Ethiopia’s Quest for a Port: Geopolitical Implications, Diplomatic Challenges, and the Prime Minister’s Use of Force as a Last Resort.


Michael Rubin’s article highlights the current situation in Ethiopia and its pursuit of gaining access to a crucial port. It mentions that the Ethiopian Army’s momentum shifted in favor of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed due to an airlift of drones and ammunition from Iran, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. However, the victory may be pyrrhic as widespread reprisals and collective punishment have damaged Ethiopia’s ethnic unity in various regions.
Ethiopia, with its burgeoning economy and vast population, has been grappling with a critical challenge – the lack of a direct seaport. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government recognizes that accessing a port is essential for the country’s economic growth and international trade. As Ethiopia navigates internal challenges and seeks external solutions, its pursuit of a port has become a focal point in regional geopolitics. This article delves into the background of Ethiopia’s port quest, the geopolitical implications surrounding the region, and the diplomatic challenges involved. Proactive and wise diplomacy is imperative to avert potential crises and promote regional stability.

Ethiopia’s Internal Challenges
Ethiopia’s recent history has been marked by internal strife and ethnic tensions, leading to widespread reprisals and collective punishment. The ongoing Tigray War exposed Ethiopia’s vulnerability, with the lack of a direct seaport becoming a significant hindrance to the country’s infrastructure and logistics. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government must address these challenges while seeking a viable solution to secure a port and stimulate economic growth.

The Importance of a Port for Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s landlocked status has historically impeded its international trade and economic potential. The loss of access to the sea following Eritrea’s independence resulted in Ethiopia relying on neighboring ports like Djibouti, leading to high transport costs and logistical complexities. The disruption in transportation links during conflicts has further highlighted the urgency of securing independent port access.

Zeyla: An Attractive Option and Geopolitical Significance
Ethiopia’s pursuit of a port has led to a focus on the historic port of Zeyla in northern Somaliland. Zeyla’s proximity to Djibouti, historical significance in Ethiopia’s trade, and relative isolation make it an attractive option. Moreover, the idea of creating an Ethiopian Navy despite being landlocked raises intriguing questions about the country’s strategic interests. Securing Zeyla could significantly impact regional geopolitics and trade dynamics.

Geopolitical Factors and Alliances
Ethiopia’s quest for a port intersects with a complex web of geopolitical alliances in the Horn of Africa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has aligned with autocratic backers like China, Turkey, Eritrea, and Iran. In contrast, Somaliland has sought partnerships with democratic nations like the United Kingdom, Denmark, Kenya, and the European Union. This divergence in alliances adds an additional layer of complexity to the region’s dynamics.

Diplomatic Challenges and Regional Stability
The potential move by Ethiopia to claim Zeyla could trigger tensions in Djibouti, given the ethnic connections between Djiboutian Somalis and Somaliland, as well as Afars and Ethiopia. The Bab el-Mandab Strait’s strategic importance for international trade, including the United States, warrants proactive and wise diplomacy. The neglect of Somaliland in U.S. diplomacy could lead to further instability and migration flows in the region.

Ethiopia’s Negotiations and the Use of Force as a Last Resort

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed revealed that the government has initiated negotiations with Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somaliland in the hopes of securing a viable solution. Among the propositions, the government has offered to give 30% of Ethiopian Airlines to the Eritrean government in exchange for port access. The negotiations with Eritrea, in particular, have taken center stage due to the complexities of their historical conflict.
While Ethiopia strongly desires a peaceful resolution, the Prime Minister’s announcement to consider the use of force as a last resort underscores the gravity of the situation. This stance sends a clear message that Ethiopia is committed to attaining a port by any means necessary, even if it risks potential conflicts and international ramifications.

Global Pressure and Implications
The international community has been closely monitoring Ethiopia’s border dispute with Eritrea and the ongoing efforts to secure a port. As Ethiopia’s economy continues to grow and its global significance expands, the resolution of this issue has become increasingly crucial.
The success or failure of negotiations will have far-reaching consequences for Ethiopia’s economy and its relations with neighboring countries. A peaceful resolution with any of the neighboring nations could lead to reduced port costs and improved trade prospects. Conversely, failure to secure a port through negotiations may escalate tensions and jeopardize regional stability.
Due to Ethiopia’s geographical location and its long and complex history in the East African region, it strategically seeks to enhance its influence and impact in the area to achieve its political, economic, and strategic interests. One of the most important motivations for Ethiopia to possess a permanent sea outlet includes:
1. Enhancing economic power: Owning a permanent sea outlet boosts Ethiopia’s trading capabilities and contributes to increased trade with countries worldwide. Being situated at a crossroads of trade routes, Ethiopia can become a hub for foreign investments and trade in the region.
2. Providing a maritime gateway for the country: Ethiopia is landlocked and lacks a natural maritime connection. Owning a permanent sea outlet reduces logistical challenges for transporting goods and enhances the efficiency of transportation.
3. Improving maritime security and counterterrorism efforts: By utilizing a sea outlet, Ethiopia can enhance its capacity to combat security threats and terrorism in the region. For instance, Ethiopia can cooperate with other countries in combating maritime piracy and bolstering security in regional waters.
4. Expanding regional influence: Through a presence in a seaport, Ethiopia can bolster its influence and presence in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region.
5. Improving relations with neighbors: Possessing a permanent sea outlet can help Ethiopia improve its relations with its regional neighbors and increase cooperation in various fields.
6. Regional balance: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seeks to achieve regional balance in East Africa and avoid heavy reliance on Djibouti as a primary trade gateway. With its dedicated sea outlet, Ethiopia can have better control over the cost of goods movement and trade.
Despite these motivations, Ethiopia faces significant challenges, such as internal conflicts, political stability issues, and the lack of natural maritime access, which hinder its ability to fully realize these strategic goals. Nonetheless, Ethiopia continues its pursuit of development and enhancing its regional and continental role in East Africa.
Having a permanent sea outlet will have a significant impact on Ethiopia and the region in politics, economics, and security. This move will help Ethiopia enhance its economic and trading capabilities and improve access to global markets. It will also enable Ethiopia to play a greater role in protecting maritime transportation and security in the region while increasing its regional and international influence. However, Ethiopia must confront potential challenges and risks to achieve these strategic objectives, such as political and security tensions among countries.
In the future, Ethiopia must focus on improving its economic and developmental capabilities and strengthening political and security stability within the country. These efforts will undoubtedly face numerous obstacles and challenges. However, if Ethiopia can overcome them, it will be able to achieve its vision of owning a permanent sea outlet and reap its strategic benefits in the region.

Ethiopia’s pursuit of a port is a critical priority for the country’s economic growth and development. The lack of direct seaport access has hindered Ethiopia’s international trade and created logistical challenges. Negotiations with neighboring countries and the potential claim to Zeyla add complexity to the geopolitical landscape in the Horn of Africa. Proactive and wise diplomacy is essential to avert potential crises and promote regional stability.
The international community, led by the United States and other global powers, must engage in diplomatic efforts to support a peaceful resolution. By recognizing the geopolitical implications and respecting the sovereignty of all nations involved, a sustainable solution can be found for Ethiopia’s desire to secure a port. Addressing Ethiopia’s port quest will pave the way for increased economic prosperity in the region and bolster international trade through the Bab el-Mandab strait.