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Ethio-Djibouti truckers risk it all to reach port

In a heart-pounding quest fraught with danger and uncertainty, the brave truck drivers of the Ethio-Djibouti route embark on a perilous passage that pushes them to the edge. With every Kilometer they traverse along treacherous roads, they risk it all in their unwavering pursuit to reach the port of Djibouti. Battling through mud, enduring exhausting journeys, and facing a myriad of hardships, these truckers navigate a precarious path where the stakes are high, risking it all to transport vital goods and keep the wheels of commerce turning.

Damene Teshome, a 50-year old veteran truck driver, has firsthand knowledge of the challenges faced by a landlocked country. However, it’s not just Ethiopia that suffers as a landlocked country. Ethiopian truck drivers, according to drivers, associations, and Ethiopian officials, are risking everything, including their lives, every time they travel to Djibouti, due to the uncertainties and insecurities they face.

For over two decades, Damene has made the treacherous trip between Djibouti’s port and Addis Ababa, braving uncertainties and risks to his safety with every trip.

The risks are severe, as Damene explains, “Many of our fellow drivers have lost their lives on the Ethio-Djibouti route due to the absence of law. Some of our friends were killed after being asked for a large sum of money by Djiboutians for minor work. Kidnappings of drivers are also common on the Ethiopian side. Five to seven of my driving friends were killed in Wolenchti.”

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One of the sources of these problems, according to the drivers, is the lack of traffic rules in Djibouti.

“There are no international traffic signs on the roads, but the Gender Meria group of informal Djiboutian youth, take advantage of this and stop us, demanding payment claiming that we were speeding. Djiboutians ask Ethiopian drivers for money without any legal basis. If we fail to pay, they do whatever they want to us,” says Damene.

He believes Ethiopia’s dependency on ports leaves drivers vulnerable to extortion. Poor infrastructure only compounds the challenges.

The problem¸ Damene notes, has persisted since Ethiopia shifted its international route from the Eritrean port to Djibouti, which now handles over 96 percent of Ethiopia’s import-export shipments.

Mekonen Sheberu, a 24-year-old driver, shares Damene’s experience. He believes it is the drivers who bear the brunt of Ethiopia’s fate as a landlocked country.

“The accumulated stress takes a toll on our health, as we also face abuse. Ethiopian human rights groups and the government itself have completely failed to advocate for exploited workers, upon whom the nation depends, Mekonen said.

“This sector is plagued by labor exploitation, yet representatives have achieved minimal progress,” he explained.

The mistreatment and exploitation of Ethiopian truck drivers continue to plague their journeys to and from Djibouti. Upon arrival at Djibouti ports, the loading process itself is rife with “illegal practices and resembles slavery,” according to the drivers and officials of the drivers’ association.

Basic needs are denied, and drivers are extorted, sometimes paying “5,000 to 8,000 birr for something as simple as using a restroom.” Any individual in Djibouti can stop Ethiopian drivers and demand money, creating a situation where drivers are held hostage have had to escape, according to the drivers and their association. The “Gender Meri,” exert a negative influence on the drivers’ experiences.

The challenges faced by Ethiopian drivers in Djibouti extend beyond the loading-unloading  process, says drivers and association officials The Reporter talked to. The Djiboutian authorities’ customs procedures are hectic, and officials handle Ethiopian drivers in an inhumane manner. Services are priced exaggeratedly for minor tasks, and paperwork can be delayed for days. Loading and unloading charges are unnecessarily high, adding to the burdens faced by Ethiopian drivers, they said.

Despite the vital role Ethiopian truck drivers’ play in facilitating trade between Ethiopia and Djibouti, their experiences are filled with immense challenges and hardships.

Alemayhu Abebe, the manager of the Ethiopian Liquid Cargo Owners Association, expresses deep concern about the worsening problems.

“The problems didn’t start today; they happen every time. Now the problems are very severe, and it is extremely dangerous to go there,” Alemayhu says.

As soon as the drivers enter Djibouti’s border, the Manager says, drivers face numerous problems. “Their human rights are not protected, and if a driver makes any mistakes, the process does not follow the rule of law. Individuals in Djibouti impose punishments on drivers as they see fit, without any legal recognition or due process in a court of law,” he said.

“It is challenging to measure the abuse of the traffic police,” added Alemayhu, shedding light on the mistreatment and lack of protection for drivers’ basic human rights upon entering Djibouti.

The relationship between Ethiopia and Djibouti is intended to address the needs of both countries and find mutually agreeable solutions. Alemayhu highlights the stark difference in treatment between Djiboutian drivers in Ethiopia and Ethiopian drivers in Djibouti

“When Djiboutian drivers come to Ethiopia, nobody will touch them or ask them anything. However, when Ethiopian drivers go there, they are treated inhumanely and subjected to abuse. Failure to address these issues properly also damages diplomatic relations,” Alemayhu emphasized, adding, this requires proper attention from the Djibouti embassy and the Ethiopian foreign ministry.

Alemayhu recounts a recent incident where a driver was falsely accused of stealing fuel, resulting in his unlawful detention for nearly 20 days without tangible proof or a judicial decision. Such actions, according to him, not only violate individual rights but also pose significant risks to the benefits of both countries.

He says governments must establish clear rules and protect their citizens from such injustices. Alemayhu believes that bilateral agreements should have been in place to safeguard Ethiopian drivers, but currently, there are no documented rights or obligations between the two countries.

Solomon Zewdu, the manager of the Ethiopian Heavy Truck Drivers Association, echoed these concerns, stating that all drivers in the sector face harassment. Additionally, the poor road infrastructure in Djibouti poses dangers, with roads often being dangerously damaged and leading to truck overturns and closures. This situation leaves drivers stranded without necessary assistance, creating further

opportunities for abuse by hostile actors who exploit the drivers by demanding large sums of money.

The Ethiopian Heavy Truck Drivers Association represents over 15,000 truck drivers, making it crucial to address their concerns and improve their working conditions

Solomon highlights specific concerns regarding the road from Afar to Djibouti port, stating that 80 kilometers of it consists of nothing more than a treacherous “mud road.” Currently, trucks require up to 12 hours to reach the port, whereas a suitable road would usually facilitate the journey in just two hours. Despite Ethiopia’s repeated appeals for improvements, the government of Djibouti has refused, leaving drivers in a state of helplessness.

Consequently, many trucks permanently break down along the hazardous route, compelling drivers to bear the financial burden of repairs themselves.

Managers and senior logistics operators attribute the challenges faced by Ethiopian drivers and logistics companies in Djibouti to the Ethiopian government’s inaction.

“Officials at the Ministry of Transport, Customs Commission, Ethiopian Shipping and Logistics Enterprise, and other authorities have maintained a deafening silence. They should have exerted pressure on their Djiboutian counterparts to put an end to such abuses,” expressed a senior logistics expert and manager of a logistics firm, who requested anonymity.

The expert argues that given Ethiopia’s substantial financial contributions for using the Djibouti port, it is only logical for Ethiopia to assume management responsibilities rather than leaving it in the hands of Djibouti.

“The bureaucratic processes, working hours, and procedures in Ethiopia and Djibouti differ significantly. Djiboutians expect us to conform to their work culture, but the onus should be on them to adapt, as Ethiopia is the primary user of the Djibouti port. If Ethiopia were to cease using it, who else would step in? Ethiopia must negotiate a new port usage contract agreement with Djibouti,” the expert asserted.

Recent developments indicate that Alemu Sime (PhD), the newly appointed Minister of Transport and Logistics, possesses a deeper understanding of the severity of the situation compared to his predecessors.

In an effort to address the concerns, he embarked on a trip to Djibouti last week, where he engaged in discussions with Ethiopian drivers, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Djibouti, and Djiboutian authorities. Alemu conducted a meeting with over 200 drivers based in Djibouti, aiming to gain first-hand insight into their challenges.

“The Minister deliberated on the ongoing issues with the 200 selected drivers, assuring them that he is committed to resolving the problems. He also mentioned his intention to communicate with the Djiboutian ambassador,” shared a representative of the drivers.

Nevertheless, Solomon remains skeptical of the extent to which the issue will be truly understood and addressed. “Despite the positive diplomatic relations between Djibouti and Ethiopia, the plight of Ethiopian drivers has persisted throughout the tenures of various Ethiopian officials. These problems have endured for the past three decades, and rather than improving, they have only worsened,” Solomon remarked.

He emphasized that a viable solution can only be achieved if the Ethiopian government exerts pressure on its Djiboutian counterpart to establish a binding bilateral agreement. Such an agreement should stipulate the mandatory management of the port and synchronize Djibouti’s working system with Ethiopia’s logistics operations.

“The rights and obligations of drivers should be explicitly stated in the guidelines. The safety and security of Ethiopian drivers and their cargo must be prioritized. The Ethiopian and Djiboutian governments must take responsibility for the problems we are facing. As the situation stands, it is unclear who will take responsibility for protecting citizens,” stressed Solomon.

He further revealed that the Association is currently preparing to formally engage with Ethiopian transport authorities, the federal police, and the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a concerted effort to resolve the predicaments encountered by Ethiopian drivers and logistics operators in Djibouti.

A few months ago, Bouho Said, an official at the Djiboutian embassy in Addis Ababa, addressed the issue in a letter sent to The Reporter.

Said stated, “In the event of specific problem, the Djiboutian authorities always hasten to solve it, in collaboration with the Ethiopian authorities.” However, the official also pointed out that no formal complaints have been officially lodged by Ethiopian drivers or operators.

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