A Deal With Djibouti Is The Best Of Ethiopia’s Three Diplomatic Options For A Red Sea Port
Djibouti already hosts foreign bases, its leadership has an interest in diversifying their country’s yearly revenue streams through lucrative foreign investments, and its people could benefit as a result with time too.
Ethiopian Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed explained to parliament last month why their country needs its own Red Sea port, the main argument of which boils down to the systemic pressures placed upon this rapidly growing civilization-state by its landlocked status. His full case was made in this video shared by his office here, which includes English subtitles of his speech. Basically, without securing unrestricted access to the global economy via these means, domestic and regional conflict might be inevitable.
PM Abiy doesn’t say so directly, but he appears to be implying the emergence of a regional security dilemma between landlocked Ethiopia and its neighboring coastal states in the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia). This inland giant might fear that those three could one day unite to contain its growth by exploiting their geographic monopoly over its trade with the rest of the world, while they might fear that its runaway economic growth could one day embolden it to threaten their sovereignty.
The preceding description of their emerging security dilemma shouldn’t be interpreted as extending credence to either side’s perspective nor denying such, but simply as an assessment of the region’s strategic dynamics as they presently seem to exist. Left unchecked, they could spiral out of control like all security dilemmas risk doing, hence PM Abiy’s warning about why a regional conflict might be inevitable if his country’s landlocked-related pressures prove unbearable in the future.
The earlier hyperlinked video to his parliamentary speech on this issue shows that he’s committed to resolving this implied dilemma by peaceful means. PM Abiy proposed an exchange whereby Ethiopia would receive unrestricted access to the global economy via a Red Sea port while one of the neighboring regional states would receive stakes in its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and possibly other megaprojects as well. For as enticing of an offer as this is, none of those three appear interested in it.
Nevertheless, Ethiopia hasn’t lost hope for a peaceful solution and continues exploring relevant opportunities. War is off the table, however, since it would be costly and counterproductive. The last stalemated one with Eritrea from 1998-2000 is still fresh in many Ethiopians’ minds, while Djibouti’s hosting of Western military bases acts as a deterrent. As for Somalia and its breakaway Somaliland region, those two’s people are expected to wage a protracted insurgency if they were invaded.
That’s not to suggest that no conflict could ever potentially arise from their security dilemma, but just that it isn’t inevitable like the BBC maliciously implied regarding Ethiopia and Eritrea. Of the three diplomatic options available, a deal with Djibouti is by far the best for the reasons that’ll soon be explained. Before doing so, however, the reader should be informed of why the Eritrean and Somali options aren’t all that realistic.
Per the first, Eritrea has fiercely defended its national sovereignty after gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993 following a three-decade-long conflict, and public opinion there is overwhelmingly against the idea of Ethiopia restoring some of its lost control over any of their ports. President Isaias Afwerki had previously promised to let Ethiopia conduct trade with others via his country’s territory, but Eritrea won’t cede any of its sovereignty to its southern neighbor no matter what’s offered in exchange.
This stance rules out the likelihood of progress ever being made on PM Abiy’s proposed deal aimed at resolving this emerging regional security dilemma since Eritrea won’t give Ethiopia full control over a Red Sea port in exchange for stakes in GERD and possibly other megaprojects. As for the second arguably doomed option, reaching such a port deal with universally unrecognized Somaliland could prompt international condemnation, risk sanctions, and facilitate the creation of a coastal containment coalition.
It would therefore be very counterproductive for Ethiopia and should only be considered as a last resort to avert war in the worst-case scenario once its landlocked-related pressures approach the breaking point if no better solution is reached before then. Talks with Somalia on this option aren’t possible until/unless its universally recognized formal sovereignty over that breakaway region is restored, but Mogadishu’s officially expressed disinterest in this subject means that they’re unlikely even in that case.
This leaves Djibouti as the last possibility, but despite that country’s similarly expressed disinterest in this subject, it would be premature to conclude that there’s no chance for a diplomatic breakthrough. This analysis here about “How Russia Could Mediate A Series Of Deals Between Djibouti, Ethiopia, & South Sudan” proposes a grand deal whereby Djibouti grants Ethiopia a port in exchange for a Russian-built South Sudanese oil pipeline, stakes in those three’s lucrative projects, and privileged commodity prices.
Readers should review that hyperlinked analysis for further details about this proposal and arguments in favor since it would be redundant to repeat them in the present piece, but the point is that this compellingly appears to be the best way to break the emerging security dilemma in the region. Djibouti already hosts foreign bases, its leadership has an interest in diversifying their country’s yearly revenue streams through lucrative foreign investments, and its people could benefit as a result with time too.
Some forces are fearmongering about Ethiopia’s motives in wanting a Red Sea port and maliciously speculating that it’s secretly plotting a war against its neighbors, but their disinformation campaign could be discredited in an instant if Ethiopia and/or Djibouti show interest in this Russian-mediated proposal. Even the mildest official expression thereof could de-escalate perceived tensions, completely reshape the conversation over this sensitive issue, and thus responsibly manage this emerging security dilemma.
Of course, this proposal is just a few days old so each stakeholder’s policymakers still require some time to deeply reflect on the stated pros and possible cons from the perspective of their national interests, but hopefully one of those two will agree to pursue it and express related interest by the end of the year. It would be even better if this is preceded by discrete discussions between their officials, Russia’s, and South Sudan’s in order to raise the chances of a Djiboutian-Ethiopian diplomatic breakthrough.
Symbolism and substance are equally important when dealing with this issue since regional perceptions are being twisted by the ongoing anti-Ethiopian disinformation campaign, ergo the need to officially send positive signals reaffirming faith in a political solution to this security dilemma. Even so, sending signals without any chance of substantial progress is just a cynical form of perception management that could backfire by discrediting whoever does so, hence why they need to be backed up by something real.
Looking forward, it would help the goal of regional peace and stability for each side’s civil society, scholars, media, and business communities to share their constructive feedback on this proposal and brainstorm ways for optimizing it with a view towards helping advance a diplomatic breakthrough. Everyone would win if this emerging security dilemma was responsibly managed, and seeing as how this proposal is the most detailed one shared with the public thus far, it makes sense to build upon it.