The Horn Of Africa States: A Historic Opportunity For Zeila And Harar – OpEd

The historical port city of Zeila in the breakaway region of Somaliland. Photo Credit: Abdihakimper, Wikipedia Commons

The historical port city of Zeila in the breakaway region of Somaliland. Photo Credit: Abdihakimper, Wikipedia Commons

  By Dr. Suleiman Walhad

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.

Dr. Suleiman Walhad

Dr. Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].

8 thoughts on “The Horn Of Africa States: A Historic Opportunity For Zeila And Harar – OpEd”

  • Himbego Kassa HailemariamNovember 10, 2023 at 10:27 amPermalinka great idea and wonderful recommendations.Reply
  • Getachew G. M.November 10, 2023 at 1:47 pmPermalinkThank you Dr. Suleiman for the insightful idea and objective strategy for the development of a Zeila port to develop trade and industry in the horn of Africa presumably free from military positioning of forces outside the region. Your proposal is worthy of serious consideration and dispassionate follow up. With kind regards! Getachew G.M.Reply
  • Ismail M GorseNovember 10, 2023 at 3:49 pmPermalinkThis is one of the biggest mistake to distort the reality on the ground in Horn of Africa. The author is originally from the old school of Siyad Barre who relegated Somalia to be a failed state. Zeila ‘s port is in Somaliland not Somalia. Any one can check the map. Second , H.E. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did not specifically mentioned ports like that of Zeila and here is the fact that one of the leading magazines cited in its today article entitled Ethiopia: Abiy stirs up region in his quest for a port and quotes: Abiy did not mention Somaliland’s port of Berbera. In 2017, Ethiopia secured a 19% stake in Berbera, which has since been developed into a major shipping terminal by Emirati firm DP World. The road connecting Ethiopia and the territory was upgraded to facilitate trade through the port, but Ethiopia lost its share last year after failing to meet its financial commitments.
    Lastly, the author who is originally from Somaliland does not want to accept the reality of Somaliland that combine the western style of nation and state and the pastoral democracy grounded in the indigenous institution. The world is heading to acknowledge that the rule based system is in its last legs and will precipitate to formation of Bricks and South Group gaining its historical place. The formation of old institutions after World Two such as UN, World Bank and IMF did not have bring justice to the world. A case in point is the killing of 1400 Israelis and 10, 000 Palestinian. We need a new world order that will strike justice, rule of law and freedom for all people on this earth.Reply
    • WaberiNovember 23, 2023 at 12:39 amPermalinkWhat “Somaliland”? Attacking an objective and unbiaed author is a typical liners of secessionist crowd misifno and bulling tactics.. It is nonesnical argument and unless it is a figment of your imagination., the so-called Somsliland doesn’t exist anymore and it never exsisted before in of terms of international legalese or even as a de facto existence. Whatever cause, concoction and little crebility they were trying hard to sell around the world for 30 years have apparently comet to nothing; the clan admin enclave in the north regions of Somalia is in a state shambles as we speak in terms of stability, diplomacy, politico and socio-economic issues. it is in full crises mode, if not in twilight zone for a year now with no end in sight. The best deal they could hope for now is remaining a part and an admintrative region of strong Somali Federal Republic as always has been case since it never had semblance of separate status, let alone mandate to be stand alone entity from the rest of Somalia . Contrary to the baseless and heresy for the captive public consuption , all international agreements and engagement to outside world by the tribal enclave have been going through the official channels of the Federal Somalia in overtly and covertly fashion over 30 years without exception and it will remain so the in the future. Couldnt be better outcome and win-win situation for all somalis and Somalia.Reply
  • H. GEDINovember 11, 2023 at 10:19 amPermalinkSomalia was and still is one nation. there are political ramifications (due to the collapse of government in 1990) instead of regions or councils they chose temporarily a system of governance based on tribalism which will fade soon after ongoing agreements and understanding to setup a united political system under one viable government.It is unacceptable the approach of Mr. Abiy to have a port even by force if agreements fail!He is a war mongering leader who never learn from the devastating wars he took directly against federal governments of Tigree, Amhara and Oromo and indirectly fueling land and risorse grab against DDS in the hands of Afar and Oromo with the help of federal forces (many killed while others forced to flee their territory)No one from the neighboring countries (Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti & Kenya) will open negotiations with this kind of approach. Everyone will distance him and prepare for a war by building a military might to deter any conqueror!If he apologises and comes up with an approachable and interesting ways of successful business negotiations and positive exchange of commodities & investments projects would be the way forwardReply
  • Abdi AhmedNovember 11, 2023 at 12:42 pmPermalinkIt is good to dream and express your personal and emotional feelings in public. Rule-based system requires objective analysis of the prevailing reality. A case in point: Ethiopia does not recognize Somaliland (though I personally wish they did), simply because of rule-based AU-driven constraints. I’m sure you are aware of the fact that DP world’s contract was blessed by Mogadishu.
    So I don’t think you need to revert to insults against Dr Suleiman for expressing his opinion.
    ThanksReply
  • AbdirahmanNovember 11, 2023 at 4:58 pmPermalinkthank you for your crucial analysis, but the main issue is somalis are in slumber and never aware of geopolitical scenario since we are in ethnic conflicts so far. there is no unipolar world as you you’ve mentioned the world is on the way towards multipolar order. great actors are active now like russia and china. we should have to be well cocerned about it .Reply
  • MohammedNovember 13, 2023 at 12:06 pmPermalinkAn American congressman criticized Ethiopian Prime Minister Abby for his political agenda of seeking access to a seaport for Ethiopia, labeling him as a “Boy King.” The Prime Minister of Ethiopia firmly believes that securing its own access to the sea is absolutely essential for the country’s Navy and fishing rights. To achieve this goal, the Prime Minister proposes four possible approaches: diplomatic, legal, economic, or military action. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has faced significant challenges in addressing ethnic tensions and political unrest in the country. It’s important for the government to focus on resolving these internal issues instead of engaging in conflicts elsewhere. The well-being of the Ethiopian people should be the top priority. Somalis should retake the territory from Ethiopia that rightfully belongs to them.Reply

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