The US is unable to reconcile all these ‘friends’ who make war without its permission, plot against each other and pursue their own interests, neglecting the US umbrella.
Ethiopian army reconnaissance units crossed into the Tsorona region of Eritrea shortly before dawn on 12 June, and encountered Eritrean patrols. Within minutes, a long stretch of the former front line in the war of 1998-2000 erupted into heavy artillery shelling, tank movement and gunfire. Eritrea condemned this as an act of aggression by Ethiopia; Ethiopia maintained an awkward silence, then on 14 June issued a bellicose statement declaring it was capable of full-scale war against its neighbour.
This threat may seem a disproportionate response to a border skirmish, common since the uneasy Algiers agreement signed in 2000. But it needs to be seen in the context of tensions far more serious than they seem. On 18 June a discreet emergency meeting was held in Washington at the request of the Ethiopian government, and three days later representatives of the armed Ethiopian opposition met in Geneva. The Ethiopian regime has marginalised all dissident movements so there is no civil opposition. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) of the former prime minister and president Meles Zenawi (who died in 2012) has 472 of the 527 seats in the House of People’s Representatives. In 2015 and 2016, revolts by the Oromo and Amhara peoples, who have been left behind economically, were brutally suppressed.
June’s political and diplomatic activity coincided with military deployments. Ethiopian soldiers have been stationed in Djibouti’s Tadjoura region since 6 June, under an agreement signed with its president, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, in May. The head of the Djiboutian army publicly stated that under this agreement the Ethiopian army could enter Djiboutian territory without prior consent, use local military facilities and even intervene in internal conflicts.
Ethiopia fears Arab enemies
The agreement was hastily concluded after the announcement of a contract, to develop the port of Berbera, between the government of Somaliland and the Dubai Ports World (DP World) company (the third largest global port operator). After the 1998-2000 war, Ethiopia lost its direct access to the sea. In Djibouti, Ethiopian forces are squaring up to Eritrean ones, which have been there since the border clash of June 2008 between Eritrea and Djibouti over Cape Doumeira. The armies are separated by a thin line of Qatari troops, deployed in June 2010 at the request of both parties. Ethiopian forces are also present in the Afar region, close to the Eritrean port of Assab, just when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are trying to turn it into a deep-water naval port opposite Yemen.
The geopolitical situation in the Horn of Africa is chaotic. Ethiopia has a long-standing fear of being surrounded by its Arab enemies, who, it believes, have used Ethiopia’s Eritrean enemies to gain a foothold on the African continent. This might seem paranoid, but the long history of Muslim threats to the former Abyssinian kingdom makes it understandable. These fears have been reinforced by Egypt’s fierce opposition to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile.
It will take seven years to fill the reservoir with 67bn cubic metres of water, and during this time the flow of the river will be reduced by 25%. Egypt has even contemplated destroying the dam, a measure supported by former president Hosni Mubarak. While it is impossible to imagine Saudi-Emirati forces attacking Ethiopia, it is conceivable that Egypt might threaten Ethiopia’s new base at Assab — especially with air power — in the name of Arab solidarity. The idea that attack may be the best form of defence is gathering support within the close-knit EPRDF circles who are responsible for Ethiopia’s security. But Ethiopia — which is one of the most significant powers in the sub-region — would then suffer military retaliation from the whole Arab coalition, or financial and diplomatic reprisals.
Djibouti is the weak point in the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Though generally presented as a haven in a conflict zone, Djibouti has become a focus of regional ambitions. It still has a French military base — a colonial legacy, with 2,400 personnel costing France $33m a year. Since 1999 the US has also had 4,000 personnel on the ground at a cost of $66m, enabling it to launch drones against targets in Yemen and Somalia. The Japanese also have a few hundred men here, plus two ageing Lockheed maritime surveillance aircraft that they have been using to fight piracy since 2011; at a cost of $22m, this is the first new overseas base the Japanese military has had since the second world war.
The Germans and Spanish don’t have bases in Djibouti, but do have several dozen soldiers at Djibouti City’s Kempinski Hotel. And it has been announced that from the end of this year there will be a Chinese base at Tadjoura (well away from westerners) with 5-10,000 troops and perhaps a Russian aircraft carrier. The undisclosed annual cost could. The undisclosed annual cost could be between $28m and $94m, depending on whether the Chinese build a port and airport; construction is under way. Russia is also informally exploring establishing a military presence in Djibouti.
Foreign troops in Djibouti, which is just 23,000 sq km (the size of Slovenia), will soon outnumber indigenous forces. But is this country really a nation state? ‘Djibouti is less a country than a commercial city state controlled by one man, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh,’ according to a US embassy cable from 2004 released by WikiLeaks. Guelleh, who took 87% of the vote in the presidential elections this April, remains in absolute control. Military policy is an essential tool in this hereditary principality, which since 1977 has been controlled by the Guelleh family and the Mamassan sub-clan of the Issa clan. Djibouti, like Eritrea and Ethiopia, is run by an authoritarian regime and is on human rights organisations’ watchlists.
Battle over ports
Djibouti is heavily dependent on its port, which generates 76% of its GDP; 80% of this business comes from Ethiopia, which has been denied access to Assab since the 1998-2000 war. Against this background, the non-recognised state of Somaliland signed a trade agreement on 8 May with DP World, which is owned by the government of the UAE. This put Somaliland’s port of Berbera in direct competition with Djibouti.
Abderrahman Boreh, Guelleh’s main opponent, lives in exile in Dubai and has close links with the UAE. In 2006 he encouraged DP World to do a deal with Djibouti. In 2013, after Dubai refused to extradite him, Guelleh rescinded DP World’s port concession and granted it to a rival company (the UK’s High Court threw out corruption charges brought by Djibouti against Boreh over this affair). Relations were so acrimonious that diplomatic ties between Djibouti and Dubai were severed this April.
DP World’s deal with Somaliland over Berbera, with Boreh pulling the strings, has caused alarm in Djibouti. Berbera, a former British colonial port, has long been neglected; it only handles 40,000 containers a year, compared to Djibouti’s 900,000. But Ethiopia has announced it wants to move 30% of its traffic there and DP World plans to invest $442m in it — more thanSomaliland’s annual budget. This explains Guelleh’s hurried visit to Ethiopia to offer a ‘security accord’ permitting the Ethiopian army to treat his country like a conquered state. Ethiopia had already expressed its desire to ‘consider Ethiopia and Djibouti as one and the same territory’ in 2014 — a de facto limitation on Djibouti’s sovereignty.
Guelleh’s worries have been fuelled by Boreh’s conspicuous manoeuvres. Boreh requested an official invitation to Somaliland’s 25th anniversary of independence celebrations on 18 May. This was refused, ‘as that would have amounted to a declaration of war on Djibouti’, an official from Somalilandsaid. But tensions remain acute, especially as Boreh belongs to an Issa sub-clan, the Yonis Moussa, victims of a massacre in central Djibouti in December 2015. The circumstances remain unclear and the exact number of deaths unconfirmed. The Yonis Moussa form 60% of Djibouti’s army, which has been deployed in the Mabla Mountains north of the Gulf of Tadjoura, where it is supposed to be fighting the Afar rebellion by the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD). Since the December 2015 killings, the army’s desire to fight has evaporated.
Guelleh is trying to cope by rallying support from the Gadabursi sultan Abubakar Elmi Wabar, an opponent of the authorities in his nativeSomaliland. But Guelleh has a complex network of alliances, and faces contradictory threats: he is seeking aid from the Ethiopians — who are pursuing their DP World deal in Berbera — and he is dealing with Ethiopia’s Arab enemies, who are demanding a military base in Djibouti to support their war effort in Yemen.
Saudi intervention in Yemen
The Yemeni conflict is another element. Only the 30km of the Bab El-Mandeb (Gate of Tears) Strait separate Africa from Yemen. And until the outbreak of civil war, Yemen had been the main transfer point for refugees, political and economic, from the Horn of Africa, heading for Europe. But in 2011 Yemen was caught up in the Arab Spring. Ali Abdullah Saleh, its pro-western dictator since 1978, was later ousted. Yemen had already been contending with the (particularly active) Al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) as well as a Zaydi insurrection in Saada and Amran provinces, and the uprising left the field to these movements.
Zaydi forces (known as Houthis after their original leader, Hussein al-Houthi, killed in action in 2004) rapidly took the capital Sanaa, where they joined forces with the deposed Saleh. On 25 March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni countries intervened. The (Shia) Houthis were suddenly marked as an Iranian ‘fifth column’ on the Red Sea, while Saleh’s successor, Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, was held up — improbably — as a symbol of democratic renewal. And so Yemen’s African neighbours were drawn into the Arab maelstrom.
In April 2015, shortly after the Saudi attack, Eritrea’s president Isaias Afewerki signed a far-reaching cooperation agreement with the Saudis and the armed coalition within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The Gulf Arabs then arrived in Assab to build an airport from which Saudi bombers now take off, and the port was quickly upgraded. The first (modest) contingents of Eritrean troops went to the Yemeni front and the cooperation then extended to the Sudanese regime of President Omar al-Bashir, who also sent troops in exchange for significant Saudi funding. Eritrea also expelled Yemeni opposition figures.
Such intense political and military activity has caused anxiety in Ethiopia. Seeing its mortal enemy, Eritrea, forging a close alliance with Arab states is alarming — the more so since the US feels it must make a gesture to the Sunni Arab world to compensate for its nuclear deal with Shia Iran, and so is wholeheartedly backing the Saudi-led coalition. On 8 June, a UN commission of inquiry found good reasons to believe that ‘crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts’ had been committed in Eritrea since 1991. But with its GCC connection, Eritrea is benefiting from an unusual degree of indulgence from the US — while, to please the GCC, the US has been keeping dubious company in the region.
In July 2015 the Gulf states and Saudis invited Somaliland’s president Ahmed Mohamoud Silanyo. The meeting was a piece of theatre in which each actor played his role to perfection. Silanyo was asked for troops and permission to use the port of Berbera; he didn’t refuse but was non-committal, and the GCC leaders pretended not to realise. Honour was preserved.
Djibouti’s president Guelleh has also behaved cautiously over Yemen. Guelleh, like his enemy Silanyo, was non-committal when asked to open (another) base for the Saudi-led coalition and to send troops to Yemen. Eventually he granted permission for Saudi transport planes — but not war planes — to land. Though both Djibouti and Somaliland are at loggerheads over the Red Sea ports, they share the same tacit reservations over Saudi/Gulf military operations in Yemen.
Status of Somaliland
The final element shaping regional geopolitics is the question of Somaliland. The country has existed de facto for 25 years, but remains officially unrecognised. Consequently it receives almost no foreign aid and is not a member of any international organisation. It has a government, an (unarmed) police force, a (reasonably well equipped) army and a respected judicial system. It has also been at peace for 20 years. Unlike its African neighbours, it functions on incontestably democratic lines and holds regular, peaceful elections.
This surprising democracy is the successor to the former protectorate of British Somaliland, which claimed independence after the civil war of 1981-91 that ravaged Somalia following the fall of Siad Barre. Somaliland, which is governed cautiously, almost timidly, is threatened by diplomatic attrition and underdevelopment; it also suffers from the quarantine imposed by the international community. But it has succeeded politically. In contrast, Somalia has sunk into internal conflicts: In 2006 the Ethiopian army, supported by the African Union, had to intervene to enable the Somali transitional federal government to retake the capital, Mogadishu, from warlords and the Union of Islamic Courts. Somalia also suffers from terrorism by the Islamist Al-Shabab militias, as demonstrated by the deadly attack on a hotel in the capital on 25 June.
The agreement of 8 June with DP World changed the picture: Somaliland, already vulnerable, now finds itself surrounded by a regional conflict. The effects will be many and potentially destabilising because the agreement represents an economic and political threat to Djibouti. It places this fragile state in the orbit of the UAE and risks upsetting its internal stability. The port of Berbera, however sleepy, was the only significant economic anchor in a very poor country. As part of the fiefdom of the Issa Moussa branch of the Habr Awal clan of Issaqs, it fed the local population and provided the clan with a comfortable income which it now fears losing. The danger of clan warfare, which Somaliland has managed to contain for a quarter of a century, may be reactivated.
Somaliland survived ten years of national and five years of regional civil war, and 20 of poverty and international marginalisation. Can it survive a disproportionate financial surge and diplomatic and military exposure with parameters it cannot control? In such a troubled region that question remains open.
The imperialism of the major powers is in crisis: It is contested, fought against, interfered with or bypassed by a plurality of ‘mini-imperialisms’ with which it now has to deal. That is not to say that China, the US, France and Russia are no longer powerful; but like Gulliver attacked by the Lilliputians, the giants progress less confidently, hampered by awkward allies and half-enemies. Many local troublemakers are showing a level of determined activity as dangerous as the actions of the big beasts. Worse, the actions of these local players have little to fear from public opinion that is now more concerned about internal questions than geopolitics.
In the Horn of Africa, the US is in a very awkward situation. Apart from Eritrea and Sudan (which would do anything to have economic sanctions lifted), every state in the region is officially a ‘friend’. Egypt is doing all it can to suppress the Muslim Brothers; Ethiopia remains a faithful ally (though it gazes at China longingly); Djibouti is acting like a satellite for international globalised capitalism, ready to welcome the devil if he comes with an IMF endorsement; the Saudis and Gulf states are sulking but have no alternative godfather to the US. Somaliland begs for a little pity. Eritrea is the only dissident, although its ruined economy and exodus of young people mean that it ends up begging on the doorstep of the powerful.
The US is unable to reconcile all these ‘friends’ who make war without its permission, plot against each other and pursue their own interests, neglecting the US umbrella (or borrowing it without authorisation). The Arab coalition received nearly $10bn of US military supplies to pursue a war for which the US has no enthusiasm. The GCC has also alienated Ethiopia by bailing out Eritrea, and has set all of the US’s clients and allies against each other, perhaps throwing them into the arms of China.
Gérard Prunier is a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council.
Translated by George Miller