Landlocked Ethiopia May Establish Naval Base at Kenyan Port

(Bloomberg) -- Ethiopia, landlocked since the secession of Eritrea a quarter century ago, may consider building a naval base in neighboring Kenya to strengthen its military capabilities, the head of the state shipping company said.

The facility could form part of a port the Kenyan government is building at Lamu, said Roba Megerssa Akawak, chief executive officer of the state-owned Ethiopian Shipping & Logistics Services Enterprise. The 390 billion-shilling ($3.87 billion) harbor near the border with Somalia is part of the so-called Lapsset project, a transport corridor that envisions linking Ethiopia and South Sudan to Kenya.

Information Minister Ahmed Shide said he was unaware of any discussions between the two countries, Ethiopia’s interest in Lamu is mainly economic and that Roba isn’t in a position to have knowledge about talks with Kenya’s government. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s call last month for the establishment of a naval force was “a future possibility,” the information minister said. “We can only give information when we know the future plan.”

Abiy secured an agreement with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta last month to develop land at Lamu for “logistical facilitation.” The country relies on Djibouti and Sudan for access to the sea.

Somaliland Port

Last year, Ethiopia agreed to take a share in a joint venture with DP World Ltd. to administer a port at Berbera, in the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland in northern Somalia, which will host a United Arab Emirates military airport and a naval base.

“Countries cooperate in naval activities and Ethiopia should really consider this,” Roba said in an interview in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa Wednesday. “The decision by the government to have naval interests in cooperation with other countries or of its own is very important and crucial and timely.”

A navy would be useful not only in protecting ESLSE’s fleet of 11 civilian vessels, which sail to the Indian subcontinent, the Far East and the Black Sea, but in protecting the “very volatile” Red Sea area where Ethiopia has other economic interests “and there are conflicting political interests,” Roba said.

Neighboring Djibouti, through which 90 percent of Ethiopia’s inbound trade is channeled, may be unsuitable for an Ethiopian naval facility because it already hosts facilities for global powers including the largest U.S. military base in Africa and the first such overseas post for China’s armed forces, Roba said.

‘Efficient’ Location

Djibouti is “controlled by naval forces that surround the area,” he said. “We are afraid perhaps in the future that even Djibouti may not have its own say to really decide on its own fate. This is quite a threat to Ethiopia.”

Roba considers Lamu “an efficient” location to host an Ethiopian base. “The distance from inland Ethiopia will be countered by other benefits,” he said, without elaborating.

Ethiopia disbanded its navy in 1996, three years after Eritrea gained independence after a three-decade war. The secession deprived Ethiopia of 2,234 kilometers (1,388 miles) of coastline. In 2015, the government adopted a logistics strategy to use multiple ports in the region to improve its external trade.

Kenyan Transport Principal Secretary Paul Maringa said he wasn’t able to comment because he doesn’t have details of the discussions with the Ethiopian government.

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