The Horn Of Africa States: The Politics Of Ports In The Region – OpEd


The Interested Parties 

The Horn of Africa States region is clearly of interest to many parties. They include the West, of course, who were traditionally involved in the region over the past century and a half. They, indeed, shaped it and created the current countries of the region, namely Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti – the SEED countries, an acronym we coined from the first letters of the four countries.

There was also involvement of the Soviet Union and the Socialist camp countries during the sixties, seventies and eighties of the last century, which armed the region to its teeth, making it one of the most armed regions of the Africa, which in turn assisted many African countries achieve their independence. The countries that were assisted by the region include present-day South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and others.

Other countries involved in the port politics of the region today include Arab countries with the United Arab Emirates on the vanguard and Saudi Arabia not far behind and probably Egypt playing pivotal roles in the background, Russia, and Turkey. The Chinese have probably the biggest investments in and loans to the region. India, the giant nearby plays on all sides but remains out of sight as always.

The Ports of the Region 

The region built its ports, which included among others the ports of Mogadishu, Kismayo, Berbera, Massawa and Assab during the last century. Djibouti Port was built by the French early in the twentieth century and kept serving Ethiopia all the while into this century.

The countries of the region in the sixties and seventies and eighties of the last century were mostly only Somalia and Ethiopia, which were joined by Djibouti in 1977 and Eritrea in 1993. The governments of those years did have port politics of their own. Although the building of the ports of the region were achieved with the assistance of others, those governments of the region had full control of the politics of those ports and what they wanted with them. They were not under the control of others as is currently the case.

The main players of the ports of the region appear to be the Chinese, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates and they serve not the interests of the countries of the region but their own interests first, which gives rise to the tensions and troubles of the region. They are, indeed, central to the shaping of politics of the region and its shifting alliances, if there is an alliance in the first place.

Ethiopia lost access to the Red Sea when Eritrea attained its long-sought independence from Ethiopia and the ports of Assab and Massawa, thus became idle for a long time. They are still under-utilized and under-developed. The Ports of Somalia also remained under-developed until the Turks got involved with the Port of Mogadishu, which now serves most of southern Somalia and the UAE got involved in Berbera. The latter has been revived to become a rival for Djibouti in serving Ethiopia and resulted from the expulsion of the DP World of the UAE from Djibouti. Its development is not based on the economic politics of Somalia or that Somaliland region where the port is located. It is based on the interests of the UAE in the region. The other major port of Somalia, Kismayo only serves part of Jubaland and mostly Kenya, where much of contraband goods enter the East African markets.

The Shifts in International Trade 

The region owns many smaller ports, and it is not the intention to list them all here. It has, indeed, a long coast, the longest in Africa which stretches for 4,700 km and the region should have had developed long ago port politics, which currently does not exist. In this respect one must consider the shift in international trade over the past four decades, which one could only describe as seismic. The shifts in international trade consists, in the main, of three main factors as presented hereunder:

  1. There was a shift in the manufacturing base from the north to east, i.e. from Europe and North America to Asia, mostly China but also to Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, India and even the Philippines. There still existed the industrial base of Japan and the development of South Korea and Taiwan. Goods have to be manufactured in this new industrial base and transported to the rest of the world, and accordingly most have to pass through the Suez Canal and fortunately or unfortunately, however one puts, through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean waterway and the Bab El Mandab chokepoint, a stretch of water of some 28 km which separates Djibouti from Yemen. This is a major waterway which the region overlooks.
  2. There was a shift in the way goods are transported, which changed from ship holds to containers. Indeed, the transport of goods became containerized which could be numbered and tracked easily from port to port and from manufacturing site to destination and stored with ease.
  3. There was also a shift in the structure of ships carrying goods, which generally became flat topped much like aircraft carriers and not ships with ship holds and warehouses inside their bellies and bottoms.

These shifts in international trade, of course, made the Horn of Africa once again an important geostrategic location. The first time it became important was when the Suez Canal was opened in 1869 by the French Diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who more than anybody else was responsible for the building of the Suez Canal.

However, the governments of the region were not ready to design and/or device  new strategic policies for the ports of the region. Somalia’s government collapsed and there was no governance infrastructures until 2012, when a semblance of a federal government was instituted but it still remains weak and unable to create a national policy with respect to its ports or any other economic activity for that matter. It is still coping with fragilities of many kinds including foreign implanted terror groups, and foreign interferences and intrigues in its affairs. The main port of Mogadishu is currently managed by a Turkish company as is the international airport of Mogadishu and the port of Berbera is managed and controlled by the DP World of the UAE.

Ethiopia has no ports and uses the ports of Djibouti for its international trade, although it does also use other ports such as Somaliland’s Berbera, and Kenyan ports. Eritrea remains inward-looking and its ports remain underdeveloped. The most active ports, therefore, remain those of Djibouti, which were rebuilt and refurbished through loans and investments from the UAE and China and grants from some Arab institutions. But the ports of the region and the region, in general, are now on the spotlight again because of all the troubles in the region including the Palestinian/Israeli unending wars and the regional conflicts themselves, which is now pitting Somalia against Ethiopia through an MoU signed on 1st January between Prime Minister Abiye Ahmed with one of Somalia’s regions.

Intra-Africa Trade 

The Horn of Africa States region faces the Indian Ocean and hence lies straight in the passage of most goods travelling from Asia to the rest of the world. The governments of the region and particularly Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea could have taken advantage of their locations along the path of those cargoes. They could have engineered the building of more ports such as for ship repairs, ship  refueling, transshipment, container storages, sports activities and tourism, taking advantage of the all-year-round good weather of the region as an attraction and, of course, its long history and beautiful blue waters and white beaches.

A successful program could have been the building of ports that serve the rest of the continent and especially central, Sahelian and West Africa through the construction of railways and roads linking those countries of Africa to the ports of the Horn of Africa States, where goods between Africa and Asia could have been shipped to either direction.

Currently it takes ships travelling from Asia to West Africa probably a month or more traveling through the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and then the Atlantic ocean. Goods could reach the ultimate consumer in four to six months as the infrastructures within the countries of the African continent also remain underdeveloped and difficult. Should there have been a railway linking West Africa to ports in the Horn of Africa, that travel could have been limited to a week or maximum ten days, and goods may have reached the ultimate consumer in two weeks or less.

A straight railway from Dakar, Senegal to Mogadishu, Somalia with feeder lines connecting to other major cities on both sides along the way could have been engineered, should there have been a major policy shift of the governments of the Horn of Africa and especially, if they cooperated and collaborated for it would be beneficial for all of them, including Ethiopia, which does not own a sea or a port. Its contribution could have been the provision of cheap energy using its GERD to the transcontinental rail and road connection.

Potential Investors 

The cost of goods would have been reduced for the continent including the Horn of Africa and trade development and new corridors could have been added as time passes through. The question comes of how they would finance such massive infrastructures.

There are investors all around the globe looking for save investments and given the proper assurances and collaterals, many investors including banks and investors would come forward. But they need to be convinced. The Americans and the West would welcome cooperating in such a massive infrastructure to compete with the Chinese BRI project. The Indians will come up with their own initiatives and so would the Turks and even the Arabs of the Gulf. Such projects would not only generate income for those who participate but for all the countries that would be involved from Senegal to Somalia via Ethiopia.

This would not only involve ports but also development other logistics and communications such as transcontinental fibre-optic  cables across the continent and the development of the region’s mining industry including those of oil and gas, gold, uranium, cobalt, lithium and others that are necessary for today’s world.

The Process of Development 

The Process and the project all seem on the face to be complex and difficult and almost impossible to implement. Such is only the view of those who do not want anything to happen and keep the continent a milking cow, a source of raw materials and a market for their products. They forget the growing population of the region and Africa in general bulging in the age group of below thirty and still growing much like a balloon. The process can be executed in any number of algorithmic steps with the project being divided into the number of countries involved in the process and project.

The transcontinental project will first be designed in terms of a railway connection with two lines and two-way highway, a major pipeline carrying oil and gas (crude) and another pipeline carrying fuel and still a third pipeline carrying cables, fibre-optic or otherwise.

The project should have the support of the United Nations, the African Union, NEPAD, the World bank the IMF, the BRICS Plus Group, the African Development bank Group, the Asia Development Bank and other international institutions. All the segments, which basically represent the all the countries through which the main lines and the feeder lines pass through should all start at the same time with investors becoming shareholders in the project. This is generally a general outline of how we see the project  through a bird’s eye view, but it could be improved.

The onus lies on the leaders both in the Horn of Africa States and in the other countries of the continent. Linking the continent has always been the dream of the continent’s leaders. It is time they put the project in place without fear or hesitation. A similar line and feeder lines connecting to it can built north to south of the continent. No continent has ever developed without such a connection. One can study the development of the Canadian or American transcontinental connections or the Trans Siberian connections or the Chinese European rail and road connection or the massive internal rail and road networks of India. It is a matter of will and a matter of implementing it. This will create employment, curtail the refugee menace to European/American countries and would help develop intra-African trade.

The small minds busy on tribal/ethnic issues that cause most difficulties in the continent and the Horn of Africa States will lose jobs. The youth will be employed, educated and would busy earning their lives peacefully. Nothing really happens overnight. Every child grows and becomes an individual at a minimum age of fifteen, some say eighteen. But it is the law of nature. Every business and every nation also become accomplished in this time span. Those who long for a quick recipe for instant success must be living in a fool’s paradise. It is those who steal and corrupt others and unfortunately, it involves many African leaders who come poor and become rich after serving in governance in a short period of about four years or less if there was a coup.

The region, indeed, has some 4,700 km of coasts, which today remain underexploited, while many of its youth remain unemployed or underemployed. Yet the politicians use these young people as fodder for their folies and keep them fighting. It is such leaders who keep the region on edge always on flimsy grounds. It is perhaps time they provided a raison d’etre for the youth to flourish and a sense of direction such as the development of a functioning coast connected to the rest of the continent through road and rail, cable and other necessary infrastructures.

We are in the “turnkey civilization” where  projects are completed and then handed over to a buyer/beneficiary on completion, where he has only to turn the key. The region may have to turn to a turnkey process to complete such a vast project including negotiation and completion with all the countries involved. It is not as complicated as it seems, and it appears to be a matter of will. In fifteen years, we could be looking at a different continent and a different Horn of Africa States.

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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