The Horn Of Africa States: Somalia A Geostrategic Space – OpEd


The Horn of Africa States comprises the countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, together the SEED countries, which house a largely Cushitic speaking people in addition to a significant Semitic speaking population and minority Nilotic groups. It has a deep and complex historical background of both internal and external nature that was mostly commercial but at times violent.

Somalia’s geostrategic location as an important center of the ancient world involving Europe (ancient Greece and Rome), northeast Africa (Sudan and Egypt), the Arabian Peninsula (The GCC countries and the Levant), and Asia (India, China and others), has always attracted to it a mix of relationships, mostly trading but also violence from time to time. In this article, we shall specifically address Somalia, the country, which is the actual Horn of Africa, the country with the longest coast in the region and, indeed, Africa.

Historically, the region and more specifically Somalia through its historic city states and sultanates and eventually through the country that emerged in 1960 as “Somalia” determined its own path but was often a target of foreign parties that envied its geostrategic location and hence its relations with those others shaped its security and economic architecture. The fact that the Somali state collapsed some thirty years ago only added to the attempts to destroy both the people and state. Many of the its citizenry left the region and spread across the globe and are today found in over 140 countries of the world’s nations. This could be read as a blessing in disguise for the country or this could be a new arrow that could be thrown at it. It would depend on how the Somali state, which is recovering from its absence in the wilderness, harnesses that inevitable force which it is going to encounter. Already a significant portion of its administration carry dual nationalities – the Somali and others.

Those who were left in the country were exposed to all kinds of destructive and monumentally deadly forces involving terrorism, diseases through dumping of nuclear waste in its seas, piracy, and indeed physical invasions by some of the countries of the region. This was further complicated by acts of nature in the form of climatic changes, which has affected not only Somalia and the region but the globe and world in general. Nevertheless, the Somali population has increased. Although there is no hard statistical data, the population is estimated to be between 25 to 30 million. It is our belief that the population is closer to the 30 million, if not higher. Somalia’s internal conflicts in the form ethnicity and terror groups complicated matters and also took its toll on the populations. Nevertheless, the population grew as is evidenced by the growth of each urban center in the country. The rural populations still remain overwhelmingly the majority of the population of Somalia.

Somalia is a paradox. It is poor but rich potentially. It is insignificant in world affairs but remains in the front pages of world media. Its people, despite being subjected to all kinds of destructive forces, have shown resilience and internal strength, and crossed oceans and seas and lands to settle in many countries of the world to become full and contributing citizens of all those countries where, in some, they even are part of the governments at different levels from ministerial positions to parliamentarians, mayors and councilors in cities and towns.

Somalia remains important for a number of reasons including:

  1. It is important for the safety and passage of goods and people through the Suez Canal-Indian Ocean shipping route.
  2. As always it projected power in the region and in particular with respect to all the non-regional parties that showed up in the region throughout history.
  3. Somalia is endowed with immense untapped resources including oil and gas, agricultural lands, savannah country for livestock rearing and, indeed, other minerals including lithium, uranium, molybdenum, nickel, silver and gold and others.  It owns a vast marine exclusive economic zone close to a million square kilometers and hence is, potentially, a giant blue economy.
  4. Somalia enjoys a youthful population of some 30 million people, 70% of which is under 25 years of age.   

Many countries and, indeed, organizations have erred in their assessment of the country and its people, and accordingly acted in ways that was not be helpful for the Somali people and country. Historically, Somalia and its people are not vindictive and prefer to forgo and forget the past and live for the moment and the future.

Somalis view the long delay in lifting of the arms embargo on the country as abuse of power over the poor country and people. However, the lifting and easing of arms handling was welcomed by the general population. Only those few who were benefiting from the chaos of the past thirty odd years in the country  seem, not to be happy. Somalis also view the joining of the country to the East African Community as having been engineered from outside by non-Somali powers. It is not the desire of the population of the country to be part of the EAC, which has basically chosen its path many years earlier, without taking into consideration that countries like Somalia may be imposed upon them. Imposing the Swahili language as the lingua franca of the EAC and later the EAF is something Somalis would never accept. It is a proud nation with its poetic Somali language playing a major feature of being Somali. The Federal Somali Bicameral Parliament is expected not to put into law or ratify the membership of Somalia in the EAC. Nevertheless, it would be better if the EAC just froze the membership for later dates to be reviewed from time to time until, Somalia officially withdraws from the organization. It would not be good for EAC to have an unhappy population within their grouping. Moreover, Somalia would only add more problems for the EAC, including introduction of the terror groups that already trouble Somalia, as travel from Somalia to the EAC region is eased.

Somalia is currently carrying its own heavy bags involving reuniting the country, dealing with the aftereffects of the civil war, rebuilding the country’s institutions, infrastructures and many other issues be they social, economic or political. Somalia needs a breathing space and those who want to help should understand that taking advantage of the country and people in its hour of need, would not be helpful for them in the long run.

The current contracts being signed under duress by Somalis may not hold in the long run if they are not on win-win basis, and foreign parties who want to sign contracts with the state should know better to have always win-win relations and not one-sided relations where one side benefits and the other remains forever a loser as long as the contract is in place.

There should be no doubt that Somalia will exploit its long coast and its immense maritime economic zone. The region, with Somalia at its front door and Ethiopia on its interior and Eritrea and Djibouti further north on the west side of the Red Sea, is enormous and strategically placed. Some 10% of the world’s trade and 11% of its crude oil and gas are reported to be passing through the waters of the region and through the straits of Bab El Mandab, one of the chokepoints in the vicinity of the region.

Somalia involves momentous features for the world’s economy involving not only being a passageway for goods and people but also construction and development of major ports for ships to unload, transship and for fueling and repairs in the future. it also remains to be a significant air space allowing air travel from Europe to Asia and vice versa, and north and south of the African continent.

A functioning Somalia will not doubt own and develop its military capabilities, which would be beneficial for maintaining peace and security of the country but would also assure of the safety and security of the region and its maritime seas and air space. Somalia would no doubt work towards bringing together the region’s countries where a collective approach to the region’s enormous issues can be worked out together instead of the single-nation format of today, which has not worked so far.

Somalia’s internal conflicts and tensions are generally exploited and manipulated by non-Somali parties. They include, among others, countries, multilateral institutions and NGOS, which behave as mercenaries. The fact that other conflicts are also going on at the same time does not help. We have the Ukraine war, the current Israeli-Palestine war in Gaza, the indecisive Gulf States, the ethnic-based civil conflicts in Ethiopia and the presence of the armies of five African countries in Somalia, all drawing attention away from the real Somali problem. It seems to being distracted and simple issues which could have been handled easily seem to be out of control. The Federal Government of Somalia currently seems to be daydreaming of matters that are beyond its capability, and instead of doing the day-to-day business of governance, the Chief Executive of the country has become the President who seems to have usurped the powers of the prime minister. These tensions and the constant travel of the chief executive officer of the country do not pose well for the country.

On concluding this article, one must note that Somalia’s coast stretches to near the Strait of Bab El Mandab, the 28 km body of water, which is practically one of the narrowest chokepoints in the world and through which all the shipping traffic, be it commercial or naval, to and from the Suez Canal, must pass through. The other route away from the Suez Canal would take a ship carrying goods, oil or liquified gas or for any other purpose, on a trip around the entire continent of Africa, the second largest continent in the world.  This would create costly and enormous headaches for the destination markets of these goods and people, mainly European and American. 

Its enormous oil and gas potential both offshore and onshore, its other minerals including uranium and its proximity to other important regions such as the Arabian Gulf, the East Africa markets and Asia, mark the country as an important geostrategic space, that cannot and should not be ignored. 

Dr. Suleiman Walhad

Dr. Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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