President Ram Nath Kovind will soon make his first foreign trip as Head of State to Ethiopia and Djibouti in a region that has acquired major significance as a result of geopolitical developments.
Formerly Abyssinia, Ethiopia hosts the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. It is located there mainly because Ethiopia is the only country in the continent never to have been colonised, and is considered to have successfully retained its African identity and culture. It has its own calendar and continues to use Amharic as its official language and script whereas the other countries have lost theirs over the years and use the Roman script.
Former French colony Djibouti has acquired significance because of military operations in the Gulf region and the heightened threat of terrorism. Its Camp Lemonnier is a permanent US naval expeditionary base located at the Djibouti airport for providing military support, forming a reconnaissance hub for drones across Africa and supporting aerial surveillance of the Persian Gulf. China has its own base right next to the US base. It is its first overseas military outpost ostensibly to provide logistical support for Chinese interests in the region, but possibly to start a base for its submarines. In addition, the Djibouti port has become strategically important and handles heavy traffic particularly since Ethiopia has to rely on it for all its trade after Eritrea broke away and left Ethiopia landlocked without access to the Red Sea.
Like President Kovind, many Indian heads of State have visited Ethiopia since 1952, probably the most to any African nation. This includes presidents S Radhakrishnan and VV Giri, vice-president Zakir Hussain and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who led India at the Second India-Africa Forum summit in Addis Ababa in 2011.
The previous State visits have each served to strengthen relations with Ethiopia, but did not significantly impact relations with other African countries notwithstanding the presence of the African Union in Addis Ababa. This is because the Ethiopians are ethnically and culturally diverse from the other countries of Sub-Saharan Africa except Rwanda. Besides African countries are independently minded so State visits to Ethiopia hardly make news in Botswana or Angola or impact the continent or its trade as a whole.
What should make a major impact is the president’s presence in Djibouti. There has been no visit to Djibouti by an Indian Head of State although the heads of state of Djibouti have made two visits to India since 2003. India’s relations in the region are fragile and are based fundamentally on India’s past and present contribution to school and college education in Ethiopia. Indian investments in the region, even in Ethiopia, are not significant enough, compared to China and the EU. The relations with French-speaking Djibouti are even more tenuous.
While Djibouti opened its embassy in New Delhi in 2004, India does not have an embassy in Djibouti, unlike the US and China. India’s relations are based on a handful of diaspora and limited trade links from ancient times.
If relations with Djibouti could be strengthened on the basis of providing skills, educational and medical facilities, which are perceived in the region as India’s three areas of greatest strength, it will not be too late for India to look for an opportunity to get a strategic toehold there, perhaps to set up a base for anti-piracy monitoring. It should be possible to achieve this if the president’s visit is well coordinated, help is taken from friends and allies, and most of all Djibouti is not underestimated in any way.
Amitava Chaudhuri is former UN and World Bank adviser in Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Sudan, South Africa and Botswana
The views expressed are personal
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