Twenty-eight years after it lost its coast, Ethiopia is plotting a course to the sea once more. During French President Emmanuel Macron's visit to Addis Ababa on March 12, the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement to develop a future Ethiopian navy — the culmination of months of reports that Ethiopian and French officials were discussing closer ties on maritime affairs.
Ethiopia may be the Horn of Africa's heavyweight — thanks in part to its growing economy and a population of over 100 million — but it has chafed at its lack of sea access. Indeed, after coastal Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia following a 30-year war, Addis Ababa shuttered the country's navy. Since then, Ethiopia has had little reason to reconsider its decision, but times are changing. After Eritrea and Ethiopia concluded a peace agreement to end their years of animosity, regional dynamics are shifting in Addis Ababa's favor, prompting the latter to announce plans for a navy that could cement its preeminent regional position.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed started putting his country's house in order when he came to office in April 2018. Since then, he has made significant progress on a number of fronts, inking a peace deal with former enemy Eritrea, initiating internal domestic reforms and moving toward liberalizing key parts of the economy. While enormous constraints like inter-ethnic tensions remain, Ethiopia's growing strength has grabbed the attention of external powers, which are jockeying to get in on the action.
A Landlocked Navy?
With the end of hostilities and the opening of several border crossings between the two countries, Eritrea has given Ethiopia more options for trade. In line with Ethiopia's growing economic might, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wants to make his country a significant actor in international trade, but doing so will oblige Addis Ababa to protect its trade routes in the years ahead. Already, Ethiopia has acquired greater stakes in ports in Sudan, Djibouti and Somaliland and constructed more logistical connections to sea outlets, but actually establishing a navy will help convince the outside world — particularly investors — that the Horn of Africa is a secure environment guaranteed by Ethiopia's maritime muscle.
Abiy has been leading ambitious efforts to integrate the country, both politically and economically, with its neighbors around the region, including Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and others. The move also comes after decades of destabilizing wars and other problems that have plagued the region. Abiy has won support from his regional counterparts thanks to his efforts to foster greater stability through integration; now, by pushing for a navy, Addis Ababa is adding a maritime component to this overall drive. At this stage, Ethiopia's quest would appear to represent a win-win for everyone in the region: Ethiopia's Horn of Africa neighbors possess coasts but are short on capabilities, while Addis Ababa lacks the former but boasts the latter. Nevertheless, this state of affairs gives Ethiopia several advantages. First, because it has the most resources to allocate to the construction of a navy, it will have a significant say in the drafting of regional maritime objectives. Second, it will allow Addis Ababa to develop the capabilities of its neighbors — all while utilizing their coastal access. Finally, it will ensure that regional integration necessitates participation in an entity dominated by Addis Ababa given Ethiopia's size and strength in multiple areas.
Ethiopia's quest for a navy would appear to represent a win-win for everyone in the Horn of Africa: Its neighbors possess coasts but are short on capabilities, while Ethiopia lacks the former but boasts the latter.
Paris Lends a Helping Hand
France, meanwhile, has begun to take a big interest in Ethiopia under Macron's watch. In fact, Macron became the first French president to visit Ethiopia since the early 1970s and the first French head of state to ever visit Kenya. Indeed, Macron has been wooing Africa's fastest-growing large economies in order to build closer — and lucrative — ties that are not necessarily linked to France's former colonial backyard in Francophone Africa. (France, incidentally, has also made overtures to Nigeria and Ghana.) In so doing, France is certainly aiming to cement trade and business links, yet it also hopes to shore up the country's influence in Africa amid the rise of China and others.
Traditionally, France has had a minimal economic and political presence in East Africa, save for its former colony of Djibouti, which hosts its oldest and largest overseas military base. Macron, however, has positioned France and its businesses well to capitalize on Ethiopia's growing and liberalizing economy. Indeed, Macron was the first leader to invite Abiy to Europe and salute his reform efforts. Since then, French companies like Orange S.A. and Total S.A. have been jockeying to bid on Ethiopia's telecommunications and energy sectors, which Abiy wishes to open up as part of his overall reform push. Accordingly, Paris' defense cooperation deal with Addis Ababa fulfills a number of French goals, including cementing the country's strategic foothold in East Africa, as well as boosting its defense and other companies. In fact, if Ethiopia succeeds in its reform and integration efforts — at the same time as Paris makes significant inroads in the area — France will get a head start on others in reaping the rewards of the geopolitical changes occurring in a region in which it once had little presence.
One possible competitor — or collaborator — for France in the region will be the United Arab Emirates. The latter already has a naval presence in Somaliland and Eritrea, and given its interest in further developing its regional military presence, Abu Dhabi might also look to partner with Addis Ababa in its efforts. France, meanwhile, operates a naval base in the United Arab Emirates, meaning Paris and Abu Dhabi could even cooperate on projects with Addis Ababa.
Dreams Are Cheap
Ultimately for Ethiopia, building a navy from scratch is going to be a long and expensive process — particularly if the country wants to develop a fleet with advanced capabilities. For example, an official navy could feature just a handful of patrol boats. But if Addis Ababa is looking for a blue water navy with surface warfare capabilities, the process will be slow and subject to future political and financial priorities. And though Ethiopia operated a navy as recently as the early 1990s, it will need to spend time training new sailors and officers. Accordingly, beyond the largely symbolic step of purchasing some small patrol boats over the next few years, the country will take more than a few years to answer more burning questions, such as finding suitable bases and procuring larger ships.
But perhaps the biggest question for Ethiopia will be whether it can figure out how to best negotiate its naval dreams with its neighbors in Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti. The countries' peace deal notwithstanding, Eritrea will no doubt remain wary of signing over a significant amount of its sovereignty by allowing its much larger neighbor (and former overlord) to acquire basing rights at its ports in Massawa or Assab.
Djibouti remains the most likely place for a future Ethiopian naval presence. The tiny — but geostrategically placed — country is home to military bases from a number of foreign countries, including the United States, France and China. Given its close economic ties with Ethiopia (including existing transport routes), a deal between the sides is a strong possibility. Moreover, if France assists Ethiopia in forming a navy and conducting joint exercises, its large presence in Djibouti will help facilitate these efforts.
Other options may include Somalia, especially as Addis Ababa and Mogadishu have sought to foster closer ties in recent years. Transport, however, will present a problem. Routes are few on the ground in Somalia, while al Shabaab's long-term resiliency will also endanger any trade. Nevertheless, if other outside players besides France jump on the bandwagon — such as Turkey, which has taken a proactive role in Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa — they could sway Addis Ababa to consider multiple locations outside of the more obvious Djibouti.
As a result, Ethiopia's likeliest course of action might be to pursue multiple bases across a number of Horn of African countries. In so doing, Ethiopia would avoid putting all its eggs in one basket, allowing it to continue operating its navy even if its relations break down with one of the hosting states — as essentially occurred in 1991 when Eritrea seceded.
Of course, Ethiopia's own internal challenges could yet scuttle the country's dreams of floating a navy. Significant pockets of unrest continue to flare up inside the country, requiring notable levels of manpower, resources and attention from the federal government. If Ethiopia fails to stabilize internally, especially in advance of potentially contentious elections in 2020, the country might have no choice but to hit the brakes on its more ambitious projects — like the navy.
Since coming to power last year, Abiy has reached for the stars, succeeding at the seemingly impossible by burying the hatchet with Ethiopia's erstwhile province, Eritrea, and taking steps to open up his country to the world. As Ethiopia's economy grows by leaps and bounds, the landlocked country has set course for another seemingly impossible feat: establishing a navy. Beyond its obvious geographic shortcomings, Ethiopia will face more than a challenge in introducing a maritime force, but for the time being, Addis Ababa has served notice of its desire to set sail for the sea once more.