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Changing Dynamics in the Horn of Africa

One overall truth: addressing Horn issues sensitively will pay off, whereas those who try to manipulate them will lose.

Samson Berhane

Historically, the Horn of Africa has features distinct from other parts of Africa. Because of its proximity to the Red Sea, the region has been considered as important global trade routes, linking emerging markets with cheap labor and natural resource deposits.  It is also a region where the world’s two biggest faiths, both Islam and Christianity, took root just a few years after their inception.

But for centuries, the area has also been known for protracted armed conflict, severe food crises, and large-scale displacement for decades, including the civil war in Somalia and South Sudan, piracy off the coast of Somalia, proximity to the Yemen war and ethnic clashes in Ethiopia.

And over the past few decades, for many in the diplomatic sphere, there is great strategic importance in the region, and one overall truth: addressing Horn issues sensitively will pay off, whereas those who try to manipulate them will lose. Even more, this seems to be more understood lately amongst superpowers and emerging rivalries as the region is returning to a place of great geopolitical importance.

Djibouti, for instance, hosts the largest number of foreign military bases than any other African country. So far, the US, French, Italian, Japanese and Chinese forces have set up their military base inside the tiny Horn of the African nation.

Turkey, one of the biggest investors in the Horn, has already built a military training academy in Somalia and Qatar, while reportedly developing another one in Sudan, where Qatar agreed to finance a four-billion-dollar worth port.  Be that as it may, Russia, the largest supplier of arms to the region, is in talks with officials of Eritrea, Sudan, and Djibouti to establish a military base.

“As the role of United States’ as the dominant external actor is increasingly being challenged, the jostling for influence among other states has led to the militarization of the Red Sea region and has further fractured an already fragmented political and security landscape,” argued Payton Knopf, an adviser to the Africa Program at the US Institute of Peace.

So far, no hostility has been developed amongst foreign military forces and superpowers, but analysts fear that regional stability could be negatively impacted as geopolitical, commercial, and military competition persists. This is especially true as new players, such as China, are emerging as a leading power in the region.

The Asian giant, beyond building its first overseas base in Djibouti, has financed a four-billion-dollar worth railway connecting the tiny Horn of African nation with Ethiopia, a country that has borrowed USD12 billion from Chinese Ex-Im bank to finance its infrastructural development projects.

In the same fashion, Chinese authorities, using belt and road initiative as a pretext, are attempting to gain a foothold in Eritrea, a country on the Horn of Africa that rarely appears in geopolitical discussions.

UAE is also another major player in the race to establish a sphere of influence in the Horn. It has built a military base in Eritrea and has pumped USD442 million to expand the port of Berbera in Somalia. Its close ally, Saudi Arabia, in its part, also played a big role for Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement and it has hosted a peace agreement ceremony, a move that officially meant to end the deadliest border war between the two horn of African countries. 

A year ago, subsequent to the official visit of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, to Ethiopia, the UAE committed three billion dollars in aid and investments to Ethiopia. That was followed by a half a billion-dollar aid from Saudi Arabia. While Ethiopia’s alliances seem to point to a radical shift in foreign relations, many warned that the region’s most populous country is playing a dangerous game.

Speaking to The Somalia Investor Magazine, Omar S. Mahmood, a Horn of Africa researcher based in Addis, also warn that Middle East states must be wary that their interventions do not inadvertently bring more harm than good. “This has been especially apparent when pursuing narrow interests or competitive policies, such as the machinations in Sudan after Bashir or the extension of the GCC crisis to the Horn of Africa,” he observes.

“As the role of United States’ as the dominant external actor is increasingly being challenged, the jostling for influence among other states has led to the militarization of the Red Sea region and has further fractured an already fragmented political and security landscape,”

Payton Knopf, an adviser to the Africa Program at the US Institute of Peace.

Keeping the external militarization of the horn in mind, Neil Melvin, a Peace, and Security Expert suggests the improvement of regional cooperation in order to manage emerging tensions and competition, particularly those resulting from the presence of foreign forces. Knopf agrees.

“The rivalry amongst Middle East countries for influence tends to exacerbate some of the internal tensions and political and security dynamics in Ethiopia and Sudan, given their fragility,” he warns.

Meanwhile, as Al-Shabaab move away from its original goals and its Islamist roots, geopolitical analysts say it is transforming into a mafia-like organization which would be much harder to confront.

During a debate organized Chatham House, London-based think tank, Mohamed Guleid, Chief Executive Officer, Frontier Counties Development Council, argued that the flourishing of unregulated cross border trade in the Horn allowed Al-Shabaab to act as a policeman and make money from which it funds its continuing attacks.

“If cross-border trade was allowed – even encouraged – by the removal of regulations and border controls, this could be eliminated,” he recommended.

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