Interest in the Horn of Africa from foreign powers has always been a double-edged sword.
By Matt Kennard and Ismail Einashe
On any given day in Berbera, the deep-water port on Somaliland’s Red Sea coast, ramshackle ships dock next to small boats known as dhows. Most of them are waiting to set off for the Persian Gulf, laden with spices, scrap metal, and often more lively cargo—goats raised for the global market on the country’s scorched landscape.
It may be hard to tell by looking at it, but some 30 percent of the world’s crude oil transported on ships passes just a few miles offshore, a detail that has made Berbera’s port a prized location for outside powers looking for a new connection to the world’s most vital sea transport route. As a result, Somaliland, like its neighbor Djibouti, which is emerging as a hub for foreign military installations, has found itself at the center of big power rivalries that could reshape the Horn of Africa.
By 2020, Berbera’s dhows are set to have some much larger neighbors. Somaliland’s authorities have inked a deal with the United Arab Emirates for a $442 million port upgrade and the establishment of a new UAE naval base, offering the UAE a new launch point for its involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and a way to strengthen its footing in the Horn of Africa.
When it becomes operational, Berbera’s new port is set to be run by DP World. After getting its start building Dubai’s Port Rashid, the largely state owned company from the UAE has become one of the world’s biggest port operators. The project will also include the establishment of a free trade zone, which aims to deliver huge economic gains for Somaliland and the Horn of Africa more broadly.
Given that Somaliland is not a country that formally exists, this new development is particularly ambitious. Although the territory has declared itself to be independent from Somalia, no other government recognizes its sovereignty, despite years of effort.
For the UAE, deepening ties with Somaliland aligns with a broader determination to punish Somalia. The Emiratis are aggrieved by Mogadishu’s coziness with Qatar and its refusal to join in the Saudi-led blockade of that country. In January, Qatar donated 68 armored vehicles to Somalia’s military. In April, the UAE retaliated by shutting down a key hospital it had funded in Somalia’s capital.
For Somaliland, the infusion of Emirati money means a lot more than being able to accommodate bigger ships and process more containers. For many, this set of investments is being viewed as an accelerant for the territory’s attempts to achieve formal independence from Somalia.
According to the head of Somaliland’s port authority, Saed Abdullahi Hassan, it is the largest infusion of foreign cash the region has ever received. Hassan added that the investment “means everything to us.” He told Foreign Policy that the port “is something big for us … as you know that we are moving away from Greater Somalia.” For him, “DP World coming to Berbera shows the stability of the country.”
However, Somaliland’s relative stability is only part of the equation. Western powers have said it’s up to the African Union to decide whether or not it will recognize Somaliland first. Given the complexities of revising colonial borders in Africa and the reluctance of larger African states to set a precedent that could be leveraged by their own rebellious regions, the African Union’s member states have few incentives to change the status quo. Somaliland is facing some very high barriers to realizing its ambitions of statehood, first and foremost in the form of opposition from Somalia.
The willingness of outside backers to support Somaliland has aggrieved Mogadishu. Since the Somali state collapsed into a three-decade-long cycle of conflict and violence, Somalia’s government has been trying to regain control of the country’s entire territory. Somaliland’s plans for Berbera’s port directly challenge that vision.
It’s not just the UAE that is taking an interest in Berbera, but also Somalia’s neighbor and rival Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has signed a tripartite agreement with the UAE and Somaliland, giving Addis Ababa a 30-year concession for the development and management of the port. “The port can be one of the gateways for Ethiopia,” Somaliland’s foreign minister, Saad Ali Shire, told FP, “which is one of the biggest countries in Africa.”
But since Somaliland is not a recognized state and cannot legally make contracts with foreign governments, it is unclear how this will all pan out. Somalia’s fragile government in Mogadishu, led by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (widely known by his nickname, Farmajo) has declared this deal “null and void,” adding that it risks pushing war-torn Somalia into further instability.
In a statement in March, Somalia’s Ministry of Ports and Marine Transport said Berbera’s port deal was going against the grain of hopes for unity of Somalia and that it was a violation of the Somali Constitution.
But for Saed Abdullahi Hassan, the head of Berbera’s port authority, the Somali government has no right to get in the way: “They should not disturb the investment going into Somaliland.” Given that Farmajo’s government still only functionally controls small swathes of Somalia and is locked in a bitter war with al-Shabab, his government’s irritation over the Berbera port deal may remain just that.
The tensions surrounding outside investment in Berbera offer a window into how power struggles from Middle East are increasingly being projected onto the Horn of Africa.
Somaliland is just 162 miles across the water from Yemen’s port city of Aden. As war in Yemen has resulted in the increasing militarization of the Red Sea region, its ports have become important stepping stones for various Middle Eastern players. The United Arab Emirates has a port in Eritrea. Qatar has plans to upgrade a port in Sudan. The Turks are in Mogadishu. Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa expert at Chatham House in London, told FP the region has become a “maritime laboratory” with every major power now either in possession of a military base or searching for one.
The Horn of Africa has long entered into the geopolitical calculations of Middle Eastern powers. In the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire had its farthest outpost in Zeila, a historic seaside town north of Berbera, on the border with Djibouti.
In 1869, the Red Sea was changed forever with opening of the Suez Canal. In 1956, the French, Israelis, and British went to war with Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to keep their privileged access to the waterway, before pressure from the United States eventually forced their defeat.
Today the Red Sea has once more become an important space for the region’s powers to pursue their own ambitions and strengthening connections to Berbera and neighboring Djibouti have become top priorities for many regional players.
Somaliland itself was created during the 19th century, when the Horn of Africa was carved up by European powers. Contemporary Somalia is a composite state—formed in 1960 when two former colonial territories, British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland, were fused together. Meanwhile, Djibouti, which was once labeled French Somaliland, became independent in 1977.
The Somaliland of today exists within the same borders as its colonial predecessor, British Somaliland. However, this has led to ongoing territorial disputes with Puntland, a semi-autonomous part of Somalia, which claims that the contested regions of Sool and Sanaag should belong to it, rather than Somaliland, on the basis of kinship ties rather than colonial-era divides. Because British Somaliland gained independence five days before Italian Somaliland, advocates of Somaliland’s sovereignty say that this detail gives them the ability to revert back to their previous status as an independent nation. If Somaliland volunteered to join with its much larger neighbor to the south in 1960, the idea goes, its leaders can also decide to opt out.
In the post-colonial era, Somalia came under the rule of Gen. Siad Barre, who took over in a bloodless coup in 1969 after he forced out the country’s first democratically elected president. Barre quickly aligned himself with the Soviet Union. It was during this era of socialist rule in Somalia from 1969 to 1991 that Berbera gained its contemporary significance as a place where outsiders seek to project power in the Horn of Africa.
In 1964, the Soviet Union was the first major power to arrive in Somali-controlled Berbera. The Soviets constructed the largest airstrip in Africa at the time, just next to the port. In the 1970s, Soviet troops ran military operations out of Berbera. This was particularly unnerving to the United States, which saw Barre’s government as a proxy for expanding the Soviet Union’s power in Africa.
But Somali-Soviet ties were short lived. In 1977, when animosity between Ethiopia and Somalia culminated in the Ogaden War over another disputed border, the Soviets starting arming and supporting Somalia’s archrival Ethiopia, and the alliance between the two was over. In a remarkably abrupt pivot between enemies, Barre’s government realigned itself with the United States. U.S. President Ronald Reagan subsequently embraced the dictator.
Somaliland suffered terribly in the late 1980s under a U.S.-aligned Somali government. Its current capital, Hargeisa, became known as “Africa’s Dresden,” because it was so heavily bombed in 1988.
The Horn of Africa’s relevance waned as the Cold War ended, and in 1991 the country collapsed into a three-decade-long civil war, while Somaliland unilaterally declared its independence from the rest of Somalia.
The threat of international piracy off the Somali coast brought the Horn of Africa back into the international spotlight in the early 2000s. Since then, the United States has played a significant role, which seems set to expand. Shire, Somaliland’s foreign minister, said, “Since Trump came to office it seems there has been an escalation of the war against al-Shabab.”
Somalia’s current president, Farmajo, is a dual American-Somali national who lived a significant part of his life in Buffalo, New York. He rose up through the African diaspora of Buffalo, home to a significant number of Somali refugees who had escaped the war. He refined his leadership at the New York State Department of Transportation, where he worked as the commissioner for equal employment. Farmajo is also a registered Republican—a particularly complex position for a Somali dual national in the era of U.S. President Donald Trump.
When Stephen Schwartz, the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia in 25 years, met Farmajo in February 2017, he presented him with a gift: a blue-and-white baseball cap with the slogan “Make Somalia Great Again.”
Makau W. Mutua, a Kenyan-American professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law who knew Farmajo, told FP that though people were proud when he became the ninth president of Somalia, his political affiliation in the United States did not go unnoticed. “It was surprising that he’s a Republican,” he said.
Only weeks after he took office in early 2017, Trump signed a directive that declared parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities.” Since then, rules of engagement by the U.S. military in Somalia have been relaxed, which has led to a rapid increase in drone strikes in the country. Hundreds of people have been killed, including militants and civilians, with displacement becoming an increasing problem.
But the violence in Somalia is just one example a trend in the wider Horn of Africa, which has become one of the most militarized areas of the world in the past decade. The UAE had originally planned to build a port in Djibouti. When the deal fell apart, it moved down the coast to Somaliland.
Berbera benefits from its proximity to Aden, Yemen’s main port and the de facto headquarters of the Gulf coalition in Yemen. UAE soldiers are stationed in Yemen, and many say the UAE’s long-term aim is to create a buffer zone in south Yemen, a breakaway region, from which the Houthi north can be contained by military and naval bases on either side of the Red Sea. With Berbera, the UAE will have effective control of both banks of the Red Sea.
Djibouti, despite the UAE pullback, remains another crucible. A former French colony the size of New Jersey with a population less than 950,000, it is home to the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa, at Camp Lemonnier, the home of U.S. Africa Command. Africom was established as a stand-alone command in 2008, at a time when the U.S. government was focused on fighting insurgent groups and terrorists in Africa and elsewhere. It is also home to the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, which was set up after 9/11 and tasked with preventing violent extremist organizations in East Africa from posing a threat to the United States.
Under former U.S. President Barack Obama, Camp Lemonnier underwent a $1.4 billion upgrade. The installation now houses around 4,500 American military personnel and includes a well-appointed gym and a Pizza Hut. The base has become a vital cog in the machinery of U.S. military operations in the region. From this camp, the United States has launched countless drone flights into Somalia and Yemen.
But the United States is far from alone. China has also eyed Djibouti as a vital strategic outpost for projecting its power across Africa and the Middle East. The Chinese support base in Djibouti, which cost $590 million to build, and opened in 2017, is the first overseas military base ever constructed by the Chinese navy.
Beijing has also invested heavily in infrastructure projects in Djibouti as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. It has recently completed a railway connecting landlocked Ethiopia’s 100 million people with Djibouti, a project that cost $490 million. The Chinese are also behind plans for Djibouti to transform itself into the Dubai of the Horn of Africa.
In response to growing Chinese influence, even Japan, which is renowned for its reluctance to project military power, has also put a footprint in Djibouti. Since 2011, a Japanese Self-Defense Forces contingent of 180 troops has occupied a 30-acre site in Djibouti, next to Camp Lemonnier, the country’s first long-term overseas base since World War II. In November 2018, the Japanese Defense Ministry announced plans to expand its base for range of missions beyond anti-piracy operations.
In early 2017, the Djiboutian government signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia that would allow the Gulf state to build a base in the country. The French have a naval base there, and troops from Germany and Spain have also established a presence. The one power that has been barred from building a base in the country is Russia, because, according to Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, the country did not want to “become the terrain for a proxy war.”
Djibouti and Somaliland have predicated their development models on attracting powerful foreign militaries.
As the region continues to emerge as a site of competition for both regional players such as the UAE and Qatar and global powers such as China, Japan, and the United States, this is a strategy that risks embroiling the region in dangerous international rivalries.
For Shire, Somaliland’s foreign minister, Berbera’s port is “a purely commercial deal.” But with the region now a crucible for global power projection, there are more than just economic considerations.
In the summer, temperatures in Berbera can reach up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Many of the women and children who live there move uphill into the Sheikh Mountains to escape the summer heat. As major powers continue to flex their muscles in the region, there may be no way to avoid being caught up in their power struggles.
Shire himself is not overly worried about a conflict emerging anytime soon. “I don’t think there’s going to be any war as a result of the presence of bases in the Red Sea,” he said. But with an aggrieved government in Mogadishu looking on and regional players trying to outmaneuver one another across the Horn of Africa, Somaliland is not in the clear.
Matt Kennard is an investigative journalist based in London and the author of Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror and The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs. the American Elite. Twitter: @KennardMatt