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Ethiopia Says Lack of Port Access Can Fuel Future Conflict | Bloomberg

Posted by: Semere Asmelash

Date: Tuesday, 17 October 2023

Ethiopia Says Lack of Port Access Can Fuel Future Conflict

  • -Prime minister calls for talks with neighbors on harbor access
  • -Issue raised amid growing tension with neighboring Eritrea
Abiy Ahmed

Abiy Ahmed

Photographer: Amanuel Sileshi/AFP/Getty Images

Ethiopia’s lack of access to a port on the Red Sea is a potential source of future conflict with neighboring countries, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said, raising the prospect of more instability in a region already wracked by violence.

The question of the landlocked Horn of Africa nation’s direct access to harbors should “no longer be considered as taboo,” Abiy said in a 45-minute lecture broadcast on state television on Oct. 13.

Ethiopia lost direct access to the sea in 1993, when Eritrea gained independence after a three-decade war. It’s main trade route now runs along roads and a railway that link the capital, Addis Ababa, to a port in Djibouti, one of five neighbors with coastlines that include Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Kenya. Almost a third of the world’s shipping transits the Red Sea that connects the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal.

“We can see that only a narrow strip of land separates us from the sea,” Abiy said. “It is crucial for the present leaders of Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia to engage in discussions, not just for the present, but to ensure lasting peace.”

Abiy’s remarks come amid growing tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea because of an impasse over the implementation of a November 2022 peace deal between the authorities in Addis Ababa and leaders in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region that ended a two-year civil war.

Relations between Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki have been strained by the neighboring country’s continued deployment of forces inside Ethiopia, according to three senior diplomats with knowledge of the tensions who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

When Abiy came to power in 2018, he agreed a peace deal with Eritrea to end decades of hostility. The decision earned him the Nobel Peace Prize and led to expectations that his country would secure trade access to port facilities in the Eritrean town of Assab.

That hasn’t happened because of continuing conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Amhara region, where militia are fighting government troops over Abiy’s plan to incorporate all regional forces and armed groups into the national army.

Eritrea’s Information Ministry referred to recent commentary about access to the Red Sea as “excessive” and said “the affair has perplexed all concerned observers,” without making specific reference to Abiy’s remarks.

“The government of Eritrea further urges all concerned not to be provoked by these events,” it said in a statement published on the ministry’s website.

Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Ghebremeskel didn’t respond to a request for comment sent by text message. Alexis Mohamed, senior adviser to Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh, and Somali Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Ali Mohamed Omar said they would respond to emailed questions later.

Conflict Risk

Befekadu Hailu, co-founder of Ethiopia’s Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy, a think tank, said Abiy’s bid to get access to the Red Sea raises the risk of conflict.

“Everything can be done through peaceful means,” he said. “But I don’t believe Abiy’s government is competent enough to do such kind of serious negotiations and Ethiopians cannot afford any more conflict.”

The regional diplomats said they feared Abiy’s push to gain access to the port — even through conflict — may not draw significant international condemnation because of a lack of support for Isaias, who has ruled Eritrea with an iron fist for decades and implemented a forced conscription program that’s drawn criticism by human-rights advocates.

Abiy said his government may consider providing shares in its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in return for similar stakes in ports from neighboring countries. The $5 billion mega-dam, build on the Nile River’s biggest tributary, will be able to generate 5,150 megawatts of electricity once it’s completed next year.

Ethiopia is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies. It’s trade with the world totaled $19.2 billion last year — up 4.3% from a year earlier, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.  

The lack of direct access to harbors “prevents Ethiopia from holding the place it ought to have,” Abiy said. “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.”


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