Djibouti and Eritrea both lay claim to Doumeira Mountain and Doumeira Island, located near the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a strategically important shipping lane linking the Red Sea and Suez Canal with the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. The armed forces of the two countries clashed in 2008 over the region, and relations between them have remained strained since. Qatar had peacekeepers stationed in the disputed territory for seven years until they were suddenly withdrawn on 12 June. Days later, Djibouti accused Eritrea of sending troops into the disputed territory in the absence of the Qatari peacekeepers.
The Saudi-Qatari spat has rippled across the Middle East and over the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa. Four hundred and fifty Qatari peacekeepers had been stationed along the Djiboutian-Eritrean border since 2010 to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire agreement to the 2008 border dispute. The peacekeepers were withdrawn without explanation on 12-13 June, leaving a vacuum that Eritrea has allegedly filled. Eritrea’s chief diplomat to the African Union (AU) said that Qatar’s decision to remove peacekeepers came after Eritrea cut its diplomatic ties with Qatar following the rift between the latter and Saudi Arabia. Other countries, including Djibouti, have also downgraded their links with Qatar to varying degrees. The Eritrean information ministry said that it had not received an explanation for the ‘hasty’ Qatari withdrawal, but acknowledged that it occurred ‘against the backdrop of a turbulent climate.’ The United Nations Security Council has urged the two countries to resolve the dispute peacefully, and will support the AU by despatching a fact-finding mission to the region.
A Djibouti-Eritrea conflict has the potential to inflame the longer-running border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia, as Ethiopia and Djibouti have a close relationship which includes the signing a defence agreement in 2016. Ethiopia and Eritrea have long been enemies; Eritrea split from Ethiopia in 1991 after a thirty-year battle for independence. The Ethiopia-Eritrea border war of 1998-2000 killed 80,000 people and arose out of rival claims to towns located along the frontier. The disputed territory currently acts as a buffer zone between the two states, which sees skirmishes from time to time. After a June 2016 conflict, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that he was prepared to use military force against Eritrea in retaliation for its ‘provocations.’ It would be a mortal threat for Eritrea to enter into a war with Ethiopia. After the border war ended in 2000, Ethiopia was flooded with assistance from the United States and European Union in exchange for Addis Ababa’s involvement in the UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Eritrea, however, did not receive the same level of economic investment and development support and a mass migration of youth from the tightly-controlled authoritarian state has resulted in a brain-drain.
The region’s proximity to restive areas in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East also risks a conflagration of the wider region. Somalia, to the south-east, has been wracked by unrest since 1991 and, 32 kilometres across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, lies the war-torn failed state of Yemen. The volatile region, therefore, is not short of triggers for further conflict, putting the already fragile regional security at risk. Thus, a renewed conflict between the two Horn of Africa states could have implications for the entire region by agitating already strained relationships and inflaming more severe conflicts.