Ethiopia’s quest for access to sea port

Ethiopia is one of the forty-four landlocked countries of the world but among the largest countries in terms of population. Ethiopia’s position however is such that it is just adjacent to a long sea that given its proximity to the sea and the kind of good relations it enjoys with its neighbors it would not take a lot to come to an agreement to share access to a sea port with these countries. The countries of the Horn of Africa many experts say would be a big economic bloc if they pulled their resources together and collaborated in a huge economy rather than stand individually and fail to exploit all the potential they have.

Ethiopia is a country of more than 120 million people most of which are young below the age of thirty-five. This is a huge economic potential asset and with the current projection it could probably double in about twenty years. At the same time the economy has been experiencing steady growth during the past several years and with the current pace and trajectory its GDP could double soon becoming one of the largest economies in Africa. The bottom line is that such a country can hardly afford to be ‘suffocated’ from its natural growth as things stand today by being landlocked because otherwise the consequences could be an issue for the stability of the entire region. This is because if the economy cannot sustain the increasing population, there could be a push factor from the confines of the country to leave and migrate. Today we see the pressure of population migration from Africa to the outside world creating serious problems to the host countries.

If Ethiopia has access to a sea port, the growth of the economy would be stimulated to match with the growth of the population and the risks of migration are destined to remain low. Any commercial arrangement of access to sea to Ethiopia would be beneficial to the granting state as well. Ethiopia is requesting access to see from its neighbors on the basis of give and take.

Ethiopia’s continuous growth is destined to be hampered by the need to access a sea outlet because depending on a single port such as Djibouti that serves as the heart of the country can raise certain issues. Djibouti is a country of brothers and sisters and Ethiopia’s relations with it are the closest possible with a neighbor and the importance of this port to the economy of Ethiopia is vital. However, Ethiopia in the long run cannot rely merely on such an arrangement because the cost of the port and the turnover of the imports and exports of the country can hardly be accommodated there keeping the momentum of economic growth. And if the growth of the economy of the country cannot match the growth of the population, the pressure in the country could be hard to control.

Many experts prospect that with the costs of the port reaching unsustainable ceilings the economy would not be able to cope with them. This would constrain the growth of the economy and this in turn would reflect on the work force of the country because if the economy does not continue to grow side by side with the population growth, what follow becomes high rates of unemployment and consequent economic crisis. Whenever there is economic crisis the first thing that happens is for the unemployed population to try and leave the country and migrate in search of better prospects.

A big country such as Ethiopia with an enormous population needs space to expand its economy to match such population pressure and one of the key elements in this equation is the existence of a free sea port that can facilitate its commercial relations with its trading partners all over the world. Ethiopia’s export is bound to increase because it is bound to be industrialized and with its relatively cheap labor, the products to be exported are going to be attractive to importers. Now that it has joined the BRICS economic group Ethiopia is also bound to trade more at preferential terms with these economic giants.

Ethiopia needs to exchange a lot of things with its neighbors and such exchange of trade is bound to benefit all. There are things that these neighbors can export to Ethiopia and others which they import from it. Closer ties that call for more integration is the formula of the future because the current economic scenario of the world demands that smaller economies continue to integrate more so that they can cope better with the pressure of the bigger economies.

When a few weeks ago the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed suggested that Ethiopia is presenting its bid for access to sea and that its neighbors be advised to consider such ‘a give and take’ deal with Ethiopia, many people were heard prejudging the premier’s suggestion as a kind of ‘beating the drums of war’ against its neighbors. Accordingly, the premier dismissed these allegations as unfounded and that nothing is further to the truth than such an assumption. The idea was proposed to the benefit of the countries that are neighbors to Ethiopia and have full control of the Red Sea ports.

If we can agree that there are undeniable economic imperatives for Ethiopia to have access to a port and cannot afford to be landlocked with a variety of solutions right near its border, the question then must be under what terms could there be such an agreement with a neighbor that has an outlet to the sea.

In the past several days there have been a series of seminars and discussions on this issue and the premier’s suggestions have sparked relentless discussions among intellectuals. The practices of other landlocked countries which managed to fix a deal with their neighbors have been mentioned by many scholars and it is only the good will that can create an atmosphere of cooperation that would benefit both the country with the port and the land locked country such as Ethiopia. Mention has been made of Saudi Arabia and Jordan which reached land swapping agreement that enabled Jordan to own a port. Similarly, Angola got a port from Congo following the agreement in 1988. There are also international conventions which Ethiopia has ratified that would help the country to access sea through diplomacy and international law.

Ethiopia’s bid for a sea port is also stimulated by the fact that it once had access to sea and even had two ports before historical developments that changed the geography of the area. Today, Ethiopia is landlocked and the negative consequences of such a situation are unfathomable and even very dangerous to the very neighbors with whom it has to live together. Any crisis in Ethiopia be it economic or political, is bound to spill over to its neighbors not only near ones but also those that are more distant. We know today that people move a lot and economic constraints are among the leading causes of migration besides conflicts and drought and other climatic aberrations.

A commercial arrangement for the use of a port for Ethiopia cannot be beyond the reach of these countries benefiting from long spaces of land that are linked to the sea. An economic arrangement with give and take can be very beneficial to both nations, the one that grants the access to sea and the one that receives the grant based on agreed terms. What is at play must be very beneficial to both entities. The Ethiopian premier was heard suggesting that Ethiopia can share its vast economic potential with its neighbors such as shares in the power production of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the largest in Africa or in the Ethiopian Airlines, the biggest African airways or Ethio telecom, one of the biggest telecom plants or any other possible economic asset that could be of strategic importance for the growth of the country that grants a part of its sea port to Ethiopia. If the formula is one of give and take, the first prerequisite is the willingness to negotiate on trade deals with the country with the sea port.

Ethiopia is searching for a win-win solution to this prospective arrangement when it presents the suggestion. Leaving the things as they are now could in the future constitute a time bomb because Ethiopia’s economic growth may be stifled by the absence of a sea port and that could result in an unpredictable sequence of results creating instability and economic crisis. What Ethiopia suggests to its neighbors is let us grow together each benefiting from what we can have in excess and could be shared.

Ethiopia’s request for access to sea does not come out of the blue but based on deep and serious considerations that can be matched by benefits to both parties. It is also because there is a potential issue that keeping things as they are today could be source of a potential dispute in the not too distant future. Some sort of economic integration would be of benefit to all those that are involved in such a deal. Some say keeping the monopoly of a sea port without sharing it with neighbors would probably be tantamount to keeping the flow of Transboundary Rivers to downstream countries. Be that as it may, Ethiopia’s borders to the Red Sea are so close that being deprived of its benefits just because of political miscalculations would hurt both countries instead of using them together for the advantage of both countries based on a fresh commercial and political arrangement. It takes only a bit of deep reflection and seeing all sides of the issue and reach an agreement as several other landlocked countries have managed to do. The question is if others have done it successfully, why cannot we do it?

It is good to remember and stress that when the Ethiopian premier launched this proposal a few weeks ago, he has also made it clear that this is not an aggressive move and that Ethiopia has no intention of forcing its way for its wishes and that all those who have been trying to accuse Ethiopia of a potential for aggression are wrong. He said Ethiopia is respectful of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors and that if it presents an interest in a sea port it is based on sheer economic arrangements that are bound to benefit all the parties involved in any eventual deal. After all he said if Ethiopia is interested in a port on the Red Sea which is very near its territory, what could be said of the various super powers which have even gone to the extent of building a base on the Red Sea coast? Ethiopia is for better reasons interested in whatever happens on the Red Sea because its economy totally relies on this route and hence it is a matter of to be or not to be when it comes to access to sea for Ethiopia. A country as big as Ethiopia cannot just be brushed aside when it makes certain reasonable proposals that would benefit not only the neighboring countries but also beyond because today we live in an interconnected world and conditions in a certain country are bound to affect others even far away.

Ethiopia is also a country that is intricately linked to the entire continent not only in terms of being the seat of the African Union and other important organizations but also in terms of its being the gate way for Africa and land of origins. Its historic significance for the continent in terms of being its standard bearer of independence and freedom also underlines its being a key country in Africa. Ethiopia’s bid for African integration and eventually unity begins with more regional integration and one of the conditions of such integration is the one that can easily be fixed regarding the sharing of access to sea in exchange for other benefits from Ethiopia. If politicians have good insight they can easily convince their constituencies for some sort of arrangement that can bring this Ethiopian request to a pleasant conclusion benefiting all parties involved to a great extent.



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