THE United States and China are squaring up over military strength in Africa, but Russia may be set to upstage them both on the continent’s busiest sea lane.
News agencies in Somaliland report that Moscow has “been in talks at some depth” with this unrecognised country that broke away from Somalia in 1991, but has failed to win recognition.
Stable, democratic and at peace for most of its 27 years, the former
territory of British Somaliland has tried in vain to gain support from the United States.
But sources in the capital, Hargeisa say Vladimir Putin may establish a naval base along its coastline at the entrance to the Red Sea and Suez, challenging President Trump’s effort to maintain US dominance in the region.
The news comes as US relations with neighbouring Djibouti slipped further on Friday, 11th May 2018 with the release in Washington of a letter from the senate to both Donald Trump and defense secretary, James Mattis, warning that President Ismaïl Guelleh of Djibouti had “irreversibly fallen under control of China”.
The document is the latest in a flow of correspondence from Congress and the Senate to organs of state and The White House, all of the view that US interests in the region are at risk.
Republican senator Jim Inhofe who co-authored the letter, serves on the Armed Forces Committee and is among the closest supporters of Mr Trump. In his home state of Oklahoma, the electorate has returned him with double and in one case triple the votes of his nearest rival.
The other signatory is Martin Heinrich from New Mexico, a Democrat once touted as a running mate for Hillary Clinton, who stands on the opposite side of politics. With both men now pushing for a review of America’s military base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti – the Pentagon’s only permanent site in Africa – the question of what to do about Somaliland has resurfaced.
Inhofe and Heinrich accuse China of “pillaging” African nations and making unsustainable loans to Djibouti, “drowning president Guelleh and leaving him with no option but to transfer national assets and sovereignty as repayment”.
The “national assets” referred to include a container port recently seized by Guelleh who ousted Dubai firm DP World from its long-term contract, alleging mismanagement. DP World denies this and plans to sue. The company is building a new terminal in Somaliland.
Landlocked Ethiopia which relies on Djibouti as its main route to the sea, has agreed to use the port while also leasing a site at Lamu on the Kenya coast for use as an export hub.
Beijing recently opened a military camp in Djibouti with space for 10 000 personnel, more than the nearby US, French and Russian bases combined.
But Somaliland has better options for Washington, being English speaking — where Djibouti is a former French colony — and without the dubious human rights record of President Guelleh, now in his fourth run as head-of-state after changing the two-term constitution.
Even without recognition, a Russian base along one the world’s most
strategic waterways would raise Hargeisa’s profile and possibly force
Washington’s hand to prevent another win by Mr Putin who this month showed off new hypersonic missiles, faster and with better reach, than anything held by the US or China.
For his part, President Guelleh insists he remains allied to the United States and, to his credit, has been ruthless in his fight against Islamic terror.
But loans from China are now his country’s largest liability in what
economists have dubbed “debt trap diplomacy”. And the United States has little room to move while it relies on his hospitality for Camp Lemonier.
Russia’s overtures to Hargeisa will not go down well in Djibouti. Relations with DP World reportedly started to fray when the company announced its new port in Somaliland. Traffic to and from Ethiopia makes up a large part of Djibouti’s income, and losing that would cripple an economy smaller than Lesotho.
Djibouti covers an area roughly the size of Kruger National Park, but
Somaliland is bigger than Greece or Bulgaria with a 700-kilometre coastline free of pirates and a harbour at the British colonial capital of Berbera that’s been in use since Roman times.
Guelleh has hinted this may be his last term in the top job though he’s said that before only to run again. His departure will not solve problems for the US unless it pays the country’s debt to China which would set an impossible precedent.
The container terminal at Berbera will rob Djibouti of its monopoly along the Horn, and Ethiopia’s planned depot at Lamu will change the balance even more.
With the potential loss of revenue and the Senate now vocal about his debt to China, any move by Moscow to embrace Somaliland, no matter how tentative, could make things very difficult for Mr Guelleh.
It would also put pressure on President Trump to review US policy across the region.