he remark made by Prime Minister Abiy(PhD) in connection with Ethiopia’s appeal for a direct access to the Red Sea during his recent meeting with parliament members on October 13, 2023, have persisted being a subject of heated debates and controversies.
The Prime Minister made what may be regarded as his first ever outspoken and audacious comment on the Red Sea matter when he said that the topic of demanding access to port “should no longer be a taboo.” He made it plain what his administration’s stance is on the geopolitics of the Red Sea region. His government has given the impression of being one of the arena’s most concerned ones.
Since then, the subject has dominated the state media’s attention. As is customary, government officials at different levels have used the Red Sea into a talking point.
The PM called for discussions with neighbors on harbor access and suggested a potential transfer of shares in the Ethiopian Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and other successful Ethiopian businesses like the Ethiopian Airlines in exchange for comparable ownership in ports.
The PM’s remark became a subject of intense discussion not only at home but also throughout the neighborhood. Eritrea responded more quickly when he said that it was necessary to assert a direct access to the Red Sea. Djibouti then joined the group in rejecting PM Abiy’s proposal after Eritrea and Somalia also questioned the remark.
Eritrea deemed the Prime Minister’s remarks “excessive” and ‘perplexing’. Likewise, Somalia rejected the request, declaring that “the country [Somalia] will defend its assets, such as the ports, and would only discuss trade and business with partners,”
Despite the predominance of conspiracy theories among many local analysts that the PM is attempting to deflect attention from the complex political crisis at home, Djibouti doesn’t appear to view Prime Minister Abiy’s remark as a slip of the tongue or an attempt to draw attention away from domestic crisis. President Ismail Guelleh of Djibouti’s senior advisor described it as “a longstanding one, though now delivered in a much more forward manner.”
A slip of the tongue or a longstanding plan
In his remark, the PM presented access to the Red Sea as a matter of existence. He further emphasized that it will exacerbate future conflict. “If this is not going to happen, there will be no fairness and justice and if there is no fairness and justice, it’s a matter of time, we will fight.”
A somewhat similar statement to the one the PM made at the parliament had been made by a seasoned Ethiopian diplomat at the forum on the Red Sea security dynamics held on the 21st of September here in Addis Abeba.
Prior to the PM’s announcement at the parliament, a regional consultative forum on the Red Sea geopolitics dubbed “Regional Consultative Forum on Red Sea Security Dynamics: The Needs for Dialogue and Cooperation at a Time of Global Geopolitical Entanglements,” had been organized by the Ethiopian Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA) in collaboration with the Ethiopian Defense War College. Various countries through different individuals representing institutions took part in the consultative forum. These included the Djiboutian Center for Studies and Research (CERD), Emirati Policy Center in the UAE, the African Policy Studies of South Sudan, and institutions from other Middle Eastern countries, including Israel. The Ethiopian Center for Dialogue, Research, and Cooperation (CDRC) and the Ministry itself were among the Ethiopian organizations represented in the discussion. The forum had mostly been devoted to talking about the Red Sea arena’s security dynamics. The issue of Ethiopia seeking access was brought up at the forum in a somewhat different way.
Speaking of a need to include Ethiopia in the Red Sea Forum, Ambassador Girum Abay stated that ‘’any efforts to govern the Red Sea and the Gulf of Eden that does not include Ethiopia will not be fair or realistic as the red sea is a natural and strategic outlet for the country. Ethiopia’s exclusion from the Red Sea forum could also complicate growing relations with the gulf as well as the developments of ports, infrastructure, and energy resources across the horn”
Similarly, when the government founded the Navy in 2018 – about 30 years after Ethiopia became a landlocked country, experts in the area and security analysts predicted that the notion of claiming a coast was on the agenda. A navy without its own sea cannot, according to those experts, be a true navy and cannot progress beyond a type of “Blue Navy,” which is a minimum form confined to defending commercial ships and battling pirates.
In fact, the Prime Minister mentioned something that supports the viewpoint of those navy specialists at a closed briefing session with chosen newsroom heads before he made the official remark at the parliament. “I didn’t establish a navy to operate in Lake Tana,” he reportedly stated.
A draft document dubbed “Ethiopia’s National Interest: Principles and Content” was then released by the Ministry of Peace. Noting that the horn of Africa and Red-Sea region has become a magnet for super powers vying for their geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-strategic interests, the document underscores that Ethiopia should engage with other nations of the region ensure its access to the ports and be able to overcome geostrategic impediments in this respect ‘before such actions start to impede the development of the region’.
Similarly, PM Abiy stated that “the Nile and Red Sea determine Ethiopia’s future” in a recent documentary that aired on the state television station. “Either its growth or downfall will depend on them.”
By and large, the PM Abiy’s administration is rolling up its sleeves to dive into the Red Sea chessboard.
Red Sea as a centre of new geopolitical intrigue
The fact that it connects the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and the Swizz canal to the Babel-al-Mendeb, the Red Sea’s geographical location remains crucial. Larger economies are drawn to it because it is one of the main routes for international trade, hosting 12% of all trade, and because it has abundant resources, notably fisheries. Due to its continued strategic importance, international superpowers have sought to establish military bases there in order to exert more influence and control. The Red Sea has become the epicenter of new geopolitical intrigue due to factors ranging from significant investments in infrastructure projects to the establishment of military bases.
The Red Sea arena has increasingly become highly militarized during the last few years alone. The ever growing military, economic, and strategic interest of superpowers in the region on the one hand and the presence of fragile states on both sides of the sea on the other side have made the red sea arena geopolitics complicated than ever.
Non-state actors including armed groups, cross-border criminality, human trafficking, extremism, terrorism, piracy, mass migration, illicit trade and money laundering, youth unemployment, as well as internal conflicts are considered additional growing treats of the arena.
“The region is volatile and uncertain. One cannot determine what is happening by tomorrow because of this very integrated regional security dynamics,” said Gen Bulti Tadesse, head of the Defense War College. “It [the Red Sea’ has proved to be either atomic or toxic nature in the region”
Ethiopia, which has been far away from the arena for the last three decades since 1991, has as of recently begun to eying opportunities of access to the sea seemingly to make a bold shift in foreign policy priority. The narrative around the government is that all eyes should be on the Red Sea now.
Highlighting that the geological landscape of the Red Sea arena has been fundamentally reshaped during the last five years, Alemeshet Degfie(Leu. General) who is a Military advisor to the Chief of Staff says countries of the region need more cooperation as whatever happens on either side of the region have immediate spillover effects on the other sides of the region.
“Some have successfully established a strong military presence in the region while others are still looking for a foothold. Worth-considering is that as the strategic importance of the region grows there are also increasing security treats,” he noted.
When he opened the regional consultative forum on the Red Sea one month ago, the military advisor to the chief of staff said, “We require a sense of urgency and continued commitment and cooperation across the region,” addressing the attendees who were mostly from the region.
The question is that the move by the government can negatively affect regional cooperation rather than strengthening cooperation.
Multilateral platform is the best way forward at hand according to the some participants. They presented the way of doing business of West African countries in handling maritime security of the region as a best practice to learn from.
Other participants echoed the idea that governments should give competent leadership on the continent more of their focus than port access since it is more important to assure development.
According to Ambassador Luka Kuol(PhD), “It is all about having the right leadership.”
Efforts to secure alternative port access
In fact there doesn’t appear to be a very heated debate among Ethiopians about how important access is. For Ethiopia, the Red Sea is the entry point to the world market, which makes it essential to the country’s economy and much more. As a result, Ethiopia had long maintained a great geopolitical interest in the region surrounding the Red Sea up until 1991.
Ethiopia has been working to use alternate ports in order to reduce or eliminate the financial and security costs associated with not having its own port and to avoid depending entirely on Djibouti for its import and export. In this context, it is important to emphasize the Lamu Port, which is a component of the LAPSSET Corridor Project, which links South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The project has been moving along at a very slow pace and has not produced the desired results, even though it was officially launched back in 2012.
The port of Berbera in Somaliland was the other alternative route that Ethiopia took. In 2017, Ethiopia reached an agreement with DP World and Somaliland that granted it a 19% ownership stake in the port of Berbera.
The government back in 2017 made a deal with the government of Somaliland and with that of the UAE’s company DP World to rebuild the port of Berbera a deal that was meant to enable Ethiopia to secure 19 percent ownership.
However, none of these substitutes have come to pass and allowed Ethiopia to reduce its reliance on the port of Djibouti.
The ports that Ethiopia formerly owned, Asab and Massawa, are the other option. After PM Abiy assumed office, ties with Eritrea significantly improved, and it appeared that the problem of sea access was headed in the right direction. Sadly, the height of the better relations did not become institutionalized and did not persist. These ‘good old days’ now appear to be gone. The relationship between the Abiy’s administration and that of “Esu,” as PM Abiy affectionately referred to President Esayas of Eritrea back in those “heydays,” is becoming strained. One example of the heated ties can be seen in the responses to PM Abiy’s briefing to the parliament.
Prioritizing it as opposed to putting it on the backburner
One concern that was louder after the PM’s speech in the parliament was whether Ethiopia could afford to handle such a sensitive topic right now.
The security situation at home has been deteriorating from various perspectives, with the rule of law and free movement of people being seriously challenged in the current landscape. The country’s economy has been a war economy since November 2020. The Ministry of Finance announced last March that the war had cost more than 28 billion dollars, with the nation currently attempting to secure 19.7 billion dollars for recovery and reconstruction.
According to the recent report by UNECEF, the number of Ethiopians who are in need of humanitarian assistance has risen to 32 million, with half of them being children.
The 2023 Fragile States Index ranked Ethiopia 11th among nations across the world, which can be taking as an alert.
Some other gloomy reports regarding various other risks that seriously challenge Ethiopia as a nation have also been released by different international reports as well.
Realities such as these and other related ones have led to questions about whether the Red Sea agenda can be a national priority at this time. The question contained conspiracy theories blaming the administration for diverting public attention away from an internal crisis.
Needless to argue about, the Red Sea had been a subject of Ethiopia’s keen geopolitical interest for centuries until 1991. Even now, it sounds safe to draw a conclusion that the majority of Ethiopians have similar orientation. The subject of “Why Now?” remained hotly contested and susceptible to interpretation and suspicion. The question has been left unanswered.
One of the main events planned for the PM’s official state visit to China was a port tour. Some people make connections like these and assume the Abiy government has a strategy to take things farther. There are fears among many that any potential problem brought on by tense relations with neighbors would be adding insult to injury for Ethiopia.
Actual Fears beyond playing the devil’s advocate
The grim scenarios painted by some of the approaches witnessed and remarks made have prompted many to question whether the Abiy’s administration would reclaim port ownership through military force or peaceful diplomacy. During the consultative forum on September 21, a participant who identified himself as a member of the Diaspora community directed this straight question to ambassador Girum.
He opened his speech with the phrase “Let me play devil’s advocate” and expressed his fear—and that of many Ethiopians—that the existing strategy would push the nation into conflict with its neighbors.
‘Unless the neighboring countries willingly give us access to the port, the next generation will fight to death to have access to the port. That is the picture you gave us. Would you explain what that means?”
Answering was Ambassador Girum, “I was not actually scare- mongering anybody. My point is there is a big competition in this area. There is a new dynamics in this area, and there is a new context in this area. Facing this changing dynamics, we have started towards some sort of a collective forum to address issues that might arise because each one of us might be perusing our own national strategic interests.”
In fact the participant’s fear seems to be more than just “playing devil’s advocate “when it comes to a number of fellow Ethiopians as there are more grim scenarios.
“There must be some sort of platform where we can discuss ameliorates and convince each other on the best way forward. My point is we need a platform. But that platform cannot be exclusive of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a big country. It is a determinant factor in whatever happens in this area whether we like it or not!” the ambassador asserted with a little more vigor.
The impact of this hand on the chessboard and the pounding wave in the Red Sea are yet unknown.