Ethiopia’s path to the sea balancing opportunity, reality

Ethiopia’s landlocked status has long constrained its economic growth and regional influence. While direct access to the sea offers undeniable benefits, achieving it remains a complex geopolitical puzzle. Direct access to the seaport brings enormous economic benefits for Ethiopia. It strengthens a nation’s regional and international standing, granting it a voice in maritime affairs and potentially boosting cooperation with other coastal countries and superpowers.

Cognizant of these benefits, on January 1, 2024, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed an agreement with Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi in Addis Ababa, allowing Ethiopia to use the port of Berbera. The MoU is all about leasing a maritime base; this, of course, improves Ethiopia’s access to the sea. However, it doesn’t constitute owning a seaport. But, the way state media and many others have broadcasted the news is misleading, unfounded, and uncalled for. Misrepresentation of this agreement, as seen in many state media, risks damaging regional trust and complicating future negotiations.

According to Redwan Hussien, National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister, the MoU allows Ethiopia to establish commercial maritime operations in the region by leasing a military base in Berbera. Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor Redwan described the agreement as amounting to ownership. The government spokesman, Legesse Tulu, also said the MoU is about leasing a maritime base.

Somaliland’s foreign ministry also confirmed through a press release on January 3, 2024, that the port access agreement was for a definite period.

“In exchange for 20km sea access for the Ethiopian naval forces, leased for a period of 50 years, Ethiopia will formally recognise the Republic of Somaliland, setting a precedent as the first nation to extend international recognition to our country,” the statement quoted Somaliland’s president as saying.  While the fact remains, how come state-owned and affiliated Media report it otherwise?

While direct access to the sea is paramount, Ethiopia should also explore the benefits of strengthening long-term strategic partnerships with existing coastal nations. Ethiopia needs extensive port services as its economy will massively expand in the next 30 years. That’s why it will need to make peaceful and mutually beneficial engagements with all its neighbours. Whether the MoU with Somaliland brings a much-sought port for the country, Ethiopia’s economy will grow massively, and we will need several ports to serve our fast-growing international trade.

This requires navigating complex diplomatic channels and managing public perceptions in the region. Negotiating agreements with neighbouring countries, fostering regional cooperation, and transparent communication could address concerns and pave the way for mutually beneficial solutions.

Rather than solely relying on direct access to the sea, Ethiopia could explore strategic partnerships with existing coastal nations towards a common currency, a regional passport and eventual confederation. This requires skilful diplomacy, strategic partnerships, and responsible utilisation of maritime access to ensure Ethiopia’s long-term success. Remembering that this is a complex issue with no easy answers is always essential.

That’s why uncalled-for communications by state and affiliated Media should be carefully viewed and rectified. Ethiopia is still a member of the international community, adhering to the rules and regulations of the system in which we have a membership and moral obligations should be given equal emphasis to what we do as a country to articulate, advance, promote and defend our long term, strategic development aspirations and national interests. Unilateral pronouncements and inflammatory rhetoric risk any progress on the issue and may eventually isolate Ethiopia internationally. EBR


12th Year • January 16 2024 – February 15 2024 • No. 125

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