Ethiopia And Djibouti – Towards A Conjoined Destiny

Ethiopia And Djibouti - Towards A Conjoined Destiny
Djibouti and Ethiopian were once part of one country

AFRICANGLOBE – Economic integration is defined by Investopedia – an authoritative financial dictionary – as an economic arrangement between different regions marked by the reduction or elimination of trade barriers and the coordination of monetary and fiscal policies.

The aim of economic integration is to reduce costs for both consumers and producers, as well as to increase trade between the countries taking part in the agreement. This sentiment was reiterated by policymakers from Ethiopia and their counterparts from their eastern neighbor – Djibouti. Now, it seems that the two countries are taking their first steps towards social and economic integration which could eventually be followed by political integration, reports Yohannes Anberbir from Djibouti.

Almost every schoolboy and schoolgirl, who passed through the Ethiopian education system, had been taught loads of controversial historical accounts which sometimes borderline folktale and myth. Many of these stories are in fact taught to children as well-established historical facts and events that took place in the past. For instance, Emperor Menelik II, who is credited for introducing modernization in Ethiopia and for protecting the country from the unguis of colonialism, is behind one of these controversial accounts. So it is essential to separate fact from fiction. The Emperor’s war with Italian colonizers and the subsequent victory of the Battle of Adwa is fact. Also, the Emperor is the one who founded the capital city, Addis Ababa, which is the currently the seat of the African Union.

So what is fiction then? Well, in school, pupils have been taught that Emperor Menelik II signed away Ethiopia’s coastal region (Djibouti) in exchange for a railway infrastructure that extends from the capital city to the eastern part of Ethiopia and into the Port of Djibouti. The story alleges that the then major colonial power in Africa – France – is alleged to have pushed the Emperor to sign away rights to Djibouti for close to 99 years (resembling a lease agreement) in exchange for the construction and funding of the railway project.

Get this! Apparently there is no historical fact or adequate evidence to corroborate this story. At least, not as far as some historians are concerned. Historians like Tamrat Haile, a lecturer at Haromaya University, who is currently doing his PhD at Addis Ababa University, says that there is no historical evidence whatsoever which identifies Djibouti as a lawfully-begotten part of Ethiopia at anytime. He, however, pointed out that the renowned leader of France during the Second World War, Charles de Gaulle, is believed to have had a conversation with Emperor Haileselassie I of Ethiopia to unite Djibouti following a UN convention that decreed freedom to all colonies.

According to Tamrat, the confusion is rather with the Franco-Ethiopian Convention that stipulates the creation of a new Company: the “Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Franco-Ethiopien” (Franco-Ethiopian Railway Company), to operate a railway infrastructure stretching from Djibouti to Addis-Ababa with a 99-year concession agreement.

Since then, the 784 km long railway line that started operations in 1917 is symbolic of the historic tie between the two countries. Setting this symbolic infrastructure aside, peoples of the two nations also share a similar culture, ethnic background, language and blood. Although the social and cultural ties remained unchanged across time, none of the previous regimes in Ethiopia tried to tap and utilize this relationship until the beginning of the third millennia; marked by the outbreak of a devastating war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998-2000.

The occurrence of the war between the two states blocked Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea especially the usage of Massawa and Assab ports, both located in Eritrea. This prompted Ethiopia to directly deal with the Government of Djibouti and consider shifting its sea outlet to the Port of Djibouti soon thereafter.

“With the exception of few occasions, where clear differences surfaced between Ethiopia and Djibouti, the two countries have never entered into any form of conflict with one another to a lasting consequences. Whilst this is the case, the relationship between the two countries, for a number of reasons, is not as strong and healthy as it could be,” a foreign policy document adopted by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) summarizes the relationship.

Valuing the historic and smooth relationships that Djibouti and Ethiopia had in the past, the Port of Djibouti is now a preferred outlet to the sea for Ethiopia.”The port, from its very establishment, was meant to provide services to Ethiopia, and it is naturally so, due to its proximity to most regions within our country,” the policy document specified.

The foreign policy white paper also states that it is Ethiopia’s intention to assure its domestic market of long-lasting and reliable port services at a reasonable fee; so it says it needs a policy that underlines the continued utilization of Djibouti as the reliable port of prime use. To this end, Ethiopia should play a significant role to forge economic ties that will benefit Djiboutians so that Ethiopia’s interest could be defended not by Ethiopians but by Djiboutians as well. Thus, supplying electric power at a cheaper rate, tackling the problem of drinking water in Djibouti and several other benefits are stipulated as instruments in this policy.

Through The Policy Lens:

During the past several years, Ethiopia aggressively implemented this policy. It is now constructing a new railway line that will replace the old one. The 700km line, which has been financed by the Export-Import Bank of China, is being built at a cost of USD 4 billion and is expected to be finalized by the end of this year. The other project that Ethiopia is considering is a second railway line that will link Djibouti through the Afar Regional State to the latter’s new Port of Tajura which will be fully dedicated to Ethiopian potash export upon completion.

Ethiopia also supplies Djibouti with 103 metric cube of pure drinking water per day free of charge from the broader zone of Shinele, in the Somali Regional State. Though Ethiopia has signed several agreements to export its electric power to a handful of neighboring countries such as Kenya and the Sudan, it took only few months to link to Djibouti and start delivering 50MW electric power. The two have also reached an agreement a few weeks ago to stretch another electric line through the Afar Regional State and double the supply.

Benefiting from Ethiopia’s aggressive implementation of infrastructural interconnection and economic interdependence, Djibouti on its part has envisaged a USD 9.8 billion ports and related services expansion.

The Port of Tajura, which is currently under construction, will fully serve Ethiopia’s potash export when completed in 2016, according to information obtained from the Port of Djibouti and Free Zones Authority. It also plans to construct a huge free industrial zone in collaboration with a Chinese company. The zone will host renowned international companies targeting Ethiopian investors and the potential market thereof, which otherwise depended on China and other European countries for imports.

Authorities of the two nations have met last week in Djibouti for their 21th round of Joint Ministerial Commission and signed several agreements that will lead to an economic integration.

The two sides have agreed on areas of transport, creation of cross boarder industrial zone, unification of their custom offices and others.

Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh, Minister of Finance and Economy of Djibouti, says that the two countries are now moving to the next step which is economic integration. During the Joint Ministerial Commission, Illyas Moussa Dawaleh signed an agreement with his Ethiopian counterpart Sufian Ahmed to establish cross-boarder industrial zones and to stretch an oil pipeline that will stretch from the port of Djibouti to Awash, a town in the Afar Regional State.

“Currently, Ethiopia is planning to be the hub of light manufacturing in Africa. So, to make Ethiopia’s industrial output accessible to the rest of world, we have to be very closer to the market and be a competitive outlet,” he told reporters.

The minister’s statement is also echoed by Djibouti’s Ambassador in Addis Ababa.

Ambassador Mohamed Idris was appointed in Addis Ababa in 2011 and he had ample time to witness the evolution of the cooperation between the two countries which he says is growing very encouragingly.

“We are now working for a full scale economic integration. To go forward we conduct ministerial meetings every month,” he said.

Political Integration:

Despite the fact that the economic integration between the two states is at its early stages, a higher agenda of political integration is emerging out from the high ranking authorities of the two states, including the heads of government.

Last weekend, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn paid an official visit and addressed the National Assembly of Djibouti where he grabbed the attention of Djiboutian MPs boldly lauding the idea of political integration between the two states. By all measures, the PM’s visit was historic in its nature. For one, Hailemariam is the first Prime Minister to conduct the first official state visit to Ethiopia’s neighbor to the east. And by all measures, his parliamentary address was very historic.

“As I address you here today, high in my agenda is – protocols and formalities aside – a call to further action in our quest to meeting the perennial demands of our two peoples for an ever closer cooperation, an even greater economic and social union and, who knows, an even closer political integration that simply logically follows from our belief in and dedication to fulfilling our historic common destiny,” he told the assembly, adding, “I don’t know what name political scientists or pundits will give to that sort of closeness but we are slowly but surely inching towards it because, after all, that is what our two peoples so passionately desire and our children so richly deserve”.

Similarly, it is to be remembered that President of Djibouti, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, on his part, told visiting journalists from Ethiopia two months ago that the two nations should apply political integration if it is the will of the public.

“Why not political integration?” asks the veteran ambassador, Mohamed Idris. Historical fact or not, the once speculated oneness between the two nations seems to be on slow move maybe this time around to rewrite history once and for all.


By: Yohannes Anberbir