Myths of Expediency

– The Ethiopian Shipping & Logistics Services Enterprise (ESLSE) has increased its freight carrying capacity at least threefold –

By  Girma Feyisa

One way of improving the foreign exchange earnings of Ethiopia is believed to be expediency. To this end, the government is leaving no stones unturned in its attempts to upgrade its transportation capacity, including shipping.

A recent report reveals that the Ethiopian Shipping & Logistic Services Enterprise (ESLSE) has acquired eleven new vessels, increasing its freight carrying capacity at least threefold. In what seemed to be an augmentation to this ocean breaking measure, the surface transport sector has issued a new directive to penalise heavy duty freight transporters if they fail to make their shuttle period within a given period of time. This is based on the assumption that transporters may deliberately drag their wheels in the Addis-Djibouti corridor.

At a time when the country depends very much on the export of agricultural products for its foreign exchange earnings, an expedient mobilisation of all its exportable products becomes of paramount importance. That course of action brings back memories I had during inspection trips I made to the two ports, Assab and Massawa,  before the political course of the country was changed.

The port, as a whole, was predominantly under the Maritime Transport Authority (MTA). The loading and unloading, as well as the stevedoring activity under the Port’s Administration, deployed thousands of workers who were also working in collaboration with the shipping lines and maritime transit companies. The freight transporters were being streamlined to load freight in turn. Businesses outside the ports were booming.

Things have changed, since I presume that the Port Administration activity is no longer under the jurisdiction of the MTA. Once Ethiopian vessels are permitted to anchor at the port, all the loading and unloading, or stevedoring activity, is carried out by the Djiboutian authorities or the company that might have been given the contract to manage the transiting activity. Our freight transporters cannot have any access to the Port where the goods are stored, unless they are invited to.

The timing element is important here. The goods and commodities can only be loaded after clearance of customs duties are finished and the necessary accounts are settled. The recording of shuttling time commences at the time when the freight trucks start their journey to Addis Abeba or any other place.

It goes without saying that the speed with which import and export activities are carried out very much depends on the transiting operation that takes place in the port itself. The delay is bound to have its impacts on the costing of goods and commodities involved.

Unlike in previous times, Ethiopian importers and exporters have to pay import/export taxes to the Djiboutian Maritime Authority, or the company that it delegates, unless a special agreement is concluded to exclude such taxes. Hence the sharp commodity price index increases over the last 20 or so years. When the transport authority decides to penalise trucks for the delay in their shuttle frequency, it could be an unjust retribution levelled on those parties unless the facts are scrutinised cautiously and free from any sort of corruption.

Another measure taken recently by the surface transport sector is the grading of trucks according to their load capacity. This decision will automatically stratify associations, based on their capacity and subsequent ability to be time efficient.

In effect, this will amount to the trucks being polarised into more privileged and the less privileged groups. This trend is expected to extend from the import/export corridors to other parts of the country. This will be particularly true after the completion of the railway line, which may well take the lion’s share of the import/export traffic, in due course.

The other day, I met Kidane G.Tensai, 38, an Eritrean driver who lives in Brussels, and asked him about the possibility of engaging the two countries in a peace process. Alleging the Assab case as a desire to simply grab land is just a hostility of some short-sighted perpetuators via social media, he said. There is nothing to prove that malicious allegation, he argues.

There seems to be a lot of hypocrisy in this line of thought. These people do not realise that Eritrean leaders are using the leverage of government power to self-impose economic sanctions when they see that the once prospering port is now being turned into ruins, with its oil refinery rotting and its buildings rusting (so much that these resources have become mere scarecrows).

There is, however, a glimmer of hope among the members of the Ethio-Eritrean Youth Association established in the Diaspora. They discuss the future of the two countries in the spirit of socio-economic integration without having to intrude into their respective sovereignty.

Here, we are talking about a mutual interest to bring employment and economic growth for the people of the two countries, and a breathing outlet, not grabbing land. The Ethiopian government, through its prime minister, on its part, has expressed time and again its readiness to restart the peace process. But one cannot clap with only one hand, as the saying goes.

The country is on good terms with its other neighbours. The hydroelectric power export to Djibouti can be repeated in Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and even Eritrea, if the political obstructions could be resolved through mature and tangible discussions.

Going back to the subject of penalising the truck drivers for being unable to make it on time, there is another issue that has to be looked into.

What will happen if a truck faces a mechanical fault on the highway, given the poor situation of telecommunications?

At any rate, all the stakeholders involved in the transportation and transiting services should sit together and try to find a middle ground for agreement.

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