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In-depth: Ethiopia’s quest for alternative ports: Negotiations or force on the table?

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa

Addis Abeba – A few months ago, rumors began swirling about Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts to secure a crucial port for the country. It has since been revealed that during a gathering of investors and businessmen, Prime Minister Abiy emphasized the urgent need for Ethiopia to have its own port. He highlighted the astronomical costs associated with depending on neighboring countries’ ports. According to these rumors, the Ethiopian government is considering all options, from negotiation to the use of force, in order to achieve this strategic objective.

The rumor suggests that the Ethiopian government has already started negotiations with key regional players. A proposal has allegedly been presented to Eritrea, offering a 30% stake in the renowned Ethiopian Airlines as a bargaining chip for access to the desired port. These rumors gained traction when Al Jazeera English covered the issue in its recent Inside Story segment. According to Al Jazeera, the Prime Minister stated, “Ethiopia will secure direct access to a port, either peacefully or, if necessary, by force.”

However, the notion of the Ethiopian government demonstrating such intentions seems highly improbable, given that Ethiopia came remarkably close to utilizing Eritrean ports, namely Massawa and Assab, just five years ago when the Prime Minister came to power and sought to mend the hostile relationship between the two nations. In September 2018, the Ethiopian commercial ship named “Mekelle” even docked at the Red Sea port of Massawa, marking the first time in two decades.

The Eritrean Ports Authority was also preparing Assab port to handle Ethiopia’s cargo. In 2019, repairs and maintenance were undertaken at Assab port at a cost of $57 million. The two ports in Eritrea can handle 2.5 million tons of cargo in total.

Nonetheless, the rumors and Al Jazeera’s reporting gained further credibility following recent back-to-back visits by an Ethiopian delegation, led by Alemu Sime, Minister of Transport and Logistics, to neighboring countries such as Kenya and Somaliland.

On 03 August, 2023, Alemu and Ethiopia’s delegation arrived in Hargeisa, Somaliland, to explore additional port options for Ethiopia. They engaged in discussions with Somaliland authorities regarding the possibility of Berbera port serving as an additional avenue for Ethiopian foreign trade. A week after the Hargeisa visit, Alemu and his team proceeded to Kenya to search for alternative ports that would facilitate Ethiopia’s ever-expanding import-export trade.

Despite the recent visits of Alemu and the Ethiopian delegates to neighboring countries, it is the Prime Minister’s alleged declaration of “by any means necessary” that has caught the attention of media pundits, activists, and regional commentators.

Merera Gudina, a professor of political science and international relations at Addis Ababa University, has warned that if negotiations fail to secure a port, war could be the alternative means to gain access. He emphasized that such a strategy would undoubtedly be destructive for the region, which is already known for its instability caused by both state and non-state actors.

Eyasu Hailemichael, a researcher on the Horn of Africa and an expert in international affairs, argues that political leaders are unlikely to publicly declare war to get access to ports due to deliberate state deception and strategic cover-up. However, Eyasu believes that the Ethiopian government’s need for access to the Red Sea could be accepted by Western powers, considering the hostile relationship that exists between Asmara and the West.

There are various speculations about the motives behind the PM’s alleged use of force to gain access to port. Merera raises questions about whether it is to restore his Amhara supporting base or test Western’s support for his regime. He also highlights recent changes in Ethiopia’s foreign policy, which have become more unpredictable, individualistic, and fragmented, adding to the uncertainty.

Merera, who is a leading opposition figure in Ethiopia, also suggests that the war might be a result of Eritrea’s involvement in the Tigray conflict as well as Ethiopia’s shifting foreign policy. Reports indicate that tension is brewing between the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments after the signing of the Pretoria agreement in November 2022, which ended the Tigray war.

Eyasu suggests that it might be a diversion of conflict from domestic to regional issues. “Any effort to forcefully address the question of access to ports will not be easy,” he stated. “Any war with Eritrea could also lead to a violation of the 2018 rapprochements, which will have its own repercussions in the region.”

Expanding port options to accommodate growing trade

Diversifying access to ports is a key element of the Ethiopian government’s 30-year integrated transport master plan, adopted in 2021. Officials argue that expanding port options is economically justified in light of the country’s growing volume of foreign trade. Alemu, speaking in Hargeisa, explained the purpose of his visit, stating, “Ethiopia is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, and as such, the country requires an alternative to Djibouti’s main seaport.”

Ethiopia’s annual foreign trade has been steadily increasing over the past decade, with estimates of around 15 million tons of solid cargo and four billion metric tons of petroleum products. Currently, Djibouti’s ports can handle this cargo. However, it is projected that the volume of foreign trade will more than double in the next decade.

Before 1997, Assab port used to handle the lion’s share of Ethiopia’s import and export cargo (Photo: Eritrean Press/Facebook)

Highlighting Ethiopia’s heavy reliance on Djibouti’s ports, a senior diplomat at Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaking anonymously to Addis Standard, justified the need for port diversification. Prior to the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998, Massawa and Assab ports accounted for over 75% of Ethiopia’s foreign trade cargo. However, following the war, almost all imported and exported goods were redirected to Djibouti. Currently, close to 95% of Ethiopia’s import-export cargo goes through Djibouti’s ports, with the remainder shipped through Port Sudan and Berbera.

The senior diplomat also emphasizes the mounting costs Ethiopia incurs from Djibouti in the form of port fees and demurrage charges as a valid economic reason for seeking alternative sea access. Currently, Ethiopia pays $2 billion annually in port fees.

Eyasu, a researcher on the Horn of Africa, further explains the challenges faced by landlocked countries, such as long distances, expensive transportation, high transaction costs, isolation, limited access to global markets, and complicated border crossing procedures. He adds, “Additionally, landlocked states with few natural resources rely heavily on transit countries with poor socioeconomic conditions for transportation, making it difficult for them to thrive.”

The logistics sector in Ethiopia currently faces various challenges, resulting in inefficiency in the transportation of goods from the mainland to ports in Djibouti. One significant issue is the extended time it takes to transport goods to the ports, which hinders trade and economic growth. It can take several weeks to transport goods from landlocked Ethiopia to Djibouti’s ports, mainly due to poor infrastructure.

Moreover, high transportation costs pose a major challenge to the logistics sector. The long distance between Ethiopia and Djibouti, combined with inadequate infrastructure, leads to increased expenses. Consequently, cargo delays and long waiting times are common at Djibouti and Modjo dry ports.

The Ethiopian government says it recognizes the importance of improving the logistics sector and is implementing various infrastructure development projects, including enhancing the Ethio-Djibouti railway line and constructing new roads and highways.

While in Kenya, Alemu made a promise that Ethiopia would fulfill its responsibility by constructing infrastructure, such as the express road to Moyale. Alemu and his team took the opportunity to inspect the inland waterway port of Kisumu, located in Mombasa, which has the capability to handle up to 300,000 metric tons of cargo annually.

The delegation also reviewed the progress of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, a crucial infrastructure project expected to play a significant role in integrating Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Alemu stressed the urgent need for the completion of supportive infrastructure to fully capitalize on the potential of the port.

The geopolitical shift in the Horn of Africa

In addition to economic justifications, experts say that the changing geopolitics in the Horn of Africa play a significant role in Ethiopia’s pursuit of alternative ports. Eyasu stated that the presence of foreign actors in the region has resulted in foreign geopolitical divisions, shaped intra-horn geopolitics, and prompted port diversification. He believes that commercial motivations, proxy wars, transactional diplomacy, and security agreements have all played a role in this process.

Ethiopia’s recent search for alternative ports coincides with the increasing foreign interference in the Horn of Africa, particularly the growing number of foreign military installations in Djibouti. Strategically located on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti has been attracting the attention of several foreign countries in recent years. Currently, 13 countries, including the United States, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Turkey, have a military presence or naval facilities in Djibouti.

The Chinese government has heavily invested in Djibouti’s infrastructure, including the construction of ports, roads, and a railway system. The United States also maintains a significant military presence in Djibouti, with Camp Lemonnier serving as the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. Djibouti also houses military bases operated by other foreign countries, such as France, Japan, and Saudi Arabia.

“The influx of foreign actors securing the ports of the Horn has led to foreign geopolitical divisions and shaped intra-horn geopolitics through commercial motivations, proxy wars, transactional diplomacy, and security agreements,” explained Eyasu.

The Horn of Africa has witnessed an increase in the presence of Middle Eastern countries in recent years. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been actively engaged in the region, investing in infrastructure projects and providing financial aid. The UAE has also increased its involvement, established military bases, and invested in ports like Djibouti and Somaliland. Qatar has also been actively involved in the region.

The senior diplomat recounted Djibouti’s actions in 2013, where they obstructed the transportation of goods to Ethiopia, revealing the issue of limited port diversification in Ethiopia. However, he stressed that this event is now unrelated to the small nation and instead part of larger foreign policy endeavors aimed at achieving greater integration in a region plagued by political conflicts and the realpolitik of foreign powers. In light of this, Ethiopia is cautious not to rely solely on Djibouti, opting to avoid concentrating all its resources in one place, as stated by the senior diplomat.

While the presence of foreign countries has brought some economic benefits to Djibouti, it has also raised concerns among countries like Ethiopia regarding their national security. Eyasu emphasizes that neighboring countries can restrict ports and impose measures that hinder communication during military or diplomatic crises. This adds further complexity to the challenges faced by landlocked countries like Ethiopia.

The socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and geographical differences between these countries can significantly impact the efficient use of transport facilities, as noted by Eyasu. “Unrestricted access to the sea is equally essential for the defense and security of landlocked countries.”

Eyasu further elaborates on the challenges faced by landlocked countries, stating that “the challenges faced by landlocked countries are compounded when they are bordered by countries with challenging socioeconomic circumstances.”

Despite the justifications for the search for alternative ports, experts stress that going to war is not viable for Ethiopia. Merera emphasizes the need to enhance cross-border trade among countries in the Horn of Africa. By improving transportation routes and regional economic policies specifically tailored to the coastal regions, positive spillover effects can be expected. Additionally, building stronger people-to-people relations across diverse cultures within the region is crucial for the shared utilization of ports.

The senior diplomat from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggests negotiating with Eritrea and exploring the possibility of a land swap arrangement. Under this proposal, Ethiopia would gain access to the port, while Eritrea would receive agricultural land. Another option entails a joint ownership arrangement of the port between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Echoing the thoughts of both Merera and the diplomat, Eyasu underscores the importance of diversifying port access through multiple avenues. Diplomatic negotiations represent one possible path, while military involvement remains a daunting but viable alternative. However, Eyasu cautions against resorting to military action as it could potentially escalate tensions in an already-conflicted region. Such escalation may lead to a proxy war involving competing Middle Eastern powers, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as traditional powers like the United States and Russia. AS

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