Eritrea and Ethiopia promote Assab Port as trade hub

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People of both countries largely recognize Eritrea-Ethiopia friendship and cooperation as constructive. Breaking this basic understanding will not be easy for potential saboteurs.

In 2018 Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced initial preparations were underway to resume cooperation on the Assab Port in Eritrea. During a press conference, the Ministry’s spokesperson, Meles Alem, stated that both countries were engaged in preliminary economic activities and laying foundations to make the port of Assab a viable trade hub.

This decision to restart operations at the Assab Port followed the guidance of the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, as outlined in their momentous peace agreement. As a result, enhancing diplomatic and economic ties between the two nations, including the resumption of transportation, trade, telecommunications, and port services, will take priority.

By 2019 Ethiopia had begun repair work on the road to the port, and Eritrea was undertaking similar efforts. To ensure the successful implementation of these plans, a task force composed of representatives from the Ministry of Transport, Ethiopian Maritime Affairs Authority, and Ethiopian Shipping and Logistics Services Enterprise was established.

Despite the unrelenting disinformation, both countries are actively working to foster friendship and cooperation, particularly in border areas. Diplomatic relations remain strong, with the Eritrean Embassy reopening in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia has also reopened its embassy in Asmara. Moreover, air travel between the two countries has increased. Ethiopian Airlines has been flying two daily flights from Addis Ababa to Asmara for the past ten months. While recent conflict has forced road closures in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, other transport links remain open.

Nonetheless, the growing relationship and spirit of cooperation between Addis Ababa and Asmara did not sit well with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This political organization long feared its position would diminish if Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement became a reality. This is partly the motivation for the TPLF to ignite the Tigray conflict by launching a treasonous surprise attack on Ethiopia’s northern command on November 4, 2020. Among their war aims, leaders of the TPLF sought to disrupt Ethio-Eritrea engagements, a plan that clearly backfired in retrospect.

Aware of its impending political and military defeat, the TPLF, with support from its external backers, became evermore keen on a psychological and information operations targeting Eritrea and Ethiopia. It sought to popularize the narrative that “Eritrea and forces from the Amhara region carried out genocidal war in Tigray, with the permission of Ethiopia’s government”. Beginning in November 2020, The TPLF tried very hard to sell this narrative to the international community. TPLF’s campaign of vilification aimed to paint both Ethiopia and Eritrea as brutal pariah states needing international interventions. It also aimed to stymie the relationship between the two countries, a move the garners support in some Western circles.

As a result of the war started by TPLF, progress toward linking the Eritrean port of Assab to markets in Ethiopia was temporarily paused. This is of course an outcome welcomed by insurgent leaders in the Tigray region, which ironically would benefit from greater access to international trade via Assab.

Smear campaigns orchestrated by the TPLF, and its external backers do not seem to have deterred the policy orientation of Ethiopia and Eritrea towards greater convergence. Unsubstantiated claims of genocide and of “systematic rape as a weapon of war” have not been corroborated by facts on the ground and these narratives have recently lost traction, despite attempts to resurrect them

Nevertheless, ardent supporters of the TPLF, particularly in the diaspora, continue to parrot the “genocide” narrative, even after the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) agreement was signed in Pretoria, South Africa, on November 3, 2022.

None of this should be taken to mean the war was some kind of video game. The conflict has been brutal, with hundreds of thousands having died in direct combat and nearly half a million as “collateral damage”. These are mostly civilians in Ethiopia’s Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions. In addition, millions were uprooted from their homes.

Eight months into the Pretoria agreement, Ethiopia is still reeling from post-war tensions, exacerbated by the country’s hyper-ethnic identity-based politics. The economic aftermath of the conflict and global inflation is now being felt. Implementation of the CoH was complicated by instability arising from the aftershock of the war. Despite this, the peace agreement still holds, albeit uneasily.

The sustenance of the CoH benefits both Eritrea and Ethiopia. Its success lays the foundations for a greater peace and stability in the region. Finishing what the two countries started in 2018 to modernize and link the Assab port to Ethiopia’s markets. Opening and improving infrastructure linking the northern Tigray, Afar, and Amhara regions to Eritrea would benefit all sides. However, it remains to be seen if the Interim Transitional Administration (ITA) in Mekelle is willing to engage positively.

Eritrea and Ethiopia have taken account of their long historical experience in their renewed relationship and have decided to engage, resolving regional issues through consultation and cooperation rather than conflict. The historical lesson for both countries is to avoid being manipulated and used as proxies by external powers. They both acknowledge the closure of borders, and the tense no-war no-peace predicament of the past two decades has been harmful to the entire region.

In September 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia alongside President Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea toured the port facilities of Assab and Massawa.

Cooperation in the security sphere has allowed both countries to strengthen trust further. This security feature of the relationship was an inevitable outcome of TPLF’s surprise attack on Ethiopian army bases. It is a segment of the rapport that draws the most attention and, at times, draws irritation from those who seek to turn neighbors into enemies once again.

Historically populist leaders in Ethiopia have rallied support using irredentist rhetoric regarding Eritrea’s Red Sea ports. This strategy has little political traction today however, particularly considering the fact Eritrea had in the past offered free access to the port of Assab, before the border war that ensued in 1998. It was after that divergence see access was cut off, forcing Ethiopia to seek expensive port services in Djibouti.

Alternative sea access points via Eritrea would help boost Ethiopia’s exports and increase its earnings. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allows land-locked states to access and transit through the sea freely, but transit states still have the right to protect their own interests. Eritrea has allowed Ethiopia to use its port duty-free since gaining independence in 1991, with the Assab port mainly handling Ethiopia’s imports and exports before 1997. This goodwill displayed by Eritrea remains intact today.

Apart from having access to the sea, strategic cooperation between Eritrea and Ethiopia would benefit both countries. For instance, Ethiopia’s Afar region contains vast potash deposits. Previous endeavors to extract potash on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border in the Afar region was limited by bad relations between the two countries. Ethiopia can now use the export processing infrastructure in Eritrea to export potash from Ethiopia to the world, creating a lucrative and sustained income stream for decades to come. The possibility for joint mining and processing efforts in the border regions can also attract more international investment.

Regional peace and economic integration would facilitate international investment, particularly from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, as U.S/China relations continue to sour, this might invite unwanted attention to the region. Washington might view continued instability in Ethiopia as an opportunity to hinder China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as well thwarting a potential Russian involvement in the Red Sea. This is a repeat of the zero-sum game scenario that sowed instability in the Horn of Africa during the last Cold War.

Taking advantage of these obvious geopolitical rifts at play, disinformation campaigners have targeted the public in Ethiopia and to a lesser extent Eritrea, to create greater divide between the two. These include rumors about deteriorating relations and potential conflict. Despite these assertions, people of the region largely recognize Eritrea-Ethiopia friendship and cooperation as constructive. Breaking this basic understanding will not be easy for potential saboteurs.

Since the 2018 peace agreement, the two countries have been actively working to improve their diplomatic and economic relations, working to make the port of Assab in Eritrea a viable trade hub. Repair work on transport infrastructure to the port began that year, and a task force has been established to review progress. More importantly, efforts to disrupt this cooperative framework has not deterred policy orientation towards convergence. The Tigray conflict has delayed progress, but the peace agreement still stands, and the Coh seems to be holding.

Both countries have taken note of the long duration of their history and recognize the importance of resolving regional issues through consultation and cooperation, rather than a zero-sum game approach. Access to the ports of Assab and Massawa would greatly benefit growing markets, boosting exports, and increasing earnings. A strategic cooperative framework between Eritrea and Ethiopia is a win for the people of both countries. Regional integration in the Horn of Africa needs more convergence between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Information operations to deter greater cooperation between the two countries is not unprecedented and will have little fertile ground.

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