By Siyad Abdigedi
The Horn of Africa is experiencing a return of 1880s; a period characterized with a mad rush into Africa by competing European powers – popularly referred as the Scramble for Africa. Nearly a century and a half later, foreign powers are all out again in competition for Africa, especially the Horn of Africa. This time inspired by slightly different motivations.
Countries in the wider Horn of Africa include Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and most recently Kenya and Uganda. Since the departure of the colonial powers, the drums of war never went silent in the horn of Africa thus remaining one of the deeply conflicted regions in the world.
Experiencing all sorts of wars including border wars, ethnic tensions and religious conflicts. These vicious cycles of war coupled with perennial famine left behind a trail of death and destruction across nations in this part of the globe. Lack of political will by the international community and weak states that merely struggled to survive derailed efforts to salvage the situation. For the longest time, the region remained isolated and left to deal with its own problems.
Most recently, however, we have witnessed a surge in the number of foreign actors showing interest in the region, Gulf States being most assertive ones. Most of these countries that lie on the western banks of the red sea have had a historic relationship with the Gulf that lie on the eastern shore, however, these renewed relations and the scramble by the Gulf states and other emerging powers for the region is quite strange and does beg the question of why now.
In the shortest time recently, the region has experienced a far-reaching change in its external security relations. A once abandoned corner is now a busy stage buzzing with activities from external forces each pursuing its own agenda.
The little darling
Djibouti has been the little darling for many of these new competing powers. It became an attraction spot not only for powers from the West but also the East. Apart from the United States, Japan and France, which were the first external forces to establish and maintain military bases in this tiny country, other foreign actors like China, India, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Italy, Spain and Russia have since joined the theatre, with some foreign forces expected to pour in. The race for bases literally turned Djibouti into a Garrison.
China and India are the latest entrants into this arena of competition. In 2017, China built its first naval base in Djibouti port of Doraleh after agreements with the Djibouti government. As part of its belt and road Initiative Africa, The Chinese have also built the Djibouti-Ethiopia rail, which has since proved a great economic breakthrough for both countries.
Last year, an Indian naval ship on a humanitarian mission made port calls twice at Djibouti, delivering tons of food supplies to Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic crisis was at its peak.
Djibouti is strategically located on the Bab El Mandeb strait, a passageway for approximately 40 percent of the global trade. It is 27km in width and links Red sea to the Gulf of Aden. Its geographical proximity to this important trade route and other conflict zones like Yemen and Somalia where most sea pirates sail from makes Djibouti an ideal base to counter any threat that would undermine the safety passage of goods along the red sea.
In 2015, UAE has established its first overseas military base in the Eritrean Port of Assab, a move that irked Ethiopia, which perceived Eritrea as a number one foreign threat to its existence. The establishment of the second military base in the port of Berbera has further caused displeasure among the Ethiopians and the Somalis. The latter saw the move as a total violation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty while the former was wary of the UAEs intensions in a region it considered its strategic backyard.
In 2016, relations between UAE and Ethiopia improved significantly following the signing of trade and investment agreements between the two nations where UAE helped in financing development projects in Ethiopia.
In Sept 2018, UAE and Saudi Arabia have achieved the greatest mediation breakthrough bringing to an end decades old rivalry between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The two countries have since then opened borders, resumed diplomatic ties and established embassies. They have also exchanged prisoners of war and allowed direct flights across cities.
Qatar and Turkey are other players that have long been into the scene way before UAE and Saudi Arabia. Turkey is a key player in the region with a special focus in Somalia – considering it its traditional ally. Its engagements with the Somali federal government ranges from political, social to security cooperation. Turkey helped Somalia in training its special forces called Gorgor.
Since 2014, a Turkish firm runs the port of Mogadishu, while other Turkish companies took the role of building roads, schools and hospitals. Between 2013-2015, Turkey facilitated mediation talks and discussions in Ankara between Somalia and Somaliland that has since flopped. Turkey has displayed the will to revive the talks and in 2018 appointed a special envoy to spearhead the effort.
Qatar on the other hand maintains the second biggest embassy in Mogadishu after Turkey. It has embarked on economic activities and implemented a wide range of development projects in Somalia. It is also in the process of building a seaport at Hobyo, which lies along a strategic pathway that leads to the red sea.
There is formation of strategic alliances and buildup of foreign military bases happening in the Horn of Africa.
The recent heightened rivalry between the Gulf States has been shifted across the Red Sea to the countries in the Horn of Africa, and therefore this can be viewed purely as show of might.
‘War with Iran’
Saudi Arabia is preparing for likelihood of future war with Iran, and is therefore shopping for alliances to fight along them. In Emiratis to build bases and ports in the region.
Djibouti’s proximity to the important routes for global trade makes it a strategic base to counter threats to global trade like piracy and terrorism.
Siyad is a security analyst with over 15 years experience.