A stumbling Horn Slumbers Unguarded

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Geopolitical gimmicks in the Horn of Africa

The curse of great power rivalry in the new multipolar world order has caught the weak states in the Horn of Africa region unprepared. Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan, the main frontier states with sea outlets, have historically been weakened either by poor economic prospects or vulnerability to external powers, often exacerbated by conflict-prone political uncertainty. Landlocked Ethiopia, which borders each of these states from the north, east, west, and southeast, has attempted to act as a stabilizing force in the region.

Surrounded by weak states, Ethiopia’s efforts to formulate a rational hegemonic foreign policy towards the region can be seriously undermined by both state and non-state actors. These actors have long sought to counter adversaries for ideological and geopolitical objectives.

As these weaker states begin to perceive Ethiopia’s inability to overcome the internal turmoil it has faced over the past five years, Ethiopia’s role as a regional anchor has quickly diminished, distancing it further from the Red Sea.

The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to the north, and the Indian Ocean to the east, with Africa’s longest coastlines bordering Somalia, have increasingly exhibited potential for geopolitical vulnerability, stirring spillover effects across the region. This scenario has set the stage for a new scramble for the Horn of Africa by countries with vested geopolitical and economic interests.

These include emerging regional powers, wealthy Gulf States from Near East Asia, and others with imperial ambitions from the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Traditional great powers are also involved, with the People’s Republic of China being the latest addition, making its presence felt in the Horn of Africa. Each power, with its own ambitions, has imposed a hegemonic footing through soft power maneuvering.

Somalia, weakened and partly disintegrated, has become a proxy for geopolitical exploitation, serving as a springboard for regional encroachment. In 2011, amid recurring sectarian conflict, Somalia faced a famine that threatened tens of thousands of lives. Türkiye was the first major state to anchor its humanitarian aid fleet at the shores of Somalia’s seaport in Mogadishu.

A policy brief published in 2019 by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations acknowledged Türkiye’s lifesaving humanitarian engagement, which combined commercial interests with state diplomacy. This was largely welcomed by the local population.

Somalia, often labeled a failed state, remains one of the world’s high-security risk countries. Against this backdrop, Türkiye’s humanitarian intervention quickly gained positive reactions from the international community. The Financial Times reported that Türkiye’s empathy toward the humanitarian crisis in Somalia was greatly appreciated by ordinary Somalis. The name Erdoǧan became popular for newborn Somali boys, while names like Istanbul and Türkiye were given to newborn girls.

Türkiye’s soft power in Somalia led to the establishment of a Turkish military base near Mogadishu in 2017. Barely a year later, Ethiopia underwent a political leadership transition that brought both excitement and anxiety. However, Ethiopia soon found itself embroiled in internal conflict, and Sudan’s fragile transitional government imploded into armed conflict instigated by rival generals.

Eritrea’s deployment of troops inside Ethiopia in 2020 to combat Tigrayan forces resulted in new geopolitical dynamics that strained Ethio-Eritrean relations.

Djibouti, strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea, relies heavily on Ethiopia, which lacks alternative access to sea ports. This tiny hotspot, virtually a city-state at the fringe of the Red Sea, survives by leasing its territorial waters for military bases to over a dozen countries, including five major nuclear-armed powers. Somalia, unable to emerge as a normal state since its disintegration in 1991, remains fragile, teetering on the brink of failed state status. Uncertainty looms large despite its struggle to reinstate a full-fledged statehood, let alone incorporating breakaway territories under its designated federation.

Somaliland, a former British protectorate, has maintained important commercial ties and security cooperation with Ethiopia for most of its autonomous rule since 1991. Its de facto independence remains unrecognized under international law. However, the Hargeisa government has succeeded in bringing more peace, relatively prosperous economic prospects, and viable security compared to other semi-autonomous regions such as Puntland and even the Mogadishu-based Somali government.

Countries like Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Türkiye, and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) have either established consulates or maintained diplomatic liaison offices in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.

In April this year, Michael B. Bishku, an Emeritus Professor of Middle Eastern and African History, published an article via Augusta University in the United States. He noted that despite the UAE’s active support and participation in 2015 as part of the UN’s peacekeeping contingent in Mogadishu, where it also set up a military training facility, the UAE refurbished and manages the Berbera port under a bilateral agreement with the Somaliland government. This effort aims to counter potential geopolitical rivals across the Persian Gulf, such as Iran and its Houthi ally in Yemen, a non-state actor from a Shiite Islamic sect.

Interestingly, Bishku revealed that “establishing a military base was part of the bilateral deal cut by the UAE with the Somaliland government,” with the intent “to train Somaliland’s security forces,” effectively bypassing the authorities in Mogadishu.

Earlier this year, Ethiopia, without consulting Mogadishu, bilaterally negotiated a deal with Somaliland authorities to secure a seaport. Somaliland offered Ethiopia a 20-kilometer stretch of territorial sea access over the Gulf of Aden in the Red Sea under a fifty-year lease agreement.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was successfully endorsed by both parties. Before the formal announcement of the MoU, news stories and articles from media organizations in Cairo, Doha, Ankara, and New York blew the issue out of proportion. The fragile Somali government in Mogadishu issued a series of threatening statements against Ethiopia. Türkiye also criticized Ethiopia’s move unequivocally. The Doha-based Al Jazeera global news network echoed Türkiye’s official position, covering the related news stories negatively.

The geopolitical dynamics revealed an axis of interests that sometimes overlapped but often objectively rivaled each other at the cost of stability in the Horn of Africa. Djibouti, while financially content by hosting military bases for rival great powers, remains the weakest state in the region for the foreseeable future. Qatar and Türkiye see their short-term foreign policy goals as compatible, drawing the Mogadishu-based Somali government into their sphere of influence.

Conversely, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, envisioning different foreign policy ambitions, have aligned themselves with Somaliland. The UAE supports landlocked Ethiopia, while the Saudis prefer to bring Eritrea into their fold.

Each primary frontier state in the region, irrespective of which side of the axis they align with, faces deep-rooted national security challenges subsidized by their respective enablers.

For instance, as part of its future security commitment, Türkiye has already provided and spent more than USD one billion in humanitarian aid in Somalia since 2011. According to Bishku, the Mogadishu government has allowed the Turks to train and equip the Somali naval forces to patrol the coastline and counter developments like Ethiopia’s deal with Somaliland.

Geopolitical dynamics and Ethiopia’s role in the Horn of Africa

The recent verdict by the London Court of Arbitration, holding Ethiopia liable for over USD one billion in collateral damage in its legal dispute with Yapi Merkezi, a Turkish-based construction firm, highlights the complex interplay of geopolitical considerations in the Horn of Africa. This ruling coincides with Ethiopia’s unresolved seaport deal with Somaliland, further complicating its geopolitical landscape.

Despite the potential benefits of the Ethio-Somaliland partnership, Ethiopia has faced significant international resistance. Friends and allies have not stepped forward to support this landmark deal, which promises mutual benefits. Instead, there has been a pattern of revulsion, particularly targeting Ethiopia.

The context of Ethiopia’s seaport deal, which is arguably more balanced and mutually beneficial than the hegemonic pursuits of the UAE, Türkiye, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and nuclear-armed great powers in the region, has often been overlooked.

Ethiopia’s internal and external challenges are substantial. Faulty foreign policy decisions have disrupted its rapprochement with Eritrea and taken partisan stances in Sudan’s conflict, creating potential backlash against Ethiopian national interests. When combined with economic challenges and sociopolitical instability driven by internal conflicts, these factors could lead to Ethiopia being labeled as the “sick man of the Horn of Africa.”

Despite these challenges, Ethiopia remains a significant country in the region, one considered too big to fail by many nations. Its long history of resilience and survival speaks volumes about its embedded survival instinct. The onus is on Ethiopian leadership to pursue strong and persistent diplomacy, endurance, perseverance, and determination. A reconciled unity based on common strength, rather than succumbing to internal weaknesses, is crucial for Ethiopia’s stability.

Assertive and persuasive diplomacy, supported by growth-focused and inclusive economic development, can cure Ethiopia’s “sick man’s syndrome.” This approach will help retain internal stability and foster healthy external relations, including with Türkiye. Ethiopia and Türkiye share a long history of formal bilateral ties dating back to 1896, with Türkiye establishing its first resident General Consulate in sub-Saharan Africa in Harar in 1912. These historical strengths can be wisely leveraged for the common good, helping to balance geopolitical dynamics in Ethiopia’s favor.

In conclusion, fostering a reconciliatory spirit at home is paramount. It will serve as a panacea for internal weaknesses. In an increasingly realist world of multipolarity, no nation can prevail while mired in internal unrest. Ethiopia’s path forward must be marked by robust internal unity and strategic external diplomacy.

By Esayas B. Gebre-Meskel

The Reporter Ethiopia