The Horn Of Africa States: The Expanding Foreign Footprints – OpEd



The historical European presence of the region continues involving the French,  the Italians and, of course, the British. They are being supplemented by other Europeans from the Nordic parts of Europe, mainly Norway, Sweden and Denmark, who come to the region through NGOs and the armies of humanitarian agencies, the gateway for many countries to enter the region. Other countries from the West with presence in the region include the United States, Japan, Spain and Germany.

Because of the presence of all these countries, it has become easy for the current Arabs to come to the region too, for they would not have come if there were no Americans or British or the French and others in the region. The countries of the East have not been left behind and they have also shown their interest in the region through an extensive presence. They include China, in the main, but also India, Türkiye and Russia, although Türkiye counts itself as a European nation. China, indeed, has established its first major foreign naval base in the region and the same goes for Türkiye after more than nearly two centuries, perhaps.

Other countries involved in the region from Asia include Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and the Gulf Arabs – the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in the main. Other Arab countries include Yemen, Iraq and Syria whose refuge populations fill up most towns and urban centers throughout the length and breadth of the region. African countries that are involved in the region include Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, the last three forming the core countries of the East Africa Community. The region and especially troubled Somalia is a source of hard currency for countries like Kenya and Uganda which also keep their militaries busy and away from the governance centers of these countries. Recently the Chief of Staff of Kenya was killed in a suspicious helicopter crash, although nothing came of that.

There are many special envoys from many of these countries in addition to their ambassadorial representations. There are special envoys to the region from the United States, United Kingdom, France, the European Union, Japan, Finland, Norway, France, Germany, China, the UNO, the UNHCR, the African Union, and others. 

This poses a pertinent question as to why such presence and why such involvement in the region in this particular time and age? Obviously, each country and region would have its own reasons for its growing presence in the region. We shall explore these matters and the impact of their presence in the region in this article.

The Global Powers

The global powers include naturally the United States, Russia and China and their respective allies. The region is geostrategic as it overlooks the main pathway for international shipping and hence trade from Asia to Europe via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal with another major other choke point, the Bab El Mandab in-between. 

The region is part of the vast African continent, the second largest in the world with a youthful and growing population of some 1.5 billion people. Africa not only represents a source of natural resources but is also a large market place. The Horn of Africa States region contributes an area of some 3.8 million square km, about 12.5% of the total area of the continent and it is largely untapped with respect to its sub-soil and other natural resources. 

It also enjoys a population of some 216 million people, which represents 14.4% of the continent’s population, again a significant market place and also a source of a youthful labor force, which can also be part of any global war. Their experiences in hardships and war situations has no parallel in the continent. Senior officialdom of these countries, in addition to their military presence, crisscross the continent all the time, wooing African leaders to their sides.

The European Union

According to the Diplomatic Service of the European Union, the Horn of Africa States region is “a geo-strategic priority for the EU.”  Over 20% of EU exports and imports pass off its coast and hence the region remains a crucial element in its global calculations. This does not discount the historical connection of some of the members of the EU to the region – Italy and France. The United Kingdom which left the EU pursues its own course of action, although it does coordinate with both the EU and the United States. 

Its interests is related to the natural resources of the region, mostly sub-soil (oil and gas) and other minerals, both offshore and onshore. Note the region is reported to have a third of global uranium reserves in the world. The fishing and marine foods business is not far behind which attracts countries like Spain to the region. The EU is fully aware of the intense competition for presence in the region, from many quarters including themselves, the major global powers and others. 

Many European countries receive large migrant populations from the region, which again stimulates the interest of the EU in the region, although their involvement in the region like others may also have contributed to such exodus from the region.

The Gulf Arabs

The historic cultural ties between the Horn of Africa states region and the Arabian Peninsula, their geographic proximity and of course, the new found wealth of the Gulf states have been major contributing factors to the presence of the GCC countries in the region, which has, indeed, become a battleground among themselves to project their powers, although many assume that they only follow the Americans and the Europeans, who use them for their own ends. Basically, this means they have no independent foreign policies of their own.

The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the most active countries in the region and, indeed, have contributed to the chaos and corruption in the region through their paycheck diplomacy. The United Arab Emirates fear of the region with respect to the region’s port development possibilities, contributes to its intense engagement in the region enlisting others in the process such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while Qatar, its competing neighbor on the north with its enormous wealth sides with Türkiye in their presence in the region.

In essence, other than their non-independent foreign policies, one should also note that economic and security considerations drive the Gulf countries engagement in the Horn of Africa States as well, which they essentially see as its backyard. Other than disruptions of life and governance in the region Gulf intervention’s in the region, have not been impactful. It has not so far produced any economic gains of repute. 

The UAE involvement in Djibouti ended to naught and court cases, its military installations in Eritrea were closed and its current involvement in Somalia remains to be on another fallout trajectory. It deals with the regions of the country without the full support of the Federal Government of Somalia, at least, in public. The country’s Sudan presence is not on an even keel. Many in Ethiopia look with great suspicion, at the experiences of other countries of the region with the UAE and other Gulf Arab countries and remain uncomfortable.


Egypt has a long history with the region from Pharaonic times to the present. It’s relationship with the region over the past hundred years and more is marked by self-interest often playing one country of the region against another. It could have been like those of old times before, during, and after pharaonic times when the relationship of Egypt and the region was mutually beneficial, but that has not been the case for many decades and even for over a century now. Egypt’s policy with respect to the region is centered on the Nile river, which it believes is vital for its very existence and the Suez Canal.  Both have connections to the Horn of Africa States region. 

The waters of the Nile starts in the region and must go down stream to its destination the Mediterranean Sea. Neither the region nor Egypt can interfere in that divine order. The Dams on the river whether they are in Ethiopia, Sudan or Egypt can be co-managed among the countries concerned but in situations where one country, in this case Egypt, assumes that it is the only country that can take advantage of the running water and denies others and more specifically the region, which is the source of the Nile, matters get complicated. No solution has so far been found for this standing problem and it stays hanging. But one thing is clear and that is that the Horn of Africa States region has rights to the waters of its region, which Egypt must understand.

The Suez Canal is another major asset of Egypt but its usefulness depends on the security and stability of the Horn of Africa States region as well as the Arabian Peninsula on the opposite side of the marine waters separating the two regions. Egypt must therefore strive to have a stable and secure Horn of Africa States region but recent history shows that it was engaged in the region in a manner contrary to what it should have done. It transpires with parties in the region that only contribute to the continuous conflicts and chaos in the region.

The East Africa Community

The collapse of the military regimes of Somalia and Ethiopia in 1991 provided an expected bonus to the East Africa Community, which was struggling at the time, not only economically but also socially and culturally. Tanzania was the time under a socialist regime and Kenya was undergoing tumults of a badly managed economy while Uganda itself was just recovering from a period of violence with the entry of a new regime, which still controls the country with a powerful grip. 

The fact that many nations rose to help the fallen Horn Africa countries, which involved not only humanitarian assistance but also help in reconstituting the states and governance, needed a base close to the Horn of Africa States region to operate from and Nairobi was chosen. 

Ever since Kenya and the East Africa Community appear to have stumbled on a gold mine involving a multitude of NGOs who descended on the country and East Africa in general, milking the international community and spending it in Kenya and other East African countries. The EAC grew and expanded and continues to expand, not staying East African but also brining in Central African countries like Rwanda, Burundi, the DR Congo and South Sudan into the fold. 

They enticed even Somalia into their fold with no respect to the clearly different identity, religion, culture, and language of the country. They sent their armies to Somalia under the pretext of stabilizing it but only helping to perpetuate the chaos in the country and perhaps instigating new conflicts in the country. 

Somalia of the Horn of Africa States region is also a big market for the drug industry of Kenya, the Qat from Meru. For Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya, it keeps a large portion of their armies stuck away in a distant land. A large portion of the region’s population have moved to settle in East Africa and many of the region’s diaspora’s hard-earned incomes are now spent not in their home countries but in the East Africa Community, particularly Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – the core countries of the East Africa Community, which had never had it so good before!

The Interests of the International Community in the Region

In the past, the main interest was generally related to its geostrategic location with a coastline of some 5,500 km starting from the northern tip of Sudan on the Red Sea to the southern tip of Somalia on the Indian Ocean, and hence involving assurance of a secure passage of some 12% to 15% of global trade. The entry of new powers like China, Iran and the Gulf Arabs into the region has added to the competition.

However, lately, a resource element has entered the fray. The region is rich in many of the raw materials needed for the technologies of today. They include not only oil and gas, but also uranium, rare earths, lithium, gold and cobalt and other minerals. The region is also endowed with a vast solar power potential as well as an enormous Eolic and geothermal energy. The region further owns a vast marine exclusive economic zone of more than a million square kilometers in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

It should not, therefore, be a surprise to note the considerable interest of others both African and Non-African in the region. The only problem with this is that this international interest has, so far, caused a lot of pain, loss of lives, mass exodus, underdevelopment, and loss of many opportunities in the region, but it also has helped it in many ways.

This includes the region learning that a lot of non-action-backed rhetoric does not work to feed them or meet their developmental needs. The region has also learned a lot about other countries, who base their support on what is generally referred to as loyalty but, indeed, is accepting  being owned. The region knows that it was never owned by no party other than itself, whether the people or countries fight each other or not. The region has also learned that paycheck diplomacy only corrupts but does not work with the countries of the region, who may take advantage of an opportunity, but remain who they are. The end of the relationships of the UAE and Djibouti and Eritrea is a good example, in this regard. The expected fallout of UAE’s relationship with Somalia and with Ethiopia to follow soon, should not be a surprise. 

The Horn of Africa states region prefers mutual trust to build up between parties and would lean towards shared values. Those who have come to dominate the region should know that the region has its own historical background which is much older than many foreign parties who may be richer and more developed. It is, indeed, comfortable with itself despite the poverty and difficulties of the present. Creating a relationship with the Horn of Africa States region requires honesty and truthfulness. Non one can cheat someone who sees further than what one assumes.

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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