Hardly a week goes by without more news of yet another foreign power looking to establish a presence in the Horn of Africa. Not since the dark days of the Cold War has the region received such interest, little wonder then that some have dubbed the Horn , ‘The Cockpit of Africa’, with all the negative connotations that such a sobriquet endows. Those who remember the proxy wars waged by the USA and the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s are naturally fearful of recent developments, and have good reason to ask searching questions of those all too ready to invite military powers to establish themselves in an already politically charged part of Africa.
There are of course some who believe that the arrival of the Chinese and the Turks looks set to signal the advent of a golden age, an economic and cultural revival that has long been sought. Certainly, bases will result in new employment opportunities, and possibly a degree of infrastructural improvement in the immediate vicinity of the military facilities. Whilst diverse powers including the Gulf States and various Western countries seek to gain or re-establish a foothold in the region some locals are becoming increasingly exercised by the terms under which such military facilities are being established. In this respect it is imperative that there is as much transparency as such arrangements allow. Already the Horn of Africa is riddled with suspicion and mistrust, some quite legitimate, some possibly misplaced. Citizens are within their rights to ask what is going on, and there are indeed aspects that warrant clarification.
Putting the diplomacy and rights and wrongs of such bases to one side, there are practical considerations that deserve consideration. Firstly, major developments, whether they be civilian or military, ought to require comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). An EIA should be a prerequisite as it helps evaluate the likely environmental impact of any proposed development, taking into account various inter-related socio-economic, human health and cultural impacts. Importantly such a document can examine both the potential beneficial and adverse impacts. Similarly, it is vital to know whether a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is to be put in place in connection with military bases as this will determine whether or not foreign personnel can be prosecuted locally for breaches of the law. Governments locally can also incorporate certain expectations about the degree to which a percentage of local labour is employed, or whether as part of the undertaking local facilities such as schools and clinics are upgraded.
Inevitably there is an air of cloak and dagger about such agreements with foreign powers. Processes are often opaque, and the precise nature of agreements seemingly nebulous. One area of particular concern is that of departure mechanisms. More often than not it is easy to invite an external power to set up a base, but it can be devilishly difficult to ensure that they leave, if such a move is thought desirable. As if these challenges were not sufficient there is always the concern about possible undue influence on local affairs, or unreasonable expectations when it comes to foreign policy decisions. What happens for instance if the foreign government take against the host government and chooses to flex their military muscle?
It is all to easy to take a jaundiced, some might say cynical view of such arrangements, they can have their upside when it comes to a cash injection into the local economy and additional employment opportunities e.g. for some who work in the freight sector. Countries feel that such agreements help cement bilateral ties, and to some degree assist when it comes to international diplomacy. Such a presence, if of a military nature, might provide a shield of sorts against unruly or overbearing neighbours. That said, it is as well to remember the old adage about marriage, marry in haste, repent at leisure. Similarly, when inviting foreign powers to establish a military bases on one’s soil, it is better to take one’s time and have a proper exit strategy mapped out first. With all that is going on at the present time the countries of the Horn of Africa had better have done their homework.
Mark T. Jones