(Harvard Political Review)―With over 100 million people, Ethiopia is easily the most populous landlocked country on earth. When Eritrea seceded in 1993, Ethiopia lost access to its coastline, impeding its economic growth and limiting the nation’s ambitions of becoming a regional hegemon. No coastline meant no direct access to ports, hindering Ethiopia’s efforts to achieve middle-income status via export-oriented industrialization. Furthermore, strained relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara have forced Ethiopia to rely on neighboring Djibouti for most of its trade. In fact, 95% of Ethiopia’s imports and exports pass through this country of less than one million. Ethiopians are increasingly recognizing the danger of dependence on their small neighbor, especially after Djibouti temporarily refused to release cargo bound for Ethiopia because of delays in payment transfers in 2013.

However, under Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister since April 2018, there have been signs that Ethiopia’s peculiar relationship with Djibouti is set to change. Abiy signed a peace agreement with his Eritrean counterpart on July 17, bringing a formal end to the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War and potentially opening Eritrea’s ports on the Red Sea to Ethiopian exports. By also pursuing deals with ports in Sudan and Somaliland, Ethiopia is making it clear that the first priority in its quest to become a regional power is establishing direct control over its access to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Practicality Behind Sentimentality

Ethiopia’s recent normalization of relations with Eritrea was an emotional affair. The conflict stemmed from a border dispute that led to the deaths of over 80,000 people and the displacement of more than 350,000. For years, Addis Ababa refused to accept an international commission’s ruling on the border demarcation and cut off all economic and diplomatic ties with Eritrea.

In June, Abiy’s decision to suddenly comply with the ruling set off a flurry of moves. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki visited Addis Ababa, and the two leaders agreed to re-establish embassies, resume flights between the two states, and reopen Eritrean ports to Ethiopian trade. Furthermore, thousands of families separated since the 1998-2000 war can now take advantage of re-established transportation and telecommunication links between the two countries.

Among many other benefits, this dramatic detente will allow Addis Ababa to regain access to critical ports on the Red Sea. Before the bilateral relationship deteriorated in 1997, the Assab port in Eritrea handled the majority of Ethiopian exports and imports, while the Port of Djibouti only played a minor role. After more than two decades, Abiy has indicated a keen interest in reconnecting Ethiopia with Assab, a port in Eritrea’s south, and Massawa, a port in the north. There is more at stake for Ethiopia than just diplomatic niceties in this recent rapprochement — its shipping routes hang in the balance as well.

Continue reading “An Emerging and Troubled Power: Overcoming Ethiopia’s Landlocked Geography” at Harvard Political Review
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