Somalia rejects Ethiopia's call for negotiations on Red Sea access

By Marco Cacciati October 18, 2023

Somalia has turned down Ethiopia's appeal for negotiations regarding potential access to a Red Sea port, raising concerns over regional stability.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had recently warned of the consequences of his nation's lack of direct access to a harbour, citing it as a potential source of future conflict.

He called on Somalia for collaborative efforts to address this issue, particularly given Ethiopia's loss of direct sea access in 1993, following Eritrea's independence after a protracted three-decade war.

In response, Somalia's State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ali Omar, conveyed a firm stance, asserting that while his country is committed to promoting peace, security, trade, and regional integration, it is not inclined to grant access to a strategically significant asset like a port.

Omar emphasised the sacrosanct nature of Somalia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, underlining that these aspects, as enshrined in the constitution, are non-negotiable.

In a televised speech on October 13, Abiy insisted on Ethiopia's "natural rights" to have direct access to the Red Sea. He warned that the denial of such access would result in unfairness and injustice, suggesting that it could lead to potential conflict.

Abiy also proposed a reciprocal arrangement where Ethiopia would offer shares in its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in exchange for stakes in ports in neighbouring countries. Similar agreements, offering GERD’s shares in exchange for access to the sea, had been touted by Abiy’s predecessor, Meles Zenawi, but were never taken too seriously by any concerned country.

For its part, Ethiopia’s best friend and foe, Eritrea, responded to Abiy’s remarks on Somalia by deeming them "excessive" and expressed bewilderment.

In a column for Ahram English, a former press attaché for Ethiopia, Mostafa Ahmady, tried to shed some light on the reasons behind Abiy’s obsession with a Red Sea access, noting that “Like other economies in the region, Ethiopia is feeling the heat of the present global economic crisis, caused mainly, but not entirely, by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war.”

“Based on data from the Ethiopian Statistics Service, essential food items on a year-on-year basis had soared in price by July 2023 by 48.1%. This may be partially attributed to the surging shipping costs of imports, particularly fertilisers, necessary for Ethiopian farmers. An Ethiopian port on the Red Sea would cut the cost of these drastically, helping the nation to save some 20% to 30% of its revenues.” 

Abiy has, over the years, often sent veiled threats to neighbouring countries – particularly Djibouti, Eritrea and unrecognised Somaliland – claiming that Ethiopia would eventually gain access to the coveted Red Sea, come what may. He, however, never missed to point out that a peaceful solution based on trade and cooperation agreements would be the preferred option, leaving military intervention as a last resort.

In its quest to secure access to the sea, Ethiopia expressed interest last August in taking part in the construction of the colossal $17.3bn Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) corridor being planned by Kenya, underscoring its eagerness to begin using the Port of Lamu in Northern Kenya to support its growing trade needs.

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