‘Ethiopia will not break up’ says Djibouti’s FM Mahmoud Ali Youssouf

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Wednesday, 29 September 2021 18:33

Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, Djibouti’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, on 21 October 2020, in Djibouti.

Djibouti’s foreign affairs minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf sits down for a candid interview on its relations with Ethiopia in the context of the Tigray crisis, regional stability, new representation on the continent and relations with France.

Appointed to head his portfolio for the first time in 2005, 56-year-old Mahmoud Ali Youssouf is an experienced foreign affairs minister. Although he was expected to take over the government after President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh’s re-election to a fifth term in April 2021, Youssouf was reappointed to his role as head of diplomacy, which he knows inside out, just like the geopolitics of the sub-region.

At a time when the situation in Ethiopia is beginning to raise fears about the stability of the Horn of Africa and beyond, he discusses what is at stake.

What five-year roadmap has the head of state given you?

Mahmoud Ali Youssouf: First of all, we want to continue to preserve peace and stability in our country and the region. This is a cross-border issue today because what happens in our neighbouring countries automatically affects us, both in terms of security and health, but also in economic terms.

We are going to be more active on the diplomatic front regarding this last aspect so that we can support our economy’s diversification towards sectors where we still have a lot to do, such as digital, tourism and energy. This economic diplomacy, which is focused on priority sectors, has become mandatory and necessary to support our country’s sustainable development. Our diplomatic representations abroad have been instructed to work in this direction. Our economic and trade attachés, the ambassadors themselves, must be this policy’s spokespersons.

Is this why a major reshuffle among your ambassadors has been underway since June? 

We have just relieved or retired four of our ambassadors and six others have been recalled. Their replacements are still being appointed, as is our first ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire, since we will be opening a diplomatic representation in that country very soon. Côte d’Ivoire is a powerhouse of the West African economy and also hosts the headquarters of the AfDB [African Development Bank]. Therefore, it is very important on a diplomatic level that we are opening our first embassy in West Africa, more specifically in Abidjan, as we are now aiming to attract investments.

The ambassadors of Ethiopia and Somalia are among those who have been recalled. Is this because of the current crisis in the sub-region?

Djibouti’s relations with its two neighbours are stable today. We need to maintain a close relationship with them, based on our shared interests in terms of security and a desire to develop trade and the economy. We have replaced our ambassadors because we feel that we need to change our diplomatic mission in the region.

Is your country feeling the effects of the crisis that has been shaking Ethiopia for several months?

Djibouti has been the first collateral victim of the Ethiopian conflict. Our economies are so interdependent that our relations are almost organic. Therefore, if our main trading partner experiences any disruptions, then this will have immediate repercussions – which we have begun to feel in recent weeks – for us.

Import and transit traffic has fallen sharply, while on the other hand, our products imported from Ethiopia, such as cereals, fruit and vegetables, are struggling to get through. The impact is real and we have no control over the course of events.

Do you fear a disaster scenario?

We are confident that Ethiopia will not break up. It is a complex country that is used to dealing with major crises. The transitional phase that began in recent years demonstrates the limits of the ethnic federalism that has been in place for 30 years. And a succession of unfortunate decisions made by both the central government and the TPLF [Tigray’s People Liberation Front] have led to this dramatic political and humanitarian situation.

It will take a long time for this crisis to be resolved. The solution can only be long-term and based on dialogue. This is what the international community wants and, from Djibouti’s point of view, it is the only desirable outcome. Today, it is very difficult to see how things will develop, but there is an urgent need for a ceasefire to be established as soon as possible. We are very concerned about the situation and we really hope that Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, will resolve this crisis. Djibouti wants to work with a united Ethiopia and see our economies continue to move towards greater integration.

What impact might Ethiopian communal tensions have on Djibouti’s Afar and Issa populations? Clashes occurred in early August in some areas of the capital…

Incidents have indeed taken place in some neighbourhoods where the two communities live. They were instigated by agitators who were quickly arrested and brought to justice. The Djiboutian political class as a whole must remain very vigilant on this issue and never give the impression of trying to import Ethiopian community problems to our country. Our government’s role is to preserve the country’s peace and stability and, to this end, closely follow the developments taking place in Ethiopia.

When he received Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in June, was Ismaïl Omar Guelleh not afraid of antagonising Addis Ababa, which is at loggerheads with Cairo over the Renaissance Dam?

Djibouti is not playing the Ethiopian card against Egypt or the other way around. It is not in its interest. As for the dam, our position is to remind our two brotherly countries that they must above all prioritise dialogue. And this is exactly what we reminded President Sissi of during his visit.

Djibouti seems to be able to count on France’s support amidst this delicate regional context. How would you describe your relations with Paris today?

They are very good indeed. The two heads of state understand each other and are of the same mind when it comes to regional issues. In the past, we may have had the impression that Paris had perhaps not full appreciated the importance of this relationship, especially in ensuring stability in the sub-region.

Today, this is no longer the case. Despite rumours, France and Djibouti’s partnership is solid. It was reaffirmed last February in Paris when the two presidents agreed – in principle – to open negotiations and renew the defence cooperation treaty that will bind the two countries for another 10 years.

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