Why Ethiopia can no longer ignore interests on the Red Sea

The issue of the Red Sea in Ethiopia has long been placed on the back burner though the biggest nation lies a few kilometers away from the strategic location. With the Ethiopian naval force disbanded, Ethiopia has been a bystander for decades ultimately affecting its socioeconomic and political hegemony.

As nations near and abroad continue vying to have an upper hand in the area Ethiopia has been turning a blind eye to the elephant in the room. The issue remained largely unaddressed. Hosting military bases of powerful nations, the Red Sea poses both opportunities and threats to nations like Ethiopia. For many, the country can no longer ignore its interests in the sea given its internal, regional, and global dynamism.

And, recently the issue has been drawing attention in the country particularly after Prime Minister Abiy brought the issue to the fore and broke the years of state-led silence. In fact, there have been signals previously from Abiy Ahmed’s administration. It is to be recalled that that the country begun reorganizing a naval force and the Premier in many ways and occasions have been addressing the issue. But, it is only since recently, the call for considering the Red Sea for socioeconomic development is increasing in intensity. This is true after the Premier met lawmakers for briefings in the mammoth issue.

And, currently, with the issue gaining more traction, there appear to be solid arguments behind the matter, among which are internal economic rationales and regional situations.

Ethiopia is the fastest-growing economic powerhouse in Africa. In this regard, the country’s quest for access to the sea is both reasonable and justifiable. The country’s landlocked status raises concerns about its sovereignty and maritime security in the area. The region is plagued by numerous terrorist groups and pirates. By gaining access to the Red Sea, the nation can effectively address these security threats and contribute to the overall stability of the region.

The recent speech by the Prime Minister on this issue highlights Ethiopia’s desire to collaborate with neighboring countries to utilize ports and mutually benefit from this arrangement. As the Prime Minister emphasized, this collaboration would be based on the principles of give and take, focusing on shared interests. Many scholars have endorsed Ethiopia’s quest, citing its potential to foster the development of a culture of mutual cooperation and strengthen economic relations among East African countries.

According to American political-economic analyst Lawrence Freeman, leaders of the Horn of Africa nations should consider discussing Ethiopia’s quest for sea access, as it would contribute to the physical and economic growth of the East African region. Freeman emphasizes that access to the sea not only strengthens Ethiopia’s growing import-export trade but also fosters regional development. He believes that if people understand the concept of physical economic growth, they will recognize the reasonableness and correctness of Ethiopia’s aspirations. Ethiopia’s possession of a Red Sea port would facilitate increased trade, benefiting the approximately 200 million people living in the Horn of Africa.

Prime Minister Abiy has suggested potential areas of cooperation, such as Ethiopian Airlines, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and other offers for concession. Freeman acknowledges that this approach is perfectly reasonable for Ethiopia’s booming economy. By putting these issues on the table, Prime Minister Abiy demonstrates statesmanship, and Freeman commends this approach.

Access to a port is crucial to accelerate Ethiopia’s growth trajectory and contribute to the overall physical and economic development of the region. Freeman believes that Ethiopia will be the dominant economic growth center in the Horn of Africa, and this growth will benefit all neighboring countries. Therefore, it is natural to engage in discussions and find solutions to facilitate Ethiopia’s access to the sea. Freeman is confident that this important discussion, raised by Prime Minister Abiy, will be resolved in the years to come. He also emphasizes the need for a regional economic approach, considering the presence of several ports in the Horn of Africa.

Freeman dismisses distorted media reports suggesting that Ethiopia is claiming access to the sea through the use of force. He argues that such a policy is divisive and has been detrimental to Africa for centuries.

Prime Minister Abiy recently reiterated Ethiopia’s commitment to peace and development during the commemoration of the 116th National Army Day. He emphasized that the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) works tirelessly to safeguard peace and ensure the country’s prosperity. The ENDF’s actions align with its name, defending the nation’s sovereignty rather than launching attacks on others. Prime Minister Abiy affirms that Ethiopia is prepared for dialogue, not force, and demonstrates the country’s dedication to peace and development in all its deployments across Africa.

Research indicates that the Red Sea region accounts for 12 % of global seaborne trade, 40 % of Europe’s trade with Asia and the Middle East, and 8 % of seaborne hydrocarbon transportation. Moreover, it is one of the busiest waterways in the world, with an average of 47 ships crossing it each day. However, the region also faces security challenges such as state weakness, piracy, terrorism, and other issues that necessitate cooperation and joint efforts to find solutions.

Ethiopia expresses its desire to collaborate with different countries and stakeholders to address the security issues in the sea. The reestablishment of its navy aims to strengthen maritime security and protect the country’s ships from terrorists and other threats. Currently, 95 % of Ethiopia’s import-export activities rely on the Djibouti port, which requires protection from various threats.

In conclusion, Ethiopia’s quest for access to the sea through collaboration with neighboring countries is a reasonable and justifiable aspiration. It aligns with international law and historical precedents, and it addresses the country’s security concerns in the region. Ethiopia’s growing economy and its potential to contribute to the physical and economic growth of the entire East African region make this quest even more significant. By engaging in dialogue and cooperation, Ethiopia aims to establish mutually beneficial relationships and strengthen regional stability and development.


The Ethiopian Herald November 9/2023

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