By Shiferaw Abebe
Abiy Ahmed’s signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Somaliland’s president may be seen as bold, but it is also reckless from every dimension one looks at it.
If we stay clear from the emotional trick politicians so adeptly play on common folks, Ethiopia doesn’t need a naval base in Somaliland or anywhere else. It doesn’t have a coastline to patrol or protect which most countries in the world use their naval force for. Then for what purpose? For the vanity of being counted among the powers with a naval presence in the region? What can Ethiopia do with a naval force which it cannot do with a ground or an air force?
A country with a quarter of its population endemically on the verge of starvation cannot afford a navy force or a naval base just to stroke the ego of a delusional prime minister.
Ethiopia may need to diversify access to seaports for commercial shipments, but it is not an urgent matter that needs to be achieved by any means necessary.
Right now and for the foreseeable future a seaport doesn’t make the cut for the top ten problems Ethiopia faces and needs to address. Ethiopia’s merchandise exports were worth a paltry $3.6 billion in 2022/23. Its much bigger imports are still a meager amount by international standards. The port of Djibouti, whose sole customer is Ethiopia, is more than enough for Ethiopia’s commercial shipment needs. .
The relationship between Djibouti and Ethiopia needs to be understood clearly. If Djibouti is currently the only seaport Ethiopia uses, Ethiopia is also the only customer Djibouti has for its commercial ports. So the issue is largely economics than anything else.
From an economic standpoint, a seaport in Somaliland doesn’t come cheap either. In addition to offering Somaliland with equity stakes in one or more of Ethiopia’s state-owned enterprises, Ethiopia would have to incur huge costs for building the infrastructure to get to a Somaliland port. Taking the shortest possible distance of 400 KM between an existing Ethiopian rail line and a port in Somaliland, Ethiopia would have to spend about $2 billion to build a rail infrastructure, plus a medium size port construction or major renovation, if required, would cost at least several hundreds of millions.
For a country that has a credit rating of D or RD, desperately begging its creditors for debt restructuring, with a national economy in shambles, where can Ethiopia get this kind of money today or tomorrow to throw at a venture that has all the diplomatic and geopolitical red flags?
How much would Ethiopia save by diversifying its port outlets, anyway?
Currently, Ethiopia is said to be paying between $1 billion and $1.6 billion in port fees to Djibouti. Suppose Ethiopia diverts half of its export and import shipments to a Somaliland port; how much savings would it be able to squeeze out of Djibouti’s hand? Not a great amount because Djibouti would still be the preferred port for Ethiopia and perhaps for shipping companies too. A significant amount of any potential savings would also be used up to cover the higher transportation costs to a Somaliland port. We can assume protection to the rail infrastructure will somehow be Somaliland’s responsibility but it won’t do it for free.
And then here is the crux of the economic question. Why do we want to trip over to secure or save something we don’t have, when we are squandering mindlessly what we earned or own by the grace of God?
Since Abiy took power, there has been one major devastating war (with TPLF/Tigray), while two more are raging as we speak – one in the Amhara region and another in Oromia.
The damage of the war with TPLF/Tigray was pegged at $25 billion.
The current wars in Amhara and Oromia combined can be expected to cost as much ($25 billion) if not more by the time they wrap up, hopefully sooner rather than later. (Mind you, we might have not seen a huge infrastructure damage as yet, but the impact on GDP of the wars in the two largest regions is massive).
Add to this the fact that 5 million people have been displaced throughout the country, many of them for 2 or more years now. Taking the per capita income of the country as a basis, the lost GDP because of this displacement is at least $10 billion. I won’t dare put value on the death toll – a million and counting- even though there are models that do that.
The above cost estimates (admittedly rough but conservative) add up to over $60 billion.
Add to that what corruption and thievery in every single sector is costing the country. The world average cost of corruption is 5% of world GDP, but we can safely double that for Ethiopia which in monetary terms comes to over $12 billion per year.
We cannot put even a rough number on the cost of economic mismanagement, which is the hallmark of Abiy Ahmed’s government, but we know it is one of the main factors that has kept the country in abject poverty.
The sum of the above quantified costs alone is equivalent to more than 50 years’ of port fees for Djibouti. This is a hole Abiy Ahmed’s misadventure in Somaliland will never fill.
Being landlocked is a significant constraint on economic development, but not an indictment for everlasting poverty. There are landlocked countries that are wealthy, and what do they have in common? Internal stability, good economic management and good relationships with their neighbors including the transient countries, none of which Ethiopia has under Abiy Ahmed.
Economics aside, Ethiopia’s recognition of Somaliland won’t come without diplomatic and geopolitical costs. Respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty is one of the key principles of international relations (recognized by both the UN and AU), which Ethiopia is now being seen as undermining by signing the MOU with Somaliland.
Somalia has vehemently renounced and nullified the agreement as it should be expected and there are reports that Ethiopian refugees in Somalia are being targeted at least on social media. If the situation escalates, Abiy’s government will do tit for tat, targeting Somalis who might be residing or visiting in Ethiopia. Neighboring countries are not coming out condemning the MOU but there is no question that they are deeply concerned by Abiy Ahmed’s reckless move because they should see it as causing more tension and hostility in a historically volatile region.
The United States, European Union, African Union, Turkey and China have made clear statements that acknowledged Somalia’s territorial integrity. China, through its foreign minister, Mao Ning, has stated that Somaliland is part of Somalia and that China supports the Federal Government of Somalia in safeguarding national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia is unlikely to voice a different stance. So who is cheering for Abiy Ahmed’s “bold” move? No one, internationally.
Domestically, Abiy seems to have cajoled opposition parties in the so-called Ethiopian Political Parties Joint Council into supporting his agreement with Somaliland, but the fact is opposition parties don’t count much because they don’t have any influence or constituency in the country
to speak of. More broadly, opinions and emotions could be divided because securing a sea outlet has been at the back of the vast majority of Ethiopians’ minds for the last 32 years. The issue is not whether Ethiopia deserves a secured access to the sea, but the timing and the way Abiy Ahmed is going about it.
The history of the two Somalia’s is in many ways similar to that of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Over 30 years ago, Ethiopians were furious with TPLF for recognizing Eritrea as an independent state, without which Eritrea could have remained an unrecognized state to this day, like Somaliland. Over time, however, most Ethiopians overcame their ill feelings and accepted Eritrea as a country of its own and today they only want to see a close and mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries (even though, thanks to Abiy Ahmed, as of late it is going the opposite direction). Similarly, it could be the case that Somalia will someday acknowledge the independence of Somaliland and decide to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters north
of their border. Then and only then could one say Abiy’s so-called bold move is a judicious move as well that would advance the interest of Ethiopia while promoting regional cooperation and economic integration.
Finally, the big problem is Abiy Ahmed himself. His spectacular, all rounded failures as a leader aside, he is someone who cannot be trusted, whose words and promises cannot be taken at face value, and whose predilection to whimsical infatuations in all manners of politics, diplomacy and regional relationships are well known. Ethiopia had terrible leaders before Abiy, including Mengistu and Meles Zenawi, but they were known for remaining true to their words, like it or not. When they spoke, people didn’t have to wonder whether they were lying or telling what is in their heart or believed in. In Abiy, we have a leader whose words don’t mean anything to him, a man with no core principles, a man who can change his mind on the fly with little concern for consequences. We cannot be sure, for example, why he signed the MOU with Somaliland, in the first place. For the same reason, we shouldn’t be surprised if he dumps this whole MOU thing and moves on to another shinny misadventure in a matter of a few months.
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