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The importance of instituting Ethiopia’s navy and military in Djibouti

Ethiopian naval or a military presence in Djibouti is not competition with the world powers but is rather a welcome addition to the endeavors of big powers that are proactive on the current military trend in the region. Showing the flag and naval presence in the area shows our commitment to the cause and emphasizes also Ethiopia’s determination and resilience to defend her interest in the Red Sea in general and the Gulf in particular, Tesfaye Tadesse.

Because of Bab-el-Mandeb’s strategic significance and the security situation of the Middle East, Djibouti has become a strategic importance to the world powers and as a result recently almost all requesting nations have secured military bases in Djibouti.

Djibouti has given the requested bases to all. As a result today France, the United States, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and others are building military bases and soon more nations will join the endeavor. Djibouti port being the only international maritime exit/entry for Ethiopia’s maritime commerce, each heart beat of Djibouti has a significant bearing on Ethiopian economy and national security.

The geopolitical significance of the Bab-el-Mandeb

The Bab-el-Mandeb or Mandeb Strait is a chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and it is a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The strait is located between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Most exports from the Horn of Africa and Persian Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and the Suez Mediterranean Pipeline also pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb.

An estimated 2.3 million barrel/day of crude oil and refined petroleum products flow through this waterway towards Europe, the United States, Asia and the Horn of Africa. The Bab-el-Mandeb is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, because of depth limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments. Closure of the Bab-el-Mandeb could keep merchant ships and tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal diverting them around the southern tip of Africa, adding to transit time and cost.

At the beginning of history the Red Sea was used by ancient nations for trade with Africa, Asia and Europe. However because of the advent of steam engines the Europeans started to sail to India and China through the Cape of Good Hope and Red Sea was not important.

When the Suez Canal was opened again the Red Sea became the short cut to the Far East and the Bab-el-Mandeb regained its importance.                                                  

During the Six Day War when Israel blocked the Suez Canal again the Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb lost their strategic significance. In 1973, after peace prevailed between Egypt and Israel the Red sea regained its strategic significance and became a route for 40 percent of hydrocarbon fuel transportation for Europe and America. That strategic significance persists to this day. Over 700 billion dollars’ worth of oil passes through the Bab-el-Mandeb annually. Djibouti is located in that strategic spot and that made Djibouti today the hub of the world military to defend the interest of their nations in the event it gets imperiled.

A threat to Bab-el-Mandeb traffic could ultimately take many forms such as deployment of sea mines, harassment and interception by small fast patrol crafts, and attacks by air based and land based weapon systems. The 1980s Iran-Iraq War provided ample evidence of the disruptions to international commerce and freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf by these methods, especially around the Hormuz Strait approaches during the so-called Tanker War.

Selected merchant ships were routinely harassed and attacked by forces operating in the region. There is no reason why this could not happen in the Bab-e-Mandeb area if the current trend persists in Yemen and the Middle East in general.

A comprehensive analysis of the Yemen situation highlighted that growing ties between Yemen’s Houthi and other stake holders in the area poses another threat to the countries in the region and beyond. It potentially could allow some nations in the area to outflank the Gulf, and deploy air and naval assets into Yemen. This threat still seems limited, but it is important to note that Yemen’s territory and islands play a critical role in the security of other global chokepoints in South East Asia.

Threat imminent to Ethiopian national interest

Having said that let me go to my primary objective which is my concern regarding Ethiopia which apparently did nothing to avert the possible impact on her national interest if the situation in the area gets out of hand for Djibouti to manage the situation.

Ethiopia currently is building railway, highway and other transportation means between Ethiopia and Djibouti to speed up her economic development. These vital transportation means have dual purposes both for Ethiopia and other nations i.e. commercially and militarily.

Talking military and considering the imminent threat in the area Ethiopia has neither naval presence in the area nor any military asset to defend her strategic interest as others are trying to do. In the event of serious crisis in the vicinity Ethiopia will be the first victim of the incident. Ethiopia being the nearest neighbor to Djibouti and nearer to the Bab-el-Mandeb we should have military presence in the area to defend our national interest at the highest level in the event of international crisis in the area. By no means, Ethiopian naval or a military presence in Djibouti is not competition with the world powers but is rather a welcome addition to the endeavors of big powers that are proactive on the current military trend in the region. Showing the flag and naval presence in the area shows our commitment to the cause and emphasizes also Ethiopia’s determination and resilience to defend her interest in the Red Sea in general and the Gulf in particular. After all Ethiopians are a hundred million people with only scores of miles away from the Bab-el-Mandeb. Experience in the past has taught us any threat in the area automatically has a serious repercussion both economically and militarily upon Ethiopia.

It is true when we assign a couple of naval assets along with a hundred sailors in Djibouti it costs us money or it could even be an additional burden on the military budget. Then again, when we consider its geopolitical significance, it is worth apportioning such financial investment for such a noble cause.

Definitely Ethiopia has threats from land and definitely she has also threats from the sea. We have several merchant ships prowling over the world seas to transport our exports and imports. In the event of international maritime crisis these ships upon the approaches at the Bab-el-Mandeb or the Gulf of Aden need to be escorted. We need to have a naval and military presence as other nations do to keep their national interest. Being landlocked and only few miles away from the seacoast we have to forecast today our future threat to avoid unnecessary last minutes rushes to find solution for a very serious national quandary.

The way things go in the Middle East today, no wonder we are definitely late to join the band but Ethiopia has always been a welcome addition in such international military initiatives as observed in the UN missions in Korea, Congo and recently in several African countries. I am sure even though our aim is to defend our national interest other nations will also appreciate our motive and most likely will assist us in our endeavor. I put emphasis on the budget aspect just because Naval Operations is very expensive compared to other military operations as very well known by military planners and strategists. It is my earnest conviction that once we take the initiative to deploy a couple of naval assets in the area many friendly nations will share the cost considering the advantage of having naval assets from the region on their side. Not only that the Ethiopian Navy during its hay day has demonstrated its ability to be a reliable partner in the event of international crisis such as the Ghadafi incident when he infested the Red Sea with floating mines. The Ethiopian Navy was in the Red Sea to provide all the necessary support to international ships in distress. The Ethiopian Navy at the time has demonstrated vigilance and gallantry by assisting and redirecting international merchant ships passing through the Red Sea. This willingness to risk and go extra mile to help others was not limited in the Army or the Air Force it was also inculcated in the moral fiber of the Ethiopian Navy.  

Hence, it is judicious to comprehend the current geopolitics of the region, the ongoing effort put in place by the UN and the world community in general to bring peace to the region. Now, time is running fast and the situation is dynamic and Yemen may not be able to have control on its sovereignty so soon as most of her good neighbors wish. Also recent developments in the area have indicated that Houthi forces operating on the coastal area of Yemen attempted to block passage of ships in the Bab-el-Mandeb area by firing upon them from the hidden coastal deployed weapons. Luckily it happened to the United States Navy Ships and it was not to a helpless Merchant Vessel.  They immediately fired back and informed immediately the command in the area for immediate decimation of the culprits. Now the area looks free for international shipping and the credit goes to the US Navy’s fast response to the incident. This is a fact that must be noted very well as it can happen to any ship any time in the vicinity. It can also be a good pretext for ships to stop coming from the Suez Canal or ships to pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb. Such being the case, if Ethiopia participates in this military initiative this could vividly demonstrates our tradition of good faith in collective security.

Finally it is worth mentioning efforts exhibited by the Ethiopian Shipping Lines during the Gulf Piracy Crisis in protecting Ethiopian Merchant ships. It is because such efforts were put in place in good times that the Ethiopian Shipping Lines was able to defend its ships in those tough days of piracy in the high seas. I am sure it has those defensive mechanisms in place to date as Piracy in the Gulf is hibernating but not cut down completely from the area as some have assumed.

On the other hand the crisis I am talking about is international maritime crisis where nations defend their transport ships at high seas when situations get out of control and naval assets are required to safely escort national merchant ships to a friendly harbors.

Ethiopia has to reconsider this imminent threat and must have a naval and military presence in Djibouti to be able to safeguard her commerce in general and safely receive her strategic commodities.

The presence of the world military in our backyard also has to ring a bell to reconsider our security posture in the Red Sea and the Gulf in general.

Ed.’s Note: Tesfaye Tadesse, a retired navy commander, is a researcher on Read Sea and Gulf naval affairs. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]


Contributed by Tesfaye Tadesse
Contributed by Tesfaye Tadesse