Ethiopia’s quest to negotiate for its own port in a neighboring country – the best option of which is Djibouti – is legal, rational, pragmatic, and in the region’s objective interests, not illegal, illogical, idealistic, and zero-sum like critics claim.
Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed answered questions from lawmakers on Tuesday, including those concerning their country’s quest to negotiate for its own port in a neighboring country. He reiterated some of the points that he made during his nearly hour-long speech to them last month, which can be watched with English subtitles here, and reaffirmed that this will be pursued through peaceful means. Contrary to perceptions, this isn’t a controversial policy. Here’s why it’s legal, rational, and pragmatic:
* The US & China Already Lease Their Own Ports In Djibouti
What Ethiopia wants isn’t any different than what the US and China have already obtained in Djibouti, namely a long-term lease over its own port there. Those two are New Cold War rivals and located far away from the region, yet they still successfully negotiated such deals with Djibouti. The precedent is therefore established for Ethiopia to do the same. Unlike the US and China, it’s not a protagonist in the New Cold War and it’s also Djibouti’s neighbor, which should thus make Ethiopia an appealing partner.
* Those Two Pay Djibouti Far Less For Military Bases Than Ethiopia Does For Commercial Port Access
The US agreed in 2014 to pay Djibouti $63 million a year to lease its base for the next ten years with the option to extend this for another decade, while China’s publicly financed Global Times cited a foreign media report in 2016 to claim that their country pays $100 million a year for its own base. Although other reports cite different figures for China’s rent, the point is that neither it nor the US pay anywhere near the annual $2 billion in commercial port fees that Ethiopia does per Addis Standard’s recent report.
* Official Statistics Prove That The Existing Djiboutian-Ethiopian Deal Is Lopsided & Onerous
The IMF estimates that Djibouti’s 2023 GDP is $3.87 billion while Ethiopia’s is $155.8 billion. Accordingly, this means that Ethiopia’s reported $2 billion in commercial port fees to Djibouti every year constitute over half of that country’s GDP and cost around 1.2% of its own. If Ethiopia’s official 2023/2024 budget of about $14.7 billion is added to the equation, however, then a whopping 13.6% of it goes towards Djiboutian port fees. This is onerous and could set the basis for renegotiating these lopsided terms.
* Ethiopia’s Debt Troubles Make It Imperative To Relieve Onerous Port-Related Financial Pressure
Ethiopia used to boast one of the world’s fastest growth rates prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic, the Northern Conflict from 2020-2022, and the NATO-Russian proxy war combined to offset this impressive trajectory. China and other creditors have agreed to suspend its debt payments, but Ethiopia is at risk of spiraling into a never-ending financial crisis with all that entails for domestic stability unless the prior growth rate is restored, which is difficult without first relieving onerous port-related financial pressure.
* Its Demographic Explosion Could Lead To Regional Turmoil If This Financial Crisis Isn’t Resolved
Ethiopia’s demographics are exploding after PM Abiy reminded everyone that his country’s population went from 46 million just 30 years ago to 120 million today and is on pace to reach 150 million by 2030. If its financial crisis isn’t resolved, such as through the proposed means of successfully negotiating for its own port in Djibouti with much better terms than the presently onerous ones, then the expected outflux of irregular immigrants who leave for obvious economic reasons could lead to regional turmoil.
* Ethiopia Will Forever Remain Vulnerable To Great Power Games Unless Its Naval Force Is Restored
The New Cold War and related proxy conflicts between its protagonists, particularly those fought around the Red Sea, could disrupt the maritime logistics upon which Ethiopia’s economy depends due to its reliance on fertilizer and fuel imports. The coastal countries’ security is connected to Ethiopia’s stability, but this will forever remain at risk of being disrupted by Great Power games, hence why their interests are served by facilitating its defense of these logistical lifelines through the revival of the Ethiopian Navy.
* Ethiopia Can Relieve The Financial Burden Upon Coastal Countries For Defending These Lifelines
Ethiopia’s GDP is much larger than the coastal countries’ so the revival of its navy would relieve a lot of the financial burden presently placed upon them for defending these logistical lifelines on which their security directly depends as was explained above. Instead of continuing to invest limited budgetary resources in maintaining their own naval forces for this end, they could rely more on Ethiopia’s own such investments and then redirect some of these resources towards their domestic economic development.
* Ethiopia’s Rapid Economic Growth Brought About By Its Own Red Sea Port Would Benefit The Region
The coastal countries would also economically benefit from Ethiopia restoring its pre-2020 growth rate, which could most realistically happen by obtaining direct ownership of a Red Sea port as the means for resolving its financial crisis like was argued. The Horn of Africa can’t fully reap the fruits of regional integration processes like the rest of the world currently is until its Ethiopian core’s economic stability is no longer held hostage to Great Power games, which is only possible through the revival of its navy.
* Renegotiating The Existing Djiboutian-Ethiopian Deal Is Entirely In Line With International Law
The existing Djiboutian-Ethiopian deal could be renegotiated in pursuit of this mutually beneficial goal, but some have claimed that doing so with the view of obtaining unrestricted commercial-military access to the Red Sea is contrary to international law. They’re either innocently misinformed or deliberately spreading misinformation, however, since Djibouti has the sovereign right to negotiate whatever terms on whatever it may be with whoever it wants exactly as it already did with the US, China, and others.
* No Third Country’s Interests Would Be Threatened By Such A Renegotiated Deal Either
While it’s true that all states have the aforesaid negotiation rights, the morality of the deals that they could reach becomes murky if they threaten to infringe on the legitimate interests of third countries like the US’ with Ukraine did vis-à-vis Russia. That wouldn’t be the case with any renegotiated Djiboutian-Ethiopian one, the contours of which were proposed here, since this would resolve security dilemmas and avert conflicts unlike how US-Ukrainian deals exacerbated such dilemmas and provoked a conflict.
Keeping in mind the arguments made in this analysis, Ethiopia’s quest to negotiate for its own port in a neighboring country – the best option of which is Djibouti – is legal, rational, pragmatic, and in the region’s interests, not illegal, illogical, idealistic, and zero-sum like critics claim. If it doesn’t succeed, then the Horn of Africa will remain hostage to Great Power games that threaten its security by endangering Ethiopia’s economic stability, which places clear limits on every country’s true level of sovereignty.