Assab, the lifeline that could feed Ethiopia

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The Independent Online

It was a significant omission. When the United Nations special envoy's tour around the drought-hit regions of Africa began two weeks ago, the itinerary specified a visit to the port of Assab. Then, halfway through, it was dropped without explanation. A political poker game for the highest possible stakes had started.

Assab was the port through which the bulk of international food aid was brought for Ethiopia during the terrible famine of 1984/5, in which a million people are estimated to have died. In those days Assab was in Ethiopia. Today, thanks to the secession of one of the country's former provinces, Eritrea, the port is in an entirely different country.

Unfortunately, because Ethiopia and Eritrea are again at war with one another the port of Assab, on which millions of dollars of international aid was spent in the decade following the famine, now stands idle.

Last week there was no cargo at all being unloaded at its two huge jetties. Its eight grain-bagging machines were not working. Its 18 cranes had nothing to do. Only small fishing boats moved in and out of the jetties' deep-water shelter.

When it became clear in international circles that famine would follow hard on thedrought in the region, Eritrea offered to allow Assab to be used for the import of food aid, even for its enemy neighbour. But Ethiopia rebuffed the offer, referring darkly to 73,000 tonnes of food aid stolen by Eritrea in the past.

Signals from the international community, particularly the two leading food donors, the United States and the European Union, at first indicated that the West might try to force Ethiopia to take its food via Assab. But then last week something changed - to the considerable irritation of the Eritrean government.

The UN envoy, Catherine Bertini, who is head of the World Food Programme, began her mission in Ethiopia. There the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, in a private meeting, put to her a strong case that his country could meet its needs by using the port here in the neighbouring state of Djibouti, supplemented by the quayside at Berbera in Somalia. Immediately afterwards Ms Bertini came to Djibouti to test Ethiopia's claims.

What she concluded was that the port, with some assistance, would indeed be capable of handling the estimated 170,000 tonnes a month in food aid and other shipments which Ethiopia will need. But it will be a close thing.

Currently, the port can handle 110,000 tonnes, with Berbera adding a further 25,000. The shortfall of 35,000 tonnes a month could be made good, logistics experts say, by upgrading Djibouti.

The upgrade would involve knocking down warehouses to give lorries better access to the quay, bringing in an empty bulk carrier to act as an extra floating jetty, improving the roads to the port and bringing in 400 extra trucks.

Ms Bertini, a political operator of considerable skill who was previously a significant player in the US Republican Party, was convinced. When she arrived in Eritrea, she announced, to the dismay of Eritrean leaders, that she no longer wanted to go to Assab.

Her officials began briefing that it would take two months to get Assab operational. There was talk of the sides of the road having been mined, and perhaps the harbour too. And there were no trained stevedores; the old ones had been Ethiopians who had fled when the war began in 1998.

All this was for public consumption. Privately, one of her senior logistics officers told me: "We may not need Assab. But having it would give us much more flexibility. We're skating on very thin ice here."

The gamble Ms Bertini has taken is political rather than technical. She has judged that she needs the co-operation of Ethiopia, with its population of 60 million - of whom 8 million are at risk of starvation - far more than she does that of its tiny neighbour Eritrea, where around a third of its 3.5 million people are threatened by famine.

A visit by her to Assab would have allowed outsiders to raise awkward questions for Ethiopia. Her decision not to be seen there was an attempt to publicly help Mr Meles. In return she has secured from him a private promise that, if Djibouti does prove inadequate, he will reconsider the use of Assab, possibly with the port and a linking land corridor run by the UN rather than the Eritreans.

Ms Bertini may well turn out to have played her cards with fine judgement. But two things could go wrong. First, the international community may not get its act together on early food aid shipments, causing a bottleneck at the port - as happened in 1985 - which Djibouti could not handle, even with the upgrades which port authorities estimate will boost monthly capacity to 200,000 tonnes.

Second, as the revised assessments come in from the famine-prone regions, it may transpire that, with the current rainy season having failed too, the original estimates of people at risk, which were drawn up last November, will increase alarmingly.

Mr Meles remains confident. His own projections are based on what he called "the worst case scenario". If he is right, Ms Bertini's gamble will pay off. If not - and the inevitable protracted wrangle over Assab ensues - it will, as ever, be the poor and the hungry who will lose out.