Landlocked Ethiopia wants better sea access: a port deal with neighbours could benefit the region

by Namhla Matshanda

Ethiopia’s access to the coast has occupied the minds of the country’s rulers since time immemorial. This is because being landlocked undermines Ethiopia’s ability to grow its economy, develop its military (navy force) and exert influence across the Horn of Africa.

We see this preoccupation in the history of Ethiopia and Eritrea. In 1952, Eritrea – a coastal country – was controversially federated into Ethiopia. Failure to maintain this annexation led to Eritrean independence in 1993 and Ethiopia became a landlocked country once again. This was a major blow for the new administration that had taken over political power in 1991. For the new government this translated into some limitations on their economic and political goals for the country.

As a scholar of African politics, I have researched Ethiopia and its relations with its neighbours, including its civil wars, political reforms, national identity, state building and border tensions.

There is no doubt that Ethiopia’s lack of direct access to the sea has constrained its ability to cater for its large population and hindered economic growth and development. Politically, being landlocked limits Ethiopia’s geostrategic options in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

Ethiopia has several options for peaceful access to the sea. All of them could have a positive economic impact not only in Ethiopia but across the region. The options include further engagement with Eritrea, Djibouti and Somaliland on equitable terms for the use of their ports.

The Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor with Kenya – which is still in its early phases – could also be a game-changer in the region if built to completion.

Economic motivations

Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies on the continent. It also has a large population, estimated at around 126 million and projected to grow at about 2.7 percent a year. This indicates a big market and many needs to be met.

Economic development became central to fiscal and economic planning and projections in the period between 2000 and 2012. But lack of direct coastal access became a notable obstacle to Ethiopia’s efforts to achieve middle-income status via export-oriented industrialization.

At one time Eritrea’s Assab port handled 70 percent of Ethiopia’s trade.

At present Ethiopia’s imports and exports mainly pass via the port of Djibouti. Reliance on Djibouti has proved costly and unsustainable, however, leading Addis to search for alternatives.

Political considerations

Coastal access would give Ethiopia more political clout to help it achieve its ambition of dominating the Horn of Africa.

Peaceful access to the coast would depend on its relationships with its neighbours. Some have been strained, others harmonious.

Since 1991, Ethiopia has been on a path of regional domination, aided by its economic dominance in the region and in Africa. This was interrupted by its war with Eritrea between 1998 and 2000, which remained unresolved until 2018. The conflict limited but did not end Ethiopia’s political ambitions in the region, as seen in the country’s foreign policy since the early 1990s. Addis has appeared willing to get its own way in the region by whatever means.

Ethiopia continues to host the African Union and has been an active and dominant member of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional organization. Since 2018, the country’s foreign policy has taken a conciliatory tone. We see this in the rapprochement with Eritrea following a peace deal that restored relations between the two states after two decades of conflict. This suggests a shift from a rigid security-focused foreign policy to a more pragmatic approach to issues that include diplomacy, climate change, migration, terrorism and access to the sea.

Because of its history and geopolitical position, Ethiopia has the potential to be a force for either stability or instability in the region. Finding a peaceful way to improve coastal access would make it a force for stability.

Agreement would benefit all countries

If Ethiopia opted for a forceful approach this would add fuel to a fire. Countries in the region, including Ethiopia, are currently battling various internal conflicts, with real potential to spill over.

Despite the fact of being landlocked, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has sought to revive the country’s navy, suggesting grand ambitions for the country’s armed forces.

There is no way forceful access to the coast would be a feasible option for Ethiopia.

The country is already engaged in negotiations with Djibouti and Kenya for more equitable terms for the use of their coasts. Peaceful and mutually beneficial agreements with any of the neighbouring countries will have positive outcomes for all. Ethiopia would still emerge stronger, and would continue on its economic growth path.


Namhla Matshanda is a Senior Lecturer, Political Studies, University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

Published under a Creative Commons license from TheConversation.com