The Destabilizations In Djibouti And Ethiopia Are Being Exploited Against China
The northeastern reaches of the African continent have been maligned in the Western imagination as a place of dire suffering, war, and famine, but somewhat surprisingly, the region had remained relatively stable over the past decade, barring of course a few exceptions. All of that now seems ready to be reversed, however, with destabilizing events returning as the regional norm. Whereas the previous ten years of moderate stability and growth can be attributed to China’s positive involvement in the Horn, the forthcoming years of uncertainty are directly linked to the US and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to dislodge China from the region and bring it closer to the unipolar fold. As a result, it can objectively be proclaimed that the New Cold War between the unipolar and multipolar blocs has officially penetrated this part of Africa.
This briefing isn’t structured to be an in-depth report on the region and its historical development and intra-regional relations, but rather a run-down of what’s happening in the Horn of Africa and why. For that reason, it shouldn’t be taken to be absolutely comprehensive in its scope, and forthcoming research might be necessary to shed light on a few of its political-strategic nuances. The purpose is simply to bring attention to the latest developments in this part of the world and explain how they relate to one of the New Cold War’s objectives in ‘containing China’.
Here’s what’s been transpiring lately in each of the Horn of Africa states, with additional analysis about how this relates to the larger proxy struggle that’s presently being waged:
This country used to be mostly independent in its foreign policy dealings and has historically been a victim of the US’ covert subterfuge, but in recent years, the government has drifted ever closer to Saudi Arabia, one of the US’ prime Lead From Behind proxies and Sudan’s maritime neighbor across the Red Sea. To condense a few decades of history into a short summary, Sudan has faced numerous CIA-sponsored insurgencies throughout the decades due to its rich natural resource wealth, with the two most notable being the ones fought in South Sudan and Darfur. After the former’s US-overseen succession, the separatist sentiment migrated across the new frontier and has now infected South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, while low-intensify violence continues to occasionally plague Darfur. As a result of Khartoum’s handling of the Darfur Separatist War, President Omar al-Bashir has been accused of war crimes and is subject to ICC arrest, although numerous states continue to flaunt the Western-controlled court’s politically motivated order. The US has also placed the country on the State Department’s “state sponsors of terrorism” list in order to enact sanctions and up the asymmetrical pressure against its legitimate government.
South Sudan’s secession in 2011 deprived Sudan of the oil wealth on which it previously used to rely, giving it power only over the transit routes through which the resource must pass in order to reach its Red Sea export terminals. In a short period of time, the two states predictably emerged at odds with another over this arrangement, thus inflicting mutually disadvantageous economic pain on each of them (and much to the US’ divide-and-rule benefit). Crippled even further by the monumental drop in oil prices over the past year, Sudan has been forced into a precarious pecuniary position that’s compelled its government to backtrack on its formerly multipolar policies and fall under the guiding sway of Saudi Arabia. For example, the New York Times revealed in 2013 that Sudan was actively participating as a covert weapons conduit to Syrian-based terrorists, and in early 2015 it joined the Saudis’ War on Yemen in exchange for $2.2 billion. In mid-December, it also jumped on the bandwagon and became party to Riyadh’s “anti-terrorist” coalition.
Being so chummy with the unipolar world’s most notorious Mideast proxy, it’s little wonder then that Sudan’s director of the National Intelligence and Security Services has oddly taken to bragging about his organization’s positive relationship with the CIA. Sudan has been geopolitically, economically, and ‘judiciously’ (in terms of the US-influenced ICC warrant) abused to such an extent by the US that its leadership has developed a form of Stockholm Syndrome and is now groveling at the feet of its oppressors. It believes that blindly currying favor with Saudi Arabia, it’s new patron (and in such a role only because the US’ economic war against it has placed it in a situation so desperate so as to make it receptive to Riyadh’s outreaches [note: this is an explanation not an excuse]), will somehow translate into a lessening of the US’ asymmetrical war against it and reprieve it of the unwarranted punishment that it’s been undergoing. Little does Sudan realize, however, that the chief reason for its latest woes has been because the US wants to pressure it to renege on its strategic cooperation with China and submit wholly to the Saudis’ Wahhabist authority instead. The US won’t stop until Chinese influence is totally ejected from the country and replaced by its Saudi counterparts, and even then, there’s no guarantee that it’ll abstain from supporting future separatist wars if it believes the geostrategic dividends to be worth it.
The author published a long-running analysis on this country’s unexpected relationship with the GCC and the consequences that it could have for Ethiopia, and it’s kindly requested that the reader reference this for full details. As an abridged summary, Eritrea’s economic desolation and international ‘isolation’ (it’s sanctioned by the UNSC for its supposed support of Al Shabaab terrorists in Somalia) have put it in an unenviable position that’s made its leadership eager to clinch partnerships wherever possible, even with the Saudis and their GCC ilk. For this reason, Eritrea is hosting a UAE naval facility and allowing its airspace (and some reports even say, 400 of its own troops as well) to be used in the War on Yemen, completely reversing whatever accolades it was previously given for taking a strong stand against ‘imperialism’. Of extraordinarily relevant note, Eritrea is also engaged in a heated rivalry with its former ruler Ethiopia, and this tense dynamic continually holds out the threat of spilling over into armed violence in the future. With Eritrea now under the GCC’s protective wing, Asmara might feel emboldened to provoke Ethiopia in the context of the unresolved Badme village dispute (the cause of the bloody 1998-2000 war).
This tiny former French colony is one of the most strategic naval outposts in the world, playing host to American, French, and Japanese bases, with a Chinese facility slated to join it in the near future. It’s also the only reliable access point for interacting with the burgeoning Ethiopian market, predicted to be one of the world’s fastest growing economies in the future. To facilitate Ethiopia’s development, China, one of the country’s most prized strategic partners, is building a railroad from Djibouti to the capital of Addis Ababa. This transnational connective infrastructure project could rightly be termed the “Horn of Africa Silk Road” for the prosperity that it’s envisioned to bring to all of those who participate in it. Just as much as the Horn needs China’s regional Silk Road, so too does China need the Horn’s marketplace, since outbound investment is the main reason why the One Belt One Road global project was initiated in the first place. This corner of Africa (Ethiopia to be specific) is supposed to function as an integral destination for Chinese investment projects and real-sector economic interaction and will play a key role in China’s balanced growth in the future years to come. This strategic imperative makes Djibouti even more important to China than initially meets the eye, and considering this factor as well as China’s forthcoming base in the country, it’s somewhat expected that the US would try to destabilize the government there as a form of asymmetrical punishment.
Lo and behold, that’s exactly what’s been happening in Djibouti over the past week. A “religious celebration” (curiously with no other details about this event described) turned into an all-out anti-government riot during which over a dozen people were killed and a handful of “opposition” leaders arrested shortly thereafter. The US has made an effort to vocally condemn the government’s response to the crisis and urge it to release the jailed “opposition” leaders and “exercise restraint” ahead of a presidential election in April. For its part, the government blames the violence on people “who act from abroad” and want to “destabilize [the] nation and sow divisions”. Analyzing the coverage over what’s happened and taking into account the US’ history of regime change provocations, it seems very probable that a Wahhabist or Muslim Brotherhood gathering in the capital was to blame for the unrest, as no unipolar outlet dared to mention any other details about the “religious celebration” that sparked the whole conflagration (a tactic that’s usually employed when their own radical terrorist proxies are to blame). Also, Djibouti has earned the consternation of Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies for resisting their appeals to open a base there for use in the War on Yemen, ergo why they had to seek out Eritrea’s assistance instead. Qatar is also “monitoring” the Eritrean-Djiboutian border since 2010 as part of its UN responsibilities in mediating the 2008 crisis between the two, so it’s already within easy operational range of managing a Muslim Brotherhood uprising if it so chooses.
To make matters even more gripping, Djibouti for some reason decided to join the Saudis’ “anti-terrorist” coalition, but in hindsight, this might prove to be its leadership’s ultimate misstep. With the country at mercy of Riyadh’s definition of “terrorism”, any justifiable statements it makes about the “religious celebrators” being Wahhabi or Muslim Brotherhood terrorists will fall on deaf ears and be discredited by Djibouti’s own “anti-terrorist” coalition members. At the same time, the anti-government provocation that just took place might even form an eventual pretext for a unilateral Saudi-led “anti-terrorist” ‘intervention’ there in order to capture the country’s strategic infrastructure and misappropriate it from China (in accordance with the US’ wishes). Additionally, the upcoming April presidential election is a ‘trigger’ event for ‘justifying’ a Color Revolution and all of the resultant tangential destabilization that comes with it. The objective, naturally, is to overthrow long-serving President Ismail Omar Guelleh (in office sine 1999) and replace him with a pro-US/GCC puppet (a Djiboutian version of Yemen’s Hadi) or subserviate him into complying with the unipolar world’s anti-Chinese wishes.
This millennia-old country’s strategic significance vis-à-vis China was already touched upon in the above subsection and is explored thoroughly in the earlier cited article about the GCC’s new relationship with Eritrea, but expanding on this a bit, it looks probable that Ethiopia could become a continental leader if it continues along its state-driven development trajectory. Addis Ababa has very close ties with Beijing, but at the same time, it’s also warming up to Washington, having hosted President Obama during his summer visit to the country earlier this year, the first-ever for a sitting US President. Ethiopia also invaded Somalia in 2006 to remove the Islamic Courts Union from power, thereby demonstrating that it had an overlap of military-strategic interest with the US, which also wanted the group overthrown, and didn’t shy away from doing its bidding. Nearly a decade later, China visibly has more influence over Ethiopia and it appears that this will remain a constant so long as the present government is able to maintain power, but therein lays the supreme structural vulnerability.
Simmering domestic discontent fueled by ethnic tension, NGOs, and foreign patrons is threatening to violently return the formerly war-torn country back to its fratricidal past. The Oromo ethnicity, the largest plurality in the country at around 35% of the population, has been fiercely protesting against the government’s plans to take and develop some of their land around the capital. Nearly 100 people have since been killed, with the government accusing the protesters of attacking police during their uncontrollable rioting around this contentious issue. The Oromo have vowed to continue their protests and the crisis is primed for rapid escalation in the coming weeks.
The Huffington Post, generally known as the mouth piece for part of the US establishment’s hyper liberal-progressive ‘values-based’ policies, even ran an attack piece against Ethiopia earlier this week, thereby demonstrating that a strong level of social and psychological conditioning is underway in order to prepare the American public and others for a possibly prolonged destabilization. Foreign Policy also jumped in the mix and wrote its own anti-government piece about the protests, obviously motivated by the implicitly anti-Chinese consequences that this developing crisis could engender. It’s even conceivable that the ongoing revolt could evolve into an all-out anti-government insurgency that links up with other ethnic groups (most likely the Ogaden-based Somalis), tactically mirroring the Ethiopian Civil War that preceded it. The difference between then and now, however, would be that the insurgency wouldn’t be based in the northern part of the country, but the central-eastern portions of it, and might even involve Al Shabaab. Speaking of the latter, there’s also the chance that the jihadist factor could play a large role, too, and the bombing of an Addis Ababa mosque earlier this month might not be ‘coincidental’ when seen in the larger scope of events that have since been unleashed.
To revert back to the focus on the Oromo protests, the reason that they could be a trigger for a large-scale nationwide destabilization is because Ethiopia’s capital is completely surrounded by their ethnic-based state, and thus, any municipal expansion in one of Africa’s fastest-growing metropolises must inevitably encroach on their territory. By and large, this plausibly sounds like a legitimate enough reason to protest, but the finer details raise questions about the movement’s legality. The Ethiopian Constitution, agreed to after the civil war and which granted the main ethnic groups their constituent identity-based states, stipulates that private individuals don’t have any land rights and that it is the state’s responsibility to allocate territory as is seen fit. As controversial as this may sound to outsiders, one would do well to remember that this is the official law of the land and was agreed to by all of the victorious parties that emerged from the civil war. It wasn’t a problem at all until Western-sponsored NGOs came into the country and started politicizing the issue among the Oromo ethnicity, knowing full well that sooner or later the Constitution’s stipulation would have to be applied to their territory as the capital inevitably grew past its rigidly defined municipal boundaries.
The last piece of the Horn of Africa puzzle to be involved in the latest bout of regional destabilization is Somalia. The UN has recognized that the country is no longer a failed state but a “recovering, fragile country”, though this has no impact whatsoever on the socio-political vulnerabilities that make the country susceptible to external destabilization. Al Shabaab continues to use the nation’s territory as a base for attacking Kenyan interests, and this has the potential to draw the East African state deeper into the “recovering, fragile country’s” domestic affairs under an anti-terrorist aegis. For example, Kenya responded to the latest failed terror attack against a busload of people by bombing targets in southern Somalia, which is sure to draw the ire of Al Shabaab and circuitously inspire more attacks.
The author doesn’t mean at all to condemn or criticize the Kenyan authorities for their action, but simply to draw attention to the fact that Al Shabaab is the perfect “Reverse Brzezinski” vehicle for tricking neighboring states into preplanned quagmires. Al Shabaab is closely linked with Qatar, and this fact has even been reported on by Western media outlets like the Washington Post. The author spoke at length about the connection between Qatar, Eritrea, and Al Shabaab in his earlier piece for Katehon about the GCC’s involvement in Eritrea, but the main idea was that Doha wants to use its terrorist proxies as a weapon against Ethiopia, and the group’s Somali ethnicity might be used to attract adherents of the “Greater Somalia” idea to engage in guerrilla warfare in the Somali-populated Ogaden region of Ethiopia.
To address the Kenyan connection, this country is being targeted by Al Shabaab and its US and Gulf sponsors because of its close infrastructure cooperation with China. Beijing is building a railroad (the “East African Silk Road”) that will connect the port of Mombasa with Nairobi and Uganda, thereby helping to tap into the resources (both natural and in terms of labor) that are present in Africa’s Great Lakes region. Along the northern coast of Kenya and closer to the Somali-populated formerly titled North Eastern Province (Kenya now has a plethora of counties in place of its previous provinces), China is investing almost half a billion dollars in Lamu Port as part of its strategy of engagement with the country. Somalia, therefore, occupies a very strategy position in destabilizing both of China’s regional Silk Road ambitions, and it shouldn’t be seen as a random event that the country signed on to the Saudis’ “anti-terrorist” coalition.
The Somali government is obviously against its territory being used by any sort of terrorist group and for whatever destabilizing ends they or their patrons may have in mind, but it’s so weak and near-powerless that it’s not in any realistic position to prevent this from happening regardless. The new federalization of the country, which is still being progressively institutionalized, doesn’t substantially cover the separatist and largely independent Puntland and Somaliland regions, and from the vantage point of the federal government in Mogadishu, the priority is in restoring the country’s territorial integrity first (now that an internationally recognized, albeit symbolic, ‘national’ government has been installed) and only then going against the terrorist groups active on its territory. Until that time arrives, and realistically speaking it will likely be a long way’s off in the future, then Somalia will continue to be the springboard for terrorist groups like Al Shabaab to continue carrying out their patrons’ orders in destabilizing Ethiopia and Kenya, all with the larger (if formally unstated) intent of fulfilling the US’ goal to ‘contain China’ and evict it from the region.
The Saudis’ “Anti-Terrorist” Coalition As Part Of The Encirclement Of Ethiopia
Everything that’s been described thus far has been a verifiable chronicle of the GCC using regional springboards (Eritrea and Somalia) and provocations (like in Djibouti) to further their implicit anti-Ethiopian goals. Even if that isn’t the immediate intent of their actions (though it convincingly does look to have played a guiding role), given these states’ junior status to the US unipolar hegemon, sooner or later they’ll be called to act on the geostrategic advantages that they’ve obtained in order to carry out Washington’s regime change agenda in destabilizing Ethiopia. As was argued throughout this piece, the whole reason for that is because the over 100 million people living in this Horn of Africa state are a critical marketplace that China absolutely must tap into in order to sustain its balanced growth in the coming decades and bring substance to its One Belt One Road strategy on the continent. Considering this, then the strategic situation looks increasingly dire for the China-Ethiopia Partnership, with the Gulf States having encircled most of the country through their official engagements with Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia in some capacity or another (be it the War on Yemen like with Eritrea, the “anti-terrorist” coalition like Somalia, or a hybrid of both such as in Sudan).
The geopolitics of the Horn of Africa are dramatically shifting, having always been a subject of out-of-regional rivalry for some time, but never to the degree that they presently are nowadays. The end of the Cold War brought about an end to the US-Soviet competition in the region and mostly gave the US the advantageous momentum needed to carry out its hegemonic designs there. The “War on Terror” concentrated America’s focus in the heart of the Mideast (Iraq), though with time and the Pentagon’s heel-dragging conventional retreat, this focus was progressively widened once more to include the “Greater Mideast”, which geographically includes a large part of the Horn of Africa, and taking aside the religious-‘civilizational’ inferences, unquestionably incorporates Ethiopia as well. The period between 2001 and 2015 was the strategic window of opportunity through which China entered the Horn of Africa and began swaying Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti (to an extent) away from the unipolar umbrella and towards the multipolar vision, although it eventually proved to be ideologically (although not pragmatically) unsuccessful in the case of Sudan, which has now quite literally sold out to the Saudis. Be that as it is, China is clearly the chief economic actor in the region, although Saudi Arabia is now rushing to play catch-up by using its oil largesse (despite the presently low price and its steadily dwindling financial reserves) to buy new friends in this geostrategic region. Both Riyadh and Beijing understand quite rightly how important the Horn of Africa is, as this region of the world abuts the only maritime gateway between the EU and the Indian Ocean, and henceforth to Southeast and East Asia.
The Saudi-Chinese Cold War In The Horn Of Africa
Understood in the manner that it’s been argued to this point, the Horn of Africa is the newest battleground in the New Cold War, with a subsect competition, the Saudi-Chinese Cold War, being the driving factor behind the region’s forthcoming destabilization. The US is incapable of dedicating the required about of its time and resources towards carrying out the mission of blocking China in this geo-critical area, ergo why it has subcontracted these responsibilities to its Lead From Behind partners in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar Each of these has their own motivations for positioning themselves in such a way as to pressure Ethiopia at a future time, and this is being done despite the Saudis’ strategic agricultural cooperation with the country. In fact, it can even be argued that the Saudis are engaging in a ‘good cop, bad cop’ type of routine vis-à-vis Ethiopia with Qatar, since Doha has had rocky relations with Addis Ababa before, but Riyadh is officially in its good graces and was even invited by the Prime Minister to invest more in the country back in October. This is a clear sign that Ethiopia doesn’t quite recognize the danger that is developing around it or that it is trying to be diplomatically ‘polite’ to the point of publicly avoiding any antagonizing and unconstructive statements about the nearby hegemon (though it did warn the GCC against using their Eritrean port for anti-Ethiopian ends). As a matter of fact, Ethiopia needs capital investment from all sources, not just China, so in a pecuniary sense, it’s open to Gulf money so long as it’s depoliticized, and especially if this helps to mitigate any disruptive scenarios that might be planned against it by intertwining it and the investor state in a relationship of complex interdependence.
Before continuing, it’s insightful to describe a curious element of the identity dichotomy between the two rivals, Saudi Arabia and China. Saudi Arabia is a Wahhabist state driven by violent evangelizing principles, whereas China is officially an atheist state that pragmatically accommodates for the plurality of beliefs within it and has no atheistically proselytizing designs on its partners. Most of the countries in the Horn of Africa are Muslim, and even majority-Christian Ethiopia has a substantial Muslim minority, yet this religious factor seems not to play a determining role whatsoever in why Sudan and Djibouti started enhancing their cooperation with China. If anything, it proves that Samuel Huntington’s thesis about a “Clash of Civilizations” is a cursory surface assessment about demographic similarities between select partners but not an actual ‘law’ of international relations that can withstand the type of scrutiny currently being applied against it. Nothing in his writings explains why atheist China was the premier partner of Sharia-adhering Sudan for most of the 2000s, for example, but his thoughts do play a role in the current radicalization of religious elements in these majority-Muslim countries. Partly because of this, Ethiopia is predicted to feel even closer with China in the future (aside from all of the other reasons it has for this [strategic, economic, political, etc.]) because Beijing is ardently opposed to any form of religious extremism, especially those that eventually take the form of terrorism.
Hybrid War Threat:
That being said, as seen through a geopolitical-strategic prism, Saudi Arabia is obviously angling to position itself in as advantageous of a place as possible for pressuring Ethiopia in the future, and this is why Addis Ababa needs Beijing so much. Bridging the two partners is Djibouti, which to remind the reader, is about to play host to China’s first-ever foreign military base and is the terminal point for the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railroad that China is financing. It’s also no coincidence that “religious celebrations” (which can only be Muslim in this context since Djibouti is overwhelmingly a Muslim state) suddenly turned into violent anti-government riots just a few months prior to a presidential election that the US may be trying to sabotage. Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia are peripheral partners in the US/GCC plan for containing Ethiopia, and it looks like attention is now being placed on the geostrategic chokepoint of Djibouti, the narrow bottleneck connecting the Ethiopian economy with its Chinese counterparts.
It can’t be ruled out that the destabilization in Djibouti will find a way to become transnational, most likely through the exploitation of the Afar ethnicity (35% of the Djibouti population) and their neighboring communities in Eritrea and Ethiopia. The former has a small proportion of this demographic while the latter has an entire state dedicated to them, but altogether, they form a geographically wide ‘stateless nation’ that could potentially be riled up into action by radical imams and/or Western NGOs. The broadening of Djibouti’s destabilization to Afar minority groups in Eritrea and Ethiopia might prove to be the spark that’s needed to return the two rivals to the brink of a mutually disastrous war, whereby anti-Ethiopian Oromo and Somali elements could be called upon to assist in the struggle and open up a debilitating second front.
The Horn of Africa has returned to capturing global headlines with domestic disturbances in Djibouti and Ethiopia seemingly popping out of nowhere. The truth, however, is much more complicated and nefarious, as preexisting and legitimate internal grievances stand to be exploited by foreign actors with their own self-interested geopolitical agendas. Sadly, as is typically the case in these situations, this state of affairs has already proven itself capable of leading to bloodshed and claiming people’s lives, unnecessarily and purposefully escalating what otherwise could have been low-intensify political engagements.
Everything that’s happening in these two countries can’t be separated from the international context in which they occurred, which is the US’ larger New Cold War against multipolar Great Powers like China, in the specific context of which it seeks to use Saudi Arabia and the GCC as the Lead From Behind designee for evicting Beijing from the Horn of Africa. It goes without saying that AFRICOM is playing a coordinating role in managing the GCC and NGO actions in this broad theater and most likely in these two specific instances, with Saudi Arabia being subcontracted responsibility for bringing Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia into the militant fold.
The Horn of Africa has historically laid at the crossroads of Africa and the Mideast, but as the world enters 2016, it has also found itself as the crossroads of unipolarity and multipolarity, destabilization and development, and the path that it takes is dependent on the course that the New Cold War’s latest proxy rivalry runs in the coming future.