A Jimma University study on Industrial Parks in Ethiopia in 2019 recommended that the Government of Ethiopia should work “day and night” on the development of ports with neighbouring countries. The study reasoned that this would help reduce costs of both imports of materials and exports to foreign markets for goods produced in the industrial parks of Ethiopia and even outside the Industrial Parks.
The study was about assessing the performance of Industrial Parks (IPS) in Ethiopia at the time. Other than the unhealthy security situation of the region and Ethiopia in particular, nothing would seem to have changed since then, as Ethiopia still needs to have access to more ports than it currently uses. Unfortunately for Ethiopia, it is not endowed with its own ports but has to negotiate with neighbouring countries to have access to the seas of the region. It is fortunate that at present it does not have any major conflicts with any of the neighboring countries that cannot be handled, unless Ethiopia itself instigates such a conflict and Ethiopia knows that there is no need for such a conflict or conflicts. It has already a lot of worries, mostly internal civil strives, in its own hands.
Ethiopia is a big country with an area of about 1.1 million square kilometers and a population of about 128 million people as of July 2023 according to Worldometers.info. It enjoys a fast-growing economy, but it is landlocked and has no direct access to a sea and hence ports. Recently Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, H.E. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed lamented about the lack of such direct access to a sea and in particular access to the Red Sea. He specifically mentioned ports like that of Zeila, which is the reason for this article.
Zeila is, indeed, an ancient port, in Somalia, which fell into disuse for over a century, overlooked through an accommodation between the colonial powers of the time (the British and the French), where the British opted for the port of Berbera in Somaliland and the French built the new and vibrant port of Djibouti in Djibouti, and later through the negligence of the consecutive governments of Somalia including the present one.
The Port of Zeila, if built again, would be important as it lies on the vital route of the Suez Canal-Indian Ocean waterway and would be a useful addition for ease of both international maritime trade and travel. It would only complement the existing infrastructures and would not directly disable other ports and infrastructures.
The very idea of rebuilding a port in Zeila revives a reconstitution of the ancient trade corridor between Zeila and Harar and hence exploitation of the natural wealth of both Ethiopia and Somalia, which include among others a substantial mineral base such as iron ore, copper, gold, chrome, oil and gas and agricultural products such as coffee and tea and livestock and fish, which the two countries can share with the rest of the world. A re-creation of the link between Zeila and Harar would be an enabler for economic development, integration and movement of people and capital.
Zeila and Harar were always connected for Millenia before the arrival of the Europeans in the Horn of Africa during the mid years of the nineteenth century. The two cities were connected not only for commercial reasons and trade but also for religious reasons. The two cities belonged to the same country before or after the arrival of the religions of Christianity and Islam in the region and they grew up together, until they were separated towards the end of the nineteenth century. Zeila was decommissioned completely and Harar lost its sunshine. Today Zeila belongs to Somalia while Harar belongs to Ethiopia, and they remain disconnected for over a century.
Building a port in Zeila and reviving a Zeila-Harar corridor will ease away Ethiopia’s almost total dependence on the port of Djibouti and minimal usage of the port of Berbera. Both Ethiopia and Somalia need ports that are vital for the two nations and a Zeila port can only add value to the existing port infrastructures. It would be the closest port to service the under-developed East and Southeast of Ethiopia as well as the Awdal region of Somalia. It will revive the ancient corridor and recreate the natural link between the two countries. It will create a transport and logistics hub of the Horn of Africa that would eventually link it to South Sudan and East Africa. This would facilitate trade and promote regional economic integration and interconnectivity between African countries.
Revitalizing the Zeila-Harar corridor would bring the East of Oromia and Harar access to the sea, once again, and would involve not only the port but also road and rail connections. It would relaunch a new business environment that would be useful for the Somali, Oromia and Harar States of Ethiopia, and the Awdal and Somaliland states of Somalia. It would bring in and improve efficiencies, thus avoiding monopolistic behavior traditionally associated with single or few sources and/or service units.
The cities of Zeila and Harar would wake up from the long slumber and would give rise to the development, at least, on incremental basis, new road and rail links, airports, resort cities and new tourism opportunities, oil and gas pipelines, oil refineries and natural gas liquefaction facilities, and indeed, a hoteling industry that would need to be created to cater for the resultant business development and tourism.
Natural obstacles would no doubt be encountered in the process. Such challenges would include political, investments, social and governmental hurdles, and obstructions and competition from other ports. Cooperation among nations, and indeed, within nations is of vital importance for peace and development and hence prosperity. Zero-sum thinking present dangers to peace and stability and accordingly the recent pronouncement of Ethiopia on obtaining a direct access to a sea and the potential fear of some of the neighboring ports of losing to a new port infrastructure seem to be misplaced and ill-thought of.
The Horn of Africa is vast place and enjoys a coastal belt of some 4,700 km which can be converted to port infrastructures catering for the world, where some ports would be dedicated to differing activities if there was a general regional plan and coordination among the countries of the region. At present there are no such regional thought processes, and it is this which adds to the baseless fears of some, whether this is a country or a port, “peu import” as the French would say.
A Zeila-Harar Corridor would be of vital interest to both countries of Ethiopia and Somalia and would assist them seek investments and financings from beyond the region and particularly from those who may be interested in the abundant natural wealth of the region and beyond. In the future, the corridor may be expanded to involve other sub-projects such as extension of the road and rail lines further into the interior of Ethiopia and even to South Sudan and link it to the Lammu – South Sudan Corridor between Kenya and South Sudan.
Potential benefits from such a corridor may include building up of a sustainable blue economy involving not only fishing but also tourism, coastal resorts and buildup of new towns and urban centers. It may also assist development of the oil and gas industry of the region, which are reported to be vast but remain unexploited.
The recent pronouncements of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia have flipped the page to a new historical perspective of the region and its seas. The Zeila-Harar connection, may indeed, become a beneficiary of those pronouncements. It is a historic opportunity for both Zeila and Harar. A cooperation of the SEED countries of the region would be necessary and vital for the development of the long coastal belt, which to date remains bare dotted by only a few old ports. Being on a major geostrategic location should have propelled the region forward instead of just waiting for opportunities from others from beyond the region. It is high time the region embarked on pushing its economic, industrial and service frontiers.