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Is Landlocked Ethiopia Set to Become a Naval Power Again?

31 August 2023

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Thursday, July 20, 2023, told a gathering of investors and businesspeople that the government spares no efforts in its pursuit of acquiring a maritime outlet. The Prime Minister revealed that all options, including negotiation, give-and-take, diplomacy and even the use of force, are all on the table to achieve this strategic goal. Ethiopia, a landlocked country situated in the Horn of Africa, has long faced challenges in pursuing its diplomatic and economic interests without any direct access to the sea. 

The loss of its maritime coastline, including the vital port of Assab, following Eritrea's independence in 1993, dealt a significant blow to Ethiopia's naval capabilities. Consequently, Ethiopia was forced to relocate its maritime assets to Yemeni ports, and subsequent eviction from Yemen and failure to maintain a lease agreement in Djibouti led to the complete dissolution of Ethiopia's naval presence by the mid-1990s. However, in 2018, Ethiopia announced plans to revive its naval forces with the assistance of France, setting its sights on rebuilding its maritime capabilities.

The Development of the Navy

In 1958, the Ethiopian Navy became an independent branch of the armed forces, and was tasked with serving as a coast guard force within the regional waters off Eritrea. Until 1974, a small unit of retired British naval personnel worked as advisors and supervisors, providing training to the Ethiopian Navy's personnel. Additionally, in 1974, Addis Ababa and Oslo signed an agreement under which Norway organized and trained a modest naval force. However, under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam, Soviet advisors were integrated into the Ethiopian Navy.

The Ethiopian Navy also collaborated with elements of the Soviet fleet operating in the Red Sea. In this context, Soviet naval vessels conducted repeated resupply and replenishment operations in Ethiopian ports. Furthermore, the Soviet Union maintained maritime facilities on the Dahlak Archipelago off the coast of Eritrea. The Soviet Union had a harbor and established a naval infantry detachment and intelligence facilities there.

However, after their expulsion from Somalia in 1977 due to their alignment with Ethiopia, the Soviets relocated a maritime pier that they had been operating in Berbera, Somalia, to Assab. They later positioned it off the coast on the Dahlak Islands.

By the year 1991, the Ethiopian Navy remained modest with around 3,500 personnel and had not engaged in any significant combat missions. Its inventory included two frigates, eight missile boats, six torpedo boats, six patrol boats, two amphibious craft, and two support/training vessels. The main Ethiopian naval bases were situated in Massawa and Assab, which hosted a ship repair facility, and in Asmara and Dahlak.

1. Decline of the Ethiopian Navy:

The performance of the Ethiopian Navy was poor during the Ogaden War with Somalia back in 1978. The Ethiopian government began to redirect funds and resources allocated to the navy towards the army and the air force, which resulted in a decline in the navy's capabilities. Consequently, the Ethiopian Navy lost both its main port and its connection to the inland highway network when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front captured Massawa in March 1990. This forced the naval headquarters to relocate to Addis Ababa.

By the spring of 1991, naval vessels began using ports in Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen to avoid the risk of returning to their original bases. In late May 1991, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front captured Asmara and besieged Assab. The Front’s ground forces' fire sank seven Ethiopian Navy ships in the harbor. On May 25, 1991, fourteen Ethiopian Navy ships managed to sail out of Assab, mostly towards Yemen, leaving behind seven other ships and various smaller craft. Shortly afterward, Assab fell under the control of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.

2. The end of the Ethiopian Navy:

The Ethiopian Civil War and the Eritrean War of Independence came to an end in 1991, shortly after the fall of Assab. Eritrea became an independent nation, leaving Ethiopia landlocked. However, the Ethiopian Navy continued to exist in a peculiar and unusual situation because the country has no local ports. Nonetheless, with its main headquarters in Addis Ababa, the navy continued conducting patrols in the Red Sea from ports in Yemen. Yemen eventually expelled the Ethiopian ships in 1993. By that time, some of these ships had deteriorated to the point where they were no longer seaworthy, leading Ethiopians to abandon them in Yemen.

Ethiopia’s Motivations for Rebuilding its Naval Fleet

Ethiopia's ambitions to build a new multi-faceted naval force are driven by various strategic considerations. Since 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speeches have highlighted the nation's desire to enhance its military capabilities and expand beyond land and air forces to include naval power.

1. Relying on Djibouti:

One of the primary motivations for reviving the Ethiopian Navy is the country’s increasing reliance on Djibouti for trade and maritime access. After the bitter border war with Eritrea that lasted from 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia lost access to Eritrean ports, which forced it to search for alternative options. Djibouti emerged as a key partner for Ethiopia, handling around 95% of its exports and imports.

2. Economic interests:

Another major driver of Ethiopia's naval aspirations is its need to protect its economic and political interests in the turbulent Red Sea region. With multiple economic stakes in the area and conflicting political interests, Ethiopia sees the establishment of a navy as a means to safeguard its commercial ships and defend its maritime assets in the region. Currently, Ethiopian commercial vessels are based in Djibouti, and the navy would provide enhanced security and independence for maritime trade routes to various global destinations.

3. The Ethiopian Civil Maritime Institute:

Furthermore, the Ethiopian Civil Maritime Institute plays a role in shaping its naval aspirations. Having maritime engineers and technical officers with skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the global shipping industry, Ethiopia possesses a foundation to build an operational and capable naval force. While the process of constructing a naval force is undoubtedly challenging and resource-intensive, having a trained workforce can accelerate the training and development of the naval forces.

4. Ports diversification: 

Diversification of port outlets also serves as another factor influencing Ethiopia's drive towards its naval ambitions. By securing deals with Sudan and Somaliland for access to Port Sudan and a stake in the port of Berbera, respectively, Ethiopia aims to reduce port fees and decrease its reliance on a single port for its commercial activities. The naval forces could facilitate the protection of these diversified trade routes and ensure Ethiopia's access to vital ports in the region.

Therefore, Ethiopia's motivations for building a new naval force are deeply rooted in strategic considerations. These considerations include safeguarding maritime interests, securing trade routes, and reducing reliance on a single port. The desire for naval capabilities is also driven by concerns over potential foreign control of vital ports, the need to protect commercial ships and assets in a turbulent region, and the aspiration to enhance the country's military influence beyond its land and air forces. Despite the significant challenges posed by building the navy, Ethiopia's long-term goals to bolster maritime security and enhance economic interests make the endeavor a strategic necessity.

Ethiopian Alternatives

The quest for independent access to ports aims to reduce Ethiopia's reliance on external trade gateways. To realize this vision, the Ethiopian government has already initiated negotiations with key regional players, notably Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somaliland, with the hope of securing access to desired ports. In an unconventional proposal extended to Eritrea, Ethiopia offered a 30% stake in the renowned Ethiopian Airlines as a bargaining chip for access to the desired ports. While peace and negotiation remain the preferred path, Prime Minister Abiy emphasized that the use of force would be a last resort: "We want to get a port through peaceful means, but if that fails, we will use force," he stated unequivocally and without ambiguity.

To address the geographical limitations of its landlocked plateau, Ethiopia recognizes the importance of establishing a naval force and securing a strategic foothold in the region. Acquiring an external military base in East African or the Horn of Africa countries becomes a decisive step towards revitalizing Ethiopia's naval capabilities. A leased foreign military base is likely to provide Ethiopia with essential advantages, enabling it to protect its maritime interests, secure trade routes, combat piracy, and contribute to regional stability.

France's involvement in assisting Ethiopia in building its new naval capabilities signifies recognition of Ethiopia's strategic importance in the region and the acknowledgment of the need for maritime security in the Horn of Africa. As an established naval power, France can offer valuable expertise, training, and technical support for Ethiopia's naval revival efforts. The partnership between Ethiopia and France could also enhance stronger diplomatic relations and foster regional cooperation in addressing shared security concerns.

However, Ethiopia must proceed with caution in its pursuit of foreign military bases. Acquiring and maintaining a foreign military base is a complex endeavor that requires significant financial resources and exceptional diplomatic skill. Ethiopia should engage in comprehensive assessments of potential host countries to ensure that arrangements are mutually beneficial, respect national sovereignty, and avoid unnecessary tensions or conflicts with neighboring nations. Furthermore, Ethiopia needs to strike a delicate balance between enhancing its naval capabilities and prioritizing local development. While a naval force will undoubtedly bolster its influence and security standing, Ethiopia must ensure that defense investments do not come at the expense of vital social and economic programs. Sustainable growth and poverty alleviation remain essential priorities for the country's long-term stability and prosperity.

In conclusion, the establishment of a full-fledged naval force for Ethiopia faces significant challenges and complexities. As maritime researcher Timothy Walker of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa emphasized, building a navy from the ground up involves substantial financial investments in acquiring maritime assets and training personnel, which could take decades to complete. Additionally, the Horn of Africa is already affected by the competition among major global powers with established naval presence, potentially posing diplomatic and operational obstacles to Ethiopia's maritime and naval ambitions. Furthermore, while maritime security concerns do exist across the region, incidents of piracy and recorded acts of terrorism may not fully justify the urgent need for Ethiopia to develop a naval force. Cooperative efforts with regional partners and international naval forces could provide alternative solutions to address these challenges.

However, Ethiopia's determination to proceed with its plans to establish a naval fleet for its armed forces indicates a long-term strategic vision. It's reasonable to assume that Ethiopia seeks to protect growing trade routes, secure access to vital ports, and safeguard its maritime interests as it increasingly relies on Djibouti and other coastal nations and regions as trade partners. While the creation of a full-fledged naval force might not be practical at this juncture, adopting a scaled-down approach or forming a specialized coastal defense force could enable Ethiopia to address pressing maritime security concerns while working towards its long-term objectives in the region.