23.03.2024 Author: Viktor Goncharov

The Horn of Africa in the quagmire of geopolitical rivalry Part Six: The US and the Horn of Africa – “operating from behind the scenes”

The US and the Horn of Africa

In the current situation, it seems that the US, following Barack Obama’s African policy of “leading from behind”, seeing the willingness of Turkey, Egypt, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti to oppose the plans of Abiy Ahmed and Muse Bihi, decided not to openly intervene in the process themselves, but to let the leaders of these countries deal with the Ethiopian prime minister, who had become unpredictable in his foreign policy, intensifying ties with China and joining BRICS.

This led to the fact that in the second half of January this year the epicentre of US policy in the Horn of Africa shifted to the second main participant in the current conflict – Somalia, whose importance for Washington is determined by its strategically important geographical location in the Gulf of Aden.

In this regard, a recent article in the Kenyan newspaper Standard entitled “Ethiopia should have given up on the Somaliland deal”, in which the author points to the futility of Addis Ababa’s efforts to acquire a commercial port and military base on Somalia’s Red Sea coast, and also points to the strong commercial and military interest of the US and the UK in establishing a naval base there, in partnership and with the help of their regional allies, in order to maintain control over the Somaliland coast.

The recent sharp deterioration in relations between Yemen and Western countries, led by the US, in the Red Sea region makes the establishment of this base particularly urgent. This became particularly clear after the Djibouti authorities, who did not support Hamas’s invasion of Israel but blamed it for escalating the conflict, rejected a US request in mid-January this year to use the US military base at Camp Lemonnier to attack the Houthis on the opposite side of the Red Sea, according to the same newspaper.

In this regard, the unexpected visit of CIA Director William Burns to Mogadishu in the second half of January this year, the purpose of which, according to official media reports, was to discuss the implications of the memorandum of understanding signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland for the further development of the situation in the region, could be linked to the elaboration of the issues of establishing a military base with its regional partners.

In this case, it could be not only the UAE, which has already made considerable efforts in this direction, but also Egypt (and possibly another regional ally), which has sided with Mogadishu in the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict and, as already mentioned, signed a military cooperation agreement with it on 21 January this year.

It should be noted that Cairo’s initiative did not come out of nowhere. In fact, since President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud came to power in Somalia in May, relations between the two countries have intensified considerably. In partnership with the UAE, and with its financial support, Egypt has begun military training in Somalia for 3,000 Somalis who, although not part of the regular army, will form a new armed structure.

According to the Grenoble Institute of Political Studies, this is being done to reduce the local authorities’ excessive dependence on the influence of Turkey and Qatar in the formation of the armed forces.

With regard to the establishment of a new military base under US auspices, it seems that other options could be considered. For example, by directly involving Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi, a former US-trained military pilot, and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, with whom Washington, together with one of its regional allies, could find a mutually acceptable solution to the conflict for all but Addis Ababa.

The basis for such an option could be the informal contacts already established between the US and Somaliland. According to the Qatari publication New Arab, Somaliland’s Foreign Minister Essa Kayd, during his visit to the United States in 2021 to explore the possibility of Washington recognising his country’s independence, stressed in talks with American officials that if the international community did not recognise their sovereignty, it would force them to cooperate with China, which could lead to a threat to freedom of navigation for Western countries.

Furthermore, during Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi’s visit to the United States in early March 2022, he explicitly asked the Biden administration and members of Congress to recognise Somaliland’s independence in meetings with them. According to the paper, he found a number of congressmen sympathetic. One of them, Congressman Scott Perry, even proposed a bill to recognise Somaliland as a “separate, independent country”.

The results of this visit, according to some American analysts, may indicate a possible shift in American policy on the issue. Apparently, Washington has taken into account Foreign Minister Essa Kayd’s remarks that if he ignores Somaliland’s interests, they will seek support in Beijing.

Of particular interest in this regard is an article published on 20 February by the American Enterprise Institute, which explicitly calls on the US State Department to recognise Somaliland’s independence, thus depriving Addis Ababa of the opportunity to establish its naval base in the Berbera region. Moreover, according to the author, this will serve as a new impetus for Somaliland, the only bastion of stability and democracy in this troubled region, on the path of democratic development.

In an assessment of US policy in the Horn of Africa, the Canadian publication Global Research notes that its objectives are to establish full control over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, and to create under its aegis a coalition of its Middle Eastern allies and states in the region to contain the growing influence of China, which has become Ethiopia’s main trading partner.

In a concrete step in this direction, on 16 February this year, the U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Mogadishu and Somali Defence Minister Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur signed a memorandum of understanding for the U.S. to build five “well-equipped” military bases in Somalia to fight terrorism. These are expected to be located in the country’s five largest cities, including the capital, and will be used by the Danab Brigade, one of the Somali army’s most capable units in the fight against Al-Shabaab.

Significantly, the signing of the document took place in the presence of the Somali president after his meeting with the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Molly Phee, who was part of a large US delegation travelling to Ethiopia to attend the 37th Assembly of AU Heads of State and Government.

A few days earlier, more precisely on 13 and 14 February in Addis Ababa, she, according to Turkish Anadolu, held talks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on regional security issues.

According to some experts, against the backdrop of ongoing tensions between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa and Hargeisa, the US military build-up, which Somali news outlet Garowe Online portrays as Somalia’s “big brother”, could signal Washington’s determination to thwart Abiy Ahmed’s plans to reach the Red Sea coast and take further steps to assert its control over that region of the world.


Viktor GONCHAROV, african expert, candidate of sciences in economics, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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