Implications of foreign bases on the Horn of Africa’s stability
May 24, 2019

By Ndubuisi Christian Ani, PhD

Just 4 countries in the Horn of Africa are hosts to 10 foreign military bases while more foreign bases are being negotiated. Djibouti alone hosts 6 of the foreign bases operated by the United States (US), France, Italy, Japan, China and Saudi Arabia.

Eritrea hosts Russia and United Arab Emirate (UAE) bases. Somalia also hosts a Turkish military training facility while the self-declared independent Somaliland hosts UAE’s second base.

The business dimension of these bases is apparent for the weak economies in the region. But it could have lasting impacts on the region’s stability and capacity to provide for its own security.

While foreign-base deals are ‘sovereign’ choices, the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) should improve their mandate and capacity to monitor and provide strategic advice to member states on the implications and the need to strengthen their internal capacity.

Djibouti, one of the smallest states in Africa, was initially at the center stage of the foreign military presence in the Horn. Djibouti’s former colonial power France had maintained military presence after the country gained independence in 1977. In 2001, the US opened its base in Camp Lemonnier followed by Japan in 2011 and Italy in 2013.

Several other countries are hosted in the bases in Djibouti including Germany and Spain who are hosted by France. British soldiers are hosted by the US while India is hosted by Japan.

In recent years however, foreign bases have spread across the Horn as more non-western powers joined the geopolitical struggle for influence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The UAE which is a huge port investor in the region – specifically in Djibouti, Puntland and Somaliland – opened a base in Eritrea in 2015 and recently reached a deal with Somaliland.

In 2017, China opened a military base in Djibouti’s Gulf of Tadjoura while Saudi secured a base deal with Djibouti. In the same year, Turkey opened a military training base in Somalia.

Russia also secured a military base in Eritrea in 2018 and is also planning to set up a second base in Sudan. Amidst all the bases in the region, Somaliland has also expressed interest in hosting British and Russian naval bases as part of its quest for revenue and international recognition.

The bases help foreign powers to reduce logistic costs and enhances their proximity to target locations for military operations against political and commercial threats in the region and elsewhere.

While foreign powers have clear strategic interests, it is uncertain what the long-term interests of the states in the region are beside the quick and immediate cash injection into their weak economies.

Djibouti makes about $300 million in annual income from the foreign bases it has. The US alone pays $63 million for its permanent base in Camp Lemonnier.

In the case of China, it is hard to see how Djibouti could have turned down Beijing’s request for a military base. Djibouti have borrowed almost a billion dollars from the Export-Import Bank of China to finance several projects in the country. In July 2018, Djibouti also launched a $3.5 billion free trade zone with the aid of China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Indeed, foreign powers have taken advantage of Africa’s quest for revenue.

However, the presence of multiple rival bases is a worrying phenomenon given that a miscalculated move could lead to confrontation with effect also on the relatively weak hosting countries.

In Djibouti for instance, there were reported incidents that Chinese soldiers in their military base in the Gulf of Tadjoura were pointing lasers at U.S. aircraft landing at the US base in Camp Lemonnier.

Additionally, the use of the bases to carry out military operations in the Middle East such as in Yemen establishes future enemies for hosting countries. For instance, the UAE’s Assab base in Eritre is used in the Saudi-led campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. This inadvertently implicates Eritrea in the war and automatically makes it an enemy of Iran and the Houthi rebels.

As a launch pad, the Horn inadvertently take sides with foreign powers in a war that they may not have been part of and undermines their future relations with neighboring states.

Djibouti’s rejection of Russia’s request for a military base that could be used in the conflict in Syria, is a bold move, but it is unclear whether the decision was swayed by the US and France who have military bases in the country.

Furthermore, the existence and operations of foreign forces in the region poses internal security threats and African officials are aware of this. One of the primary grievances of extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and the terror groups in the Sahel is the dominance foreign standards and external forces on the continent.

In Somalia for instance, where US forces have intensified drone strikes against terrorist groups, Al-Shabaab has equally escalated their attacks with heavy casualties on civilian populations. Indeed, the violent group emerged at the backdrop of the US-backed Ethiopian intervention that routed the Islamic Court Union (ICU) in 2006.

In the Sahel region, more violent extremist groups have mushroomed based on grievances of foreign meddling as French, US forces and allies carry out attacks against militant groups. Moreover, the strikes by foreign powers have had severe implications for civilians who end up being casualties thereby creating additional causes for aversion and rebellion.

Adding to the internal security problem in the Horn is the uncoordinated nature that the deals come about such as the recent deal between the UAE and Somaliland in February 2017.

For Somaliland, the UAE deal for a military base as well as a subsequent deal on the Berbera Port is a welcome development as it seeks both economic boost and international recognition as an independent country.

However, the creation of a military base have now heightened tensions between the self-declared independent Somaliland and Somalia. Somalia has challenged the legality of such bilateral move while rhetoric on both sides grow intense.

The hosting of foreign bases on the continent – a phenomenon that is not reciprocated by African states in other continents – is indicative of the continued scramble for strategic control in Africa.

Indeed, the fight against piracy and terrorism in the region is key. But importing foreign forces to carry out such security operations through leasing out bases has significant influence on the continent’s ability to develop its own internal security arrangement. This is akin to Africa reliance on imported foreign products at the expense of promoting industrialization and local products.

The AU has since raised concern about ‘the existence of foreign military bases and establishment of new ones in some African countries, coupled with the inability of the Member States concerned to effectively monitor the movement of weapons to and from these foreign military bases.’

The May 2016 Communique of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) further called on member states to ‘always circumspect whenever they enter into agreements that would lead to the establishment of foreign military bases in their countries.’

The AU and IGAD should do more by capitalize on their mandate for regional peace and security by seeking the buy-in of member states to agree on a framework to monitor, assess and advice on the impact of foreign military bases on the continent.

At the same time, the AU, sub-regional organizations and member states should enhance investment on the security initiatives within the continent as a long-term strategy for sustainable peace.