Since PM Abiy came to power there is always this ambition of rebuilding Ethiopian navy. I personally do appreciate our PM and his current team are doing to reform and uplift whole country to new era. I also have no issue with his intention of rebuilding Ethiopian Navy and do respect whichever direction this decision goes. However, looking at things practically, I feel that this ambition of rebuilding Ethiopian navy is more influenced by emotions than rational thinking. It looks like we have not learned anything from our past. Let’s go back in time to the beginning of 1990s and try to find out what actually happened to Ethiopian Navy and assets following years.
When Eritrea gained independence in 1993, Ethiopia suddenly found itself without a coastline (land locked). The Ethiopian Navy remained in existence, left in the curious and unusual position of having no home ports. Nonetheless, directed by its headquarters in Addis Ababa, it continued occasional patrols in the Red Sea from ports in Yemen. In 1993, Yemen finally expelled the Ethiopian ships; by then some had deteriorated too much to be seaworthy, and the Ethiopians left them behind in Yemen. Ethiopia (built in 1942 in USA and one of the oldest yet iconic Ethiopian navy ship – was taken on loan from US Navy in 1962 and later purchased on 1976) had become a hulk after arriving in Yemen in 1991 and was sold for scrap in 1993; other Ethiopian ships were also scrapped or scuttled.
Those ships which could get underway from Yemen in 1993 moved to Djibouti. For a time, it was thought that the Ethiopian Navy might survive, based at Assab in Eritrea or at Djibouti, and Ethiopia even requested that Eritrea lease it pier space at Assab from which to operate the surviving Ethiopian Navy. Eritrea refused the request. Proposals also were made for Eritrea and Ethiopia to divide the ships, with ships manned by both countries operating from Eritrean ports as a kind of successor to the Ethiopian Navy, but Eritrea soon expressed a desire to organize an entirely separate Eritrean Navy.
By 1996, Djibouti had tired of having a foreign navy in its ports. The Ethiopian Navy had fallen behind in paying its harbor dues, and under this pretext Djibouti seized all of the remaining ships on 16 September 1996 and put them up for auction to pay the back dues. Eritrea expressed interest in 16 of them, but finally limited itself to purchasing only four of them – an Osa-II class missile boat and three Swiftships Shipbuilders patrol craft – in order to avoid exacerbating an international crisis with Yemen. The rest of the ships were scrapped.
Later in 1996, the Ethiopian Navy headquarters in Addis Ababa disbanded, and the Ethiopian Navy ceased to exist. Its only remnant is the patrol boat GB-21; moved inland to Lake Tana and manned by Ethiopian Army personnel, she survived as of 2009 as Ethiopia’s only military watercraft (unknown if this patrol boat still exists).
All serving Naval officers and ratings were abandoned to take care of themselves. Some managed to seek refuge in Europe, USA or other developed countries. Some of the officers/ratings managed to find job in merchant navy in Ethiopian Shipping Lines or other private shipping companies in Gulf areas. The youngest officers / ratings at the time of disbandment of the Ethiopian navy will be by now at least 45 years old. Not actively involved in Navy duties means right now almost all of them are not fit to resume or to be reinstated into Naval duties.
If we have to pin point the only reason why Ethiopian Navy disappeared from existence was the country’s lack of its own port. If we had our own port, we would have managed to secure our naval assets in one place and maintained the competency of our naval officers/ratings. So, what have we learn from the past?
From limited information released through our mass media, one of the top decorated army generals claimed the plan is to build Ethiopian Navy 60 Km with in “the Red Sea and Indian Ocean”. I am equally eager to digest the meaning of this, I am also challenged with all types of questions how this is going to materialize. Let’s see below points:
Right now, the country is facing shortage of budget and foreign currency. We are no.1 borrower from China with huge loan we might not be able to pay in hundreds of years. We cannot afford to have another debt from China. Acquiring and maintaining Naval assets is expensive affair. It is capital intensive business. When it comes to Naval force, there is no return – no profit- it is always expenditure. That makes it more complicated.
- Protection from what?
There is actually nothing to protect. We do not have sea ports, offshore assets or any perceived threat from sea side. Our ill-performing commercial ships are protected by International Convention – UNCLOS – the only reason ships – even those belonging to land locked countries- are sailing all around the world without any issues. Even if we expect any attack from sea side, Red Sea is just 60 miles from Afar region. Airforce equipped with the right fighter planes and onshore infrastructure can equally execute counter attack in any part of Red Sea or Gulf of Aden. As for protection of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), there are other countries naval forces present in this part of SLOCs who have sent their naval forces to protect Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region with much sophisticated assets. So, what are we really trying to protect with Ethiopian Navy? Nothing.
- Legal aspect
In times of peace, Ethiopian Navy ships may not face any restriction other than the ones mentioned in United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas- UNCLOS, specifically with the rights of innocent passage and right of transit passage. However, in times of war, our naval ships will be restricted to high seas and hence isolated from the main land. If we end up having issue with Eritrea, Djibouti, Yemen or Somalia, then it will be very hard for our naval ships to sail in territorial waters or even transit Bab-el Mandeb. This is also linked to below point.
How we plan to support the Navy if it is 60 miles at sea? How we arrange supplies of weapon, food, etc.? Still we need to cross other countries whether Eritrea or Djibouti, whether on land or airspace. So how is that planned? What is the cost of that? Is it viable? What will happen to logistics arrangement in time of war? This is the biggest challenge of all.
Possibly if this ambition to have some sense of logic, the first and foremost attempt would be for Ethiopian government to acquire coastal area (ideally one mile stretch of coastal area close to Assab port) either from Eritrea or other neighboring countries. This can be either in the form of long-term lease or some mutual agreement with a time span of at least 100 years. Then we can build our own port, build shore infrastructures, training facilities and then acquire naval ships. Again, this is capital intensive, time consuming adventure yet achievable ambition. Unless things move in this direction, I am quite sure any other attempts will be doomed to failure and huge financial loss.
(Photo: International line-up during the Ethiopian Sea Day January 1969; Left: HMS LEANDER (lower) and GNEVY (above). Right: USS LUCE (above), the ETHIOPIA (centre) and COMMANDANT BORY (lower). Source: www.iwm.org.uk)