When Djibouti makes international headlines, it is usually in connection with the many superpowers that have built military bases on its shore. France, the United States, China, Italy and Japan all have a major military presence in the tiny East African nation. But for Djibouti’s government, there is another major power that is even more important: Ethiopia.
It is difficult to overstate just how dependent Djibouti’s economy is on its much larger neighbour. There is almost no fresh water in Djibouti, so it must import water from Ethiopia. Most of its electricity comes from Ethiopia too. Little grows in Djibouti’s arid desert landscape, so fresh fruits, vegetables and grains are trucked across the Ethiopian border every day.
Economically, by far Djibouti’s most valuable assets are its ports. But these too are almost entirely reliant on a healthy trading relationship with Ethiopia, which, being landlocked, requires an outlet to the sea.
More than a century ago, when the old Port of Djibouti was built by the French colonisers, it was connected with a railway that linked Addis Ababa to Djibouti City. Given the size differences of the two countries – today Ethiopia’s population is more than 100 million, while Djibouti’s is less than 1 million – the port was never about trade with Djibouti, but trade with Ethiopia. It is no coincidence that today, the new Doraleh Container Terminal is the end of the line for the new Chinese-built Addis-Djibouti standard gauge railway.
If trade from Ethiopia dries up, ships will no longer be queuing at sea for their turn to dock at these ports. This is significant because there are two separate situations that threaten the trading relationship between Ethiopia and Djibouti. The first is the brewing political crisis in Ethiopia.
In February, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly submitted his resignation. Immediately, the ruling party declared a state of emergency, which was recently ratified by Parliament. Despite this, the widespread anti-government protests continue, especially in the Oromia region which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa, as well as in Amhara Region. At the same time, a power vacuum within the ruling coalition has created uncertainty about Ethiopia’s political future, prompting fears of further instability. A new prime minister is expected to be announced soon.
This is potentially very bad news for Djibouti. Any disruption to Ethiopia’s economy will have a knock-on effect on Djibouti, while a political crisis may precipitate a humanitarian emergency that would result in an increase of refugees across the border. Although Djibouti has recently reformed its refugee laws, earning praise from the United Nations Refugee Agency, it remains ill-equipped to deal with a major refugee influx.
Ethiopia is considered an anchor in the Horn of Africa, so any disruption will have knock-on effects. ‘Unrest in Ethiopia has serious implications for regional stability,’ says Emily Estelle, a senior analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.