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Ethiopia and Djibouti have enjoyed a relationship based on mutual interest for many years. The two countries have moved forward and strengthened their connection through economic and political integration, becoming an example for African countries. However, one thing that seems to be missing is a connection between the people of the two nations.

Mohamed Idriss Farah who has been Djibouti’s Ambassador to Ethiopia since 2011 says this is his next mission; bringing the people together.  

Capital: Ethiopia’s and Djibouti’s relationship has blossomed in the last few years. As a result business between the two countries has grown faster than the existing facilities. How have the road and train projects been going and what can you tell us about the progress of obtaining land for a livestock holding area in Djibouti and parking space for trucks from Djibouti?

Amb. Mohamed Idriss Farah:  Ethiopia and Djibouti have had a good relationship for a long time and President Guelleh’s visit will move things forward. Though we are not quite done we have been working hard on the transportation system. Right now Ethiopia is attempting to acquire land to build a parking space for Djibouti’s trucks. Djibouti is also looking for land for livestock. Even though we have agreed on everything at the political level, the administrative process takes time.

Capital: What about the railway transportation between the two countries; it has been agreed that the public will soon be able to use it. Where are we on that?

Mohamed Idriss: On the Djibouti side we are ready; the problem is regarding the electricity. Some of the regions in Ethiopia were not ready so we are just waiting. We hope to start very soon, hopefully by May for the passenger service and of course transporting goods.

Capital: What about the road transportation between the two countries. For example between Ethiopia and Sudan, we have just started a road transportation project costing about USD 60 to drive from Addis to Sudan instead of flying.

Mohamed Idriss:  It is not very expensive to travel from Djibouti to Dire Dawa but I don’t really know the exact cost from Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa. The most urgent thing is to have a highway connecting Djibouti and Ethiopia. We know this is going to cost a lot of money; it is USD one million for one kilometer. However, it is really important to have this road because using only the railways is not really feasible. So to connect our people it is better to have this highway. You can imagine if you leave from Addis Ababa in the morning and arrive in Djibouti in the afternoon, how convenient that would be. With the current road we have, that goes from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, you lose time. I myself used this road two years ago and it took me almost 14 hours. It is really long and that is why we need to build the highway between Djibouti and Ethiopia and we both agree on that.

Capital: The other issue is the customs at the border area; both for the road and railway, any progress on having a common customs post?

Mohamed Idriss:  We do need to have a common border post and we have agreed politically to do this but once again there are administrative issues holding up the process. It is amazing coming to Ethiopia from Djibouti, to have to go through two immigration and two customs stations. It doesn’t make sense. We are working to foster public integration, we are working to connect our people and having two immigration and two customs checkpoints is not efficient. In Djibouti we are ready, Ethiopia agrees as well but we need to work very quickly because the railway service is going to start very soon and it is not possible to have the train stop in two different places between the two borders for the two immigration and customs posts. I expect our two leaders to discuss this during our President’s visit.

Capital: Your country imports products like cereal, fruit and vegetables from Ethiopia. How much is the trade volume between the two countries? How can it expand more?

Mohamed Idriss: Because the travel time is so long many of the vegetables are spoiled before they reach their destination. Currently 400 to 500 tons of fruits and vegetables are being transported every week from Ethiopia and we would like to import more; so we really need to have a highway and get the railway up and running. Almost all of our cereals, fruits and vegetables come from Ethiopia and when you consider that we have almost a million people in Djibouti four to five hundred tons per week is not sufficient. With the new infrastructure we could double that amount.

Capital: You have been asking agricultural products (like teff, lentils, coffee, corn, chili powder) and animal feed be allowed on the border trade. Have you received a positive response from the Ethiopian side?

Mohamed Idriss:  Yes we have gotten a positive response from Ethiopia. There has always been trade around the border area; again there were some administrative concerns but our governments have agreed to work to increase border trade. Some of the issues are at customs level and that even if there is a trade agreement between the two nations a clear understanding of the rules does not always trickle down to the local or regional level. We need to work to communicate better.

Capital: Ethiopian drivers say that they are mistreated by some Djiboutian service providers and the Ethiopian government asked to resolve the problem so the corridor can operate smoothly. What is the situation currently?

Mohamed Idriss: We are working on it. Ethiopian people and Djiboutian people are the same people. The issue has also been brought to the President Guelleh who has instructed the Minister in charge and the Chairman of the Djibouti Port and Free Zone Authority to look into this problem and to come up with solutions. Some freight forwarders who were found to have misbehaved had their licenses revoked as well.

Capital: A study for the second Ethio-Djibouti Power System interconnection project was planned. Is there any development on that? What amount of additional power will Djibouti purchase?

Mohamed Idriss: Currently we have almost 80 percent of our electricity coming from Ethiopia; I received this information from Djibouti this week. The feasibility study for the second line has been finalized; it will be financed by the Kuwaiti Fund. The company that was working on it was a Belgium company called Tractebel Engineering SA. And we have received the document from Tractebel; Ethiopia has also received it. Now we are talking about how and when we will start as the funds have already been secured. And this second line is very important for us in case the other one fails.

Capital: How is the investment of Djiboutian citizens here in Ethiopia?

Mohamed Idriss:  It is hard to encourage business people from Djibouti to come and invest in Ethiopia when it is difficult to transfer money in hard currency. According to our current agreements, an Ethiopian can go to Djibouti and invest in the country abiding by the local law and a Djiboutian can do the same thing in Ethiopia. The problem is the financial system in Ethiopia is closed. We hope to see the financial system opening soon because it would lead to more economic integration. We do have freight forwarders working in Ethiopia but we don’t have big Djiboutian investors coming into Ethiopia because the system is closed. We try to work on it from our side to encourage it. One of my plans is to organize an economic forum between our business communities. We are working on economic integration, but our business communities haven’t connected. So after the official visit of our President we will try to organize the economic forum.

Capital: One way of connecting the two people is through education. The Ethiopian government is providing scholarships for undergraduate students from Djibouti to study in the Ethiopian higher education system. You are also looking at the post graduate (masters /PhD) level for your citizens. What can you tell us about that?

Mohamed Idriss: We have a lot of students in Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa alone we have close to 300 and across the country in general we have around 900. We do have scholarships offered by the Ethiopian government and we expect more students to come to Ethiopia and study.

Capital: Two years ago the two countries agreed on military cooperation to restore peace in the region. In addition to that Ethiopian forces are inside Djibouti to support the country in terms of border security in the north. Can you comment on that?

Mohamed Idriss: First of all we don’t have Ethiopian forces inside our country but of course we are working with Ethiopia very closely on security issues; not only in Somalia but also South Sudan. In Somalia we have our two forces working together along the border. Djibouti has around 2,000 soldiers in Somalia and Ethiopia has around 4,000 soldiers working together in the same area.

It was during the times of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that our President talked about working together because the area is too big for Djibouti. We are also cooperating with regard to intelligence on all issues.

Capital: You are getting ready to construct your embassy’s compound and residence. Please tell us more details about the project? How much it will cost and when it will be finalized?

Mohamed Idriss: We hope to start very soon. On Saturday 18th March we will have the official placement of the corner stone in the presence of President Guelleh and we hope to have the Ethiopian Prime Minister come for the ceremony.

Ethiopia has a big embassy in Djibouti because for Ethiopia Djibouti is very important. And so the new embassy’s stature should be akin to how important Ethiopia is to Djibouti.

When I first came here in 2011, Ambassador Berhane Gebre-Kristos who was State Minister of Foreign Affairs told me that the first embassy for Ethiopia was Djibouti and it is the same thing on our side, but we need to demonstrate how important Ethiopia is for us; so this construction is on the way. It is something that I have fought for, for the last five years

The contract will be signed with an Italian company and the design is made by Getaneh Geretta’s local architectural company, Geretta Consult Consulting Architects and Engineers with a Djiboutian firm.

The work will start at the beginning of April at the latest, and we expect it to be finalized in two years.

Capital: How do you evaluate your efforts to increase cooperation between Djibouti and Ethiopia even more since your term as ambassador began?

Mohamed Idriss: At the African Union, when we talk about economic integration and Agenda 2063, we always use Ethiopia and Djibouti as an example. It is similar to Germany’s relationship with France. Every time, I say, if you want to know about economic integration, look at the example of our two countries. Yet there is one element that is not there, and that is the connection between our people. Before I leave Ethiopia I want to work more on connecting the citizens of our two countries.

It is amazing for example to see Ethiopians going to Mombasa for vacation when Djibouti is very close. I believe people do not realize that there are a lot of recreational opportunities here.  So this people to people relationship is very important and I plan on addressing this especially through the media. We are neighbors, we are brothers, we are the same people; we succeed together and we fail together. So if our people do not have close relationships with each other, economic and political integration will be cumbersome. We need the people on board and that is not the case currently.