Despite widespread vociferous opposition by citizens, the government of Somaliland has granted a military base to Abu Dhabi. There is no credible justification for this decision in terms of Somaliland’s national security or economic needs. The decision is one more example of the culture of impunity, entitlement and mendacity of the Kulmiye government.
In Act I of Shakespeare’sHamlet, Marcellus, one of the sentries at Elsinore Castle, utters the immortal line“something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, meaning that there exists in Denmark (the setting of the play) a deep malaise that is having a profoundly negative effect upon the country and its collective psyche (an alternative understanding of the line is that the reference to “Denmark” is to the King himself and the “rottenness” or malaise is in his soul) – either explanation serves the purpose of this article. The genius of the bard, and indeed of all great dramatists, lies, at least partly, in their talent for encapsulating complex and often inexpressible thoughts and ideas in concise and simple language. This is the essence and beauty of great poetry.
We can say today, with both confidence and sadness, that there is something truly rotten in the state of Somaliland, and that something is, without doubt, rotten in the current Kulmiye Government. The fiasco in Parliament on 12 February 2017 wherein at a joint session of the two houses,Wakiilada&Guurtida(Representatives and Elders), the decision to grant a military base at Berbera to the Government of Abu Dhabi was supposedly ratified, is but the latest in a long line of government actions that directly sacrifice the public interest in favour of the personal gain of government insiders and the ruling elite. The use of public office and executive authority for personal enrichment has a long tradition and is common in many countries, including many so-called advanced countries that often have the shameless temerity to lecture their less developed counterparts on the evils of corruption and the imperatives of clean governance and transparency in civic affairs. However, it is fair to say that the Kulmiye Government has elevated executive corruption, public mendacity and the open manipulation of public office for personal gain to a level unseen in the history of Somaliland. We have now reached the rarefied heights of theAfweynedictatorship with respect to the open and shameless theft of public funds and assets by government officials from the highest levels to the lowest clerical cadres.
Government ministers are blatantly shameless in misappropriating public funds for their personal use and in stealing public assets and property (i.e. land, buildings, vehicles etc.) by transferring legal title to themselves or their family members. Another recent example of the breach of executive privilege was the spectacle of a coterie of ministers accompanying the Kulmiye presidential candidate, Muse Bihi, on a campaign tour of the eastern provinces of Sool and Sanag. These officials saw no conflict between their responsibilities as public servants sworn to work for the people and uphold the constitution and openly campaigning for a candidate of one of the three national parties; or if they did see the inherent conflict of interest in their actions, they simply did not care – indeed it is normal for government officials to refer to the Kulmiye candidate as “Mr. President” - even though the election is many months away. This culture of impunity, entitlement and mendacity has been a feature of the Kulmiye government for many years now, and it has become more entrenched with each passing day.
The issue of granting a military base in Berbera to Abu Dhabi merits close study for many reasons, most importantly because authorizing the presence of armed, foreign military forces on one’s soil is an extremely sensitive matter that has fundamental implications for national sovereignty, foreign relations and national development. Traditionally, nations permit foreign countries to base military personnel and equipment on their soil for reasons connected with the national security of the host country. For example, after World War II, Germany and Britain granted the US military bases in their countries under the auspices of the NATO alliance in support of their own national security against the threat of the USSR. In response, under the auspices of the Warsaw Pact, the countries of Eastern Europe granted the Soviet Union military bases in their countries. In Asia, South Korea and Japan permitted US military bases in their countries to protect themselves against the perceived threats from North Korea/China and the USSR respectively. The states of Bahrain and Qatar have granted the US military bases in their countries as a bulwark against the perceived threat to their own national security from Iran.
In the Horn of Africa, Djibouti has granted military bases to several foreign countries, namely France (due to the historic, colonial relationship), the US (which is withdrawing this year due to the base recently granted to China), China and (as recently reported) Saudi Arabia. However, the case of Djibouti is somewhat different from the examples in Europe and Asia mentioned above. Djibouti is a city-state with no mineral or other natural resources with which it can support itself economically. Historically, its only significant asset which can be converted into economic value has been its geo-strategic location – after all this was the principal reason that France sought control over the city and its environs during the colonial ‘Scramble for Africa’ during the 19thcentury. Thus, for Djibouti, granting military bases to foreign powers has a primarily economic motivation which has worked to its benefit to date.
With respect to Berbera and Somaliland, it is instructive to analyse the various motivations that may lie behind the decision by the Kulmiye government to grant such a base to Abu Dhabi against widespread, popular opposition. First, Somaliland has no immediate and obvious threat to its national security and sovereignty against which the presence of foreign military forces could be a credible deterrent. Ethiopia, the country’s huge neighbour to the west, is also its closest friend in Africa as well as Somaliland’s greatest potential economic and security partner. It is difficult to see Somaliland’s economic, political and security development without Ethiopia as a close and collaborative partner and ally; equally, it is clear that the future of Ethiopia’s economic, trade and security development and growth is closely linked to free and unfettered access to Somaliland’s ports and the entrepreneurial acumen of its vibrant private sector. Somaliland’s other two neighbours, Djibouti to the north and Somalia to the east and south, do not pose a serious, existential threat to the country’s national security at present and are unlikely to do so in the future. Thus, it is clear that fear of immediate, external threats to its national survival does not comprise a credible motivation for Somaliland to grant a military base to a foreign power.
Second, let us examine the economic motivation which has been widely and loudly touted by the Kulmiye government and its spokespeople. According to the government, the military base will provide many well-paid jobs which are badly needed and which will contribute to the local economy. The fact is that the foreign military bases in Djibouti do not provide many such jobs to its people, despite the fact that Djibouti, as a recognised member of the international community of nations which has full access to the international monetary, financial and trading systems, has a much greater opportunity to maximise the potential economic benefits of such installations. The simple truth is that the relatively few jobs provided to the host communities by many of these bases are in the janitorial and cleaning sectors. Further, the local purchasing of most of these facilities is very limited since they tend to source most of their goods and materials from their home countries. The limited capacity for sourcing the required goods and materials within Somaliland due to the lack of a local banking sector that is connected to the international financial system, will militate in favour of this trend.
Finally, the experience of Japan and the Philippines suggests that many of the economic and social consequences of hosting large foreign, military installations are often negative for local communities, rather than positive. In short, despite the glowing and rosy projections of the government regarding the economic benefits of such a base, experience suggests that the socio-economic consequences are uncertain at best, and unambiguously negative at worst.
Unlike Djibouti, Somaliland has ample mineral, pastoral, agricultural and other natural resources upon which to base the economic development of its small population of some 4-5 million. Thus, renting out parts of the land and coast of the country in order to capitalise upon its geo-strategic location is neither the only option available to secure economic benefit, nor is it a particularly rational one. This rentier model of economic development may be sensible for a small city-state with a population of half a million people (grosso modo), but it is laughable as a viable economic strategy for a nation comprising approximately 138,000km2, including 700km of coastline, with significant agricultural, mineral, marine and pastoral resources that could be relatively easily developed to yield economic benefits that would transform the lives of its people beyond recognition. Thus, the economic rationale for granting the base as advanced by the government is a blatant fallacy.
Since there is no credible motivation with respect to its own national security and the economic benefits of the proposed base are uncertain and limited at best, the motivation of the Kulmiye government in pushing through with granting the base against widespread and vociferous local opposition needs to be scrutinised closely. Is there some critical threat to Somaliland’s security that has been hidden from public view against which the proposed base will be a defence? Is there some as yet undisclosed benefit that will accrue to the country and its people that has been agreed upon with Abu Dhabi, but which will emerge in the near future? Based upon the government’s track record with respect to openness and transparency, its history of mendacity and duplicity with respect to foreign policy (principally in its relations and supposed dialogue with the discredited and now defunct Dum-al-Jadid government of Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud), the fact that it is now a ‘lame duck’ administration with just six months remaining of its tenure, not to mention its well-documented elevation of kleptocracy to a method of governance as briefly outlined above, it is difficult, if not impossible, to but conclude that the true motivation lies in the personal gain of key government insiders.
Having established that the rationale and motivation for the proposed base in Berbera do not fall within the parameters applicable in many other countries that host bases for foreign powers, we can turn to the potential disadvantages that granting such a base will bring to Somaliland. The first issue that needs to be addressed is the proposed tenant of the base and the purpose for which they propose to use it. The lessee is the Government of Abu Dhabi and the stated purpose for its use is the execution of the air campaign against the Houthi rebels in the Yemen War mounted by Arab allies of the government led by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. In this context, it is important to note that Abu Dhabi has also secured a base in Asab in Eritrea which it has developed significantly since 2015 when the base was granted. Of course, Eritrea is closer to Yemen and thus better suited as a base of operations against the Houthi rebels, while southern Saudi Arabia is contiguous with Yemen and is the present base of operations for the Arab allies in the Yemen war.
In view of the above, and bearing in mind that Abu Dhabi has a close military alliance with Egypt which has extended to mounting joint air strikes against targets in Libya, many observers see a hidden Egyptian hand in the request for the base in Berbera. This is a very serious issue for Somaliland in view of the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile waters and Ethiopia’s plans to construct hydroelectric dams on the headwaters of the Nile in its northern mountains, in order to power its ambitious industrial development plans. It has been widely reported that Ethiopia is greatly concerned regarding the granting of the base in Berbera to Abu Dhabi, and it has made its concerns known to the Kulmiye government on several occasions. The fact is that the ramifications of the proposed Berbera base for regional politics are very complex and unclear.
For example, as mentioned above, the principal player in the Arab alliance supporting the Hadi government in Yemen, namely Saudi Arabia, has recently secured a military base in Djibouti, while simultaneously signalling its displeasure with Egypt by supporting Ethiopia’s policy to develop its power generation capacity through construction of dams on the Nile headwaters in its northern waters. In December 2016, Saudi Arabia sent several delegations to Addis Ababa, one of which visited the Renaissance Dam, and signed economic cooperation agreements with Ethiopia, including joint investment in hydroelectric power projects. Further, as the new administration in the US signals retrenchment in its global military footprint, and conversely China indicates expansion of its global military footprint (witness their game of musical chairs with respect to bases in Djibouti), regional powers will seek to enhance their projection of military power in the region in support of their respective interests. In this context, it is also important to bear in mind Russia’s determination to maintain their naval base in Tartus in Syria as evidenced by Russia’s substantial and decisive military support for the Assad regime in the Syrian war. In January of this year, this Russian policy bore fruit as the two countries signed an agreement to expand and upgrade the base, while making Russia’s use of it permanent.
With respect to the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean, these regional powers comprise Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and India, while the superpowers also jostle for advantage as US strategic imperatives under the new administration become clearer. The immediate future, therefore, for regional politics and strategic alliances presents a period of increased competition and regional turmoil as these regional powers jostle for advantage and position in the shadow of superpower realignment, expansion and entrenchment. It is into this witches brew of turmoil, localised wars and intensified regional competition, that the Kulmiye government has waded with nary a thought except for its own immediate and petty, material gain.
The people of Somaliland are much wiser than their rulers and understand the dangers and shifting alliances of their neighbourhood, and for this reason have opposed the proposed base by a wide majority. It is clear that the story with respect to granting of the base is by no means concluded, and it is very likely that the incoming government of Somaliland will reverse the decision of the Kulmiye government after the elections scheduled for September this year. In the meantime, those elements of the Kulmiye government that have been pushing for approval of granting of the base will have secured their ‘thirty pieces of silver’ at the cost of the interests of their nation and people. However, this is but what we have come to expect from this morally bankrupt and lame duck government.
* Ahmed M.I. Egal is a Somalilander who grew up in Europe. Egal has a BA (Economics & Politics) from Warwick University and an MA (Area Studies/African Development) from London University.