One word sums up the Horn of Africa’s regional importance: geostrategic. Over the last two months, several developments have highlighted how intricately linked the Middle East is, and wants to be, with the countries on the other side of the Red Sea. There are the usual three suspects: business, politics and the “war on terror,” plus a wildcard, piracy.
The big business news is that Osama bin Laden’s brother, Tawfik, wants to build a $22 billion Africa-Arab bridge to link Djibouti with Yemen. The 28.5-kilometer project would span the narrowest point across the Red Sea, at the Bab al Mandab, “the Gate of Tears” — an appropriate name, especially given the situation in the vicinity and all the piracy off the Somali coast.
Indeed, piracy has dramatically increased since the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was toppled by the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006. Last year there were 31 attacks, and so far this year 23 attacks by Somali pirates on sea-going vessels, including the 47-day hijacking of a Russia bound icebreaker, the Svitzer Korsakov. A $1.6 million ransom was allegedly paid out.
Bin Laden’s Bridge, as it could be dubbed, will potentially bring more stability to the region and its sea routes — after all, an estimated 3.3 million barrels of oil are shipped through the Bab al Mandab every day. The bridge certainly intends to boost traffic between the two continents, and act as an entry point for pilgrims to Mecca. But the ongoing situation in Somalia presents concern for any parties involved in the troubled Horn, including Qatar.
This is the big international politics story: Ethiopia breaking diplomatic ties with Qatar over the emirate’s alleged funding of the al-Shebab movement in Somalia, the military wing of the ICU and a recent addition to the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
Doha-based Al Jazeera’s sympathetic coverage of an anti-Ethiopian rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), also rankled Addis Ababa, especially given Qatar’s diplomatic ties with Ethiopia’s other nemesis and ONLF supporter, Eritrea.
A week after the diplomatic spat — Doha denies any involvement with Al-Shebab — a US air strike killed the top leader of the movement, Aden Hashi Ayro.
Whether Qatar has any involvement with these groups or not, Doha is not the only Middle Eastern player in the mix, with a UN arms embargo monitoring group reporting in late 2006 that Egypt, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon’s Hizbullah were all supporting warring factions in Somalia. The US meanwhile has a military base in Djibouti, 100 military advisors in Ethiopia, recently donated $97 million to Ethiopia in recognition of its “strategic importance,” and Special Forces are reportedly operating within Somalia. This melee thus includes countries on side with the US-led “war on terror,” seemingly on side with the “war on terror’, and those that are on the complete other side against the war on terror.
Somalia is Africa’s equivalent of Lebanon.
The irony of all this is that the activities of the US and its allies in the region have made the situation worse than before the ICU was overthrown. Ethiopia, for its own ends as well as Washington’s, has waged a brutal war on Somalia. Half the population of Mogadishu has fled, a humanitarian crisis is underway and Amnesty International last month accused Ethiopian troops of widespread atrocities against Somalis, including slitting people’s throats, gouging out eyes and gang-raping women. Somalia’s disintegration is also generating further support for Islamic movements.
Furthermore, Somalia’s regression back to warlord-run days under the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is bad for regional business.
According to the Mombasa-based Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, most of the Somali pirates are linked to the TFG, which has little control of the country and its territorial waters. In the six months the ICU were in power, piracy on the Somali high seas was reportedly down, but from 2007 the distance vessels were advised to keep away from the coast was increased from 50 nautical miles to 200. Although that is not even enough, with a Spanish luxury yacht hijacked in international waters in early April, the second European vessel to be overrun by pirates in a fortnight.
For such an important shipping route it would be to the advantage of most players involved, and certainly for the free flow of goods and energy, to better police the area around the Gate of Tears.
One solution is to put African Union troops on the ground in Somalia instead of the 8,000 Ethiopians currently there, as called for in UN Resolution 1725, and international monitoring off the coast to ward off illegal fishing as well as piracy.
Construction of Bin Laden’s Bridge would certainly need plenty of security, and a more stable Horn would help this African theater of the “war on terror” from becoming yet another disasterous tragedy with far-reaching geostrategic implications.
PAUL COCHRANE is a Beirut-based freelance journalist. He was recently in Ethiopia.