thiopia’s ancient greatness had much to do with its rule over the Red-Sea, through which technology was imported, trade facilitated, and power projected. Simply put, Red-Sea was the gateway to ancient Ethiopia’s civilization.
Following Eritrea’s secession and mostly as a result of late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s disassociation from President Isayas Afeworki, Ethiopia has lost its access to port. The topic of recovering Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea has come up in public discourse decades after this event marked a turning point in history.
“Foreign powers are talking about their interest in the Nile River. Why is it forbidden for us to speak about red-sea,” PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD), asked during his discussion with high government officials. In the televised speech on October 13, 2023, PM Abiy underlined Ethiopia has “natural rights” to have direct access to the Red Sea. The PM also stressed denial of such access would result in unfairness and injustice, suggesting that it could lead to potential conflict.
PM Abiy also proposed a reciprocal arrangement where Ethiopia would offer shares in its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopian airlines, or ethio telecom; in exchange for stakes in ports in neighboring countries.
The PM stressed with the second largest population in Africa, Ethiopia cannot survive without access to port. He also warned Ethiopia’s inability to access port, will be source of instability in the horn.
Most observers commented the Ethiopian government raised the issue of Red-Sea at this point of time, just to redirect the internal conflicts ongoing with armed groups mainly in Amhara and Oromia.
However, documents obtained from the Ministry of Peace, affirms government has solid interest to assert its interest in the Red-Sea. Dubbed “Ethiopia’s national interest: principles and content”, the draft document aims at revamping Ethiopia’s national interest approaches. One of the pillars to this end is recapitalizing Red-Sea.
“The horn of Africa and Red-Sea region is becoming victim of super powers’ geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-strategic competition and hotspot. Before these dangerous moves start hindering growth of the region, Ethiopia should work with the region’s countries. Ethiopia’s relationship with the region’s countries, must ensure Ethiopia’s access and right to use ports, Red-Sea and Eden peninsula areas. Ethiopia must be able to avoid geostrategic bottlenecks that can hinder Ethiopia’s access, and right to use ports, red sea and Eden peninsula areas,” states the draft document.But it is not clear whether government’s approach to the renewed red-sea interest, is diplomatic, legal, coercive or other approaches.
It also seems by design, that Ethiopia hosted the first of its kind Consultative Forum on the Red Sea security, on September 21, 2023 at Sheraton Addis.Dubbed ‘Regional Consultative Forum on Red Sea Security Dynamics: The Needs for Dialogue and Cooperation at a Time of Global Geopolitical Entanglements’, the forum garnered military and political analysts and officials, diplomats, and think-tank leaders from the horn, the gulf and beyond. The first of its kind forum was organized by the Ethiopian Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA) and the FDRE Defense War College. The frankness and sharply articulated engagements indicates the region has missed such platforms.
After analyzing the growing geo-economic, geopolitical and strategic competition for the Red Sea area, the forum recommended the need to establish a regional institution that comprises horn and gulf regions. The potential institution, which can be named Red sea Council, will introduce terms and legislations that will govern the usage of the redsea area. The legislation will be based on AU’s maritime policies. This means all regional and international users of the Red Sea, will have to abide by the legislation.
Some analysts stipulate the dynamism in the regional and global geopolitics is in favor of Ethiopia. These analysts relate the visit of UAE leader Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed in August 2023 and Ethiopia’s joining of BRICS during the same month. According to these analysts, the backing of emirates, Saudi; coupled with BRICS support, can normalize the port talk with Eritrea, Somaliaand Djibouti.
Nonetheless, the reactions of Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia on PM Abiy’s deliberations on the redsea access issue, is not all rosy.
A statement issued by Eritrean ministry of Information on October 16, 2023, calledEthiopia’s red-sea quest ‘perplexing’ and equated it to provocation.
“Both actual and presumed – on water, access to the sea, and related topics floated in the recent times are numerous and excessive indeed. The affair has perplexed all concerned observers.Government of Eritrea repeatedly reiterates that it will not, as ever, be drawn into such alleys and platforms. The GOE further urges all concerned not to be provoked by these events,” reads Eritrea’s statement.
According to Ali Omar, Somalia’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Somalia also has no interest ‘to grant accessto strategically significant assess like port.’
Alexis Mohamed, a senior adviser to Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh, stated “Our two countries have always maintained strong, friendly relations.” “But you should also know that Djibouti is a sovereign country, and therefore, our territorial integrity is not questionable, neither today or tomorrow.”
During the Redsea Forum at Sheraton Addis last month, Abdoulkader Hussein (PhD) from Djiboutian center for studies and research (CERD), hinted there are tensions and fears due to the scramble for the redsea port. “The primary threat of the red sea is not the presence of USA or china but other emerging threats. It is not the only threat but one of the threats. There is threat because of the mistrust and tension of fear over the access, control and influence the Red Sea.”
Abdoulkader even appreciates the military presence of the two global powers in his country, with just six miles distance. “The Chinese military in Djibouti secures their shipments, maritime, interests and international waterway of china. The Silk Road Initiative also passes through this area. The USA military in Djibouti mainly fights terrorism. America is complaining Djibouti hosts other countries’ military. It is difficult for Djibouti but we managed to host them equally. This balanced management of military bases of global powers, can be copied by other nations along the Red Sea,” he recommended.
Asked whether Ethiopia is going to ensure redsea access by force, during the Red Sea forum, Ambassador Girum Abay from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs ( MoFA), a panelist, responded “I am not scaremongering. Ethiopia is a big size and determinant factor in whatever that happens in this region. Yes, we no longer have port on red sea. We are not going to take-back something from along the Red Sea. It is not by force. But diplomacy, conviction and understanding,” said the seasoned diplomat.
During the Red-Sea forum, Bulti Tadesse (Brigadier General) of the Ethiopian Defense War College also recommended the need of ‘regional economic integration rather than politicization of every regional issue.’
Ethiopian scholars also prefer to see Ethiopia’s port quest from economic reasoning, instead of as matter of power projection. Experts stress Ethiopia cannot continue depending only on Djibouti port. Though Ethiopia invested in alternative ports like Lamu port in Kenya, it is far-located compared to Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia ports.
Another political economy analyst, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, underlines ensuring Ethiopia’s access to its own port, remains crucial in its development endeavor. “Ethiopia is aiming at becoming power house of agriculture and light manufacturing. Exporting huge agricultural outputs needs easily accessible port. Ethiopia’s import will also redouble, as the population is fast growing. Without access to diversified ports, the population and trade strains will be difficult to manage.”
“IfEthiopia has a port it can develop and utilize for long term, it is highly essential for Ethiopia’s self-sufficiency and independence. It can also deploy its own naval force, to protect its own port from any state or non-state risks in the red sea area. During the northern Ethiopia conflict, UN, USA and Europe tried to search Ethiopian cargo at Djibouti port. So ensuring Ethiopia’s access to its own port is also a matter of sovereignty. Ethiopian drivers, logistics firms, exporters and importers have also been suffering for long, under the bad governance of Djiboutian authorities,” stated the political economy analyst.
The main reason the neighbor countries like Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and others do not want to offer Ethiopia port, is mainly because they fear Ethiopia will become a regional power and dominate them, claim the analyst. “Western powers also do not want Ethiopia to become self-sufficient.”