Geopolitics meets local politics in the Horn of Africa
The Horn of Africa’s crucial geostrategic position has historically attracted many foreign players, which have deeply influenced the local political landscape. Local political actors, however, have not been passive spectators to this game. As European policymakers seek to understand the growing influence of foreign players in the Horn, it is crucial for them to understand the role played by these local actors in leveraging foreign involvement to further their own domestic interests.
The Horn of Africa is located in a crucial geostrategic position. Since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the region’s waters provide a swift naval connection between the Euro-Mediterranean region, the Middle East, eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean.
In this context, much attention is often dedicated to the influence that these foreign players have on local political dynamics in the Horn.3 Yet, what is often overlooked is how local political actors are in turn able to leverage (and at times even shape) the involvement of these external players to further their own domestic interests.
For external players getting involved in the Horn of Africa, the region is often an arena where they advance their own interests
This two-way connection between geopolitics and local politics is particularly evident in the experiences of Somalia and Djibouti. On the one hand, the geostrategic position of these two countries on the Horn’s shores has historically attracted many foreign players, which have deeply influenced local political landscapes. On the other hand, by seeking to leverage foreign backing to their own advantage, local political actors have brought their struggles to a regional and global level.
Geopolitics goes local: foreign influence on local politics
For external players getting involved in the Horn of Africa, the region is often an arena where they advance their own interests. This can entail cultivating alliances with local political actors, and potentially using them as proxies in broader international rivalries
These actions can have major repercussions for local political dynamics in the Horn. Alliances with foreign powers can significantly change the local balance of power, both between and within Horn countries.
Moreover, through these alliances, international disputes can quickly spill-over into domestic politics, potentially magnifying existing local tensions if each party perceives that it can rely on strong foreign backing.
Somalia: foreign influence in a fragmented polity
The spill-over of foreign tensions in the Horn was strikingly evident during colonial times, when foreign powers like Italy, the UK and France each enjoyed control over portions of the Somali territory.
As the Second World War erupted in Europe, for instance, tensions among European countries quickly spilled over to their colonies in Somalia, leading Italian troops from south-central Somalia to invade British-controlled Somaliland.
Moreover, in their efforts to dampen anti-colonial resistance, colonial rulers often relied on divide et impera (divide and rule) tactics that widened existing cleavages within Somali society. In south-central Somalia, for instance, Italian rulers sought to leverage the marginalisation of Rahanweyn clans in order to enlist them in Italy’s fight against the anti-colonial Somali Youth League.4
Far from being a relic of colonial times, these dynamics of foreign influence are still visible today, although the main players active in Somalia now come largely from the Middle East.
In the so-called ‘Gulf Rift’, the rivalry soon spilled over into Somalia
Building on past historical ties, countries like Qatar, Turkey and the UAE have recently stepped up their influence in Somalia. This was often achieved by backing the election of local politicians, as well as by cutting commercial and security cooperation agreements, mostly through personalised networks.
As a result, when tensions between rival blocs in the Middle East escalated in 2017, pitting Qatar and Turkey against the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the so-called ‘Gulf Rift’, the rivalry soon spilled over into Somalia, contributing to the widening of existing political divisions in the country.5
For instance, the dispute between the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and the Federal Member States (FMSs) – rooted in political disagreements over federal power sharing – has been hardened by the increasing reliance of both sides on rival foreign sponsors (Turkey and Qatar for the FGS; the UAE for the FMSs).6
Djibouti: a country shaped by foreign influence
While the influence of foreign players in Somalia has historically been significant, nowhere else than in Djibouti has such influence been so visible. In its mere 23,000 km2 of territory, the country hosts five different military bases – from France, the United States, Italy, Japan and China.
The engagement of these foreign actors has arguably been at the basis of the existence of the Djiboutian state. A longstanding defence treaty with France, for example, has granted protection to the small Horn nation vis-à-vis its larger and more powerful neighbours Ethiopia and Somalia, ensuring the country’s independence.
Moreover, the rents coming from the lease of foreign military bases and the fees of Djibouti’s busy ports have been instrumental in shaping Djibouti’s political landscape. In particular, control over these rents has typically strengthened the hand of the incumbents, allowing them to exert a tight political control over the country.7
The country has turned into an arena for Sino-US competition
At the same time, the extensive presence of external players means that international tensions coming from outside the region can rapidly spill over into Djibouti. For instance, when Russia approached the Djiboutian government to build a military base in the country, such a request was reportedly rejected not due to domestic reasons, but rather due to pressure from the US, which feared the expansion of Russia’s presence in the region.8
Similarly, with the opening of a Chinese military facility in Djibouti, the country has turned into an arena for Sino-US competition. US policymakers had staunchly opposed (although without success) the construction of such facility, and since its opening they have repeatedly voiced concerns about tense interactions between Chinese and US military personnel.9
Local politics goes global: local manipulation of foreign strategies
While these examples show how external players can have a significant influence on local political dynamics in the Horn, it is crucial to understand that local actors are not passive spectators of this game. Quite to the contrary, they are active in leveraging the involvement of multiple external actors to further their own interests.
This often involves exploiting foreign backing to further purely domestic political agendas, as well as playing multiple foreign actors against each other in order to increase leverage against them, hence maximising external support. At times, these strategies can even allow local political actors in the Horn to shape the approaches of much more powerful foreign actors.
Somalia: foreign support, domestic agendas
While being a longstanding feature of Somali politics, the ability of local political actors to exploit foreign involvement forcefully came to the fore after the collapse of the Somali state in 1991.
As the international community got involved in the country through a mix of humanitarian, diplomatic and military initiatives, Somali politicians and warlords leveraged virtually each of these initiatives to their own advantage.
Through the early 1990s, for instance, Ali Mahdi Muhammad exploited his participation in international peace conferences on Somalia to gain the recognition of the international community. Through this recognition, he got access to vast economic and military resources (including aid and the deployment of international troops) and leveraged them to fight Mohammed Farah Aideed, his domestic political rival within the United Somali Congress.
Since then, this strategy has been widely replicated by successive Somali presidents – and it continues nowadays, as the weak but internationally recognised FGS remains heavily reliant on the international community’s economic and security support for its survival.
At times, local political actors have also exploited security deals to their own advantage
In a similar fashion, as Middle Eastern countries have expanded their influence in Somalia over the past decade, Somali political actors have sought to manipulate these new sources of external support to their own advantage.
Ahead of the 2017 elections, for example, a group of Somali politicians managed to secure electoral funding from the UAE. These funds were then only reportedly used for personal advantages – much to the chagrin of Emirati policymakers, who failed to secure the election of their preferred candidates.10
At times, local political actors have also exploited security deals to their own advantage. For instance, current FGS president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has reportedly used the Haramcad, a special police corps trained by Turkey, as his private militia.11
Efforts to manipulate foreign support have also been a prominent feature in Somaliland. There, the administration has leveraged the UAE’s (and Ethiopia’s) involvement in the development of Berbera port to increase its legitimacy and press its claims to independence from the internationally recognised FGS.
Djibouti: playing foreign actors against each other
While foreign engagement has arguably been at the basis of Djibouti’s existence, such engagement has not been driven by the interests of foreign players alone. Rather, it has been actively shaped and exploited by local Djiboutian ruling elites, who have used foreign interest in the country’s geostrategic position to consolidate their domestic power.
Over the past twenty years, Djibouti’s president Ismaïl Omar Guelleh and his associates have managed to attract significant economic resources from abroad, mostly in the form of port fees from Ethiopia and land leases for foreign military bases. These resources have then been used by the ruling elites to pay off key domestic political actors, hence consolidating political control.12
Moreover, President Guelleh has been able to exploit the growing foreign interest in Djibouti to gradually increase his demands vis-à-vis his foreign partners. When the US opened its base in 2002, for instance, the French bill reportedly increased by 70 per cent.13 Similarly, Djibouti’s refusal to open the Russian base was reportedly rewarded with a 110 per cent increase in annual payments from the US, who had forcefully opposed a Russian presence in Djibouti.8
It is interesting to note that, by playing multiple foreign partners against each other, Djibouti’s ruling elites managed not only to further consolidate their domestic power, but also to influence the regional approach of much more powerful global players. For example, when Russia saw its request for a military base denied, it was forced to look for alternatives elsewhere in the region, eventually turning to Sudan.
Djibouti’s strategy also seriously threatened to affect the regional presence of the US, as the prospects of a Chinese military facility in Djibouti reportedly pushed US policymakers to consider the relocation of the US base away from Djibouti, although this option did not eventually materialise.8
The agency of local political actors is often underestimated at best, overlooked at worst
Geopolitical dynamics and local politics: a complex tangle
The cases of Somalia and Djibouti illustrate how – today as much as in the past – geopolitical dynamics and local politics in the Horn create a complex tangle characterised by a bi-directional channel of mutual influence. On the one hand, geopolitical tensions at the international level spill over into Horn countries, affecting local political settlements. On the other hand, local political actors have the power to leverage (and at times even to influence) the involvement of foreign players according to their own interests.
While the influence of foreign players on Horn politics often gets a large degree of attention, the agency of local political actors is often underestimated at best, overlooked at worst. At a time when European and Dutch policymakers seek to assess the growing influence of foreign players in the Horn and respond to it, it is crucial for them to have a clear understanding of how geopolitics and local politics mutually influence each other in the region. Assessments that overlook the agency of local political actors are unlikely to lead to sound policies.
- 1 Jos Meester and Guido Lanfranchi, ‘The UAE and China in the Horn of Africa: Implications for EU engagement’, Clingendael Institute, June 2021, p. 1.
- 2 For an overview of the foreign presence in the region and the motivations of external players, see Zach Vertin, ‘Red Sea rivalries: The Gulf, the Horn of Africa & the new geopolitics of the Red Sea’, Brookings, January 2019.
- 3 International Crisis Group, ‘Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the Impact’, ICG Middle East Report nr. 206, September 2019; Camille Lons, ‘Gulf countries reconsider their involvement in the Horn of Africa’, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1 June 2021.
- 4 Gerard Prunier, ‘Benign neglect versus La grande Somalia: trying to evaluate the impact of colonial policies on the post-colonial Somali state’, Gerard Prunier Blog, 24 November 2015.
- 5 International Crisis Group, ‘Somalia and the Gulf Crisis’, ICG Africa Report nr. 260, June 2018.
- 6Similar dynamics have been at play in the long-standing dispute between the FGS and Somaliland, whereby the UAE has supported the administration in Hargeisa in its confrontation vis-à-vis the FGS. In particular, the UAE (through its state-owned logistics multinational DP World) has been instrumental in supporting the development of Somaliland’s Berbera port – much to the anger of the FGS, which has fiercely (but unsuccessfully) opposed the deal. In recent years, Somaliland’s authorities have added an extra international layer to this issue by strengthening ties with Taiwan – a move that has in turn the potential to reinforce the alignment between the FGS and China, who recognises the FGS and strongly opposes Taiwan’s independence.
- 7Jessica E. Borowicz, ‘Strategic Location and Neopatrimonialism in Djibouti’, University of Kansas, 2017. Rents from the three biggest military bases alone (France, US, China) amount to USD 117 million annually, which is over 6% of Djibouti’s GDP.
- 8 a b c Zach Vertin, ‘Great power rivalry in the Red Sea: China's experiment in Djibouti and implications for the United States’, Brookings, June 2020, p. 6-7.
- 9Zach Vertin, ‘Great power rivalry in the Red Sea: China's experiment in Djibouti and implications for the United States’, Brookings, June 2020, p. 6-7; Lolita C. Baldor, ‘US files complaint over Chinese laser use in Djibouti’, Associated Press, 3 May 2018.
- 10Brendon J. Cannon, ‘Foreign State Influence and Somalia’s 2017 Presidential Election: An Analysis’, Bildhaan, vol. 18, 2019, 36-37.
- 11Brendon J. Cannon and Federico Donelli, ‘Somalia’s Electoral Impasse and the Role of Middle East States’, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 12 May 2021.
- 12Jessica E. Borowicz, ‘Strategic Location and Neopatrimonialism in Djibouti’, University of Kansas, 2017.
- 13Willem van den Berg and Jos Meester, ‘Ports & Power: The securitisation of port politics’, Clingendael Institute, May 2018, 18.