Landlockedness Costs Ethiopia Dearly

“Port is a commodity and we can purchase it where it is affordable.” This statement was the opinion of the late Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi. He said this when he asked about the impact of Ethiopia’s landlockedness on the country’s development two decades ago. The deceased added: “Now we do not use ports of Masawa and Assab. We lost nothing by not using these two ports. Ethiopia achieved the fastest growth and development in its history in those years. So, landlockedness does not result in poverty and we can use ports of other neighbouring countries. Therefore, there is no reason to regret the landlockedness of Ethiopia. Landlockedness is not and cannot be detrimental to us. Ethiopia was poor when we had ports. Now, we do not have ports, but we are moving forward in our development aspirations. So, a port is not necessary for development,” concluded the late premier.

Nonetheless, the landlocked status of Ethiopia imposes substantial costs upon the country, and utilising foreign ports to access the sea, as mentioned by Meles, is a complex undertaking. Instead, this situation carries significant economic, security, and political implications for Ethiopia. According to various official sources, Ethiopia pays about three billion for port services annually. This figure represents 80Pct of the country’s revenues from commodity exports.

The issue of getting a sea outlet has been a prominent and longstanding concern throughout Ethiopia’s history, representing a crucial element of the country’s foreign policy. This issue has been a primary cause of bloody war with foreign powers like the Ottoman Turks, Egypt, and Italy, with many Ethiopians sacrificing their lives in the struggle to secure a sea outlet for their country.

As Ethiopia’s power as a development powerhouse and a key security player in the region grew, its capacity to secure coastal areas also increased, and vice-versa. However, the period after 1991 marked a significant shift, as Ethiopia willingly surrendered its access to the sea due to the manifest failure of political leadership. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) handed over the country’s former ports, Masawa and Assab, to the newly established State of Eritrea, resulting in Ethiopia becoming a landlocked country.

As far as international law is concerned, recognising the right to access the sea exists; however, the actual availability of sea outlets will be possible through agreements made between states with coastal access and landlocked states. This situation arises from the nature of international law, in which compulsory law enforcement mechanisms still need to be included, unlike domestic legal systems.

While international treaties, agreements, and conventions establish legal obligations, there is no global entity to enforce compliance. Unlike domestic legal systems, international law relies heavily on voluntary compliance and the willingness of states to act in good faith.

Though the United Nations (UN) plays a central role in promoting international law, its enforcement powers are limited. The UN Security Council possesses the authority to impose sanctions or authorise military actions in exceptional cases, but its decisions are subject to the veto power of its five permanent members. On the other hand, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) serves as the principal judicial organ of the UN, but its jurisdiction is limited to cases where states voluntarily submit disputes, and compliance with its rulings relies on the goodwill of the parties involved.

This article focuses on Ethiopia’s landlockedness during the post-1991 period and examines the economic, security, and political implications vis-a-vis its relations with neighbouring countries.

Economic Implications

Although Ethiopia has progressed in development so much in recent years, the country is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Africa’s second populous country has the lowest per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) compared to its neighbours such as Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea. Though Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa, its economy still needs to move higher and get its rightful position in the continent. Ethiopia is still one of the least developed countries, and its GDP, though growing fast, has a long way to go and reflects the country’s population size. Because of the country’s tiny economy, millions of The vast majority of Ethiopians still live in an abject poverty line. Ethiopia is the most populous, landlocked country in the world.

While internal issues such as the lack of peace and stability and the absence of efficient government and policy directions are key to Ethiopia’s underdevelopment, the lack of access to the sea contributes in cumulative effects to the country’s status as one of the least developed countries in the world.

After the beginning of the Ethio-Eritrea war in 1998, economic complications related to Ethiopia’s landlockedness escalated as the country was using Eritrean ports for its export and import trade. From this incident onwards, Djibouti’s influence on Ethiopia increased as the war forced Ethiopia to use the Port of Djibouti mainly. In this regard, the Ethio-Eritrean war brought about an economic windfall for Djibouti as Ethiopia is obliged to undertake more than 90Pct of its import-export maritime trade via Djibouti. As the trade between Ethiopia and Djibouti lends leverage to Djibouti, the country may influence Ethiopia by increasing port fees at any time, affecting Ethiopia’s economy. Moreover, if Ethiopia is prohibited by Djibouti from utilizing its port for a short period, even just a few weeks or days, it would have severe implications for Ethiopia’s economic activities and result in irreparable harm. Given the challenges of distance and inadequate infrastructure at alternative ports, the damage inflicted upon Ethiopia would be significant.

According to sources, Ethiopia currently pays more than three billion USD per year for port services, most of which goes to Djibouti. It is advantageous for Ethiopia if it manages to increase the number of trade corridors to increase the chance of negotiating affordable port fees. To this end, Ethiopia should work with the coastal states to chart the means of developing the necessary infrastructure that facilitates enhanced import and export trade. In the case of Eritrea, Ethiopia finds itself near the sea, with a distance of only 60 km separating the country from Assab. As a result, Ethiopia holds the distinction of being the landlocked country closest to the sea.

On the other hand, Djibouti is approximately 375 km away from Ethiopia, making the ports in Eritrea the nearest to Ethiopia. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to effectively manage the diplomatic relationship with Eritrea. It is thus of paramount importance if Ethiopia establishes peaceful regional integration with neighbouring coastal states by jointly constructing railways and road networks that can facilitate trade activities. The experiences of landlocked European countries like Switzerland, Luxembourg, Andorra, and Lichtenstein serve as examples for Ethiopia to consider. These nations have shown the importance of developing and enhancing internal road infrastructure and railways to reduce the time required for importing and exporting goods. Therefore, in addition to pursuing avenues to secure a sea outlet, Ethiopia should prioritize the modernization of its transportation infrastructure to enhance the efficiency of trade operations. Furthermore, Ethiopia should develop its capacity to export value-added and high-value goods easily transportable by air, reducing its reliance on sea trade.

Overall, Ethiopia’s landlocked status and the exorbitant costs associated with port fees significantly hinder the country’s economic growth and development. Not only this, the people of Ethiopia experience shortages of essential goods due to the loss of access to necessary goods and services. Further, imported goods are damn expensive due to port fees, demurrage fees, and other costs related to port use. In simpler terms, if Ethiopia had its ports, it would be able to import goods at more affordable prices, alleviating the current burden of shortages and expensive prices that millions of Ethiopians are facing.

Security Implications

The Horn of Africa is one of the most volatile regions in the world. It is prone to frequent drought and conflicts due to the convergence of diverse cultures in the region, which leads to conflicts as these cultures have contrasting beliefs and values. The fact that the countries in the Horn of Africa were colonial establishments, not formed through organic processes of state formation, adds to the problem. The colonial powers drew the borders without considering the interests and cultural dynamics of the local population. Similarly, the consistent presence of foreign powers that intervene in the internal affairs of states fosters an unfavourable environment that frequently results in conflicts.

Overall, the current state of affairs in the Horn of Africa is a prime example of the challenges faced during nation-building in post-colonial Africa.

Presently, the security of the Eastern African region is getting worse due to political instability propelled by terrorist movements. Foreign powers, such as the US, China, France, Turkey, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, are also playing catalytic roles in the increasing tension in the area in pursuit of their interests. Moreover, as the site is located near the strategic location of the Red Sea, which covers more than 10Pct of the world’s maritime trade, and is found at the junction of Asia, Europe, and Africa, these powers need to control the region to sustain their interests.

As Ethiopia is located near the strategic Red Sea area, the country is vulnerable to regional conflicts and affected by the disputes thereon. Currently, some of the foreign countries in the region are threatening Ethiopia’s security by establishing military bases in Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland, and other neighbouring countries. In 2016, the Eritrean government leased the port of Assab to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As a result, the UAE already established a military base in Assab. UAE is not only using Assab to advance its military objectives but also allowed Egypt to use all the military infrastructures for military operations. In this situation, the presence of Egypt in the region threatens Ethiopia, i.e., any actions taken by Ethiopia, particularly regarding projects on the Blue Nile River (referred to as the Abbay River by Ethiopians), Egypt may not remain silent. If a conflict arises between Ethiopia and Egypt for any reason, Ethiopia is susceptible to potential attacks from Egypt due to the latter’s proximity to Ethiopia’s frontiers.

Due to its geographical proximity to the Red Sea, Ethiopia faces potential vulnerabilities to various foreign threats originating from the area. The loss of sea outlets and the absence of control over neighbouring coastal regions create a persistent security concern. Ethiopia should not rely on foreign powers in the region as they prioritize safeguarding and advancing their national interests. Besides, the prevailing rivalry between the US and China poses a potential threat to the stability of the Horn of Africa, and it may create another cold war in Africa.

Political Implications

Landlockedness has had an impact on Ethiopia’s political influence. When Ethiopia had ports, it enjoyed greater independence and did not rely on other ports for import and export activities. However, Ethiopia now uses the ports of neighbouring nations, subject to fulfilling the various requirements imposed by them. Therefore, any action or decision taken by Ethiopia must be careful not to antagonize the coastal countries, as they hold the leverage to retaliate. Irrespective of the necessity of a specific finding for Ethiopia, the government has to exercise caution and refrain from offending the coastal nations involved. Despite the other obstacles in using the Ports of neighbouring countries, Port fees have been increasing significantly. Ethiopia had no option but to accept it since the government had weak bargaining power resulting from its landlockedness. This situation jeopardized Ethiopia’s political leverage and kept the country under the influence of its neighbouring coastal states.

Throughout most of the 20th century, especially following its anti-colonial struggle and afterwards, Ethiopia has been enjoying significant political leverage in Africa in general and Eastern Africa in particular. This influence was the product of a combination of factors such as its historical significance (Ethiopia is the first African country that ensured its independence against colonial ambitions), population (second largest in Africa), area (one of the largest countries in the Horn), location (located near the Red Sea), and natural resources endowment like abundant water resources. However, following its landlockedness, Ethiopia lost its strategic importance. Besides, its landlockedness made Ethiopia less independent in its actions. This dependence hampered Ethiopia’s aspiration to emerge as a regional power in the Horn of Africa. Considering its abundant resources and development prospects, Ethiopia still has the potential to emerge as a regional power in East Africa.

Overall, while landlockedness presents challenges, it also provides opportunities for Ethiopia to foster regional cooperation, strengthen diplomatic ties, and actively participate in regional integration efforts. By effectively managing its landlockedness, Ethiopia can navigate these complexities and leverage its strategic location to promote its interest.

Way Forward

The issue of sea outlets didn’t get due attention in the post-1991 period. As a result, the problem related to landlockedness still needs to be addressed. Ethiopians must diligently resolve this issue through diplomatic means, legal remedies, and exploring any other potential solutions available. However, selecting these remedies requires a great deal of prudence and a feeling of moral responsibility of leaders. This issue needs lasting solutions because the burden of landlockness is enormous. However, the solution requires making the right choice and subsequent decisions. In essence, the decision must consider the appropriate timing and other relevant circumstances related to the issue. Therefore, making an incorrect decision is akin to prescribing the wrong medication to prevent an illness, and specifying the wrong remedy will inevitably aggravate the disease instead of curing it. Hence, addressing this issue should not be driven by short-term political interests but rather by achieving a sustainable and enduring solution to Ethiopia’s problem.

Since the period following 1991, discussions regarding Ethiopia’s landlocked status have been rare. However, Ethiopians should not look at the issue as an attempt to open a Pandora’s Box but rather discuss it publicly so that all Ethiopians can understand the negative impacts of landlockedness and the benefits of access to sea outlets. Despite the challenges faced and tough struggles made by their predecessors to secure Ethiopia’s sea outlet, leaders of the post-1991 years did not keep the legacy but declined to preserve it. Hence, current leaders of the country should avoid repeating the same mistake but instead should work hard to enable the government to restore its sea outlet or at least secure unrestricted or affordable access to the sea.

As Ethiopia has been experiencing threats due to its landlockedness, the issue of security is critical. To avert this threat, Ethiopia needs to establish smooth diplomatic relations with the neighbouring coastal countries and foreign powers in East Africa. Besides, Ethiopia should continue the plan to develop a naval force to protect its security against foreign threats.

Despite Ethiopia’s potential to emerge as a dominant country in East Africa, its landlockedness in the post-1991 period significantly impeded its capacity. The coastal states may use Ethiopia’s dependence to influence the government using their comparative advantage. This situation signifies that Ethiopia will remain under the influence of its neighbouring coastal states, and its landlockedness will always be its primary political liability unless appropriately addressed. To this end, Ethiopia’s political stability is crucial.

Economic powers are the primary factor that increases the influence of a country over others. Economic dominance may help Ethiopia avert or minimize the negative impacts resulting from its landlockedness. If Ethiopia strengthens its economy and dominates the East African market, it may use such leverage to benefit from the region’s economic activities and advance its interests.


EBR 12th Year • Nov 16 – December 15 2023 • No. 123

Shimelash Wondale

Bachelor's degree in law graduate from Bahir Dar University and master's degree graduate in international relations and diplomacy from Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at shiwondale@gmail.com.


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