Ethiopia plans to rebuild its navy, 27 years after it became landlocked following the independence of Eritrea and the disbandment of its once strong navy. During the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron in Ethiopia in March 2019, France agreed to support Ethiopia in its naval endeavors.
Prime Minister Abiy, who took over as premier in April 2018, has presided over major political and economic changes that have included the pardoning of exiled rebel groups and reconciliation with its longtime neighboring foe, Eritrea.
But in spite of his peaceful policy, PM Abiy said in June 2018, on state TV: “We built one of the strongest ground and air force in Africa... we should build our naval force capacity in the future.”
Ethiopia established its navy in 1958. In the 1970s, the Imperial Ethiopian Navy was Africa’s leading naval force. When Eritrea gained independence in 1991, Ethiopia suddenly found itself landlocked without a coastline and so it disbanded its navy.
Building a navy from the ground up would require massive financial investments – to find a base, to purchase ships, and a lot of time to train the forces.
The search for a military naval base
Several countries were mentioned as possible locations for the Ethiopian military naval base.
Djibouti: Ethiopia recently signed a deal to take a stake in the port of Djibouti, which now handles roughly 95% of all its exports and imports. It is also connected to its neighbor by a new 759 km railway line, which links the capital Addis Ababa to the port of Doraleh, an extension of the port of Djibouti. Ethiopia has 11 commercial ships, currently based in Djibouti, from where they sail to different destinations.
Somaliland: Ethiopia has also signed a deal with the self-declared Somali state of Somaliland for a 19% stake in the port of Berbera which includes a plan to build a road from its border to the port. Somaliland will host a naval base for the United Arab Emirates.
Kenya: In May 2018, Ethiopia agreed on a deal with Kenya to facilitate the acquisition of land in the island of Lamu as part of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) project, a $24 billion transport and infrastructure plan to link the two countries and their neighbors. The project was signed in 2012 but has been beset by funding delays and security problems in both countries.
Sudan: In a deal signed with Sudan in May 2018, Ethiopia agreed to develop Port Sudan, in a bid to diversify its port outlets and reduce port fees.
Eritrea: After Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a war from 1998-2000, the two countries signed a peace treaty in 2018. However, the relationship with Eritrea is unlikely to thaw to the extent that Ethiopia could once more rely on its ports in Assab and Massawa. There is also a danger that Ethiopia's naval ambitions could alarm Eritrea.
The French-Ethiopian military agreement (March 2019)
On March 13, 2019, Ethiopia and France reached their first military cooperation agreement, a deal which includes helping Ethiopia build a navy. The accord also provides for air cooperation, joint operations and opportunities for training and equipment purchases.
France is already one of the main arms suppliers of the naval forces of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and it is capable of supporting Ethiopia in building its new navy.
Training of the naval forces
Ethiopia still has a civilian maritime institute which trains more than 500 marine engineers and electro-technical officers each year, with plans to train more than 1,000 officers annually. Ethiopia can also train the officers in “friendly countries.”
Strategic, geopolitical security and economic concerns could be driving the Ethiopian naval ambitious. Ethiopia's geopolitical and economic interests and its right to use international waters of the Red Sea, demands it has a strong navy and at least one naval base.
On a four-day visit to the Horn of Africa, President Emmanuel Macron wanted to leverage a mixture of Paris’ soft power in economy, culture and education and its military know-how to give it a foothold in the Red Sea region. Macron was accompanied by a delegation of businessmen. France will provide about $96 million to support Ethiopia’s economic openness. This fund should be complemented with a $16 million technical assistance provided by the French Development Agency (AFD).
Ethiopia has naval ambitions and its latest maneuvers in the region suggest it could be negotiating a naval base with its coastal neighbors.
France agreed to support Ethiopia to build a naval force but it would take years for Ethiopia to procure the ships and train the forces required for a fully-fledged navy.
[Sources: ESAT, Al Arabiya, BBC News, Bloomberg, Ecofin Agency]