Thursday, February 22, 2024
InterviewTo Sea, or not to Sea

To Sea, or not to Sea

The last few months have been eventful, to say the least, for the shores of the Red Sea. Sudan, which holds a 750 kilometer coast on the Sea, has been embroiled in a deadly civil war for the better part of the year. The violence farther north in Gaza has rippled down into waters near the coasts of Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia, as Houthi rebels in Yemen retaliate to Israeli aggression with missile and drone attacks, jeopardizing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and the lifeline for Ethiopian trade.

The events unfold parallel to a series of contentious and divisive statements from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) about Ethiopia’s right to sea access. Although the PM has since said he favors a peaceful resolution to Ethiopia’s quest for a port, the controversy persists.

Relations with Eritrea, in particular, have come under much strain and interest in the months since the Ethiopian Prime Minister began alluding to sea access.

Paulo Antonio Govanni is the president of the Eritrean Seaman Union and a marine engineer with more than 15 years of experience working on vessels and the offshore oil and gas industry in Eritrea, Sweden, and Panama, among others. Born in Shashamane, Ethiopia, Paulo has a unique perspective on the relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The Reporter’s Ashenafi Endale has conversed with Paulo for an inside opinion of the happenings on and around the Red Sea, the feasibility of Ethiopia’s quest for sea access, and the governance and regulation of the waters of the Red Sea. Excerpts:

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 The Reporter: Tell us about the Eritrean Seaman Union, its activities relating to securing the interests of Eritrean seamen, and contribution to logistics in the Horn region.

Paulo Antonio Govanni: The Eritrean Seaman Union plays a crucial role in safeguarding the rights and interests of Eritrean seamen. It has many focuses, such as negotiating fair employment conditions, ensuring the welfare of seafarers, and addressing any challenges they face. In terms of logistics in the Horn of Africa region, Eritrean seafarers contribute significantly to the movement of goods and people, facilitating trade and transportation in the area. Their expertise and involvement in maritime activities are essential for the region’s economic development.

Over the last few months, the Ethiopian government has repeatedly voiced a contentious expression of interest in the need for access to a seaport on the Red Sea, as well as a place in decision-making regarding Red-Sea affairs. What legal, diplomatic or natural right options does Ethiopia have to make these claims? Which do you think is more valuable? How would you justify it? Some suggest the digging of a canal to bring the Red Sea to the Ethiopian border. Do you think this is realistic? Does Ethiopia have a chance for port ownership or port development and use on the Red Sea?

Ethiopia’s claim to ownership of any Eritrean seaport is not based on natural rights, as the port belongs to a sovereign country within internationally recognized boundaries. It’s crucial to understand the historical context to appreciate this claim fully. Eritrea was not originally part of Ethiopia; rather, it was colonized by Ethiopia. The UN placed Eritrea under Ethiopian administration through federation, against the will of the Eritrean people. In 1961, Ethiopia forcibly annexed Eritrea, still against the will of the local population.

However, it’s important to note that a landlocked country can have legal access to a neighboring country’s port through diplomatic agreements based on international rules and regulations. In recent years, from 1991 to 1998, Ethiopia used Eritrean ports based on a special agreement between the two countries. Ethiopia then voluntarily ceased using the port in 1998.

The idea that Ethiopia might create a canal to bring Red Sea water into its territory would also require the consent of the country where the canal would be constructed. Thus, it is impossible to claim access to a seaport or shores within a free and sovereign state without consent.

Eritrea, as a coastal nation on the Red Sea, can benefit significantly from Ethiopia’s interest in gaining access to a Red Sea port. This can lead to increased economic cooperation and trade opportunities between the two countries. Negotiating equitable terms for such access can result in revenue generation for Eritrea’s ports and boost economic development in the region. Additionally, Eritrea’s proximity to Ethiopia makes it a logical partner for infrastructure development and trade facilitation.

It is essential to respect international border and boundary laws to avoid violating the sovereign territory of another country. Attempting to take land from a sovereign state by force can disrupt peace not only within the countries involved but also in the entire region, potentially leading to significant human, environmental, and material losses that are best avoided.

The governments of Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia have expressed concerns over statements and claims from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) during public discussions on the Red Sea issue. How would Ethiopia’s access to a seaport affect neighboring countries?

It is a matter of ownership. Ethiopia, like any other country, has her own territorial boundaries and cannot claim any property beyond her territory. These kinds of claims would trigger an unstable situation in the countries who possess the seashores. First of all, it should be noted that the statements made recently by the Prime Minister and the elites of the Federal Government of Ethiopia regarding the desire to acquire a seaport all have the same content and are two sides of the same coin. This means that the explanation given by the majority equates it with water drawn from a source. In particular, the Prime Minister refuses to listen to the opinions and counsel of officials and scholars because he is preoccupied with war rather than seeking a peaceful solution.

Following the normalization of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2019, Eritrea reportedly consented to Ethiopia’s use of Assab Port. What do you think went wrong? Do you think Eritrea is ready for regional integration, particularly with regards to logistics, ports and other infrastructure networking with neighboring countries?

The details of the agreement reached between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2019 were, and remain, unknown to the people. I don’t know what kind of deal was reached between the two leaders. But, to my understanding, Ethiopia can use the port of Assab based on international port-access law for landlocked countries. The terms of the agreement in 2019 are known to the two leaders only. It was never made known to the public, and I cannot say that it included consent to the use of Assab by Ethiopia.

How could global interests in the Red Sea, including from Middle Eastern states, Egypt, the US, China, Russia and other powers affect Ethiopia’s Red Sea access interests?

Ethiopia’s pursuit of access to the Red Sea can certainly lead to instability in the region, affecting neighboring countries and potentially impacting the broader region. These access claims can be considered illegal when they are made by a landlocked country that does not share a direct boundary with the Red Sea. Achieving a peaceful and stable environment is essential to the well-being of all parties involved.

Eritrea, as a coastal nation on the Red Sea, holds a strategic position that can attract investments and partnerships from global powers interested in the region. This, in turn, can drive infrastructure development, job creation, and economic growth within Eritrea. Moreover, Eritrea’s role in promoting regional stability may be appealing to international actors, potentially leading to opportunities for diplomatic engagement and support for its development goals.

Do you think recent developments in Gaza, Sudan and Ukraine, can reshape Red Sea geopolitics?

These developments may indeed reshape the geopolitics of the Red Sea, as some of the unrest in these areas appears to be influenced by certain actors engaged in proxy wars to pursue their respective interests. These global developments can have indirect effects on Red Sea geopolitics, potentially altering the priorities and strategies of both Red Sea nations and international stakeholders.

In light of these changes, it is crucial for countries in the Red Sea region to closely monitor and adapt to evolving geopolitical dynamics. This proactive approach is essential to safeguard their interests and maintain regional stability.

Attacks from Houthi forces and growing piracy are threatening shipments over the Red Sea trade highway. This, in turn, is interrupting logistics and global trade and supply chains. How can this affect trade activity in Horn countries? Will these attacks trigger responses from military bases in Djibouti?

The attacks by Houthi forces on the shipping routes in the Red Sea have a significant impact on global shipping trade, accounting for approximately 12 percent of global maritime traffic. The diversion of shipping routes to and from the Far East and Europe can lead to an increase in freight costs of approximately 30 percent. These increased freight costs place a burden on the livelihoods of those who rely on these shipping routes for trade.

If military action were taken by a coalition of nations to ensure the safe passage of ships through the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait to and from the Suez Canal, the situation could potentially escalate further. The disruptions caused by Houthi attacks and piracy in the Red Sea can result in higher insurance costs, delays, and increased shipping expenses, ultimately affecting the overall cost of goods.

While this situation may prompt nations with military bases in Djibouti, such as the US and China, to take actions to protect their interests, it is imperative for both regional and international actors to collaborate on anti-piracy efforts and conflict resolution. This collaborative approach is essential to prevent further escalation and instability in the region.

Can the African Union, or other global or regional institutions, regulate and govern the terms of utilization of the Red Sea? Could IGAD, the Red Sea Council, or other platforms drawing members from the Gulf and Horn regions regulate and facilitate the utilization of the Red Sea?

I have concerns that the African Union and IGAD may not possess the necessary authority to oversee governance of the Red Sea effectively. The Red Sea Council, with support from the international community, could potentially possess the capability to do so. Achieving this goal would involve addressing the region’s political requirements.

While both the African Union and regional organizations like IGAD play vital roles in regulating and governing the utilization of Red Sea resources, collaborative efforts and agreements within these organizations can establish guidelines, resolve disputes, and promote peaceful and mutually beneficial usage of these resources. Additionally, international maritime law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), provides a framework for governing the seas and resolving maritime disputes.

How do you evaluate the logistics and infrastructure developments in the Horn countries in terms of contribution to the collective development of the region? What do you think is the way forward?

The logistics and infrastructure in the Horn of Africa do not meet basic requirements, particularly in some countries. Unfortunately, many Horn countries are currently grappling with internal conflicts and unrest, often attributed to issues with their respective administrations. Mismanagement by ruling leaders has contributed to an atmosphere that hinders the development of these nations.

The way forward requires a focus on proper governance. Logistics and infrastructure development in the Horn countries are vital for the region’s economic growth and overall development. Establishing improved transportation networks, modern ports, and enhanced connectivity can play a crucial role in facilitating trade, attracting investments, and generating job opportunities.

To ensure the collective development of the region, it is imperative for Horn countries to engage in collaborative infrastructure projects, promote regional integration, and prioritize sustainable development strategies that benefit all

Why could Eritrea not grow by capitalizing on its ports and fishery on the Red Sea?

Eritrea is naturally endowed with significant riches and potential. However, its main impediment lies in issues related to governance, including the exclusion of its people from participating in the administration. If the Eritrean people were allowed the freedom to engage in the country’s governance, sustainable growth could have been realized by now.

Multiple factors contribute to Eritrea’s challenges in fully leveraging its ports and fisheries on the Red Sea. These factors encompass historical conflicts, political and economic isolation, regulatory barriers, and limited access to international markets. To unlock the full potential of its ports and fisheries, Eritrea must prioritize addressing these challenges through economic reforms, improved governance, and active efforts to attract foreign investment and trade partners.

Additionally, fostering regional cooperation and stability is of utmost importance in advancing Eritrea’s economic prospects

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Video from Enat Bank Youtube Channel.

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