The Ethiopian government is trying to stem a potential diplomatic falling-out with Eritrea, with whom it only restored relations three years ago, after its leader hinted at seeking access to the sea for his country’s economic and geopolitical needs.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in a speech in parliament last Sunday, spoke of seeking access to the sea, which he argued was central to the country’s ambitions and said it needed to be addressed “to prevent future generations from resorting to conflict. This can be achieved through discussions on investment options, shares and leases. However, dismissing it entirely as a topic of conversation is a mistake,” he said, according to the Ethiopian News Agency.
“We are not insisting on Massawa or Assab specifically. What we seek is an accessible gateway. However, it may materialise — be it through purchase, leasing, or any mutual arrangement — that’s our objective,” Ahmed said, referring to the Eritrean port cities, once the country’s key gates to the outside world.
Eritrea responded to the speech with a cryptic statement: “Discourses — 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.”
A terse statement by the Eritrean Information Ministry added that “… the Government of Eritrea (GOE) 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.”
Eritrean diplomats were more specific. Estifanos Afeworki, ambassador to Japan, said his country would defend its territory at all times.
“No amount of illegitimate instigation, propaganda, conspiracy, and defamation can change this truth,” he wrote on X on October 12.
In Addis Ababa, a senior diplomat told The EastAfrican the Prime Minister was not declaring war, just expressing Ethiopia’s need for a seaport.
“Ethiopia deserves to have access to the sea because of historical, geopolitical and economic reasons. That access can be attained through negotiations and dialogue. It has to stop being a taboo to discuss this issue,” said the official told us.
“There are many options. We could lease it, purchase it or develop it together. We are working with Kenya on the Lamu port. We are working with Somalia too. Ethiopia has a legitimate right to discuss this issue.”
Ethiopia and Eritrea were once one country until 1993 when Asmara seceded. Before then, access to the sea was mostly via Massawa and Assab on the Red Sea coast. The two countries did not enjoy good relations until 2019, and Addis was forced to deal with Djibouti for access to the sea. It imports nearly 90 percent of goods via the Djibouti port.
But Abiy did admit the cost is higher in Djibouti. According to him, Ethiopia’s future strategic interests lie in the access to the sea, which could also enable it to build its navy and secure trade routes.
“When we had access to the Red Sea, we were one of the great powers,” the prime minister told lawmakers.
And he thinks countries should be free to discuss a give-and-take of their natural resources.
“Declaring ‘I will take yours, but I won’t give you mine’ is not appropriate. Ethiopia, indeed, has every right to pursue access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean,” Dr Abiy asserted.
Addis Ababa’s stance on the sea route adds to another continual dispute of natural resources. Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have been quarrelling over the Grand Renaissance Dam (Gerd), a $5 billion project on the Blue Nile, which Khartoum and Cairo think will affect water availability to their own population. Addis Ababa has gone on to fill it four times already even though it still attends sessions seeking to get an amicable solution of the Gerd use.
Abiy said his country was open to sharing the power produced from the dam, noting that research shows it has “substantial returns.”