The justified quest for access to the sea

Ethiopia is the only landlocked country in the Horn of Africa that is almost entirely dependent on maritime services via the ports in the troubled Red Sea region. At the same time, Ethiopia is the most populous country in East Africa, let alone the Horn of Africa. That is an unfair and unjust situation by any standards.

The quest for access to the sea is not just a question of economic benefit. It is not an issue that has suddenly emerged and is being pushed by the Ethiopian government to maintain its popularity and attract public attention, as some critics willfully believe.

The quest for direct access to the sea is a broad-based, popular movement. It is a cause that is vehemently supported by all Ethiopians regardless of their political orientation. In January this year, the Joint Council of Ethiopian Political Parties expressed its full support for the agreement signed by Ethiopia with Somaliland to secure access to the sea and called on all political parties and the general public to play their part in agreeing on a reality.

Similarly, the need to find access to the sea has also already become a serious issue that Ethiopian scholars from various disciplines are racking their brains over. Last November, top Ethiopian scholars deliberated at the most prestigious research college, the AAU at a seminar titled, Fair and Equitable Port Use for Sustainable Peace and Development in the Horn of Africa.

Looking back, Ethiopians share a sense of betrayal and resentment against the Ethiopian leadership in the early 1990s when Ethiopia became a landlocked country again. Ethiopians widely believe that the then leadership had pulled out all the stops to secure Ethiopia a corridor to the sea while negotiating the independence of the former province of Eritrea. Time will tell why the then- Ethiopian leadership chose to rush for Eritrea’s independence without following the due process of international law and interestingly became the first government to recognize Eritrea as a sovereign state.

Ethiopia’s right to direct access to the sea, which was irresponsibly relinquished in 1993, was last secured by the imperial regime in the 1940s through arduous diplomatic wrangling with the colonial powers. Emperor Haile-Selassie and his diplomats had to wage an intense diplomatic battle for more than seven years, travelling around the world, from Latin America to the Far East, to win the opinion of the member states of the UN Security Council. Eventually, they were able to peacefully secure the reintegration of Eritrea with a federation arrangement in December 1950.

The Europeans were highly resistant to Ethiopia’s move and they unsuccessfully tried to limit Ethiopia’s demand for full restoration of its natural sea border territories by offering a corridor at Assab that provided direct access to the sea while maintaining their occupation of Eritrea as a British protectorate. The emperor rejected the offer and continued his diplomatic struggle until he had the UN pass a resolution in Ethiopia’s favour.- the decision to rejoin Eritrea with Ethiopia with the federal arrangement as per the UN resolution, Resolution 390A(V)

That glimpse of history indicates that Ethiopians have always been keen on maintaining unfettered access to the sea since it is an essential condition to maintain their national security. If we go back even further in the past, we find an even more compelling lesson about the essentiality of sea access for Ethiopia. One of the most powerful Ethiopian states, the Axumite kingdom, weakened and later collapsed in the 8th century mainly due to the loss of its access to the sea due to the rise of more powerful adversaries on the Red Sea.

Distant observers may argue that Ethiopia, like any other land-locked nations need not be anxious about securing direct access to the sea. True! Such land-locked nations like Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan may comfortably get indirect maritime services through neighbouring transit nations like Kenya and Tanzania. The trouble the observers overlook is that the port these landlocked nations depend on is not in the Red Sea region, one of the most militarized and politically charged geographical locations in the world.

The Red Sea region is increasingly volatile, and very unpredictable, and is attracting more actors from far and near due to its strategic economic and political importance. It is therefore potentially hazardous for Ethiopia to remain land-locked, continuing to be dependent on others for maritime access, maintaining its interests, and defending against any national security threat coming from the Red Sea.

Perhaps, it is the unpredictability of the geopolitics of the Red Sea region that compelled the Ethiopian government to re-establish its Navy in 2019, a generation after its liquidation following the secession of the coastal province of Eritrea, along with the port city of Assab, which was a separate autonomous region during the Derg regime.

Moreover, veteran political observers have often witnessed the mixing of the rivalry to get the upper hand in the Red Sea geopolitics with the struggle to maintain Nile politics. This fact makes Ethiopia’s need for access and maintaining a strong presence in the Red Sea even more important.

The ongoing conflict in Gaza initiated the reaction of the Yemeni fighters, and that reaction in turn induced the counter-response of the Americans and other Western powers. This chain of events resulted in the latest spike in the wave of tension on the Red Sea.

Due to the highly charged political and military atmosphere, minor tensions and confrontations happening in and around the Middle East have a high probability of catalyzing a chain of reactions that may reshape the geopolitical landscape of the Red Sea region. Ethiopia, whose fate appears to be intertwined with the sea, cannot afford to be a bystander under such a consistently unstable and unpredictable environment, and rather it should be well prepared and proactive to secure its national interests against the influence and interference of external powers.

The incumbent Ethiopian leadership is exerting maximum effort to secure reliable and economically viable alternatives to the sea access locations including those outside the Red Sea region. The government is carrying out this task based on the principles of international law, peaceful engagement, non-interference, sharing resources, and achieving mutual benefits. It is a foregone conclusion that Ethiopia’s access to the sea could not only accelerate the growth of its national economy but also expedite the economic integration of the sub-region. It is worth mentioning here what the Director General of the Ethiopian Federal Law and Justice Institute said on this issue: “Ethiopia’s deal with Somaliland is legitimate and accepted by international norms.”

However, due to the concerted work of those adversary powers and their cheerleaders who work tirelessly to make sure that Ethiopia remains mainly a stagnant subsistence economy dependent on foreign aid, Ethiopia‘s quest for reliable access to the sea has been challenged by deliberate misinterpretations. It has even been wrongly described as a violation of the sovereignty of neighbouring countries, and malicious propaganda is being supported by the biased international media campaign. Ashad was the case in the 1940s, Ethiopians have faced unjust and illogical stiff resistance by powers from far and near against its plans to secure sea outlets for commercial maritime and defence purposes.

The more intriguing is that Ethiopia is not the only one that intends to make a port deal with Somaliland. UAE has already made and is working on a deal it struck with Somaliland to develop the Barbara port. No audible noise has ever been made over the Dubai deal. This indicates that it is not what, but who is making the deal with Somaliland that determines the nature and the extent of reactions by external powers and the international media.


The Ethiopian Herald March 27/2024

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