Rebirth of Ethiopian Navy – emotions Vs rational thinking



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:

  1. Economy

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Logistically

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:


  1. With due respect, there was a time when the Ethiopian Navy and the then Ethiopian Shipping came from the same womb and supplemented one another to the suitability of both institution. While the Navy faded into the chapters of history unnoticed the shipping lines now survives partly by absorbing personnel from the ex-Navy, stream lined to its present lean form but facing a future buffeted by unfolding visions of inter-connectivity that corals Ethiopian Logistics and Maritime to its final resting place of irrelevance.
    The Future of Maritime Logistics lies in the new realms of possibilities sprouting from the expansion and unprecedented reaches by the ONE BELT ROAD tying land and sea distribution systems on a global scale by binding isolated national interest to regional level of collaboration for a meaningful all winners and all inclusive web of supply and distribution networks that promises a huge reservoir of jobs and services unimaginable and foolish to ignore. The ONE BELT ROAD transcends border limitations and consigns political motives to the mercy shared profit balances.
    Ethiopian Logistics and Maritime should do well not to fret about the “re-emergence” of the Ethiopian Navy and rather invest in studies as to how it could transform itself into integrating in somewhat meaningful role in that inter-connectivity maze of web of “short Haul” fleet requirements necessary to reach secondary or tertiary branches.
    A good example to follow is Ethiopian Airlines’ approach to position itself outside the box of political geographic borders into regional and continental powerhouse entity that captured the “national Airlines” coveted belonging to many African nations, Eritrea included, near and far . Should the ONE BELT ROAD ventures into air cargo branches Ethiopian Airlines’ cargo division will have no competitor in integrating as partner with meaningful influence..
    The allegation that the self-disbanded Ethiopian Navy ran a halfhearted operations of patrolling from the opposite, or eastern coast, of the Red Sea after 1991 of May is a figment of delusion , period. Further, with the characteristics of the Naval ships at hand, the Ethiopian Navy could only exist with a well defended coastline and homeland at its back . The Ethiopian Navy did not disappear without reasons – it sailed its fleet to safe heaven to adjacent Red Sea countries to the East after Eritrea was finally lost. Coming back to the issue at hand, the ex-navy personnel in their forties and older are still a formidable human resource, matured by new challenges and new frontiers to be simply discounted. Many had risen from the harshness of fate and proved their mantel by running the shipping fleets of the Gulfs and the Red Sea Eastern marine mobility. Many had bettered themselves in new professions they never even imagined to excel in. Neither are the older generation just pasture materials. They remain a rich encyclopedia of naval traditions and customs tailored to Ethiopians from experience transfers from dozens of Naval powers in the world, besides being so well weathered by retrospection and wisdom.
    Capt. Yigezu had dealt his opposition from various perspectives and rightly so. However, excepting from a title heading and few army officers in presence of smart naval officers , no official clarification as to nature and dept of the title was presented which forces more questions about intentions. Had the army officers been ex-naval officers in army uniforms, this may have lent some truth and justification for submitting opposition paper – except, not to my knowledge. But if the good Capt. had tackled the issue outside the box, the result of his paper might have provoked less consternation and contributed to more positive brain storming.


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