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Mahamoud Ali Youssouf Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation
Mahamoud Ali Youssouf Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation

Mahamoud Ali Youssouf talks with Capital about the pillar of security and how it will help ensure all the progress in infrastructure remains a reality.

Capital: Let’s start from the regional and continental cooperation of the two countries, how is that progressing?

Mahamoud Ali Youssouf: Let me start by reminding all of us that Djibouti and Ethiopia have a very special relationship. It comes from a long history; it is also based on a very solid foundation. When I say solid foundation, it is more than economic interest; it is actually history, sharing cultural and traditional values. We can say that Djibouti’s and Ethiopia’s relationship is a role model for many countries because of those common denominators.

We started to build over now the past 2-3 decades, the best pillars on which we can contemplate and envision a bright future together, which means that when it comes to the economy and trade, we have first  attempted to bring the two countries together by linking them with strong infrastructure.

Of course, during the colonial era in Djibouti, there was the Djibouti-Ethiopia railway line. However, now its not working anymore so the two leaders decided that if we were to make a sustainable relationship between the two countries, we needed to build strong infrastructure.

That is why we managed to construct the electrified standard gauge railway line between Addis Ababa and Djibouti that has been inaugurated from both sides and which will be operational in one month and a half when the electrical infrastructure is completed. We had to build sub-stations in some places but this has been completed and  the management contract  has been signed with a Chinese company.

The second issue of course is the fiber optic interconnection, we did it, we even have two fiber optic interconnection lines from Addis-Djibouti. We do have a hydropower interconnection between Djibouti and Ethiopia that is also a really good example of what we can do when we are really determined to push forward with the integration agenda between the two countries.

We are currently working very hard to build the second transmission line between Djibouti and Ethiopia. So above all, what we want to do with the Djibouti and Ethiopia model is really make it work like a locomotive for the whole region.

If I say that our region is falling back from the integration agenda compared to ECOWAS, the Western part of Africa and even compared with the great lakes region, with the East African community and SADC. We are really falling back from our agenda of integration because of some political crisis that has been going on in this region for many years.

Djibouti and Ethiopia are trying to overcome those security and stability challenges prevailing in the region by speeding up the process of integration and hopefully we have managed to reach a very good stage of that integration process.

The second pillar on which we are trying to build our relationship is security. You know Djibouti and Ethiopia have been targeted by several enemies like the terrorist movement called al-Shabaab from Somalia, we have also a trouble making neighbor called Eritrea that is still developing a kind of aggressive policy against the two countries.

So we needed to build, security wise, a very strong relationship between Djibouti and Ethiopia. We have managed so far, to keep our countries safe from those aggressions and attacks and we continue to collaborate and coordinate in the security field.

The third pillar is of course trade and cultural exchanges. Djibouti is indeed the main gateway to Ethiopian imports and exports and Djibouti is going to increase its capacity to become the biggest import port and export port for Ethiopia. Now we are building several ports just to serve the Ethiopian market.

We do have a bulk port where grains, fertilizers and all kind of products can come through. We already have two container terminals, we are now building what we call a multi-purpose port where containers will be handled and bulk cargo as well.

We already have an old terminal serving the Ethiopian market, now we are also thinking of building a specialized port to export frozen products from Ethiopia with investors from the Netherlands. They are ready to build that port where there will be facilities to assist in the export of many products from Ethiopia; flowers, vegetables, fruits and so on, that requires a cold store chain. This is under study and the specialized port will soon be built.

In the northern part of the country, we are building a mineral export port to help Ethiopia export its potash from the low land and Afar Region. So, Djibouti is developing and deploying all kinds of effort to construct the necessary facility for Ethiopia’s economy to continue to grow. This is a two way, win win relationship. Whenever Ethiopia’s economy booms, gets the facilities it needs for its growth rate which has been so far a double digit growth rate, the more Djibouti benefits from that dynamic move in the increase of the Ethiopian economy.

The other is the cultural relationship, we cannot keep the cultural dimension quiet. We live in two countries in which the same communities live on both sides. We have cross border exchanges, we have cultural exchanges and we need to also find the right policies so that those cultural exchanges become really an asset and an added value to what we are doing in the economic, trade and security area.

We have a broad vision for the development of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. Our leaders, His Excellency the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn, President of the Republic of Djibouti Ismael Omar Guelleh, they are really the principals dragging the whole process forward and we are working with that vision of having  fully integrated countries in all the pillars I have talked about.

Capital: How do you evaluate the high level joint commission meeting that took place in both countries overthe last few years and how successful has the commission been?

Youssouf: We have a framework of bilateral cooperation meetings and it has several layers. The first layer is between the technical experts; they meet every 6 months, sometimes more often than that because we also have border commissions composed of civil servants from the Ministry of Interior of both countries.

Then we have the ministerial meeting at the foreign ministers level where other ministries also participate. This happens once a year. And time to time we have even higher level meetings between the leaders of the countries; it happens almost every two years. So we really meet regularly, we evaluate and monitor the level of implementation of what we decided and also at the same time, in between those periods of time, we have, regular, discussions at the ministerial level, and the ambassadorial level so that when there are pending issues, we try to sort them out as quickly as possible.

As I said, if you look of the analysis of many observers on the continent, Djibouti and Ethiopia’s integration process is quoted as an example, as a role model. So, I don’t say that there are no difficulties, problems and challenges when it comes to the implementation of a number of agreements or to resolve some pending issues, but generally speaking, the spirit is positive and we always try find a compromise so that we can quickly alleviate those problems.

The main objective of this is to avoid any bureaucratic bottlenecks, avoid any misunderstanding in the interpretation of a number of decisions made. Also, to try and speed things up; for instance when there is a big drought in Ethiopia, there is some assistance coming from abroad, at the same time we receive vessels transporting fertilizers and all kinds of stuff. So we always manage to give priority to what is urgent and we adapt ourselves to provide the best services to those Ethiopian shipping line vessels that are coming to the port of Djibouti.

This are technicalities that always need the assistance of the decision makers when the technical people are a little bit confused or they are not in the position to make a  strong and quick decision to avoid any congestion at the port or to make the transit and the transport of goods to Ethiopia go more smoothly.

Capital: In 2014, the two countries signed a security agreement to support each other and we hear that Ethiopian forces are present in Djibouti, especially in the northern part of the country; can you tell us more about that? Also what are the two countries doing to help stabilize Somalia?

Youssouf: As I said, security wise, we have very good cooperation. These are news stories saying.