Over the past year, since the Government of Ethiopia accepted and agreed to implement the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission decision, ((http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/27076-agreement-on-peace-friendship-and-comprehensive-cooperation-between-the-federal-democratic-republic-of-ethiopia-and-the-state-of-eritrea-)) Eritrea and Ethiopia have engaged in broad-based relations. These relations have touched on cultural shows, ((http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/28047-eritrean-national-cultural-troupe-concludes-tour-to-ethiopia-))sports shows, ((http://shabait.com/news/local-news/28162-eritrea-wins-gold-medal-in-elite-team-trial-)) as well as discussions addressing economic coordination.
Within less than a year of the signing of the Eritrea Ethiopia Peace and Friendship Agreement, Eritrea’s regional detractors have made an about face in terms of their relations with Eritrea, including: Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Sudan. Consequently, many analysts have changed their perception of the Horn of Africa region in general, and Eritrea specifically.
Recently, the French President, Emmanuel Macron visited Djibouti and followed with a trip to Ethiopia. During President Macron’s visit to Ethiopia, he signed a defense cooperation agreement where France would cooperate on aerial operations, joint operations, and provide opportunities for training and equipment purchases as well as in establishing an Ethiopian naval component. ((https://www.janes.com/article/87195/france-ethiopia-sign-defence-accords-to-create-navy)) Coupled with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister’s statement that Ethiopia planned to re-establish a navy, ((https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-02/landlocked-ethiopia-plans-to-build-navy-prime-minister-says)) speculators have tried to determine where this would be located. Social media (read: Facebook and Twitter) users were in a state of hysteria at the suggestion that Eritrea would be the home to the new Ethiopian naval base. Some background would give some calm to the issue.
Djibouti was France’s last colonial subject and is the site of its largest overseas military posts. Djibouti also hosts numerous foreign military bases (including, the United States, France, Japan, and China). ((https://www.graphicnews.com/en/pages/35604/MILITARY-China%E2%80%99s-Djibouti-naval-base)) Djibouti is also the largest outlet for Ethiopian exports, and conversely the largest customer of the port is Ethiopia. ((https://www.voanews.com/a/ethiopia-new-coastal-rail/3537554.html)) Consequently, Djibouti and Ethiopia have a special relationship.
Formerly, Eritrea’s port of Assab served as the primary outlet for Ethiopia. With the recent declaration of peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, it is anticipated that substantial trade will return to the port of Assab. In the past, Ethiopia has claimed Assab as Ethiopian territory. Based on the Eritrea Ethiopia Friendship and Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement, both the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission decision and decision to respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of both States, ((http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/27076-agreement-on-peace-friendship-and-comprehensive-cooperation-between-the-federal-democratic-republic-of-ethiopia-and-the-state-of-eritrea-)) this claim has effectively staunched. With that claim having been extinguished, Eritrea and Ethiopia have moved forward building new relations.
Assab is already home to a military facility for the UAE ((https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/uae-joins-exclusive-club)). Similarly, the UAE has engaged with Somaliland to build a port and facility in Berbera, Somaliland. ((https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-06/u-a-e-military-base-in-breakaway-somaliland-seen-open-by-june)). Ethiopia has invested in the Berbera port as well. ((https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/ethiopia-invests-in-its-neighbors-ports))
Some speculation even leads to Kenya as a future home to an Ethiopian naval base. ((https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-08/landlocked-ethiopia-may-establish-naval-base-at-kenyan-port)) A southern home for the Ethiopian navy, in a relatively stable, affluent neighbor, such as Kenya may be strategically valuable. There is little economic advantage however, though it could be a benefit to the troubled “Lapsset project – a transport corridor that envisions linking Ethiopia and South Sudan to Kenya.” France however, has little background to the Lapsset project and Ethiopia/Kenya relations.
If France were to cooperate with Ethiopia to provide naval capabilities, it would likely be from a position that France was already equipped to provide substantial assistance. Similarly, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and France are privy to a special relationship with one another (less so between Ethiopia and France). Consequently, because of France’s deep interest in Djibouti, Ethiopia’s deep relationship with Djibouti and France’s agreement to assist Ethiopia in the establishment of the navy, Djibouti is the most likely home to Ethiopia’s future naval component. Less likely is Assab, Eritrea (a base for Ethiopia’s navy during Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrea) or in Berbera, Somaliland.