6/21/2024
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The new scramble for Somalia
By: Mohamed Kahiyeh Khalif
Tuesday April 23, 2024

 

Background and context:

My Geography teacher, Mr. Qadi, taught us the importance of strategic geographical location of Somalia and why since time immemorial, external powers have vied for the control of the Horn of Africa.  But as a grade seven teenager, I was perhaps unable to fathom the critical relevance and importance of this valuable lesson. However, as I advanced in age, I realized that Somalia occupies a strategic location on the Horn of Africa shores of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean which is one of the most crucial trade routes in the world.  Because of its location, Somalia acted as a cultural and trade bridge between Africa and Arabian Gulf countries including Suadi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Yamen, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Moreover, Somalia is rich in minerals including uranium, iron ore, bauxite, copper as well as, livestock, agricultural land, oil and natural gas. In fact, preliminary estimates have shown that Somalia has huge Oil and gas reserves. The value of the oil deposits alone, is estimated to be 100 billion barrels of oil . Due to its abundant untapped natural resources, many powerful players have been circling around Somalia in the hope that they will unfairly benefit and/or better yet, steal these resources. As a result, Somalia has become an epicentre of global competition among different powers who do not have the best interest of Somalis at heart.

Long before the scramble for Africa in the 19th century, Somalia was an important source of frankincense, myrrh and spices for the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians . And during the partition of Africa by the Europeans between the period of 1884 and 1914, the Horn of Africa was one of the first regions in Africa to experience the imposition of imperialism .

During the Cold War era, Somalia was one of the very few countries that superpowers fought proxy wars to control the strategic maritime trade routes of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the American and Soviet Union competition in Somalia came to an end. However, in mid-2000, some of the Gulf States, other regional powers such Turkey, Iran, India and neighbouring countries of Somalia such as Ethiopia and Kenya tried to follow and emulate the European scramble for Somalia. Be that as it may, the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia emerged as the leading culprits in this new scramble for Somalia.

The geopolitical objectives of UAE:

Since the collapse of the central government at the beginning of the 1991, Somalia never had a strong central government which can exercise national authority over its entire territory including adequate national army and foreign policy over Regional Governments. In fact, one can argue that Somalia has had and continues to have about seven parallel governments, each with its own army, security force and foreign policy. It can be further argued that the Federal Government has little or no leverage to force the Regional Governments to adhere to a unified foreign policy.

 For the last decade, the UAE emerged as key actor in the destabilization of Somalia. This small oil rich state uses a simple and proven economic and political tactic that have been tested in countries like Libya and Sudan to advance its national interest and wreak havoc on fragile countries.

To begin with, because of vast mineral resources and strategic geographical location, the UAE seems to have realized that strong and stable Somalia will pose significant challenges to their juvenal and expansionist political and economic strategy in the long run. Therefore, by destabilizing Somalia, the UAE will be preventing Somalia from developing and exploiting their oil deposit, develop world class infrastructure including ports. By doing so, the UAE will be stopping Somalia to become a regional economic and political power that will have a major say in the affairs of the countries that surround the Red Sea and Arabian Sea.

To achieve its objective, the UAE uses an old colonial strategy of divide, rule and exploit. In the case of Somalia, the UAE channels large sums of money to the leaders (illicit financial flows) to the Federal Government of Somalia and Regional Governments (the Lands) to buy their loyalty and blackmail them in the event they do not carry UAE instructions. In addition, the UAE recruits, trains and arms parallel and separate military forces for different players in Somalia. It is reported that UAE trains paramilitary groups, most particularly, for Puntland, Jubaland and Somaliland. It is also reported that UAE is building a military base near Kismayo and another one near Bossaso and is currently upgrading its military facilities in Berbera, Somaliland. All these bases are operated and run by mercenaries from Columbia and other south American countries. Abukar Arman, a former Somali diplomat who served as Somalia's Special Envoy to the US, said that the UAE has "bankrolled various mercenary groups engaged in various clandestine operations that ultimately sustain Somalia's status quo”.

The objective of supporting these autonomous regions and creating parallel paramilitary forces for the regional governments is to weaken the Federal Government authority. Some of these Regional Governments including Puntland, Jubaland and Somaliland have continued to engage with the UAE as though they are independent countries without the Federal Government involvement further evidencing UAE strategy of dividing Somalia into fiefdoms.

Once the first phase of destabilization process is well advanced, the naked looting and pillaging of natural resources starts in earnest and without reservation. Investigations by Reuters news agency revealed that the UAE used and continues to use mercenaries both in Sudan and Libya to plunder the fortunes and natural resources of these two countries and spread chaos in them to serve its sabotage plots. To drive this point home, let’s examine what the UAE is doing in Libya and Sudan.

With respect to Libya, reports indicate that General Khalifa Haftar signed an illegal agreement with a company in United Arab Emirates (UAE) to sell the Libyan oil to buyers in the global markets ignoring the National Oil Corporation of Libya which has the sole mandate (NOC) to manage oil resources of Libya . The report continues to mention that the UAE company is awarded to sell about 850,000 barrel per day of Libyan Oil, thus enabling General Haftar to finance his paramilitary force which is waging a war against the central government of Libya.

Regarding Sudan, The European Fink Foundation stated, “that looting Sudan’s gold mines is the key to understanding the UAE’s support for Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the promotion of internal conflict in Sudan”. The foundation’s report further pointed out that the UAE’s alliance with RSF aims to exploit the gold mines under the control of Hamedti through the Emirati company Kaloti, which handles the trade of smuggled gold. Also, according to reports from the United Nations, gold smuggled from Sudan by Hamedti with the logistical support of Wagner Group- a Russian private military company is transported to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where it enters the global market. Revenues generated from the Sudan’s smuggled gold has become a crucial revenue source to fund the civil war in Sudan. To this end, reports indicate that UAE has started gold prospecting in earnest both in Puntland and Somaliland.

The UAE’s focus in the Horn of Africa has gone beyond just natural resources. the UAE economy is export-oriented and under-developed Somalia, with no manufacturing and/or industrial capacity, will be captive and prospective market for UAE consumer goods while at the same time the abundant Somali livestock continues to be more economical for Emirati markets. Moreover, Somalia will provide a cheap source of raw material for UAE Jabel Ali Free Zone industrial complex such as Frankincense which is commonly used as a fragrance in soaps, lotions, and perfumes, myrrh which is used in perfume and well known for its extensive health benefits to heal wounds, and combat pain, charcoal and agricultural products that can be used as input for finished goods.

Exploiting Somali’s fragility and instability, the Dubai-based, DP World has secured a concession to build a network of commercial ports from the regional governments of Puntland, (Bossaso port) Somaliland (Berbera port) and Jubaland Kismayo port. These ports are feeder ports that are intended to serve the three major seaports in Dubai namely Jebel Ali, Port Rashid and Al Hamriya. They are also envisaged to facilitate the movement of finished goods from the Arabian Gulf to the Horn of Africa countries. Generally, feeder ports do not accrue many benefits to the host countries as they lack the pedigree in terms of world class equipment and market reputation.

Ethiopia’s historical imperialistic aspirations.

It is a historicaly known fact that Ethiopia has always been claiming that all Somali regions including Ogaden, Somaliland, parts of Mudug and Bay region were traditional parts of Abyssinia. And the MoU signed by Abiye and Muse Bihi on New Year’s Day 2024 under which Ethiopia will reportedly receive 20 kilometers of Red Sea coast in exchange for it recognizing Somaliland independence is a continuation of Abiye’s ancestral expansionist fantasies. On the positive side though, this Ethiopian imperial ambition, has backfired as it acted as a rallying cry for Somalis to put their differences aside and unite against an old arche enemy.  In view of the ongoing internecine ethnic and rebel violence within Ethiopia, and the suffering from famine so visible in many parts of Ethiopia, one would wonder why Abiye would sign an MoU with Somaliland knowing that it could lead to a serious conflict between his country and Somalia- a significant adversary.

First and foremost, it is believed that UAE, which is a strong patron of Abiye has pressured him to sign the MoU because the financial support and armaments provided by UAE are critical for Abiye to consolidate and keep his power against worsening economic conditions and violences in many parts of Ethiopia. The rationale behind UAE’s imposition is that many Emirati companies are carrying out key development projects thus enhancing its soft power.

Given the currently prevailing economic crisis in Ethiopia and the violent internal conflicts, it would seem obvious that Ethiopia does not have the military ability and the financial resources to handle another conflict. It would seem ttherefore, that the MoU was merely to marshal and rally his shrinking nationalistic support base. It is also obvious that Abiye is reminiscing and nostalgic to his ancestral imperial unachievable dreams of taking parts of Somalia.

Notwithstanding the above, it would appear very clear that Abiye had miserably underestimated the willpower of the Somali people and that of the Federal Government of Somalia, perhaps thinking that Somalia lacks the ability and international standings to galvanize the support of its own people and that of the world to obstruct such a terribly flawed deal. Also, Abiye’s decision might have been guided by his misguided belief that the Federal Government of Somalia had no power to influence and impose sovereignty over.

Finally, Abiye realized that 2023 has been a very difficult year for Bihi as his military was badly defeated and humiliated in Sool region by SSC-Khatumo forces, internal Isaaq subclan frictions are fuming and that he has no mandate and legitimacy due to postponed elections. Therefore, Abiye concluded that Bihi is in a despairing position and, as per the Somali proverb “nin daad qaaday Xumbo cuskay” roughly translated to “a man caught by a flood cling to the foam”, Bihi could do anything to resuscitate and restore his political future. 

Conclusion

To achieve its grand agenda, the UAE is currently employing a two-pronged approach, to keep Somalia weak and unstable to have a full control over the country politically and economically and to make Ethiopia strong enough to serve as a key platform for it is influence in the region.

In fact, many Somalis and international political experts believe that the UAE is positioning itself to be both the king and the kingmaker in the Horn of Africa. And if the Somalis are not vigilant about the UAE’s destructive juvenal political adventurism, the same fate of Sudan and Libya waits for Somalia.
Astonishingly, Ethiopia’s long term holy grail and ambitions have always been and will continue to be the annexation of parts of Somalia to get access to the Red Sea.  Mr. Abiye must have noticed by now that Somalis are unequivocally saying, in loud and clear voice, that no matter how many different imaginative tricks he wishes to play, and how many MOUs he signs with all kinds of desperate rejects, Ethiopia will never get access to our lands, seas oceans or air.

The author is investment, corporate and development banker. He is a former of banking and financial inclusion as well as chief Credit Officer for the African Development Bank (AfDB). Prior to joining AfDB he was Regional Director of Project and construction finance for a commercial bank in Dubai. He also served as a credit manager for one of the largest banks in Saudi Arabia for period of four years. At present he is a senior advisor and board member for a large regional development institution based in Nairobi.
He can be reached at: [email protected]


 





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