonial eras of Belgian control over Congo Kinshasa and French dominion over Brazzaville.
Facing economic challenges due to the lack of direct sea access, an agreement was reached to allocate land from Kinshasa to Congo-Brazzaville, enabling a sea outlet connecting the latter to the Atlantic Ocean.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia is actively diversifying its port reliance by expanding to ports in Somaliland. Alemu Sime (PhD), Ethiopian Ministry of Transport, stated in a recent media address that the government is in negotiations with the Somaliland administration to secure access to a port in Berbera. Alemu emphasized the potential long-lasting benefits for Ethiopia arising from this negotiation.
It is important to note that in a 2018 deal involving the Government of Ethiopia, DP World, and the Somaliland Port Authority, Ethiopia aimed to acquire a 19 percent stake in the Berbera Port. However, Somaliland’s announcement in June 2022 revealed a setback, as Ethiopia fell short of securing its intended share.