Assab Port: With or Without Ethiopia

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By Madote,

There is this lingering misconception among Ethiopians and a few regional analysts that Eritrea was financially gaining from Ethiopia when it used the port of Assab between 1991-1997. They also believe the port’s economic viability hinges on whether Ethiopia uses it at a future date.

These narratives are even more prevalent among the so-called opposition. For example,, an Ethiopian-backed extremist website, said:

“For Asseb to make any significance as a source of revenue for Eritrea, it has to sell its services to its neighborhood customers. Djibouti doesn’t need that service, Sudan doesn’t. Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and anyone and his stepfather doesn’t need that service. Ethiopia does and it is not buying that service.”

Similarly, In 2000, Meles Zenawi, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister, said:

“So if we use the Port of Assab, the benefit is not only for us, but for Eritrea, too. On the other hand, if we decide against using Assab, then the fate of Assab would remain to be a mere source of drinking water for camels. I made this clear to the diplomats. No more, no less. If we do not use the port of Assab, then the Eritrean government won’t get a single cent from Assab.”

Both these quotes suggest Eritrea needs Ethiopia to use its ports as a source of revenue or else, as Meles puts it, it will be a mere source of drinking water for camels. Ignoring the fact that animals can not drink sea water, Meles’ point is simple: without Ethiopia, Assab port will be nothing. But is this claim accurate?

Not quite.

When we compare the year Ethiopia stopped using Eritrea’s port (1998) with the year it used it (1997), we only see a 48% decline in the number of vessels docking in the port of Assab, which isn’t bad when you take into consideration Eritrea’s small population, and the fact that Assab is not the country’s main port.

As a result of the conflict, activity at Assab port declined markedly: some 322 vessels docked at the port in 1998, compared with 628 in the previous year. [1]

Another important fact that is conveniently left out by Meles and his ilk is when Ethiopia did use the port of Assab between 1991-1997, they were paying Eritrea nothing from a profit standpoint, let alone a ‘single cent’. As the IMF quote below shows, Ethiopia was using the port of Assab for free.

“As stipulated under an intergovernmental transit and port services agreement as well as a customs arrangement (amended annually), the port of Assab is a FREE port for Ethiopia, with its own Ethiopian customs branch office, and goods shipped to or from Ethiopia remain exempt from the Eritrean customs duties and related charges.”

Now, for those who continue to insist Eritrea needs Ethiopia to use its Assab port, on what grounds are they basing this off of? It certainly can not be based from an economical standpoint since Eritrea was not financially gaining from Ethiopia when they did use the port.

The truth is, whether Ethiopia uses Assab port or not has little to no bearing on Eritrea’s overall economy. Providing a port free of charge isn’t an indication a country is seeking to generate revenue from it; it’s a move a nation makes to show empathy for its landlocked neighbor.

Since Ethiopia stubbornly stopped using Eritrea’s port, it has payed dearly. According to Teferi Asfaw, deputy secretary-general of the Addis Ababa Chambers of Commerce and Sectoral Association, Ethiopia pays Djibouti a total of US$722.5 million per annum and additional $22.6 million in port tariffs.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Eritrea is more than willing to offer its port free of charge if Ethiopia vacates from sovereign Eritrean territories. For Eritrea, the port of Assab’s economic potential was never tied to a neighboring country using its services for profit. The leadership in Asmara understands certain things like good neighborly relations are more important than financially gaining from a country’s misfortune.

In conclusion, it’s not Eritrea that needs Ethiopia to use its ports for free; it’s Ethiopia that needs Eritrea to generously offer those free services. The notion that Ethiopia is hurting Eritrea economically because it irrationally decided to stop using their free port to pay Djibouti nearly US$750 million per annum is absurd. Even today, with all that has gone on, Eritrea is still ready to offer its port without charge if Ethiopia decides to respect international law and end its occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories.