Growing Fins and Wings

Radio Erena: 09 December 2019

¨Djibouti to host Ethiopia´s navy¨ under this controversial title Muluken Yewondwossen reported to the Ethiopian English-language website ´Capital´ quoting Ethiopian officials who confirmed Ethiopia´s choice of Djibouti as a base for its newly-planned naval force.

According to the report, the base will be established in Djibouti with operational French assistance, whereas the HQ will be in Bahir Dar, Amhara Region State capital, which is 578 kilometers northwest of Addis Ababa. The report further noted that no official statement has been released in relation to the site of the naval force base since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed first announced in spring last year that its establishment will be one of his priorities.

The Prime Minister´s silence about the site opened the door for wide speculations. Some pointed to Hargeisa in Somalia, others went as far as Port Sudan as a potential location for the new force.
Many observers have considered Abiy Ahmed’s vow to re-establish the Ethiopian naval force as a hollowed political promise on the part of the young and enthusiastic new incumbent of the office.

In the beginning, the attention was directed towards Eritrea´s port of Massawa which has been for long decades the HQ of the Ethiopian Navy. In February 1990, the Eritrean Liberation Army used small fiberglass speedy boats with Russian DShK machine guns, locally known as Doshka, mounted on them to eject and shatter the Ethiopian naval force once and for good. The legendary ¨Fenqel¨ Operation served two purposes: the first was to revise the 1978 ¨Salina¨ Operation´s tactical error– in which Eritrean People´s Liberation Front forces attempted to capture the main Massawa port by a massive land attack. Operation failure inflicted heavy losses on EPLA troops. Learning from the errors of Salina, EPLF decided to embark on establishing its own striking naval forces. Using the small speedy boats, EPLF launched a dual land-sea attack forcing the Ethiopian gunships to flee to Yemen. Some of the ships were sunk at the spot. The attack culminated in capturing the ¨Girar¨ Naval Base, the longtime Ethiopian naval base, thus transforming Ethiopia into a landlocked country.

Abiy Ahmed´s plan of re-establishing the longtime dead Ethiopian navy raised questions as to why and where. Capital’s report refers to some expert opinions which link the need for a naval force with the ¨hostile´ nature of the region. On the other hand, the HQ has been a matter of contest in the absence of official statements. In an interview with Jeune Afrique on 10 April 2019, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh was asked whether Djibouti will be the base of the new naval force, he categorically denied saying: ¨No, in Massawa, Eritrea. That is where it has been in the Negus´s Period. For Ethiopia, it is a matter of national pride. Establishing a naval force is much more expensive than establishing an air force. ¨

This was the first, and up to now, the only statement by a state leader on the matter. Choosing the new navy base and the practical founding steps did not go hand in hand. 0n March 25, 2019, an Ethiopian high-level delegation led by Brigadier General Kindu Gezu, the general charged with the founding of the new navy, visited Cherbourg Naval Base in France. In the meetings between the Ethiopian and French technical teams, the two sides agreed on the practical aspects of establishing the latest naval force in the Horn of Africa. France later declared its objective to help Ethiopia with its ambitious military strategies. Once more the pendulum swayed towards Djibouti, especially after the meeting between French and Ethiopian generals in the French base in Djibouti.
According to diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa, the diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia chilled down as the Eritrean Foreign Affairs Ministry ignored the continual diplomatic memos from Addis Ababa. As the sources confirmed, the letters were questioning the reasons for the delay of applying the terms of agreements regarding Massawa port, especially the agreement on deepening the dock´s waters to accommodate huge tankers, in addition to payment of arrears due to Ethiopian Airlines. Ignoring the Ethiopian communications and later closing the borders brought the desired ¨cooperation’ to a total stop. Earlier this year, sources from Eritrea confirmed the on-going preparations in Ghedim camp to host Ethiopian rank and file personnel to embark on establishing the new navy base. The news had a depressing impact on Eritreans as they recalled the atrocities of the Ethiopian armies, particularly the massacres resulting from the extensive air raids on Massawa in February 1990.

The mission of establishing the new naval force may be shoved to the background with the new demanding air force renovation initiative launched by Abiy Ahmed. On 17 November, Le Point, the famous French magazine published a copy of a letter from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to the French President dated 22 June 2019, in which, the Ethiopian Prime Minister requested French assistance in renovating his country´s air force. The letter specified the need for jet fighters, drones and capacity building assistance from France in accordance with the bilateral agreement reached earlier this year. This brings us back to president Ismail Omar Guelleh´s remark about the expense of building a naval power: renovating the air force and building the naval power at the same time will prove a mega task for the meager Ethiopian resources. Balancing the matters, embarking on renovating the existing outdated air force should be the decision of the hour in comparison with some white elephant projects.

By Fathi Osman