Feature: “A population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison” – PM Abiy Ahmed

Addis Abeba – In a televised speech addressed to Ethiopian law makers, and in what appears to be his first ever open comment on the issue of the Red sea, PM Abiy Ahmed said access to the port is an existential matter for Ethiopia and that Ethiopians should at least start discussing the red sea.

Displaying a map showing Ethiopia’s location between the Red Sea and the Nile, the PM said, ‘it isn’t right to say ‘this water [the Nile] concerns you [Ethiopia], and this water [the Red Sea] doesn’t, nature doesn’t say that’.

The Red Sea and the Nile will determine Ethiopia. They are interlinked with Ethiopia and will be the fundamentals that will either bring in Ethiopia’s development or bring about its demise,” he noted.

In a 45 minute long speech broadcasted on state owned and state affiliated channels, the PM said if the Nile is an existential issue for the Egyptians and the Sudanese while its originated in Ethiopia and discussing it openly isn’t a taboo, discussing the red sea shouldn’t be a taboo for Ethiopians. “The thing that saddens me the most and pains me, is that discussing the Red Sea agenda even at the level of parliamentarians is considered a taboo.”

“Why don’t we discuss it? Is it useful or useless? If it comes [to it] what’s the consequence? Why are we afraid of discussing it? Just like we are negotiating about the Nile, we can negotiate about it; it has no problem unless negotiation is equivalent to not using it”, the premier enthusiastically conveyed. This comes following recent rumors that the PM said Ethiopia will secure direct access to a port, either peacefully or, if necessary, by force.

He explained that the joint utilization of the two crucial waters could bring peace and unity as well as comprehensive prosperity to the Horn of Africa nations. “For example: if Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia were one country – forget federalism or federation -if they were one country in whatever way, do you think Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, will beg? It would mean another Russia, another China, another America; a very big country,” he said, adding that in order for the whole region to be at peace and ensure prosperity “the first thing that should be looked upon is the Red Sea. The issue of the Red Sea needs a thorough conversation”.

He explained that Ethiopia’s rights and claims of access to the port are rooted in geographical, historical, ethnic, or economic reasons, including the fact that Ethiopia’s legitimate need for adequate access to sea was incorporated as an agreement in the UN charter.

He noted that “Ethiopia is an island surrounded by water, but [it is] a country that is thirsty. The whole surrounding of our country is water, but we are thirsty. Why? While there is plenty of rain, underground water, …the Indian Ocean down there and Red Sea up there…why is water our problem while we are surrounded by water?, he asked.

“If you say ‘because we are 120 million, because we have the power? Because [we have] the army, [we have] the air force? By beating and killing people’ …if you say these, that is not what we should do.

“You[Ethiopia] were 50 million then; by 2030 you will be 150 million. A population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison” he underscored. “If we don’t talk about the Red Sea issues, we will as much not talk about wheat, green legacy, tax collection…[if we have accomplished all these] and lose it due to [not discussing] Red Sea, it’s meaningless. So let’s discuss it. If we decided It is not the time or it’s not useful, we will drop it. But why are we scared of discussing it is the thing, because no one is scared of us when it comes to the issue of the Nile. No one.”

Furthermore, he said that all neighboring countries get water from Ethiopia including Djibouti through a pipeline. “Eritrea has Tekeze [river]; Sudan has Tekeze and the Nile; South Sudan has Baro; Kenya has Omo; Somalia has Wabe Shebelle and Genalle Dawa. Who is the [neighboring country] that we didn’t give? On top of that it is potable, fresh water. We are not even receivers. There is no single country that provides Ethiopia with a liter of fresh water; they are all takers. They deserve it. We will keep giving them more. But to say ‘we will share yours but you don’t ask ours’ is not correct. If we want to live together, if we think of peace, we both have to live by maintaining the equilibrium,” PM Abiy asserted.

He warned that lack of fairness in utilization of resources among these countries “is not just, [and] if it is not just, it’s a matter of time that it will lead to conflict”. He however, ruled out the use of force to gain access to the port. “If you say ‘because we are 120 million, because we have the power? Because [we have] the army, [we have] the air force? By beating and killing people’ …if you say these, that is not what we should do. It should not be by killing and war,” he said, adding that a solution could be reached through discussion.

The PM said that, in the world, there are 44 landlocked countries, of these 44 countries, there is none that is close to Ethiopia in population size. “There is no country with 120 million people and it is landlocked. No country in the world.” With Ethiopia’s population projected to be 150 million by 2030, he underscored that discussing the red sea issue is “not a matter of luxury; it is a matter of Ethiopia’s very existence”.

“If we can neither lease, nor invest…as you know, China has invested in Djibouti, the UAE has invested in Berbera, Türkiye is now investing in Mogadishu. If Turkiye comes, the UAE comes, what is wrong if we … invest to live together,” said the PM

“We can’t say ‘let’s not fight today, let our kids fight tomorrow.’ Let’s talk so [our kids] don’t fight.”

He laid bare possibilities of what Ethiopia can offer in return for the access to the port which includes shares of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopian Airlines, Ethio-telecom. “The GERD is the number one dam in Africa. It is being completed. Let us invest in Assab, in Zeila or Adulis (we don’t have much problem in the choice of the place), you take 30%, 20% of the share from the GERD; we are not saying give us alone, we are saying take from us also. If you don’t want to take GERD, Ethiopian Airlines is number one in Africa; it is a huge airline. Take 20, 30% and for us, give us a port. If you say you don’t want Airlines, Ethio Telecom which is a big telecom in Africa with 70+ million subscribers; take a share, the world is buying it; let’s do that,” the premier conveyed. “But it’s impossible to be [prohibitive]. If we are discussing the issues of GERD, and Tekeze and refuse to discuss the issues of the Red Sea, it is not possible. Just like the fresh water concerns you, it concerns us too.”

He went on explaining historical, demographic and economic reasons why access to the port and the red sea is significant to Ethiopia. He said according to a study by the UN, access to sea accounts for up to 25-30% of a given country’s GDP. “If for example Ethiopia’s GDP is 100 billion, it is forfeiting 20-30 billion of it. The minute it gains access to the port, that amount will be added [to its GDP]. This is a study by the UN. If Ethiopia is a 100 billion [GDP] and it invests 30 billion on the Red Sea to get access it is profitable.”

He said the leaders of Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia should discuss not only about current peace but also about sustainable peace. “We can’t say ‘let’s not fight today, let our kids fight tomorrow.’ Let’s talk so [our kids] don’t fight. Is it [through] an investment? Is it [through] a share? Is it [through] lease?… The choice can be seen. But it is wrong to say ‘we will not discuss it’, he conveyed.

“Whichever way of an agreement, that’s what we need . Why? Our number is increasing, with can’t no longer carry it with the current trend; the longer it takes things that could be out of control will come. If we make it a taboo already and we don’t discuss and dialogue about it, it is dangerous. At the very least the current main political elite need to discuss it; it is possible to leave the action for now, let’s discuss it and let our children continue with it. But it’s not an ordinary thing, we can be silent about it. It is a serious issue so let’s talk about it. Otherwise it will endanger Ethiopia’s existence.” He added that lack of access to port, despite having the potential to be an African superpower, “will prevent Ethiopia from assuming its place in Africa, because it is landlocked”.

He said that which port isn’t an urgent matter for Ethiopia and an informed choice can be made once the discussion starts. “Zeila in Somaliland [historical context] during the Ifat kingdom and proximity; the other option in Djibouti which is still serving us; Adulis, located in coastal Eritrea – it is possible to look at it as an option. It is possible to look at Massawa, and Assab as an option. We don’t have a stand that it should necessarily be Massawa or Assab; we just need the breathing gate…” he asserted.

He reiterated that peaceful means should be sought. “Because we have a legitimate question, [because] we are 100 million, have an army… we should not become one that jumps and chokes a country of others; this is not correct. We don’t have that interest. Is this thing possible peacefully? Yes it is possible; because everyone who wants joint benefit, joint prosperity, joint development, joint peace will do it.”

He went on to suggest Federation or Confederation with Eritrea as an example. “If you take Eritrea and Ethiopia, just like this tree is different in color, their flags and names are different. But inside it is interlocked. The confederation law that led us to conflict then can be looked into now. The emotion then and today is not the same, but we can rectify that with the existing emotions. As you know the people who speak [Tigrigna], Afar is one people; our food is Injera with wot (sauce), our music…everything is one and the same, except for the politics. It can be possible to simply answer it,” he said. “But what if they say ‘no, it can never be done’, they can, it is their right. It can not be forced.”

He also proposed a land swap which he referred to as an international exercise and a global experience. “If there is a problem of time, we can talk, but as a concept, who says this is wrong, it is not correct.”

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