World News /22 Sep 2018
On the surface, the tide is turning in the Horn of Africa. The region’s four restive constituents – Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti – have taken steps to settle their long-running differences, the latest being a landmark peace deal inked just this week. But as the local players move towards a rapprochement, foreign powers are threatening to drag them into disputes thousands of miles away, and could thwart their attempts to end the bloodshed.
This would be doubly tragic given the frenzy of diplomacy that has taken place across the Horn this summer. The presidents of Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement in Saudi Arabia in mid-September, having earlier agreed to end their two-decade feud. The two countries have also reopened relations with Somalia and Djibouti respectively, and all four governments signed a cooperation agreement in Djibouti earlier this month.
These agreements are designed to finally end the conflict that has raged practically unabated across the Horn since its colonial overlords packed up and left. Africa’s jagged eastern peninsula cleaves one of the world’s most lucrative commercial arteries, with more than $700 billion in maritime trade passing the Horn every year. But instead of sharing in this commercial bounty, the gatekeepers have spent the last 50 years slashing at one another in a bloody spattering of territorial disputes, the most infamous being the Ethiopia-Eritrea border spat of 1998, which triggered a diplomatic freeze that has lasted to the present day. There’ve also been civil wars in Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti, a toxic cocktail of poverty and post-colonial uncertainty turning the region into a crucible of tribal chaos. Religious extremists have seized vast swathes of Somalia, while pirates have turned the Horn’s coastline into a viper’s nest.
But now the Horn’s members are striving to fulfil their economic potential. Ethiopia, already Africa’s fastest-growing economy, is pumping money into a series of infrastructure projects, notably the Grand Renaissance Dam, which will be the largest dam on the continent. Across the reopened border, Eritrea is casting off its reputation as a hermit state, building a new port as it pushes for foreign funding; Russia has been wowed by the pitch and is planning a substantial investment. Djibouti, which has been working this playbook for years, wants to become a regional trade hub, an African answer to Dubai. In fact, it is currently trying to eject Dubai’s own port operator, DP World, from its dockyard at Doraleh, and reclaim what it describes as its economic independence.
Yet, on closer inspection, Djibouti’s struggle with DP World is anything but a battle for liberty. In fact, it suggests a far darker reality for the Horn’s neighbours. Far from pursuing their economic freedom, they’re conceding ever more influence to foreign states. And it’s far from certain what these creditors will want in return.
According to worried U.S. lawmakers at a recent Congressional hearing, Djibouti wants to get rid of DP World because it is planning to hand Doraleh over to China, a reward for Beijing’s growing support. Chinese banks have lent Djibouti $1.4 billion in the last two years, more than 75% of the country’s GDP, and its engineers have built a free trade zone at Doraleh, the centrepiece of Djibouti’s trade hub plans. The story is similar elsewhere: China has funded the Grand Renaissance Dam as well as a railway connecting Djibouti and Addis Ababa, while in Eritrea it is developing a new mine.