Foreign Policy Blogs

Geopolitical Showdown in the Horn

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Recently, two major developments in Somalia and Djibouti have attracted international media attention. John Kerry became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Mogadishu, while China has negotiated the construction of a military base in the strategic port of Djibouti.

These two “symbolic” and substantive developments represent both an opportunity and a challenge for the U.S. geopolitical interests in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

The contemporary U.S. foreign policy which is hardwired on counterterrorism posturing has been on a losing streak — Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, to name a few. In the Horn of Africa, it is facing some serious challenges: China’s checkbook diplomacy, Ethiopia’s hegemonic adventures, and the indirect effect of the so-called Arab Spring.

Touchdown in Mogadishu

Kerry’s trip to Mogadishu came at an election year when the Democratic frontrunner is being accused of foreign policy recklessness, and at a time when the State Department is too cautious to even say when the American embassy might open there. As such, it is more than a symbolic gesture; it was a strategic one — the poor timing notwithstanding.

Contrary to some Somali and U.S. media headlines that were quick to claim that Kerry’s historic trip to Somalia was an expression of U.S. confidence and a “show of support” to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)/Ethiopia-led federalization process, the impetus driving the trip was geopolitical in nature. At the airport compound, days after concluding the latest of the Balkanization conferences in Garowe, Puntland, Kerry met with four Somali presidents and one prime minster, though not his Somali counterpart.

So, what was on the agenda? Were all those actors on the same page? Ironically, it did not matter. The trip was about a place holder — an affirmation that the U.S. is still interested in Somalia and is anxiously waiting for competent partners who know what they want and what they have as leverage.

In a five minute pre-recorded video that was intended to bypass the seemingly ragtag leaders that he was scheduled to meet, Kerry spoke to the people. He told the Somali people that he “focused on…steps that must be taken on Vision 2016 (election) to advance Somalia’s development as a unified, federal state.”

“We all have a stake in what happens here in Somalia,” he added.

While Kerry is right on the latter, supporting a “unified” Somalia governed through a clan-based federal system of ever-descending allegiance is nothing more than a pipe dream. The nation formerly known as Somalia is more divided today than ever before as a result of such dichotomous combination.

As erratic as its foreign policy toward Somalia may have been, the U.S. seems to have realized that it has made an error in its ways. U.S. lawmakers also seem to have realized that the current Somali politicians have indicated that they neither think nor function as leaders of a single nation.

Directly or indirectly, each one of them is committed to keeping politics at the clan level, or more bluntly, at the gutter level, where geostrategic negation that could benefit both nations is virtually impossible.

China’s Checkbook Diplomacy

China now has over $200 billion invested in Africa; a significant financial interest that may explain why China not only has economic, but “political, and military deals with a number of African states.” Djibouti is one of those states, and China has invested $9 billion in it.

On the one hand, the latest venture might underscore a consistent survival-oriented strategic pattern in which Djibouti — a tiny strategic country located in perhaps Africa’s toughest neighborhood — partners with any willing power that could empower her economically and security-wise. On the other hand, the latest could prove a counterintuitive enterprise that profoundly impacts the balance of power in one of the most important strategic waterways and thus ensure geopolitical advantage to China over the rest.

Against that backdrop, the shocking part is not that Djibouti is willing to become the first nation to host two competing superpower “frenemies,” but that China is confident enough to setup a military base right next to the U.S., France and Japan in the tiny Horn of Africa nation.

The Hegemon of the Horn

Meanwhile, as AMISOM is set to face the security threats emanating from al Shabaab’s party-balloon-effect, it certainly risks a mission creep. Such outcome, needless to say, would automatically boost the strategic position of Ethiopia — the only country with the military might, devout cronies, and political will to engross Somalia or feast on it a few bites at a time.

In the past two decades, Ethiopia has proven its ability to project itself as a problem-solving nation. Whether one gets its diplomatic façade that I refer to as “injera diplomacy” or its predatory side depends on Ethiopia’s immediate hegemonic interest.

Injera is a spongy Ethiopian flatbread served with a variety of meat and vegetable stews. With it one can easily scoop much of the stew one bite after another without dirtying one’s hand.

Make no mistake — Ethiopia is a stakeholder in the Djibouti and China deal. As a landlocked nation with growing economy, Ethiopia is counting on China’s scheduled project to expand Djibouti’s sea port. The former has recently purchased three merchant ships that are hosted in Djibouti. Ethiopia has been making its chess moves as it is mindful, that, sooner or later, its policy toward Somalia would collide with U.S.’ strategic interest in that country.

Ethiopia not only offers economic incentive to Djibouti and political clout within IGAD, it also grants her reassurances in dealing with future threats that may emanate from the ethnically-Ethiopian Djiboutian Afar community, which is a significant number of the population.

Geopolitics and geostrategy

It has been rumored for some time that U.S. and Yemeni officials plan to build a military prison — a “new Guantánamo” — on the remote island of Socotra. The island has a rare combination of strategic geographical location, minimal population, and remoteness from media attention and scrutiny.

Now, with a hybrid political/sectarian wildfire raging in the Gulf of Aden, the Houthis gaining the upper hand and subsequent Iranian direct influence in Yemen is looming, the U.S. is standing on thin ice in terms of its strategic maritime position and influence.

Unified and sovereign Somalia could be a significant factor in tipping the strategic balance of power both in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

The next leadership team would have to be mindful of the importance of cultivating a strategic partnership with the U.S.; it is the only way to protect Somalia from neighborhood political predators. But, such a partnership could only happen with a new U.S. policy toward Somalia.

 
  • Alkhalifa Hassan

    This is a very erudite analysis of the geopolitical chess game in the Horn. Let me ask you this though: Given the situation in Yemen and China’s aggressive moves in the region, could you foresee a scenario where the U.S. drops its dual track policy towards Somalia? If so, what will be the reaction of regional actors?
    Regards
    Alkhalifa

    • Abukar Arman

      Thank you- humbled.

      A1. The immediate change of that abysmal policy is in the best interest of US, Somalia & the region. It’s the only sound choice that could ensure both countries their respective strategic advantage.

      A2. There is only one regional actor that is likely to react and attempt to undermine any policy toward Somalia that it cannot micromanage. However, that particular actor is vulnerable in its profound dictatorial tendencies and well-documented human rights violations.

  • Mohamed

    Salama Dear,

    Well informed Article. I want to know your thoughts on this matter, I have highlighted this part, ” Ethiopia has been making its chess moves as it is mindful, that, sooner or later, its policy toward Somalia would collide with U.S.’ strategic interest in that country.” Ethiopia has done very well in the Somalia Politics that shows you the loyalty of each one of the new leaders of the federal states, and the sense that to be a president of the any federal, the existence once and the coming ones, it is mandatory to be accepted by the Ethiopians. As you have mentioned on the above, the political leaders are based on clan level, and it is virtually impossible to reach on national interest. My question here, How would U.S.A catch up with Ethiopia ? Isn’t little too late for U,S,A to step up now ? Do you think there will be solution for the country without getting a long or same interest with Ethiopia ?

    Sincerely

    Mohamed

    • Abukar Arman

      Thank you for the kind words.

      ‘Dropping the dung beetle’ is a metaphor describing the selfish old warlord mentality- I either get everything to my satisfaction or nobody gets anything. [Back in the day….Operation Dung-beetle http://www.arabnews.com/node/285714%5D

      Today there is not a single warlord or any domestic actor in the Somali political theater who could claim such power. There is, however, a warlord nation (for lack of a better description) whose perilous influence on the ground is spreading like a cancer. It has the privilege of being the chief strategist & de facto head of AMISOM central command. Furthermore, it has key enablers (SOMALI PRESIDENTS and such) in key strategic places….

      Does that mean, the show is over and it is time to surrender or embrace this model of NEIGHBORLY SUBJUGATION that only sustainable through perpetual bloodshed? No, of course.

      The new team to replace the current one in Aug 2016 must come up with bold strategy that brings in the US as a strategic partner:

      – Somalia must immediately withdraw its membership of IGAD in order to break the political shackles that Ethiopia….

      – Must convince US to spearhead UNSC mandated Blue Helmet to replace AMISOM [this force must include Muslim countries such as Turkey] This mandate could be for 2yrs [Maximum 4]

      – In that 4 yr peace-building or conflict hiatus, indigenous peace reconciliation must take place, a Somali owned social/political contract must be negotiated, and a national security force that can protect Somali borders must be built.

      This may sound like a tall order, but it is not. It only takes removing one destructive element out of the equation. And, considering the dysfunctional state of our affairs, that could only be done via robust strategic relationship with the US. Ad latter is impossible without profound change in the US policy toward Somalia.

  • jontalus

    Abukar,

    You wrote: “As erratic as its foreign policy toward Somalia may have been, the U.S. seems to have realized that it has made an error in its ways. U.S. lawmakers also seem to have realized that the current Somali politicians have indicated that they neither think nor function as leaders of a single nation. Directly or indirectly, each one of them is committed to keeping politics at the clan level, or more bluntly, at the gutter level, where geostrategic negation that could benefit both nations is virtually impossible.”

    Do you then believe that President Obama’s anti-terrorism strategy for North Africa is doomed for failure?

    https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/counterterrorism_strategy.pdf

    • Abukar Arman

      Jon- The policy has already proven a failure. I am
      sure you would agree, any policy that solves a problem by creating a
      dozen more problems is by definition a failure.

  • Republic of Somaliland

    The Republic of Somaliland will not rejoin Somalia in another failed union. The only solution to the Somalia quagmire is the offical recognition of the Republic of Somaliland. The only functioning part of the former Somali Republic.

    The wife of Djibouti’s president hails from Somaliland(in clan terms) and clans inhabting Somaliland(Gadabursi and Isak constitute 25% of the population in Djibouti. I thought I’d mention that as the Afars are not the only with influence.on Djibouti.

    Furthermore Ethiopia is also keen to use Berbera port in the Republic of Somaliland which will soon be expanded and renewed by either Bollore of France or by DP World of Dubai.

    The Republic of Somaliand is also widely credit as the most democratic country(de-facto) in the region.

  • Republic of Somaliland

    The key to the whole Somali puzzle is Somaliland.

    The linchpin strategically placed in between Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen is the Republic of Somaliland. Contrary to many a analysis, Somaliland is the spider in the web. Disregard it in your policy making at your own peril.

    • Muse Sheekh

      There is no such thing call Republic of Somaliland. It is nothing but clan-based bragging rights.