The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) region has nine major sea ports namely Assab, Massawa, Djibouti port, Berbera, Bossaso, Mogadishu, Kismayu, Port Sudan, and Mombasa.
In a region where three countries are landlocked; stable access to a maritime gateway is pivotal for trade, security and economic interdependence.Ethiopia was a coastal state in the past, but has become a landlocked state since 1991 following the independence of Eritrea.
Stable and dependable access to ports in the region is a very sensitive issue particularly for landlocked Ethiopia with its rapidly growing population and fast growing economy. Ethiopia’s access to and usage of maritime outlets in the region has been affected by the tempestuous geopolitical dynamics in the region.
Currently, Ethiopia depends on Djibouti for the overwhelming bulk of its exports and imports. Therefore, Ethiopia’s landlocked-ness coupled with negligible port diversification efforts, and geopolitical dynamics around the Red Sea and Indian Ocean maritime domains can be taken as the key manifestations of maritime insecurity from the Ethiopian perspective.
Djibouti has emerged as key site for geo-political contestation between maritime powers due to its strategic location that abuts the Red Sea particularly the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb passage which according to some estimates accounts for almost 4% of the world’s maritime traffic in petroleum and petroleum derived products.
The rising strategic significance of Djibouti is also linked to its proximity to the Gulf. Maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast, the war against Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the civil war in Yemen, have elevated the geo-strategic value of Djibouti and led many countries to establish military bases based on bilateral agreements with its government. Djibouti is also benefiting from rising United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Chinese investment in transport and port infrastructure.
The above mentioned developments have given rise to debate and discussion in Ethiopian public discourse which has tended to emphasize the potentially destabilizing effects of the expanded external (i.e. non-African) military and naval presence in Djibouti and more specifically scenarios that specifically affect Ethiopia and its utilization of port Djibouti.
The Expanding Foreign (non-African) Military Presence in Djibouti
The United States (largest military base in Africa), China (first military base in Africa), NATO, France, Japan, Germany, and Saudi Arabia have all established a military presence in Djibouti. Turkey has also established its first overseas and to date largest military base in Mogadishu.
This expanded non-African military and naval presence has been accompanied by bilateral agreements with provisions regarding financial transfers for the utilization of these establishments. The establishment of a military and naval presence in Djibouti by these countries has raised concerns from the Ethiopian perspective.
From the Ethiopian perspective, these financial arrangements may translate into reduced Ethiopian influence and leverage over Djibouti and furthermore shift the prevailing pattern of relations between the two interdependent states.
The potential for tensions and in the worst case scenario, conflict, between the states with military-naval bases in Djibouti raises concerns regarding the ability of Djibouti to limit the potential of conflict between these actors and more specifically the effects on Ethiopia’s access to and utilization of Djibouti port.
For instance, the government of Djibouti has welcomed the establishment of a military base by China and rising Chinese investment in transport and port infrastructure including the establishment of a special economic zone utilizing Chinese capital.
In response to perceptions that the Chinese presence in Djibouti may threaten US interests; the government of Djibouti has reiterated its position that there are no clashes of interest involved in the US and China both establishing a military-naval presence on Djiboutian soil.
The confrontation pitting Qatar against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a case in point. In the aftermath of the split between Qatar and the majority of the GCC bloc; several states in the Horn decided to align with the Saudi led GCC coalition.
More immediately, the rupturing of relations between Djibouti and Qatar also led to the withdrawal of Qatari peacekeepers stationed on a disputed stretch of the Djiboutian-Eritrean border and raised the spectre of a renewed conflict between Eritrea and Djibouti. T
here are also worries that the expanded GCC (specifically Saudi Arabian and UAE) military presence in Djibouti may adversely affect Ethiopian interests specifically in the event that tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) escalate due to the widely held perception that the GCC coalition would align with Egypt.
The prospect of the GCC states pressuring the Djiboutian government to adopt policies to apply pressure indirectly on Ethiopia is a related concern.
The perception of threat and impending crisis alluded to earlier focuses on what could transpire and in a sense reflects a fixation on worst case scenarios.
The pivotal question in this context centres on the degree of autonomy in terms of policy formulation that Djibouti exercises in connection to its relations with Ethiopia?
A related query revolves around the probable degree of influence and leverage that states such as the United States, France, Japan, China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE exercise over the foreign policy formulation and implementation of the Djiboutian government?At present, Djibouti enjoys close and friendly relations with all the member states of the IGAD.
Apart from the economic and commercial ties that link Ethiopia and Djibouti; the two countries have also concluded several agreements on joint infrastructure, power sharing and economic cooperation agreements which are a testament to the shared interests and degree of interdependence between the two countries.
However some observers believe that the management of relations between the two countries is a critical issue for Ethiopia and that Ethiopian foreign policy should adopt a strategic approach that takes into account the new variables that are impacting Ethio-Djiboutian relations.
The Impact of the expanded GCC and Turkish Presence on the Horn of Africa
The rivalry between the Gulf States pitting Saudi Arabia and UAE on one side and Qatar on the other side is destabilising the Horn.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen, the tensions between the GCC bloc and Iran, and the global drop in oil prices are some of the manifestations of the instability in the Gulf region.
The growing Turkish and UAE presence and influence in the Horn also raises the prospect of external actors being able to constrain Ethiopia’s ability to use ports in the Horn for its export and import needs.
The growing economic and military clout of Turkish and UAE in areas in close proximity to Assab port in Eritrea, Berbera port in Somaliland and Djibouti has raised prospects of potentially destabilizing effects on Ethiopia.
Positioning itself as an ally of Qatar; Turkey has established its largest military base in Somalia.
According to some observers with the inception of the Yemeni war and the resultant GCC crisis; the power balance on the other shore of Red Sea has been shaken with some postulating that the Gulf and Turkish presence in the Horn is leading to a diminution of Ethiopia’s prior position as regional hegemon.
The Gulf crisis has had visible economic and political repercussions on the Horn of Africa. The Gulf crisis and the confrontation between the Saudi-led coalition with Iran and Qatar has witnessed Saudi led efforts to pressure states in the region to induce them to join the Saudi led coalition.
As a result, several states in the Horn region have severed diplomatic ties with Iran and Qatar.
More worryingly (from the Ethiopian perspective) several states in the region have dispatched troop contingents to fight in the Yemen war as part of the Saudi led coalition’s war against the allegedly Iranian allied Ansar-al-Islam movement (more commonly referred to as the Houthi).
The expanding Gulf and Turkish military and naval presence in the IGAD region is occurring in tandem with financial transfers (in the form of rent payments for leasing military and naval bases in the region) not to mention growing investment in the agricultural and infrastructure sectors.
This testifies to the inter-linkages between GCC and Turkish security and economic interests in the Horn.
The influence of Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies in the Horn is expanding and some observers in Ethiopia fear that the influence of these actors could be deployed in a manner inimical to Ethiopian interests.
Some analysts also view with trepidation the future long-term consequences of Saudi and GCC influence in the Horn especially in relation to the propagation of extremist Wahabi-Salafi values in the Horn.
The consequences of the GCC crisis on the maritime domain of the IGAD region are clearly exemplified by the recent development centring on the Eritrean Port of Assab which is around 50 km from the Ethiopian border and approximately 60 km off the coast of Yemen.
Prior to the Ethio-Eritrean war, Assab port (and to a much lesser extent Massawa port) was the main outlet for the bulk of Ethiopia’s exports and imports. However, with the inception of the war and in its aftermath, Ethiopia shifted to using Port Djibouti.
According to media reports, following the Ethio-Eritrean war Assab port was supposedly used by Iran in the mid-2000s and is currently rented to the UAE as a naval base for “Operation Re-storing Hope in Yemen.”
However, as a consequence of being utilized as a naval base in the war in Yemen; Assab port was targeted by the Ansar-al-Islam, who also fired on a US war ship in the Red Sea in 2016.
Ethiopian Response: Diversification of Maritime Outlets
Ethiopia’s dependence on Djibouti port has been deepened by the extensive investment in infrastructure connectivity being undertaken by both governments.
Djibouti also hosts the Ethiopian Shipping Lines (ESL) which is viewed by some Ethiopian analysts as another worrying manifestation of Ethiopia’s overwhelming dependence on Djibouti Port.
However, for many Ethiopian analysts of maritime security issues in the Horn, the heavy dependence on Djibouti port does not serve Ethiopia’s long term socio-economic and security interests not only due to the volatility of inter-state relations in the Horn region, but also due to the perception that it renders Ethiopia vulnerable to pressure from Djibouti.
As a reaction to the earlier trends and dynamics the Ethiopian government has intensified its efforts to diversify its maritime outlets to reduce its overwhelming dependence on Port Djibouti.
The recent agreement between Ethiopia, Dubai Port World and Somaliland Port Authority concluded in Dubai, regarding the usage and operations of Berbera port reflect the Ethiopian government’s efforts to diversify maritime outlets.
According to the provisions of the agreement, Ethiopia, DP World and the Somaliland Port Authority would acquire 19, 51 and 30 percent stakes respectively in the Port of Berbera. Furthermore, Ethiopia has also agreed to invest in infrastructure and develop a road and railway corridor to Berbera Port as an alternative maritime gateway.
Nonetheless, a few days after the three-party joint agreement to develop Berbera port; Ethiopia and Somalia became embroiled in a diplomatic controversy and the government of Somalia denounced the port deal.
The government of Somalia requested the involvement of the Arab League and asked it to condemn the agreement and pressure the UAE to discard the deal, arguing that the agreement contravenes the sovereignty of Somalia.
Consequently, a senior Somaliland official stated that the dispute over the plan to develop Port Berbera “risks destabilizing the Horn of Africa region.”
It has also risked Ethiopia’s attempt to reduce its dependence on Djibouti port as its main trade corridor through the Red Sea and indirectly contributes to consolidating UAE presence and influence in the Horn.
Interestingly, the imbroglio over the Berbera port agreement has led some Ethiopian analysts to conclude that the present situation calls for normalization of relations with Eritrea.
For Ethiopia as a former coastal state which became landlocked after 1991, the issue of maritime insecurity is inflected through its existential need to secure a stable outlet for its export and import needs.
Currently Ethiopia is heavily dependent on Djibouti port to the extent that the expression “when Djibouti sneezes, Ethiopia gets a cold” has become commonplace.
As mentioned in the introduction, landlocked-ness coupled with negligible port diversification efforts by the current government, and geopolitical dynamics around the Red Sea and Indian Ocean have emerged as key sources of maritime insecurity from the Ethiopian perspective.
The article has discussed the ramifications of the expanding US, European, Japanese, Chinese and above all GCC and Turkish military-naval presence in the coastal countries of the Horn of Africa.
The expanding military-naval presence has also been complimented by rising investment in agricultural sectors and infrastructure development.
The discussion in the article has provided a summary overview of the expanding foreign military presence in the coastal states of the region and the potential and actual impact not only on Ethiopia but also the broader region.
Ethiopian perceptions and perspectives have by and large interpreted these developments in a negative and threatening light. However, exaggerated these perceptions may seem to some, the negative effects are already clearly visible and are affecting Ethiopian interests.
The Gulf crisis and the war in Yemen have clearly affected the maritime domain of the IGAD region. The risks of maritime competition and conflict between external actors embroiling the IGAD region are not necessarily far-fetched as some recent events suggest.
Thus, it is the recommendation of the author that Ethiopia should closely watch the evolving geopolitical shifts in the region.
Ethiopian policy makers and political elites should also formulate responses and operate strategically with a view to devise a long term solution to the maritime dilemmas facing Ethiopia.
They must work on thoughtful political and economic diplomacy with the goal of either securing a port for Ethiopia on a permanent basis and/or effectively achieving port diversification.
Zelalem Tesfay Gebreegzabheregraduated with a BA in Political Science and International Relations in 2003 and a MA International Relations in 2009 from Addis Ababa University (AAU). He is currently working as a lecturer at the College of Law and Governance of Mekelle University and is engaged in completing his PhD dissertation focusing on the multifaceted economic and political linkages between Djibouti and Ethiopia with particular focus on the maritime dimension. He can be reached at, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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