On our access to the sea:  Parallels from Bolivia


Recently, I was listening in to the BBC Radio 4 Broadcasting House airing a story about Bolivia’s access to the sea, and I decided to write this piece to share the story and my thoughts.


The Latin American country of Bolivia has over time lost bits and pieces of its territories to its neighbours through successive wars. The last and most significant loss involved a coastline following its war with Chile about 120 years ago. They say, “When Bolivia lost its coast, a little part of its soul went too.” Nonetheless, it appears that Bolivians haven’t given up on the coast; and, humorous as it may sound, the country still keeps a naval force of 5000 men. The new president, Evo Morales seems to have given top priority to the task of getting back to the sea, albeit by diplomatic means. However, judging by the reactions of ordinary Bolivians whom the BBC reporter talked to, they don’t seem to stop at anything to get back their coastline which was gone before any living Bolivian was even born. One said “The feeling we have in our hearts is irrevocable to go back to the sea”. Another added “We are prepared for both war and peace”.  A third spoke with a melancholy tone, then with a giggle as if to dilute what he was about to say, told the reporter that he had this urge to kill Chilenos (Spanish for Chileans) and went on to say “I grew up being told that Chilenos stole our coastline; now I keep telling my two children the same story”. The BBC reporter summed it up by saying. “Nobody in Bolivia is resigned to being landlocked. They just won’t have it. …It seems like a cultural matter. Something has infected the people and nobody seems to be doing anything to dislodge it”.


I was impressed by how long popular sentiments (resentments) could survive, and wondered what it would be like in Ethiopia/ Eritrea 100 years down the road. Will Ethiopia regain its access to the sea? If not, how will future generations feel about it?[1]


The Bolivian story also gives credence to many of us who have always wondered what to make of Woyane that sanctioned the secession of Eritrea with the entire coastline and all two ports, leaving Ethiopia the most populous landlocked country in the world. I was reminded of Shumet Sishagn’s apt characterisation of Woyane’s regime early on as:  “a unique phenomenon in which a ruling elite sets out to rule a country whose existence it doubts and whose history it despises.....The power elite does not even recognise the necessity of maintaining the territorial integrity of the very country it rules.”[2]


If there are any Ethiopians who feel qualms about getting a little nostalgic when they think of a coastline, the Bolivian story should be consoling as it reminds us that it is probably natural for people not to resign to being ‘unfairly’ landlocked – not even after more than a century. (I wouldn’t say ‘illegitimately’ because there does not seem to be much law these days).[3]


The issue of access to the sea is not merely a matter of sentimental value. As Jeffrey Sachs (a prominent development economist who is known to have a highly favourable view of Meles Zenawi) would tell you the economic role of a coastline can never be exaggerated. Lack of access to the sea has generally been singled out as a crucial factor hindering economic development.[4] (Funnily enough, in a recent newspaper article Jeffrey Sachs emphasises the significant economic role of a coastline in one paragraph and followed by praises for Meles Zenawi’s pragmatism in the next).[5] ‘What more anathema to pragmatism could there be than giving up a coastline willingly?’ you might ask. But that is another story.


Now, I am not calling for restoration of the navy in Ethiopia; nor am I advocating a resumption of war with Eritrea to reclaim Assab. Indeed as some would argue, whether the remaining Ethiopia can be kept together is debatable, and reclaiming a border with the Red Sea is just a wishful thinking.


Nonetheless, there is probably no harm in cherishing the hope of getting access to the sea.  We don’t know what time brings about. The best possible scenario would be a reunification with our brothers in Eritrea – not an entirely unrealistic scenario considering our lessons on the distinction between regime and country. Circumstances seemed to have conspired to have made many Eritreans unable to see that the repression they were subjected to was shared by their southern siblings, and that it was essentially lack of democracy that led them to questioning their Ethiopian identity. Consider what Amartya Sen has recently pointed out in his evaluation of what democracy has done for India: “A country in which more than 80% of the electorate happen to be Hindu has chosen a Sikh prime minister, a Muslim president and a Christian leader of the ruling Congress party”.[6] The point is, when ‘public reasoning’ prevails there isn’t much room for a blind ethnic or religious allegiance.


Another plausible scenario would be the coming to power in Ethiopia of a more natural government that would share the basic worries and aspirations of its people and demand its rightful access to the sea. This wouldn’t be very difficult to satisfy when there would be a far-sighted and responsible government on the other side of the Mereb too; because sharing the Red Sea coast with Ethiopia would relieve Eritrea of the feeling of insecurity associated with a mounting resentment harboured by its southern brothers, while maintaining its independence and one port of its own.


Meanwhile, like Bolivians let us keep the memory of our access to the sea alive, if not a navy. In fact we should probably be more optimistic, because unlike Bolivians whose only hope is getting back their coastline that was taken away by Chile; Ethiopians could get lucky and regain not just some access to the sea but actually unite with the rest of the family north of Mereb – Eritreans.


Abay Crailo,


London, UK


e-mail: crailo@onetel.com



Copyright © 2006. Abay Crailo & MediaETHIOPIA.

[1] We cannot take much comfort from the recent scientific finding that there is a dormant volcano which might potentially open an ocean in northern Ethiopia (hence, Ethiopia's sea access will no longer be an issue). That is just a hypothesis and even if it were to materialize, we are talking about a time scale of thousands of years  (see ‘A Continent Splits Apart  by Axel Bojanowski  SPIEGEL, March 15, 2006).

[2] Ethiopian Review, April 1993 p. 43.

[3] Remember what Issais Afeworki said during the July 1991 conference in Addis, in response to Professor Asrat Woldeyes’ plea for keeping the Assab port to Ethiopia. He said something like: “Keep your historical and legal discourse to class rooms. This is a political matter resolved in the frontline.”


[4] See for e.g. Faye, M., Macarthur, J., Sachs, J. and Snow, T. (2004). ‘The challenges facing landlocked developing countries’. Journal of Human Development, 5(1).  It is such a sad thing to realise that poor Ethiopian peasants now have to worry about foreign currency to get the one luxury they have indulged themselves with for centuries: Salt.

[5] The Economist, Oct 28, 2004.

[6] The Economist, The World in 2006, p. 81.