Ethiopia’s navy is reborn – in Djibouti

The revival of Ethiopian Navy, the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea, Regional power dynamics

Special for Africa ExPress
Makeda Saba
24 January 2020

The modern Ethiopian Navy was established by Emperor Haile Selassie, with the assistance of the United Kingdon, in 1955 and had its Naval Headquarters in Massawa with presence in: Assab; Dhalak Islands and Asmara.

In 1991, at the end of the Eritrean war for independence, Ethiopia became a landlocked country. For a while, the Ethiopian Navy continued to patrol the Red Sea, using Yemen as its operational base. By 1993 operations from Yemen ceased and the Ethiopian Navy moved to Djibouti. Though the Ethiopian Government attempted to negotiate, with Eritrea, access for its Navy to Assab, this was not an arrangement that newly independent State of Eritrea could accept.

Djibuti to host Ethiopia’s Navy

Even though, Eritrea did not allow Ethiopia to establish a Naval presence in Assab, at the time it did seek Ethiopian support during it dispute with Yemen over the Hanish Islands. Hence, Ethiopia leased to Eritrea (1996) 4 military helicopters. These helicopters were never returned to Ethiopia as by 1998 the Eritrea/Ethiopia border war started.[i]

By 1996 the Ethiopian Navy ceased to exist. However, Ethiopia’s commercial fleet continued to access both the port of Massawa and Assab. This activity ended when the Eritrea/ Ethiopia border war started in 1998.[ii] Therefore, Ethiopia with a population of over 100 million people, became totally dependent on Djibouti for commercial access to the sea. [iii]

Since 1998, realising the vulnerability of depending on only one port, Ethiopia has adopted a strategy of diversification of port access both on the Red Sea as well as the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it has negotiated access to ports in Djibouti, Somalia (Berbera); Kenya (Mombasa; Lamu); Sudan (Port Sudan). In the port of Berbera, the Ethiopian government has acquired a 19% interest in the development of the port. The other partners in the project are DP World with a 51% share: and Somaliland with a 30% share. [iv] The Ethiopian government has also negotiated an ownership share in the port of Djibouti [v] as well as Port Sudan.[vi] And, it has been busy developing the infrastructure to connect Ethiopia to the ports such as the rail link to Djibouti[vii]; the road links to Berbera[viii] and Lamu. [ix]

Ethiopia is not the only State seeking to establish a strategic presence along the shipping routes of the Bab al Mandab Strait and the Suez Canal. A route that links the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.  In recent years, China; Turkey, United Arab Emirates (UAE) have, in addition to economic presence, secured a military presence in an effort to secure the shipping lane from pirate and other interferences. [x]

Since the events of the Arab Spring in 2011 both Saudi Arabia and UAE started to focus on the East and Horn of Africa as strategic for their efforts to counter and minimize the reach and influence of Iran and possibly contain ‘Arab Spring Like “democratising events. Both governments are absolute monarchies who according to Dr Mehari Taddele Maru[xi]:

“…. [totally] reject any form of republican democratic rule. As a result, they are resistant to any kind of democratic dispensation in the region as well as the Horn of Africa……. [The] monarchs of these two countries…. [ consider] that any democratic dispensation in the region could …[threaten] their power.”

In the Horn of Africa, the Saudi and UAE governments have acquire interests in the management of key port facilities (Djibouti, Berbera; Port Sudan), they have also established military bases in Somalia (Mogadishu); on the Yemeni Island of Socotra as well as in Eritrea (Assab). From Assab the Saudi/UAE coalition are launching military operations against Yemen as well as carrying out training of Yemeni counterterrorism forces. The Saudi/UAE coalition also provides equipment to the trained Yemeni counterterrorism forces.

The expanding UAE/Saudi influence in the Horn of Africa region, was recently evidenced in June 2018:

“…. [when] Eritrea and Ethiopia announced – after a flurry of visits to and from Emirati officials – that they had reached an agreement to end their thirty-year war.

The ending of the “No Peace and No War” status between Eritrea and Ethiopia, was followed by the: opening of land borders; lifting of UN sanctions on Eritrea; re-establishing of telecommunication links as well as air transport. For the first time, in more than twenty years, Ethiopian ships docked in the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab fuelling the hope of future trade and economic normalisation between the two countries and, there were visions of road and possibly rail networks linking the two countries.

However, as of December 2018, all the land borders between Eritrea and Ethiopia are closed. And, there is no clear and transparent process addressing the border issues between the two countries or the economic and trade normalisation. The peace process between the two countries, is stagnating as is highlighted by such events as the failure of President Isaias Afwerki to accept, for more than 18 months, the credentials of the Ethiopian Ambassador H.E. Redwan Hussein. A situation that was remedied only in December 2019 after the intervention of the UAE. [xii]

Thoughthis stagnation is not ideal, it may be a situation that Prime Minister Abiy is temporarily happy to live with, as he works to: (i) transition the country away from a command style economy as well as a political environment dominated by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and, by extension the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF); (ii) prepare the country  for the general elections in 2020; (iii)  assert the role of Ethiopia as a regional power and, (iv) protect her interests by securing negotiated access to multiple port facilities; as well as projecting military power.

Abiy Ahmed, primo ministro dell’Etiopia

According to a BBC report [xiii] the Ethiopian government became very concerned that: “that Djibouti was controlled by foreign naval forces. US, China, Japan and France ….”.  Therefore, aware of the strategic and political threat posed to the Ethiopian interest  by: (i) the presence of foreign military powers along the coastal areas of the Horn of Africa; (ii) piracy; (iii)human trafficking;  as well as (iv) the ongoing proxy war between Saudi Arabia/UAE coalition and Iran in Yemen; the Ethiopia government, in addition to a strategy of diversifying its access to ports, has also adopted a strategy of boosting its military presence in the region by establishing a Navy to protect its interest in the shipping routes of the Bab al Mandab Strait with a focus on both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.[xiv]

The formation of the new Ethiopian Navy is an initiative that has received support from France. Who, in March 2019 agreed, as part of its own endeavours to boost its economic ties with the country, to help the Ethiopian government to build a navy.[xv] According to Capital Ethiopia the new navy[xvi]: “… [ will] be based in Djibouti”? A location that is facilitated by the existing infrastructure links such as roads and rail.

In addition to the economic and military efforts, the Ethiopian government is also working at the diplomatic level to maintain political relationships with all the foreign powers with an interest in the Horn of Africa and, the shipping routes of the Bab al Mandab Strait.  This diplomatic engagement includes Qatar, who is a rival of the Saudi and UAE. Hence, the President of Ethiopia – Sahle Work Zewde, has recently met with the Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, to review bilateral relationships between the two states and how to improve them. [xvii]

To date, though Eritrean government websites such as TesfaNews have reported on the formation of the new Ethiopian navy and its location in Djibouti, officially the Eritrean government has not reacted. Despite the efforts of the Saudi/Emirate coalition, as well as the Ethiopian government, the relationship between Eritrea and Djibouti is also not progressing to address outstanding issues of the Eritrea/Djibouti border; as well as the fate of Djiboutian soldiers missing in action since 2008.[xviii] Hence, It is possible that the Eritrean government will interpret the presence of an Ethiopian navy in Djibouti as a threat and a further justification to maintain  a policy of  indefinite National Service.

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