The Horn of Africa has Settled its Local Disputes, but Global Conflicts Promise Further Unrest
On the surface, the tide is turning in the Horn of Africa. The region’s four restive constituents – Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti – have taken steps to settle their long-running differences, the latest being a landmark peace deal inked just this week. But as the local players move towards a rapprochement, foreign powers are threatening to drag them into disputes thousands of miles away and could thwart their attempts to end the bloodshed.
This would be doubly tragic given the frenzy of diplomacy that has taken place across the Horn this summer. The presidents of Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement in Saudi Arabia in mid-September, having earlier agreed to end their two-decade feud. The two countries have also reopened relations with Somalia and Djibouti respectively, and all four governments signed a cooperation agreement in Djibouti earlier this month.
These agreements are designed to finally end the conflict that has raged practically unabated across the Horn since its colonial overlords packed up and left. Africa’s jagged eastern peninsula cleaves one of the world’s most lucrative commercial arteries, with more than $700 billion in maritime trade passing the Horn every year. But instead of sharing in this commercial bounty, the gatekeepers have spent the last 50 years slashing at one another in a bloody spattering of territorial disputes, the most infamous being the Ethiopia-Eritrea border spat of 1998, which triggered a diplomatic freeze that has lasted to the present day. There’ve also been civil wars in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti, a toxic cocktail of poverty and post-colonial uncertainty turning the region into a crucible of tribal chaos. Religious extremists have seized vast swathes of Somalia, while pirates have turned the Horn’s coastline into a viper’s nest.
But now the Horn’s members are striving to fulfill their economic potential. Ethiopia, already Africa’s fastest-growing economy, is pumping money into a series of infrastructure projects, notably the Grand Renaissance Dam, which will be the largest dam on the continent. Across the reopened border, Eritrea is casting off its reputation as a hermit state, building a new port as it pushes for foreign funding; Russia has been wowed by the pitch and is planning a substantial investment. Djibouti, which has been working this playbook for years, wants to become a regional trade hub, an African answer to Dubai. In fact, it is currently trying to eject Dubai’s own port operator, DP World, from its dockyard at Doraleh, and reclaim what it describes as its economic independence.
Yet, on closer inspection, Djibouti’s struggle with DP World is anything but a battle for liberty. In fact, it suggests a far darker reality for the Horn’s neighbours. Far from pursuing their economic freedom, they’re conceding ever more influence to foreign states. And it’s far from certain what these creditors will want in return.
According to worried U.S. lawmakers at a recent Congressional hearing, Djibouti wants to get rid of DP World because it is planning to hand Doraleh over to China, a reward for Beijing’s growing support. Chinese banks have lent Djibouti $1.4 billion in the last two years, more than 75% of the country’s GDP and its engineers have built a free trade zone at Doraleh, the centrepiece of Djibouti’s trade hub plans. The story is similar elsewhere: China has funded the Grand Renaissance Dam as well as a railway connecting Djibouti and Addis Ababa, while in Eritrea it is developing a new mine.
China will doubtless maintain its interest in the Horn is simply part of the plan for a Maritime Silk Road, an aquatic thoroughfare between Asia and Europe that will underpin Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ trade network. President Xi Jinping and his officials will talk of the minerals that have drawn them to Eritrea, and the chance to claim a stake in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. But there is political motivation here, too: already, China has been accused of laying a series of debt traps in recent years, drowning states in cheap loans and seizing their assets when they can’t pay up.
Will China pull the same stunt in the Horn? Well, the signs are certainly ominous. Djibouti’s debt has soared to 85% of GDP, while Ethiopia has just secured a deal with Beijing to have its debt restructured. China has already built a military installation in Djibouti, much to the chagrin of Washington, whose own military camp is close by. As the hostility between Xi and Donald Trump prompts talk of a new cold war, it’s not hard to envisage China seizing key strategic assets from its ‘partners’ in the Horn and using them to threaten US forces – with Djibouti caught in the middle.
Meanwhile, down the coast, Somalia is being dragged into the regional spat between Qatar and the UAE. Djibouti may have dealt Dubai a bloody nose, but the Gulf states have a far firmer foothold in Somalia thanks to religious links and decades of trade. What’s more, the ongoing power struggle between President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, and his country’s regional demagogues provides the ideal opportunity for proxy puppeteering.
Qatar, and its ally Turkey, support Farmajo. Doha has provided nearly $400 million in aid to the administration in Mogadishu, while the capital’s main ports are in Turkish hands. The UAE backs Mohamed’s opponents and has taken control of ports in the secessionist regions of Puntland and Somaliland while pulling funding from the central army. Mohamed’s government, which has tried to remain neutral in the Gulf stand-off, is scathing about the UAE’s meddling and has ramped up the repression of its rivals. Little wonder some senior Somali figures talk of a “constitutional crisis,” which would play into the hands of al-Shabaab.
So, while the Horn’s recent attempts to stitch itself together should be welcomed, the region remains a tinderbox – and sparks are flying everywhere. In their desire to emerge from their post-colonial turmoil, regional leaders might wish to ask themselves why their new-found foreign investors are so interested in doing business.