Ethiopians and Eritreans alike are celebrating the breakneck speed of a rapprochement between Addis Ababa and Asmara, two longtime enemies.
Closer ties between the two, while not necessarily a done deal, could usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for the Horn of Africa, resuming a thriving trade relationship and granting landlocked Ethiopia access to a new port.
Unfortunately, nearby Djibouti—which has successfully exploited its prime territory on the Red Sea to offer both port access and military bases to foreign countries—stands to lose.
At the least, this tectonic shift will reduce the revenues available to President Ismail Omar Guelleh, in power since 1999, and undermine his ironclad grip on the country.
At worst, Djibouti could prove a spoiler, which would threaten prospects for regional peace as well as longstanding US strategic interests in the Horn of Africa.
For decades, Djibouti was the undisputed winner of Ethiopian-Eritrean hostility and the latter’s international isolation.
The New Jersey-sized country of just under one million people has unique geostrategic advantages—its coastline spans the meeting of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a chokepoint through which significant amounts of the world’s energy supply and commerce pass every year.
While ports exist in Sudan, Somaliland, and Eritrea, Djibouti’s developed facilities, political stability, and investment-friendly atmosphere have proven more attractive than anywhere else in the region.
As a result, Djibouti has enjoyed a near-monopoly on moving goods to and from landlocked Ethiopia.
The United States also has longstanding security interests in Djibouti, including the only permanent US military base on the continent—a vital component of US counterterrorism operations in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Some 4,000 US military personnel are stationed at the American base, which extends to the nearby airport used to launch both armed and reconnaissance drones that operate in Somalia and Yemen.
Underscoring the country’s strategic importance to the Pentagon, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis visited Djibouti in April 2017, just months ahead of the opening of China’s first overseas military base there.
Additionally, France, Japan, Italy, and Saudi Arabia have bases of various sizes and capabilities in Djibouti.
Ethiopia and Djibouti have traditionally maintained a close political and economic relationship out of mutual necessity.
When the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war broke out in 1998, Ethiopia lost access to Eritrea’s port, an existential crisis for a landlocked country.
Since then, Ethiopia has overwhelmingly relied on Djiboutian ports to process its imports and exports: some 95 percent of Ethiopian imports transit through Djibouti.
Djibouti, too, relies on its larger neighbor, from which it imports freshwater and electricity.
Profits from Ethiopia’s use of Djiboutian ports—estimates top $1 billion annually—are a key source of Guelleh’s government revenue.