Ethiopia, with a rapidly growing population projected to reach 150 million by 2030, faces a critical geopolitical challenge in the Horn of Africa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recent announcement regarding Ethiopia’s desire for access to the Red Sea has ignited discussions about the historical, economic, and strategic factors underpinning this aspiration.
Red Sea Historical Roots: From Aksum to Colonial Legacy
Ethiopia’s historical ties to the Red Sea can be traced back to the Aksumite Kingdom, which thrived in the 1st century CE. This ancient civilization maintained a bustling maritime trade through the ports of Adulis and Massawa, connecting Ethiopia to the Red Sea and beyond (Pankhurst, 1961).
However, the colonial era brought about a significant change. Italy’s colonization of Eritrea in the late 19th century marked the beginning of Ethiopia’s landlocked status (Clapham, 1987). The subsequent incorporation of Eritrea into Italian East Africa in the 1930s further entrenched this geopolitical challenge, depriving Ethiopia of direct access to the Red Sea.
Eritrea’s independence in 1993 following a prolonged conflict with Ethiopia further complicated the situation. Ethiopia lost access to the Red Sea ports of Massawa and Assab, which had been pivotal for its import and export activities (Kaplan, 2008).
Economic Imperatives: GDP Growth and Trade Facilitation
Access to the Red Sea holds substantial economic potential for Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed referred to a UN study indicating that sea access can account for up to 25-30% of a country’s GDP (UN, 2018). This underscores the economic imperative for Ethiopia to secure access to the Red Sea, particularly as its population and economy continue to grow.
Ethiopia’s economy has experienced sustained growth over the past two decades, driven by agriculture, manufacturing, and services. However, the nation’s lack of direct access to the sea has imposed limitations on international trade. Ethiopia has heavily relied on neighboring countries’ ports, primarily Djibouti, for the import and export of goods, leading to increased transportation costs and vulnerability to supply chain disruptions (World Bank, 2020).
The Ethiopian government has invested significantly in infrastructure development, including road networks, railways, and industrial zones. These investments aim to facilitate the movement of goods and people within the country and promote regional integration. Nevertheless, access to the Red Sea is essential to fully realize the potential of these infrastructure projects. Ports in the Red Sea region would serve as vital gateways for Ethiopia’s imports and exports, allowing for more efficient and cost-effective transportation (Afran, 2015).
“A population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison” – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said that securing access to the Red Sea is vital for Ethiopia’s survival, warranting thorough and careful discussion.
The topic of Red Sea access has come under scrutiny following the Prime Minister’s briefing to members of the House of People’s Representatives in a televised session.
In 1993, following Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia, one of Africa’s largest countries lost its direct access to the Red Sea. Since then, the country has relied on the port of Djibouti, a neighboring small country, for imports and exports.
“The Red Sea and the Nile are intimately linked to Ethiopia, serving as the pillars that could either propel the country’s progress or lead to its demise,” Abiy said.
While the Prime Minister’s speech is not explicitly directed towards Eritrea, many are voicing concerns that it could potentially strain the recently improved relations between the two countries.
The Eritrean government has not issued an official response to Abiy’s statement but the Eritrean ambassador to Japan, Estifanos Afeworki, wrote on Twitter saying that “There is no if and but about Eriitrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. No amount of illegitimate instigation, propaganda, conspiracy, and defamation can change this truth.”
The Prime Minister emphasized Ethiopia’s crucial position as a major water source for neighboring countries, citing rivers originating in the country that flow into various neighboring territories. He also mentioned that a pipeline linking Djibouti and Ethiopia had been constructed at Ethiopia’s expense, adding that none of the neighboring countries provide water to Ethiopia, yet every one of them are beneficiaries.
“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,” Abiy asserted.
“When we had access to the Red Sea, we were one of the great powers,” the prime minister remarked, emphasizing that “gaining access to the sea should not come at the cost of bloodshed and conflict.”
In return, Abiy expressed his country’s interest in offering shares from the Renaissance Dam, Ethiopian Airlines, and Ethiotelecom. He stated, “When we propose sharing the benefits of the Renaissance Dam, it’s not merely an idea, we have calculated it. It yields substantial returns,” he said.
“We must address this today 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 emphasized.
Abiy highlighted that port charges are exceedingly high for the country, noting that this amount of money could be used to build the Renaissance Dam every three years.
“We’re not insisting on Massawa or Assab specifically. What we seek is an accessible gateway. However it may materialize—be it through purchase, leasing, or any mutual arrangement—that’s our objective,” the prime minister stated.
He continued, “If we don’t find an alternative through dialogue, discussion today… It could be dangerous,” he cautioned, but he emphasized that Ethiopia’s pursuit of sea access should be conducted peacefully.
Regional Stability and Cooperation: Water Resources and Diplomacy
Ethiopia’s pursuit of Red Sea access goes beyond economic interests. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has emphasized the potential for joint utilization of the Red Sea to promote peace, unity, and prosperity in the Horn of Africa (International Crisis Group, 2020).
The region has a history of conflicts and tensions, including border disputes, proxy wars, and ethnic rivalries. Ethiopia’s pursuit of Red Sea access offers an opportunity to reshape regional relationships and foster stability. The nation’s willingness to engage in discussions and potentially offer shares of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as part of Red Sea access negotiations demonstrates its commitment to regional stability (BBC, 2021).
Ethiopia’s possession of significant water resources, including the Nile River, has been a source of tension with downstream countries such as Egypt and Sudan. By seeking equitable access to the Red Sea, Ethiopia aims to demonstrate its commitment to regional cooperation and the responsible utilization of shared resources. The GERD, a massive hydropower project on the Nile, has been a focal point of negotiations and disputes. Ethiopia’s willingness to engage in discussions regarding the GERD underscores its commitment to regional stability (BBC, 2021).
Diplomacy plays a crucial role in Ethiopia’s approach to regional stability. The nation has actively sought to engage with its neighbors through multilateral forums and bilateral discussions. The African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and other regional organizations have provided platforms for dialogue and conflict resolution. Ethiopia’s pursuit of Red Sea access aligns with these diplomatic efforts, emphasizing the importance of peaceful coexistence and cooperation (United Nations, 2022).
Strategic Options and Considerations: Ports and Concessions
The choice of ports for Red Sea access is a pivotal decision that demands careful consideration of geographical, historical, and geopolitical factors.
- Massawa: Located in coastal Eritrea, Massawa has historical significance and proximity to Ethiopia. Its potential reopening for Ethiopian trade has been a subject of interest (Afran, 2015).
- Assab: Also in Eritrea, Assab was historically a key port for Ethiopia’s imports and exports before Eritrea’s independence. Its proximity to Ethiopia’s border and existing infrastructure make it a viable option (Pankhurst, 1961).
- Zeila: Situated in Somaliland, Zeila has historical context dating back to the Ifat kingdom. Its proximity to Ethiopia and historical ties make it an option worth exploring (Kaplan, 2008).
- Djibouti: Djibouti has been a crucial partner for Ethiopia in recent years, serving as the primary gateway for Ethiopian trade. While discussions often focus on alternatives, Djibouti’s strategic importance cannot be overlooked (Financial Times, 2021).
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s proposal to offer concessions as part of Red Sea access negotiations reflects Ethiopia’s willingness to engage constructively.
- Shares of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD): The GERD is a major hydropower project on the Nile, and Ethiopia has been engaged in negotiations with downstream countries regarding its filling and operation. Offering shares of the GERD as part of Red Sea access negotiations could incentivize cooperation (BBC, 2021).
- Ethiopian Airlines: Ethiopian Airlines is one of Africa’s leading carriers and a symbol of Ethiopia’s aviation industry. Offering shares in the airline could foster economic ties and collaboration (Financial Times, 2021).
- Ethio-telecom: Ethio-telecom is a prominent telecommunications provider in Africa, with a vast subscriber base. Sharing ownership or access to this telecommunications infrastructure could be a valuable bargaining chip in negotiations (World Bank, 2020).
Conclusion: Complex Geopolitical Challenge
Ethiopia’s quest for access to the Red Sea is deeply rooted in historical injustices, economic imperatives, and regional stability considerations. With a rapidly growing population and economy, the urgency of the matter cannot be overstated.
By analyzing the historical context, economic significance, and strategic options, this article provides a comprehensive perspective on Ethiopia’s quest for Red Sea access. It underscores the importance of peaceful negotiation, regional stability, and international cooperation in addressing this complex geopolitical challenge.
Ultimately, Ethiopia’s aspirations for Red Sea access represent a critical component of its strategy for sustainable development and regional peace. As Ethiopia continues to navigate this geopolitical challenge, constructive engagement from regional stakeholders and the global community will be essential in shaping the future of the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia Demands Admission to Red Sea Forum
Exclusion of Ethiopia from the Red Sea forum, which is a new geopolitical architecture formed by the Gulf states and the Horn of Africa countries in 2019, is wrong, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Briefing the media today, Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Dina Mufti said Ethiopia is demanding to join the Red Sea forum as the country is a regional champion in the endeavor to integrate the Horn of Africa region.
The forum involves some eight countries, namely Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen.
However, Ethiopia that has more than 100 million population and geopolitical proximity to the Red Sea is excluded from the forum.
The spokesperson stated that Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonen has pointed out during his trip to Germany to attend the 58th Munich Security Conference early this week that the exclusion of Ethiopia from the Red Sea forum is wrong.
“The deputy prime minister mentioned that exclusion of Ethiopia from the Red Sea forum is wrong because Ethiopia has a lot to contribute for strengthening peace and security of this region.”
According to Dina, since the forum is established to tackle illegal human trafficking, weapons smuggling and other related issues, Ethiopia should be part of this form as it could contribute a lot to for strengthening peace and security.
With this argument, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister who attended the Red Sea forum round table discussion on the sidelines of the 58th Munich Security Conference stressed the need for reconsidering Ethiopia as an important country for the forum, he elaborated.
“The Ethiopian role in linking the region through transportation is critical. As you know Ethiopia is a champion in the area of building infrastructures to accelerate regional integration,” the speaker noted.
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen also held talks with the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany, foreign ministers of Sweden and Ireland on the sidelines of the 58th Munich Security Conference, it was learned.
With regarding to the current situation in Ethiopia, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister briefed the officials that TPLF has continued the war by attacking neighboring regions and adding up to the atrocious acts that it has been committing so far.
Demeke also called on the international community to break the silence and hold the TPLF accountable for destroying the economic and social infrastructure that affected the delivery of humanitarian services, the spokesperson stated.