The Horn of Africa is a region in Eastern Africa home to the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia. It is also a region that is positioned in such a geographically strategic location, per its proximity to the Middle East oil fields and the Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea trade routes. Historically, these routes attracted the attention of the world powers, including the United States.
Because of its strategic location—just south of the Red Sea—foreign powers in the West, the Middle East, and the Far East have long intruded in the region’s affairs to increase their own political influence, gain strategic leverage, and have exclusive access to the most untapped natural resources in the area. Intrusions that continue to this day and intrusions that threaten to shift the geopolitical paradigm with proxy wars and more bloodshed.
It is, in essence, a dangerous model of conflict. Lines are drawn and sides inevitably and predictably being formed. Those in contention are lining up against each other. Each is waiting for the other to yield. And the unfortunate result is that the region becomes more unstable, armed conflicts persist, and the neighborhood continues to fracture.
The battle for geographic dominance in the Horn of Africa continues to fuel instability in an already volatile region. And at the center of it all is Somalia whose northern coast funnels all maritime traffic to Bab el-Mandeb, a narrow chokepoint through which all ships heading to and from the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea must pass through.
It has once again thrust Somalia into the geopolitical spotlight as a focal point of strategic and political importance. And, because of its geographic positioning, the stability of this region is dependent upon the stability of Somalia.
And stability won’t come easy as world powers continue to assert themselves deliberately and aggressively in the area. China has built one of its largest military bases abroad in Djibouti. Russia is establishing itself as one of the region’s largest arms dealers and is looking at building a base on the Red Sea to realize its aspirations in the Middle East.
And the United Arab Emirates (UAE) & Qatar (along with other Gulf Powers) continue to expand their role in the region, establishing strategic rivalries with the intention to create further instability in the area to strengthen their foothold in the region.
And, of course, the United States continues to pitch itself as a positive alternative, knowing that losing the waterways would have a significant economic and military impact. But while the words of the United States seem to indicate a vested interest in strengthening democratic institutions, improving stability and security, and delivering services for the Somali people, the actions, unfortunately, do not.
The United States cannot be content to continue with a foreign policy that seems to be exclusively built around reinforcing the Somalia campaign against Al-Shabab while competing for foreign powers (China, Russia, Turkey, etc.) are building bases, armies, hospitals, airports, and shipping ports in one of the most important geostrategic locations on the planet.
It’s very clear that the United States cannot stay out any longer. Given the importance of the region and the loss of influence that would likely result, the United States needs to increase its presence both economically and militarily to stabilize the region and promote order in the Horn while protecting itself from the damages of competing and corrupting foreign interests.
Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And history doesn’t lie. We have seen what happened in Afghanistan. Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Somalia in the coming months and the United States needs to engage directly to ensure the integrity of the election process for the sake of inclusive political & economic development in the region. Let’s not condemn ourselves by repeating the mistakes made in Afghanistan. It is certainly a great challenge, but one must face it together for the good of the world.
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 marginalization of Mirifle clans in order to enlist them in Italy’s fight against the anti-colonial Somali Youth League 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.
Ismail D. Osman Writes in Somalia, Horn of Africa Security and Geopolitical focusing on governance and security. You can reach him firstname.lastname@example.org