Frequently Asked Questions About Ethiopia’s Quest For Its Own Red Sea Port

Frequently Asked Questions About Ethiopia’s Quest For Its Own Red Sea Port

This piece comprises answers to the most frequently asked questions about this policy in order to clarify it. Readers will learn that it’s peaceful, legal, rational, pragmatic, and in the region’s interests, not militant, illegal, illogical, idealistic, and zero-sum like innocent critics and agenda-driven disinformation agents alike claim.

Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed has recently prioritized his country’s long-held quest for reobtaining its own Red Sea port, which has led to lots of fake news about Ethiopia’s intentions. This piece comprises answers to the most frequently asked questions about this policy in order to clarify it. Readers will learn that it’s peaceful, legal, rational, pragmatic, and in the region’s interests, not militant, illegal, illogical, idealistic, and zero-sum like innocent critics and agenda-driven disinformation agents alike claim.

  • Why Is Ethiopia Landlocked In The First Place?

Ethiopia became landlocked after its province of Eritrea voted for independence in 1993 following a three-decade-long separatist conflict. Prior to that, it was briefly federated with the former Ethiopian Empire from 1952-1962 following a UN Resolution before Addis Ababa abolished its autonomy. Eritrea was earlier controlled by Italy and the Ottoman Empire before that, but both it and Ethiopia have always shared very close socio-cultural, economic, and historical ties.

  • How Does Landlocked Ethiopia Trade With The Rest Of The World?

95% of Ethiopia’s international trade is currently conducted via the Port of Djibouti. China built the Djibouti-Addis Ababa Railway (DAAR) to optimize this corridor, which remains Ethiopia’s lifeline to the rest of the world. Prior to the pandemic, Ethiopia was one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but that event, its Northern Conflict, the NATO-Russian proxy war, and a severe drought derailed its trajectory and led to creditors recently suspending debt payments due to these financial pressures.

  • Why Does Ethiopia Want Its Own Port If It’s Already Using Djibouti’s?

The estimated $2 billion in commercial port fees that Ethiopia pays to Djibouti every year amounts to approximately 13.6% of its 2023/2024 budget, which is around $14.7 billion. This is already an onerous burden on its budget to begin with but becomes even more exacting when considering its present financial pressures. Without renegotiating these terms or obtaining better access to another port, a ceiling could be imposed on Ethiopia’s economic growth with all that entails for its long-term stability.

  • What Challenges Does Ethiopia Face To Its Stability?

Apart from the sporadic domestic conflicts, which the federal government is resolving via hybrid military-diplomatic means, the UN predicts that Ethiopia will be one of the nine countries within which population growth from 2017-2050 will be concentrated. It already has around 120 million people but is expected to grow to 150 million by 2030 and reach 200 million by 2050. If its economic growth doesn’t scale accordingly, there could be a mass exodus and more domestic conflicts that destabilize the Horn.

  • How Does Reobtaining Its Own Sea Port Help To Alleviate These Challenges?

Reobtaining full and unrestricted access to a Red Sea port would immediately alleviate the financial burden placed upon Ethiopia by Djibouti’s presently onerous fees that impose a ceiling on its growth, thus enabling an even more impressive economic breakout than the pre-pandemic one. More employment, development, and support programs would then follow, which could avert the chances of a mass exodus and more domestic conflict. The region’s stability would therefore be better ensured.

  • What Alternatives Exist To The Port Of Djibouti?

Other than renegotiating the terms for using the Port of Djibouti or obtaining the desired full and unrestricted access to another of that country’s ports like Tadjourah, Ethiopia could theoretically open similar such talks with neighboring Eritrea or Somalia’s de facto independent Somaliland region. The first is unviable because Eritrea won’t let Ethiopia open a naval base on its territory, while any defense deal with the second could prompt Somalia to complain to the UN and lead to a panoply of problems.

  • Why Does Ethiopia Want To Rebuild Its Navy?

Ethiopia’s stability is dependent on securing its maritime logistics to the fertilizer and fuel upon which its economy is reliant, whose abrupt disruption due to the ever-present threat of Great Power games in the Red Sea could lead to a serious crisis that reverberates throughout the region. No state wants to depend on its neighbors for ensuring such security, and Ethiopia’s don’t have the economic wherewithal to do so at the level that’s required, plus some might be pressured by these same Great Powers to blackmail it.

  • Does Ethiopia Have The Right To Negotiate A Naval Base In Neighboring Countries?

Any country has the sovereign right to negotiate anything with anyone else, with the terms of such deals only being immoral if they infringe on the legitimate interests of third parties. The precedent set by Djibouti hosting American, Chinese, and other countries’ bases despite those two being New Cold War rivals proves that Ethiopia’s quest to negotiate the same isn’t unprecedented, illegal, nor immoral. To the contrary, it’s inspired by that same precedent, is fully legal, and would stabilize the region as explained.

  • Why Hasn’t Djibouti Already Negotiated Such A Military Deal With Ethiopia?

Smaller states often suspect their larger neighbors of nefarious designs even without any basis, as is the case with Djibouti and Ethiopia, which characterizes an aspect of the regional security dilemma. Djibouti also appears interested in maximally exploiting its monopoly on Ethiopia’s global trade. The aforesaid dilemma could be resolved through security guarantees extended by responsible regional stakeholders, while lucrative investment opportunities could compensate for the loss of Ethiopia’s onerous rent fees.

  • Who Are The Responsible Stakeholders In The Red Sea Region?

Those countries that already have military bases in the region, namely the half-dozen in Djibouti as well as the UAE via its related facilities in Yemen, can be regarded as responsible stakeholders. The Red Sea Council of littoral states that suspiciously excludes Ethiopia despite its historical presence in the region presents itself the same way, while all those elsewhere whose trade transits through this body of water have stakes in its stability as well. Some of them could therefore extend security guarantees to Djibouti.

  • What Lucrative Investment Opportunities Could Compensate For Djibouti’s Lost Port Fees?

Ethiopia already offered large stakes in its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopian Airlines (which is the continent’s largest such company), Ethio Telecom, and possibly other megaprojects and companies in exchange for full and unrestricted access – including military – to a Red Sea port. To sweeten the deal, Djibouti could also become the terminal point of a prospectively Russian-built oil pipeline from South Sudan, and Russia could also offer stakes in its resource companies in that country.

  • Why Would Djibouti Be Interested In Lucrative Investment Opportunities In Lieu Of Port Fees?

The estimated $2 billion in commercial port fees that Djibouti receives each year from Ethiopia account for over half of its $3.87 billion GDP this year per the IMF’s official statistics on the latter. These would be lost if Ethiopia risks the consequences of striking an economic-military deal with Somaliland, hence why it’s in Djibouti’s interests to preemptively avert this via the proposed investment deals with Ethiopia and others, which Russia could further sweeten through privileged prices on oil and wheat sales to Djibouti.

  • Why Isn’t Ethiopia A Member Of The Red Sea Council Despite Its Historical Presence In The Region?

Egypt wants to contain Ethiopia as proven by the faux drama that it staged about GERD over the years, which is why it’ll oppose any offer of full membership or even observer status to Ethiopia, whose historical presence in the region is much greater than the Council’s Jordanian member. In fact, Jordan only has a tiny coastline with the Gulf of Aqaba that connects to this sea due to a 1960s land swap with the Saudis, which still places Jordan further away from it than Ethiopia’s land border does.

  • Who Else Opposes Ethiopia Joining The Red Sea Council And/Or Reobtaining Its Own Red Sea Port?

The downturn in Ethiopian-Eritrean ties since last November’s peace deal between the federal government and Asmara’s TPLF enemies worsened the regional security dilemma between these former enemies-turned-friends and led to them becoming “frenemies”. Since Eritrea no longer trusts Ethiopia, it might have returned to containing it, to which end it might discretely oppose that country joining the Red Sea Council and possibly even once again arm, finance, and/or politically support anti-state forces.

  • What Explains All The Controversy About Ethiopia’s Quest For Its Own Red Sea Port?

The regional security dilemma, Egypt’s obsession with containing Ethiopia, and the historical legacies in the Horn account for why innocent critics and agenda-driven agents alike – both from the region and abroad –misunderstand Ethiopia’s intentions and spew disinformation about it respectively. The latest trend is Eritrean activists and their foreign allies deliberately misportraying peaceful proposals for resolving this issue as “warmongering” even when they explicitly concern Djibouti and not Eritrea.

  • How Far Will Egypt (And Possibly Eritrea) Go To Stop Ethiopia From Reobtaining Its Own Port?

Neither Egypt (which is obsessed with containing Ethiopia per the faux drama it staged about GERD over the years) nor Eritrea (whose activists and their foreign allies have begun lying about this issue) are expected to go to war against Ethiopia to stop its peaceful port plans. The most that they’ll do is block its efforts to join the Red Sea Council and wage information warfare against it, though both could also revert to their former policy of backing anti-state forces if they become desperate to stop Ethiopia.

  • Will A Regional War Break Out Over This Issue?

PM Abiy’s reaffirmation of his country’s peaceful policy for reobtaining full and unrestricted access to its own Red Sea port in order to ensure the security of its maritime logistics and rebuild its navy to that end prove that Ethiopia won’t initiate a regional war over this issue. Such a conflict will only break out if the coastal states provoke it, perhaps at the behest of a regional (Egypt) or Great Power as part of their geopolitical games, or if Ethiopia plunges into a crisis in the event that its logistics are disrupted.

As was proven, Ethiopia’s policy is legal, rational, pragmatic, and in the region’s interests, not illegal, illogical, idealistic, and zero-sum like innocent critics and agenda-driven disinformation agents alike claim. It’s understandable though if some readers were confused about this issue before reading the present piece due to the deluge of disinformation pushed by those two categories of actors. Those who’d like to learn more about it should review the following analyses that discuss everything in detail:

  • “What’s The Best Way For Ethiopia To Diversify From Its Dependence On The Port Of Djibouti?”
  • “Russia Could Unlock Djibouti, Ethiopia, & South Sudan’s Combined Geo-Economic Potential”
  • “How Could Russia Mediate A Series Of Deals Between Djibouti, Ethiopia, & South Sudan?”
  • “A Deal With Djibouti Is The Best Of Ethiopia’s Three Diplomatic Options For A Red Sea Port”
  • “It’s Not Controversial For Ethiopia To Negotiate For Its Own Port In A Neighboring Country”
  • “Candid Observations About Ethiopian-Eritrean Ties One Year After The Northern Conflict Ended”
  • “Ethiopia Has The Right To Be Included In The Red Sea Council”

They’ll also learn that all misportrayals of these works and the author himself on social media aren’t innocent, seeing as how these pieces explicitly rule out Ethiopia going to war against Eritrea for a Red Sea port, but evidence of whoever it is being either a troll or a disinformation agent. Information warfare, both that which is waged by activists but also possibly by state actors like Egypt and even Eritrea, is more intense than ever so everyone should be careful and verify everything that they read.