The severe Ethiopian famine that is just over the horizon will require the use of Eritrean ports to handle the massive arrival of food relief from the international community. The sheer volume of food for 40 million people cannot be processed solely by the port of Djibouti and the railway from Djibouti to Addis Abeba.
It is important that Ethiopia and Eritrea start making arrangements immediately for the opening of the Eritrean ports of Asab and Masawa so as to receive the ships carrying the famine relief. These ports have easy access to northern Ethiopia where most of the need exists.
While they are making arrangements, I recommend that the two governments discuss how to make Ethiopian access to these two ports permanent. At the same time, cross-border trade should be resumed.
This would be a win-win result for both countries.
In late March 2000, Assistant Administrator of USAID, Hugh Parmer, formally asked President Isaias Afwerki whether Eritrea would allow the delivery of international humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia through the port of Assab in view of the grave famine situation looming over the drought-stricken northern and southern parts ofEthiopia and relative geographic proximity of the port.
The President responded positively based strictly on humanitarian ground. At that time, the massive drought in Ethiopia has starved as many as 8.1 million Ethiopians and in need of urgent assistance. However, Ethiopia rejected the U.S. proposal as ” bizarre” and “absurd.” A statement from the Ethiopian foreign ministry states “it would be absurd to entertain such an idea.”
Exactly 16 years later, another [informal] proposal brought in but this time from the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador Herman Cohen. He proposed on using the port of Assab to handle the massive arrival of international food aid as Ethiopia, once again, is facing its worst drought in 50 years and put the lives of up to 40 million people at risk of starvation.
Will Ethiopia consider such strictly humanitarian gesture as “acts of humiliation”, if a formal proposal to brought in humanitarian food aid through the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa happen to come from the international community, for the second time?
As to discussions to make the two Eritrean ports accessible to Ethiopia being conditional, there is no such thing called “Permanent” access since the issue will be of strictly business.
Ambassador Herman Cohen was the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989-1993 and served in the U.S. Foreign Service for 38 years.