Eritrean Priority: Border Demarcation
By: Berhane Asgedom
December 7, 2005

It was during the course of first week of this month. In the Internet news that I was reading one sentence caught my attention. The sentence reads ” PM Meles wants to dialogue with Eritrea about port and other trade relationships”. The very sentence was also broadcast in the VOA Amharic service during that week. It is, therefore, this sentence that impelled me to write this article.

It is a common knowledge that Ethiopia and Eritrea had enjoyed good economic cooperation relationship for about 7 years (1991-1997). Undoubtedly, The cooperation agreements concluded between the two countries were based on the principle of mutual benefits and ensured the national interests of the two countries.

However, to the surprise of every Eritrean, right after the outbreak of hostilities, TPLF started to echo claim reminiscent of the claims made by Emperor Haile Selassie and his cohorts at the United Nations in the late 1940s: that an independent Eritrea cannot be economically feasible. TPLF’s novice economic analysts, I dare to call them that, and senior cadres started lecturing to the Ethiopia people that the Eritrean economy is an appendage to the Ethiopian economy, Eritrea cannot survive independent of the Ethiopian economy so on and so forth. On top this, these economic analysts had been making critical comments about the quality of port services and port dues and fees. Unabashedly they claim that Ethiopia's payment in port dues and fees alone contributed about 60% to the Eritrea's revenue. Furthermore, they asserted that huge benefits had been accruing to Eritrea at the expense of Ethiopia and went on to comment that Eritrea had a sinister design to bleed Ethiopia’s economy. The truth of the matter is, however, that Eritrea never had and will never have any plan to develop its economy at the expense of Ethiopia or, for that matter, any other country, as the TPLF and some of the remnants of the chauvinist elements have been claiming. As far as I know Eritrea wanted/wants to have economic relationship and cooperation with Ethiopia, IGAD member states, and other countries outside the region on the basis of, its guiding principle: genuine partnership.

On the basis of TPLF’s economic experts, miscalculation and misconception that is “Eritrea’s economy would collapse in a matter of days if Ethiopia ceased its economic ties with Eritrea”, Ethiopia decided to boycott the Eritrean ports immediately after the outbreak of hostilities. It is to be recalled that in the circular of May 12, 1998, the management of Maritime and Transit Service of Ethiopia (MTSE) instructed all ship owners to divert all Ethiopia bound cargo to Djibouti. This circular it stated that "it has been decided that with immediate effect all import cargo destined for Ethiopia via Assab and Massawa ports must be diverted and discharged at Djibouti port." In a similar circular of 16 May 1998, Ethiopian Shipping Lines Management instructed all its vessels to "call only Djibouti." Inter alia, the circular stated "Due to force majeure ESL vessels will not be calling at Assab and Massawa until further instruction to the contrary." Many other hostile measures that damaged the economic relationship that then existed could be produced but for the purpose of showing that it was Ethiopia that boycotted the Eritrean ports, the above two examples are enough. To the best of my recollection, Eritrea had never ever closed its port to Ethiopia. Even during 1999 when the two countries were in a state of war, Eritrea responded positively, on humanitarian grounds, to the request from the World Food Program to transport food aid via Massawa and Aseb ports to Ethiopia to help drought victims. However, Ethiopia rejected the offer saying that “it has been able to get better services at lower cost in other neighboring ports”. As far as trade is concerned it was also Ethiopia that severed the trade relation between the two countries. By demanding the transaction of cross border trade to be in hard currency, which is indeed impractical in the case of this two countries, for any item valued over 2000 Birr, Ethiopia brought into a complete halt the trade activities that was flourishing between the two nations. At this juncture, therefore, what is bizarre about PM Meles is that he wants to talk, about port and trade relation with Eritrea.

What Ethiopia and the rest of the world should know is that, Eritrea believes in this increasingly interdependent world closer cooperation among countries, especially between neighboring countries is indispensable. Eritrea’s prominent role in the revitalization of IGAD emanates from this belief. On top of this, the two countries (Eritrea and Ethiopia) are geographically condemned to live together; more importantly, however, historically and culturally Eritrea and Ethiopia have many things in common. For these reasons therefore, it won’t be a problem for the two countries to embark on a dialogue about port and trade relation as long as TPLF honors its treaty obligation on border issue is concerned. Therefore, the crux of the matter is: TPLF should recognize that the only way out from the current predicament it is in is to come to its senses and accept the EBBC ruling as is and allow the demarcation of the border according to the EEBC decision with out further delay. I presume, this could serve as the first confidence building measure and would, undoubtedly, pave the way for further cooperation (port and trade relationship). Keeping hostage the inevitable demarcation process, by demanding first, dialogue, would not serve the interest of the Ethiopia people. And it should be noted that to think about dialogue, trade, port or whatever before border demarcation, is tantamount to “putting the cart before the horse.”